Picking Favorites

I have had students in high school accuse me of picking favorites. At that age, it’s understandable that they would have difficulties with the way the world works. They are still young and look at how unfair everything is; a fact they can’t seem to accept. So when they see a teacher showing perceived favoritism to someone, they want to call him or her on it.

ClassroomRecently, I had a college student accuse me of picking favorites. He or she wrote it in the comments section of the course evaluation that goes to my supervisors, citing it as proof that I’m the worst teacher ever. I had to laugh. That comment says more about the student than it does about me.

As a teacher, I try to be fair, ethical, and professional in all of my dealings with students. Truthfully, I am not always perfect at this: I have good days and bad days; I don’t always handle difficult situations or students in the most professional manner. When I have made an error in judgment, I try to right my wrong through an apology or another action that makes sense. However, picking favorites does not fall into this category.

If this student would have had the courage to talk to me about this perceived slight, this is what I would have said to him or her:

You are right. I do have favorites.

My favorite students are the ones who talk to me with kindness and respect. I am a collaborator with them in their education. If a student does not put value on that teacher/student relationship for this reason alone, then he or she will never be my favorite. I am only an enemy to those who see me that way.

My favorite students are the ones who work hard in and out of class. They may not be the brightest students, but they are working hard to become the writers they need to be in order to be successful on their academic journey. I don’t care if they have perfect spelling, grammar, and/or sentence structure or not; if they are working hard, then they are my favorites. Students who expect a passing grade for failing effort have failed themselves. Their experience in my class had nothing to do with me.

My favorite students are the ones who are respectful to their classmates. I really love the students who contribute appropriately to classroom discussions, who wait their turn, and who acknowledge that everyone has an opinion. The students who make snide remarks under their breath and who can’t respect someone who has a different opinion will never be my favorites.

My favorite students are those who are courteous, instead of rude; who talk to me, instead of about me; who ask me clarifying questions, instead of complaining about me.

So, yes. I do have favorites, and I always will.

Posted in Education Reformation, Letters to My Students, Pauline's Soap Box | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

10 Things I Learned as a New Adjunct Teacher

This semester I taught two college composition classes at a community college. I started with 23 students in one class and 24 students in the other. Halfway into the semester, 7 students out of 47 just stopped coming to class.

At the end of the semester,

  • 5 students out of 47 earned A’s;
  • 23 students out of 47 will be able to transfer their college composition grade to a four-year school (only Cs or better transfer);
  • 4 students out of 47 passed the class with a D;
  • 20 students out of 47 failed the class.

But that’s just the data I collected. Here is what I learned about myself, my students, and education:

 

  1. Student response 1

    Without any doubt, I know I am a teacher. I love being in the classroom, and I know I am doing right by my students. My students this year told me they wished they had me as their high school English teacher. It confirmed for me that I taught my honors’ freshmen in high school well. I have no doubt that the students who did well in my honors’ class will do (and have done) well in their college English classes. However, it has become obvious that not all high-school English teachers did the same, and I’m sure it is for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with their teaching abilities (but I’ll get to that later). This semester, most of my college students had no idea how to use a comma, semi-colon, or colon. Most struggled with quotation integration and parenthetical citations. Their essays were filled with vague generalities and awkward, wordy, and, often times, fragmented sentences. What’s more frustrating is that most students had no idea what I was talking about when I made these types of comments on their papers. Because I am passionate about teaching, this weighs heavily on my heart. I will change what I teach and how I teach college composition in the spring because of this experience.

  2. Grammar has to make its way back into the high-school curriculum–not in isolation–but as a way to teach students how to communicate with the language of writing. I taught it that way in high school, not because I had to, but because it made sense to teach it that way. Only a handful of my college students said they had any kind of formal grammar instruction in high school–and it showed. I don’t know how to help my students become better writers without first teaching them the language that helps us understand writing–grammar is a way of thinking about language; once we know how to “think” about language, we can use that knowledge to communicate clearly and effectively and correct our writing when it doesn’t do that. Therefore, I will have to add intensive grammar instruction to the curriculum so that my students can learn how to think about language and their writing.
  3. Writing teachers need to be writers. Writing helps us to think clearly and logically; writing helps us to know and understand ourselves better. With such an important skill at stake, doesn’t it follow that writing teachers should be writers? Think about it: Would anyone hire a piano teacher who does not know how to play the piano, or a karate instructor who does not practice karate? There is an art to teaching, so not all writers can be teachers; however, shouldn’t all writing teachers be writers? Writing teachers don’t need to be published authors, but they should be able to write, without a lot of effort, the essays they ask their students to write so that they can help their students work through the thought processes, techniques, and organizational methods that go into good writing. If all writing teachers were writers, then I would not have had students in my college course who graduated from high school without knowing how to write a logical sentence; I would not have had students tell me that they never received feedback from their teachers on how to improve their essays; I would not have had students who doubted that their teachers even read the essays they assigned their students. Please know, I am not teacher bashing here; I know there are issues that prevent good teachers from fully engaging with their students and the writing process: They have over-crowded classes, disengaged students, and limited teaching time for actual learning. Add to that the movement towards objective tests, rather than subjective assessments and high-school teachers have an impossible task to accomplish. It’s definitely a Catch-22. This knowledge has led me to two conclusions: 1) I will always fight to eliminate this paradoxical problem in high schools, no matter where my path takes me; and 2) I will always be a writer and work on my craft, so I can be a better writing teacher.
  4. Summative standardized testing has ruined education. What is summative standardized testing? In the general sense, it is an end-of-year objective test that can be graded quickly. These tests usually consist of multiple choice, true-false, and/or some short answer questions that have a right or wrong answer. As a formative assessment, these types of tests can be helpful as a quick glimpse at the problems students may be having so that teachers can re-teach concepts; however, as a summative assessment, there are too many problems with these tests for them to be useful or worthwhile, no matter how much time they save. We see these tests in the form of common finals, high-stakes state tests, SAT, and ACT tests as well, especially since the writing portion for both college entrance tests have become optional. The only way truly to test knowledge is through the written word. In an attempt to collect data quickly, to lessen teachers’ grading time, and to pack classes with more students (more students means more money coming in to the school, and fewer teachers means less money going out of schools), testing has almost exclusively become standardized. I am convinced after this semester that the only way to improve education and to help our students become successful is to eliminate summative standardized testing and replace it with essays. If this actually comes to fruition, the only way teachers can function with this improvement is to cap writing classes at 15 students and to limit those teachers to no more than two or three writing classes per semester (for the other classes, teachers can teach courses that are more discussion and performance/project-based, rather than essay-based). I cannot see any other way teachers will have the time to help students become better writers.
  5. Some students need to take at least a year off from school, if not more, before going to college. Some students are just not ready to deal with the expectations at the college level. Some need to grow up; some need to get out of the classroom and experience life a little before sitting in a classroom again; and some need to figure out what they want to do with their lives before they take more classes that are meaningless to them. I know; the greatest fear for some parents is that if their children don’t go right away, they will never go to college. But if they go right away, they will waste a lot of money finding out they weren’t ready; they may also lose the confidence they need to move forward if they fail the majority of their classes.
  6. For those parents (and students) who are now wondering, if number five is true, how will I get them (or me) out of the house? The answer is we need to make vocational school a bigger and better option for students in high school. Children develop at different rates. Some may not do well all throughout high school, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be productive members of society. It doesn’t mean that they can’t take care of themselves and work at a job that they are good at until they find out what they really want to do and seek advanced training in that field. We have too many students wandering aimlessly through life–getting discouraged and depressed because they couldn’t function in a school setting; they weren’t taught a skill that they could use right out of high school. Imagine how different it would be for some students if they could work as technical, medical, or business assistants–becoming independent and paying their own bills–while they figure out what they want to do. I don’t have to imagine it because I had a student who did just that. She received certification as a nursing assistant and has been working in the medical field for the past couple of years. She is independent, confident, and ready to work towards her degree in nursing now.
  7. For those parents who refuse to believe number five is true, they need to require their children to take classes at a community college for at least the first year, if not for two years of college. Most students have no idea what they are in for when they go to college. A four-year college or university will have more distractions and will cost more money. If their children don’t do well, it is a less expensive lesson in work ethic and college readiness.
  8. Parents need to know when to help, how much to help, and when to let their children learn the hard lessons. I had too many 18+ year olds unable to function in their new adult world. They carelessly threw away their opportunities to grow and push themselves beyond what they thought they were capable of in this class. They couldn’t make decisions on what to write about; they couldn’t solve their own problems; and they couldn’t research topics they said they were passionate about. Sadly, I had a student who could not write a decent essay at the college level, but miraculously (or with a “little bit of help” from his father), he turned in a beautiful research essay that helped him get a C in the class. If this boy’s parent had helped him understand his educational responsibilities throughout high school, the father wouldn’t have had to write his son’s research essay in college to save his son’s grade. I just hope that this student sat next to him while dad wrote the essay.
  9. People are dealing with a lot of crap in their lives. I knew this before teaching at the college level (obviously), but what I didn’t know is that most people don’t know how to function while dealing with their crap. What the previous generation had that this generation doesn’t seem to have is role models: People who got up every day and dealt with their crap, or put their crap aside so they could get done what needed to get done. I watched my mother work a full-time job and nourish, clothe, and provide for her children as a single mom–all while dealing with a lot of crap. I learned from watching her. Admittedly, my students had difficult situations they were dealing with, but so many of them had no idea how to function because of them. They made excuses. They got drunk, high, or worse to numb themselves, instead of dusting themselves off and putting their heads down to get the job done–whatever that might have been. One way I try to help is by sharing personal stories. I want my students to know that I have far from a perfect life, but I keep plugging away because I have to–we all have to. We cannot escape our problems, but we can become better and stronger people because of them.
  10. Student response 2

    Learning to write well is one of the most rewarding skills we can acquire, and I love being the person who helps students find and develop their writing voice. It is time consuming and, at times, tedious, but working with students and witnessing the transformation of their written work from mere words on paper to thoughtful written communication is beautiful and rewarding in itself. Regardless of the grade, students who engaged in the writing process, who worked hard to break free from their fears, walked out of my classroom with confidence and a readiness to meet their future challenges. They may not have discovered everything about themselves and who they want to be, but they know they can move forward on their journey. I can’t think of a better investment of my time.

Posted in Education Reformation | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

An “Open Letter” to the CDE

Ben FranklinFor those of you not aware what has been happening in Colorado the past few weeks, high-school seniors in Boulder started a mass protest and opt-out movement against the CMAS test seniors were required to take last week. Instead of staying home, these students protested in front of their school; they wrote a letter to the CDE explaining why they refused to take the tests; they created a video expressing their concern for the direction in which education is headed; and they collected food for a food drive in their community. To see the letter on the CDE website and the hundreds of students who signed their names to this document click here. I’m so proud that these students decided to be movers and make things happen!

~Pauline Hawkins

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

We, students in Colorado, value our education, and therefore stand in firm opposition to the Colorado Measure of Academic Success (CMAS) testing program. By doing so, we are in no way, shape, or form, trying to disturb the learning environment at any of our high schools or in Colorado, but rather we hope to initiate dialogue between policymakers and students about issues that directly impact our future and the future of education in Colorado.

This year’s CMAS testing is the pilot of a statewide testing program for high school seniors.  The Colorado Department of Education’s Assessment Unit, which deals with standardized testing, plans to evaluate at the end of this year whether or not this standardized testing program is an effective means of measuring student and teacher progress.  We are concerned that if we fail to act, students will be forced to endure these tests for the foreseeable future.

Our grievances regarding Colorado’s expanded standardized testing program are as follows:

 I. Excessive standardized testing is harmful to our learning.

Standardized testing costs valuable teaching and learning time.  Our school is losing eight hours of class time, the equivalent of eight days of a class curriculum, in order to administer CMAS.  This deprives students of time to connect with their teachers and prepare for tests, such as AP and IB exams, which provide students with the opportunity to receive college credit. The test is particularly difficult for high school seniors, many of whom are in the midst of the college application process around this time of the year.

As high school seniors, we are subject to significant testing fatigue.  Students are mandated to take the CSAP or later TCAP exams from third through tenth grade, and the ACT in eleventh grade.  Many high school seniors are in the midst of SAT and SAT subject tests, which, unlike CMAS, have a bearing on students’ future success. At this point, we, who value our education and postsecondary readiness, feel that our time has been disrespected by policymakers who treat standardized tests, in which students had no input,  as a fix-all solution to our education system.

Furthermore, schools spend weeks organizing testing schedules, which forces administrators to prioritize standardized testing over needs of the school and the student body.  Adding more standardized testing only worsens this problem, a reduction of learning time for testing does not better education.

 

II. The CMAS standards do not represent the material taught in Colorado high schools.

The current CMAS tests do not parallel Colorado’s high school curriculum.  Colorado high school students are required to take only three years of a social studies; therefore many students do not take social studies during their senior year. The CMAS social studies test includes an economics section, but economics is not a required course for high school students in the state of Colorado. Testing someone on something they do not know, will not teach administrators anything. The goal of CMAS is to gauge our learning, but this is not possible when we have not learned, or been required to learn, what is on the test.

 

III. Studies have repeatedly shown that standardized testing does not accurately measure teacher or student performance.

Standardized testing has never been an accurate measure of student or teacher performance, and there is no reason to expect CMAS to diverge from the trend.

Firstly, standardized testing forces teachers to “teach to the test,” thereby neglecting students’ individualized needs.  The content of standardized testing rarely reflects the content that students are learning.  One student remarked: “As a sophomore, I was taking precalc. When I came along to the Math TCAP and was asked to make histograms, I had completely forgotten them, because it was something I hadn’t learned since sixth grade.” Exams shouldn’t punish students for being above the “standard” level, but unfortunately that’s what standardized testing in Colorado has done.

Moreover, standardized testing unfairly punishes low income school districts.  Alfie Kohn, who has written extensively about parenting and education, writes: “Research has repeatedly found that the amount of poverty in the communities where schools are located, along with other variables having nothing to do with what happens in classrooms, accounts for the great majority of the difference in test scores from one area to the next.”[1]  When looking at the CMAS testing scenario, it is easy to see why this occurs. Pearson, the for-profit corporation that created the CMAS tests, recommends that schools purchase their textbooks in order to help students prepare.  For low-income school districts, this is often impossible.[2]

CMAS appears to hold true to these same problems, and thus does not provide a sound method to evaluate schools or teachers.  For example, the CMAS social studies exam tests students in geography, government, economics, and history.  Since these subjects are based primarily on recalling facts, this is not a measure of the teachers ability to teach, but the students ability to remember; thus, it is unfair to fund schools based on these measures. According to Lauren Resnick, a leading cognitive scientist, “They [standardized tests] tend to be contrived exercises that measure how much students have managed to cram into short-term memory. Even the exceptions–questions that test the ability to reason–generally fail to offer students the opportunity “to carry out extended analyses, to solve open-ended problems, or to display command of complex relationships, although these abilities are at the heart of higher-order competence.” For example, at our high school, government and geography are taught freshman year.   If students don’t show proficiency in these subjects, it is not because our teachers are lacking, but because we have not covered the content in three years. Given that different schools have different curriculums and different scheduling, it is hard to see how the tests will accurately measure teacher or student performance.

IV. We as students are subjected to these tests at the same time as Colorado is seeing cuts in education funding.

Colorado schools are currently facing funding shortages, and spending more on standardized tests only adds to the deficit. Amendment 23 to the Colorado Constitution mandated the legislature to annually increase the funding for schools. The amendment stated that the amount of funding a school received would be calculated from a base amount, plus more funding due to “factors,” or variables such as school district size, local cost-of-living, and the number of “at-risk” kids.  The amendment mandated that this amount must be increased  by at least inflation plus 1% until 2010, and then by at least the rate of inflation after 2010.[4] However, since the 2008 recession, lawmakers have repeatedly used a loophole in the law called the “negative factor.”  Rather than include the factors in calculating school funding, lawmakers allocated funding based solely off the base amount; thus, school funding actually decreased.[5] Furthermore, the number of students enrolled in Colorado’s public schools system has increased significantly since Amendment 23 was passed.  When adjusting for inflation, Colorado spent 6% less per student in the 2014 fiscal year than it did in the 2008 fiscal year.[6]

While Colorado has cut spending for schools, it continues to spend tens of millions of dollars on standardized testing each year.[7]  While some funding for CMAS came from the federal government, the costs of administering the test comes from the state taxpayers’ pockets.

As students, we believe this is an unfair arrangement.  We have been subjected to larger class sizes, cuts to art, music, and extracurricular activities, and fewer opportunities in school.  Our reward for putting up with these difficulties is more standardized testing with questionable purposes and monetary costs.

V. The CMAS standards are created by a for-profit corporation, not educators.

While the state allocates less funds toward education, it is spending plenty on standardized tests.  Pearson is a for-profit corporation that makes its profit from standardized testing in states such as Colorado.  In 2013, it achieved sales of over nine billion dollars, 60% of which came from the United States.[8]

Despite these immense resources, Pearson has hardly been error-proof:

  • In 2009, Pearson was forced to pay $9.5 million to the state of Wyoming for “complete default of the contract” after the roll-out of computerized testing failed.[9]
  • In 2013, incorrect scoring on a Pearson test for entrance into gifted and talented programs in New York City led to 13% of children being erroneously rejected from the program.[10]
  • In multiple cases, Pearson has failed to report scores on time, resulting in delays and questions concerning the accuracy of the data eventually reported.[11]

Furthermore, Pearson uses a huge education lobby network to implement standardized testing across the nation.  According to Alan Singer, education professor at Hofstra University, “Pearson’s non-for-profit foundation has paid local and state education commissioners whose schools do business with the for-profit Pearson corporation to attend international conferences in Rio de Janeiro, London, Singapore, and Helsinki, where they meet with Pearson executives.”[12] Additionally, according to the CMAS website from the Colorado Department of Education, Pearson actively encourages schools to “better prepare” for standardized testing by buying Pearson-produced textbooks. It seems that Pearson uses standardized testing not to benefit our education, but to increase their profits. We do not want our education to be used as a tool to line corporate pockets. Only Pearson stands to gain from these tests, but we lose valuable school hours and Colorado taxpayers’ money goes to waste.

If the creators of CMAS really believe in the importance of education, then they need to take a step back from test scores and look at what kids are learning. We believe that the funding and resources that are allocated to standardized tests could be more effectively used to enrich the school courses themselves to be more interactive and engaging.  This relocation of resources will ensure, more so than CMAS will, that students are successful in meeting academic standards and, more importantly, in learning.

Rather than standardized tests, let’s have smaller class sizes.  Let’s fund art and music classes.  Let’s have a conversation about education policy that includes the people who are most affected by it.  Let’s make a commitment to future Colorado students that their learning and their future are more important than their testing.

We hope that you will consider and understand that the actions we take to protest the CMAS, are not meant to disrupt our learning, but represent our responsibility to protect our education and the future of education in Colorado.

Signed,

The students of Colorado

 

Endnotes

[1] Kohn, Alfie. “The case against standardized testing: raising the scores, ruining the schools.” The University of West Georgia. N.p. Web.  Accessed 22 October 2014.<http://teacherrenewal.wiki.westga.edu/file/view/Testing,%20Testing,%20Testing.pdf.>

[2] Broussard, Meredith. “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.” The Atlantic. N.p. 15 July 2014. Web.  Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/07/why-poor-schools-cant-win-at-standardized-testing/374287/.>

[3]Kohn, Alfie. “The case against standardized testing: raising the scores, ruining the schools.” The University of West Georgia. N.p. Web.  Accessed 22 October 2014.<http://teacherrenewal.wiki.westga.edu/file/view/Testing,%20Testing,%20Testing.pdf.>

[4] “Learning Together: Assessing Colorado’s K-12 Education System.” Center for Education Policy Analysis at the Graduate School of Public Affairs. University of Colorado at Denver. October 2006. Web. Accessed October 22, 2014. <http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/SPA/BuechnerInstitute/Centers/CEPA/Publications/Documents/LearningTogether.Oct%2006.pdf.>

[5] Torres, Zahira. “Group suing Colorado over $1 billion cut in school funding.” The Denver Post. N.p. 27 June 2014. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26046666/group-files-suit-against-colorado-over-school-funding.>

[6] Leachman, Michael and Chris Mai. “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p. 20 May 2014. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=4011.>

[7] Wetzel, Mike. “Colorado teachers concerned by excessive testing.” Colorado Education Association. N.p. 18 February 2014. Web. Accessed 23 October 2014. <http://www.coloradoea.org/resources/association-news/2014/02/19/testing.&gt;

[8] Singer, Alan. “Pearson Rakes in the Profit.” Huffington Post. N.p. 19 May 2013. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-education-profits_b_2902642.html.>

[9] Solochek, Jeff. “Pearson problems nothing new in testing world.” Tampa Bay Times. N.p. 18 May 2011. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/content/pearson-problems-nothing-new-testing-world.>

[10] Figueroa, Alyssa. “8 Things You Should Know About Corporations Like Pearson that Make Huge Profits from Standardized Tests.” AlterNet. N.p. 6 August 2013. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.alternet.org/education/corporations-profit-standardized-tests.>

[11] Solochek, Jeff. “Problems, problems everywhere with Pearson’s testing system.” Tampa Bay Times. N.p. 17 May 2011. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook/content/problems-problems-everywhere-pearsons-testing-system.>

[12] Singer, Alan. “Pearson Rakes in the Profit.” Huffington Post. N.p. 19 May 2013. Web. Accessed 22 October 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-singer/pearson-education-profits_b_2902642.html.>

Posted in A Student's Perspective, Education Reformation | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Relay for Life: A Survivor’s Story

It’s been five years since Ian was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor: Primary Adenocarcinoma of the Brain. It was rare, one in a hundred million; the tumor had sprouted tentacles, and we didn’t know for sure if we had found it before it had spread; there was no protocol for treatment; there was no guarantee that Ian would see his fifth birthday.

Cancer became a swear word in our house; we wouldn’t–couldn’t say the word in Ian’s presence. We knew his survival depended on us staying positive. And there was nothing positive about cancer, so we worked hard at keeping the word and the devastation of the disease away from Ian.

After an aggressive treatment plan of six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy, Ian defied the odds. There was no cancer anywhere in his body. Not only that, but he was not in a wheel chair as predicted. He was physically, mentally, and emotionally strong. And there is no sign of the cancer returning. We say Ian is cancer-free, not in remission, because “remission” denotes that it could come back.

We have been so thankful for the medical advances that cured Ian. We are thankful for the people who supported us emotionally and financially. As the years have passed, Ian has a little better understanding of the dangers of cancer, and what he actually went through, but we still don’t talk about it very often.

That could be why we had never gone to a Relay for Life event in the past. This was our first year. I wanted to go to support my friend Berni’s team at the event; I thought Ian and I were ready to pay it forward.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that arrived when I did. I wasn’t prepared for Ian’s emotions and hesitancy.

As we walked up to the registration table, I was reminded of all the things I wanted to forget. The word I protected my son from for all these years was proudly displayed on banners and t-shirts and wrist bands. We saw people in various stages of their battles: some hairless, some with a range in hair lengths; some fragile, some vibrant; and some still fighting for their lives. I had an intense desire to take Ian’s hand and run in the opposite direction: I didn’t want Ian to see this. Cancer was no longer our reality; we had put Ian’s fight behind us, or so I thought. I didn’t want to remember our battle, yet it grabbed me by the throat and held me hostage.

I tried to hide my pain, while reminding myself that I promised Berni I would be there. I couldn’t turn back now. Ian, however, wasn’t holding back his feelings. He wanted to leave as soon as we got there. I reminded him of the bouncy house and other games he would play. I convinced him to stay, but I started to doubt that decision. Did it do more harm than good for Ian to be there? IMG_0581

When we got to the tent, Berni gave Ian his purple survivor’s shirt. It had “Finish the Fight 2014″ on the front, and “I am strength. I am hope. I am a survivor. Walk with us to finish the fight.” on the back.

Ian didn’t want to wear it; it was too big; he was uncomfortable. Was it because, like me, he didn’t like the word “survivor”?

Shortly after we arrived, we went to the “Survivors Lunch.” The organizers gave Ian a cup and a pin; they gave me a survivor’s “Caregiver” sash. We sat in a sea of purple shirts and sashes–but all the survivors were adults. As Ian and I walked by, I heard the comments: “That little guy is a survivor? How terrible that he had to have this disease.” The grip on my throat became tighter. So many people have battled this disease. So many people are fighting for their lives for the second or third time. And they felt sorry for Ian. IMG_0583

Ian was also uncomfortable with the attention he was getting for something he could barely remember–and what he did remember was painful: being bald, vomiting, needles, waking up from anesthesia–and me crying. He hates when I cry, and any talk of his cancer makes my tears flow. Within minutes of our first conversation with a survivor, the tears were choking me. But that wasn’t the worst part. What had me in a vice grip was that Ian heard that “it” sometimes comes back; my fears for my son were spoken realities in these people’s lives. I looked for an escape route.

I felt like we didn’t belong there. We were years away from that traumatic time in our lives. What good did it do to bring it to the surface again?

After lunch, we walked around the track and looked at each of the booths. As I saw the number of people who donated their time and resources to raise money to fight this disease, my perspective began to change. I was able to step away from my personal pain and see that everyone there had similar pain. They, however, released their pain, so they could help put an end to this disease, while I had been harboring mine. I had been protecting Ian for so long, that I didn’t realize that I was protecting myself as well. IMG_0650[1]

One of our favorite booths was where a young girl (she couldn’t be more than twelve) was donating her time and talents as an anime artist to raise money for cancer research. Just the other day Ian said to me: “I want an artist to draw me, Mom. Can we do that someday?” And there she was. She took a picture of Ian and turned him into an anime super hero. It’s by far the best item we got from the booths.

Ian also loved playing games. His favorite was the “dunking game.” He threw a softball at a target at least 15 times and dunked the various participants at least ten times.

Then it was time for the “Survivor’s Walk.” Ian and I joined the survivors and walked around the track. The survivors had purple balloons that they released after one lap; it was meant to be symbolic for the survivors, but it helped me release my hold on Ian’s story.

I watched as Berni’s team walked their lap. My appreciation for her and what she has done for years for this fight grew with every step.

IMG_0637 At nine, they had the Luminaries Ceremony: People decorated white bags in remembrance of loved ones who had lost their battle with cancer; Berni had two bags. They ended the ceremony with a bagpipe rendition of Amazing Grace.

As we silently let the music pour over us, I remembered the words that helped me stay strong five years ago:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Chorus:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

I cried through the song, knowing that these words were still ringing true for me: I still need grace, and I still need to open my eyes to the things I’ve been blind to.

For the rest of the night, Ian joined an impromptu soccer game on the field. He was having so much fun.

Watching Ian run and play made me realize that we both needed to be there. Ian embraced his past–a past I tried to sugar coat for him because I didn’t want fear to interfere with his healing. I wanted him to envision his future so he could live through the pain and work towards that day when he could run and play again–like he did last night. He played so hard he could barely walk afterwards.

The future we envisioned for him in the midst of his battle is his reality today.

Relay for Life is raising money so other people can have a future like Ian’s present.

Protecting Ian was necessary five years ago, but now I will envision that we are warriors helping others “Finish the Fight.” Ian is a symbol of hope for all the people currently struggling–he had a devastating diagnosis, but Ian beat the odds. We want others to have that same hope.

Posted in Life After Cancer, The Beauty Around Us, The Moments of Impact | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Legacy of Love

Mother’s Day 2014

It’s hard to believe that I’m at the half-century mark in my life. As the years pass, I can’t help but reflect on my life and the people who have shaped me and the people I have shaped. As a woman, I have been blessed by loving women in my life. That love came at a cost: My grandmother and mother went through painful situations, yet they survived with more love to give, not less. The best legacy they gave me was the legacy of love. As a mother, I hope to do the same for my daughters. On Mother’s Day this year, I wanted to honor the beautiful women who have showered me with love.

Here is my legacy of love:

Baba Vicky

Baba and Dedo with me and my brothersBaba Vicky was the strongest, sweetest, smartest person I have ever met. I praised her often, but she was too humble to accept my praise, especially when I praised her intelligence. I remember one time, after a deep conversation about life, I told her:

“Baba, you have so much wisdom. What would I do without you?”

“I try my best . . . but how can you say that? I have broken english . . . I can’t read or write . . . I’m dumb . . .” and then she shook her head in disbelief.

I corrected her: “Baba, don’t ever say that! What you know about life, about people, could fill a book. I have learned so much from you.”

She chuckled, and then grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. She always had the softest hands. “You make me feel good,” she said.

“You make me feel good, too,” I said back. After a brief moment of silence, we fell back into our conversation.

She always gave me the best advice. When I talked to her about someone who had hurt me, she told me:

“If you want to be forgiven for the mistakes you’ve made, you have to learn to forgive others. We all need forgiveness at some point in our lives.”

I’ve tried to honor that advice, but it’s sometimes harder than it sounds.

When I told her I hoped to have a marriage like hers and Dedo Gus’s someday, she told me:

“If you want to have a good marriage, love him the way you want to be loved, and do what makes you happy. That’s how he will learn how to love you and make you happy.”

She had so much wisdom.

Baba Vicky’s wisdom had humble beginnings. Velika Popovski (Kordovich) was born on March 12, 1921 in Bukovo, a small village outside Bitola, Macedonia, a former Republic of Yugoslavia. She was one of eleven children, but only five of the eleven survived to adulthood. They had a small plot of land with a few animals. Baba Vicky worked hard with her hands all her life: She took care of her siblings, worked the land during planting and harvesting seasons, and cooked and cleaned for her family. Wherever she was needed, she did her job well. She completed a 4th grade education in a one-room schoolhouse because that’s all that was available to girls in the small village.

Her life changed, she would tell me with a smile on her face, the day Kosta Kordovich (Dedo Gus) came back from America. Everyone knew he was looking for a wife to take to America with him. During the mid to late 1930s, it was customary for the young Macedonian men to go to America, make their fortunes doing the jobs that many Americans refused to do, and then come back to their villages to find a suitable wife. For women, these men were their only ticket out of their laborious lives.

Velika didn’t bother trying to get Kosta’s attention like all the other eligible girls. She felt she was too plain and too poor to get the desirable Kosta’s attention. Her distance may have been what grabbed his attention in the first place, but Dedo Gus told me, “I know quality when I see it.”

After just a few days, Kosta knew that Velika was the woman he wanted to marry. His family was very upset. They felt that she was too plain and too poor for their son, especially when he had his pick of any girl he wanted. He refused to listen to their complaints, and Velika and Kosta were married on November 13, 1938.

Baba Vicky moved out of her parent’s home and moved in with Dedo Gus and his family. She knew they didn’t approve of her, but Baba Vicky was comforted in knowing that Dedo Gus loved her. His love helped her to hold her head high.

Shortly after they were married, Baba Vicky became pregnant. She earned the respect of her new family by working hard and not complaining. In August of 1939, Dedo Gus was told he had to leave Bukovo without Baba Vicky because of the turmoil in Europe. Her paperwork wasn’t ready, and WWII was imminent. Dedo Gus had earned his American citizenship, and if he did not leave Yugoslavia at that time, he would lose his citizenship.

Dedo Gus left on September 3, 1939, and Baba Vicky gave birth to Ana, my mother, on September 4, 1939. Baba Vicky and her mother-in-law comforted each other, and my great-grandmother depended on and loved Baba Vicky as if she had been her own daughter. The two women formed a strong bond. Baba Vicky was heartbroken that her husband had to leave, but it did not break her. She stayed strong for her daughter. As time went on, her in-laws looked to Baba Vicky for strength and guidance.

Six years had passed without a word from Dedo Gus. Everyone told Baba Vicky that Dedo Gus had forgotten about her and probably found another woman in America. She refused to believe the rumors. She refused to leave his family. After years of waiting and never giving up hope, she finally received all the letters he had sent her over that six-year period. The war had stopped all mail for a number of years, and then sorting out the backed-up mail took another few years. My grandmother’s heart soared; Dedo Gus was alive and well, and waiting for her to join him in America. It took another six years for the government paperwork to come through. In the meantime, Dedo Gus sent goods from America to his wife and daughter. They went from being pitied to envied in a few short months.

They eventually received visas and gained passage to America in 1951. Baba Vicky was excited to see her husband, and happy that her daughter would finally meet her father; but she was also scared. Twelve years was a long time. What if he had changed? What if he didn’t love her anymore? She also was not naïve enough to think he had been faithful to their marriage that whole time. She had no idea how she was going to face what awaited her in America, so she faced it head on, putting everything that happened in the past where it belonged.

I am blessed to have Baba Vicky as the matriarch of my family. Her story illustrates her strength and courage that made her the woman I came to know and love. I am thankful that she shared her stories with me and gave me advice that still rings true today. But more than that, I am indebted to her for the examples of love she left me. These are the prominent memories of my beloved matriarch, memories that revealed deeper truths than even her wonderful advice:

She put love in every meal she made. That’s what made it taste so good.

She always did her best job. She had pride in her abilities, so it didn’t matter what anyone else thought of her, which made everyone love her more.

She made everyone feel important, a special kind of love.

She laughed at herself often; she knew life was too short to take herself too seriously. That is how she loved herself.

She smiled every chance she could, bringing joy to those around her.

When she loved someone, she held his or her hand for as long as she could. That’s why she kept her hands so soft.

My grandmother, Baba Vicky, was an amazing woman. I miss her so much. She died in 2008, but her mind left her a few years before that. During the last few years of her life, she didn’t remember much. She could recall things from her youth, but she didn’t remember who I was most of the time. I like to believe that during those last moments of her life, as we stood around her bed, God gave her back her memories, so she could see how much we all loved her. I placed my hand in her soft, now frail hand, and even in her weakened state, I felt a tiny squeeze before she took her last breath.

Baba Vicky’s legacy of love is filled with courageous decisions and love in its purest form.

 Ana

Outside the movie theaterMy mother’s love has also shaped my world. Even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense to give, she gives to loved ones without batting an eye. I attribute this to her tender heart; however, one does not become tender without a lot of pain.

Ana Kordovich (Galovski) was born in Bukovo on September 4th, 1939. The day before her birth her father was called back to America because of the turmoil in Europe. This led to a 12-year separation that tormented my mother’s heart.

During those war years, everyone suffered, but young Ana had unique pain that stemmed from a fatherless childhood. One of my mother’s significant memories was when she and my grandmother had to escape an Italian invasion by quietly walking through an ice-cold river up the mountain; the other young children had fathers to carry them. Another painful memory is the way village children taunted her with vulgar names because Ana didn’t have her father present. These experiences left a permanent scar.

She and my grandmother were finally able to get government approval to join my grandfather in America right before Ana’s teen years began. Ana’s first encounter with her father was filled with wordless tears and tight embraces. Even years later, when I asked my mother and grandfather about the day they met, they could only respond with tears; no words could express the love rushing into the void.

Ana struggled with learning English at first, but quickly caught up and earned high grades in school. In her twenties, Ana met and fell in love with an incredibly handsome man; Ana and Jovan married before she truly knew what she was getting into. As handsome as he was, my father had a darkness in him that equaled his looks.

It wasn’t until I became an adult and heard these stories that I was able to understand how incredible my mother truly is. With all this pain in her past, how did she not become bitter? Once I became a wife and mother, I better understood my mother’s heart.

When I was younger, my mother’s high-spirited yells used to embarrass me at my brother’s soccer games: One time a referee actually threw a whistle at her, telling my mother to do a better job. About eight years ago, a volleyball referee almost threw me out of a game for yelling at him about a ridiculous call against my daughter. Now, I know that my mother’s love for her children forced her immediate defense of their being wronged, no matter where she was, no matter who it was.

In my teenage years, I judged her for staying with my father for so long: He was abusive, an alcoholic, and a gambler. I wondered how she could be so weak. Now, I understand her choices had more to do with her love for a man who could be kind and gentle and charming most of the time; more to do with her love for her children and the fear of their growing up without a father in their lives–a pain she knew too well; more to do with the hope that my father would become the husband and father in our lives that she so longed for. She refused to give up on him, not out of weakness, but out of love and compassion and hope. Like my mother, I believe in the vows I made, promising to love, honor, and cherish, in good times and bad.

When I went to college, I thought I was so much smarter than my mother and her high-school diploma. All I knew is that she worked for an insurance company. Later, I discovered that she started as a secretary, worked her way up to an account executive, and built up her own insurance book of business. Not only was she smart, but she had a strong work ethic, an understanding of personal relationships, a respect for individuals (not the size of their wallets), and a faithfulness to her word and the needs of her clients. The most amazing things she has been able to accomplish with her high-school degree are surviving a divorce (in 1979, divorce was not as common as it is today), raising three children on her own (all of whom went to college), pay off her house, bail her children out of financial set-backs, and still have enough to provide for her grandchildren.

My mother is a blessing not only to me, but also to so many people. She lovingly gives to others, even if they don’t deserve it. Because my mother loves with a tender heart, she gives grace, rather than justice.

My mother’s heart is larger than the average heart: It has the propensity to love deeper, give greater, and forgive fuller than any heart I have ever known. I am thankful to have been raised by such a woman; I am blessed by her legacy of love.

My Formative Years

My children :)I don’t regret my past. It made me who I am today: A compassionate woman who makes a positive impact in this world.

People are shocked when I say that after hearing about my less-than-ideal upbringing: My father was an abusive alcoholic; I was beaten many times during his drunken rages. Also, as a girl, I had less value in my European family than my brothers; when I was sixteen, I met a man who knew my father for ten years, and he remarked, “I knew John had two sons, but I never knew he had a daughter.”

I grew up as a shy girl with very little confidence in myself, which is very different from who I am today.

It wasn’t until college that I considered myself even somewhat attractive. I found it quite surprising when I received any attention from the opposite sex, but I liked it. What I also discovered is that college boys liked me a lot better when I’d been drinking. Unfortunately, it started a vicious cycle of drinking and falling in love with the wrong boys. I ended up binge-drinking and binge-chasing young men who only wanted me for one thing…that is until I met Dennis. Dennis and I went out on dates; I met his parents; I hung out with his friends; he thought I was beautiful. I was his girlfriend. He was my first legitimate relationship. I had never been so happy.

But then, we heavily celebrated my 21st birthday–I didn’t remember much. A few weeks later I discovered I was pregnant.

I was devastated when Dennis changed his mind about marrying me. I had to move in with my mother as I prepared to become a mother. I felt a scarlet letter burn my chest as some of my family members were so disgusted and embarrassed by me that they couldn’t look at me. The day I told my father was the first time I ever saw him cry. Thankfully, I had people who stood by me and supported my decision to keep my baby.

Those nine months slowly changed my life. As I felt my baby grow, I felt my confidence grow as well. I started thinking about the kind of woman I wanted to be for my child. Who I was at the time would not be good enough. I depended on the legacy of love I received from my grandmother and mother to become the mother I needed to be.

I transformed myself through their examples and the growing love in my body.

Nicole

Nicole is still a blessing!Nicole Marie Galovski was born on July 9th, 1987. I held her in my arms and fell instantly in love. She had big blue eyes and platinum blond hair. She seemed to respond instantly to my voice. I cried from pure joy, the first I had experienced in my life up to that point. Nicole was perfect, and I couldn’t understand how I could have anything to do with something so angelic.

The transition from me to us came with its challenges, but Nicole and I weathered them together. I continued to live with my mom, so I could provide a safe, loving environment for Nicole. Even though I had a college degree, I didn’t apply for any teaching jobs. I couldn’t imagine putting my baby in daycare, so I watched children out of my mother’s home during the day and worked in a restaurant at night and on the weekends when my mom was home to watch Nicole. I made plenty of mistakes, but I learned from them so I could be a better mother.

Even though those years were difficult and far from perfect, I wouldn’t change anything about them. Nicole changed my life for the better. Her presence in my life removed me from the downward spiral I was in. I hate to think about the life I would have led if it weren’t for Nicole. She became my reason for living, not just existing from one intoxicated state to another.

People have told me over the years how proud they are of me for not choosing abortion. I am extremely thankful for that decision as well. But the truth is Nicole saved my life. I was on a destructive path that only a miracle could alter; Nicole was that miracle. God gave me Nicole so I could get and stay on the right path. I’m nowhere near perfect, but I’m definitely closer to the person I need to be because of Nicole.

Nicole is a grown woman now. She is strong and confident and witty and beautiful–everything I wanted her to be because it was everything I wasn’t at her age. She lives two thousand miles away from me, but she still keeps me on the right path. A few years ago she wrote me a letter in response to a difficult situation I didn’t handle very well. Nicole lovingly pointed out my mistakes, and added, “you’ve told me everything I’ve been doing wrong for 24 years (and I hope will continue to do so), and that has helped me out more than anything else; it’s changed me for the better even if it made me mad initially.” Even during her admonishment, she praised me for the mother I had been in her life; even with the distance, we weathered this challenge together. I appreciated her perspective and her candor. She saw that I had stepped off my path and lovingly brought me back–again.

That letter marked the day our relationship changed: We now come together as two women who have an unbreakable bond, even though we don’t get to spend nearly enough time together. I am blessed to be her mother. With Nicole in my life, my legacy of love continued in her and through her as we taught each other unconditional love.

Carol Linn

10-2D4DEA04-51412-1280My understanding of love was challenged most deeply by one person: my second daughter Carol Linn. Our troubles began when she turned 12 and escalated to an explosive moment when she was 18. At that point, she left my home to venture out on her own. As painful as that was, it was absolutely necessary for the salvation of our relationship.

Before she moved to the other side of the country, I knew there were wonderful things about her; however, they were clouded by the rebellious teenager that challenged our relationship every breathing moment. I loved the woman she was becoming, but struggled with the child she still was. We needed distance. We needed clarity.

For me, it has finally come, but I’m not sure if Carol Linn has clarity yet. Does she know and understand how much I love her? If she doesn’t, I have confidence that someday she will. Why? Because she is who I was at 20. She is the child who fulfilled my mother’s curse: “I hope you have a daughter just like you someday, so you know how I feel.” I do understand now. I just hope it doesn’t take another 20 years for Carol Linn to love and appreciate me the way I love and appreciate my mother now.

Recently, I apologized to my mother for the pain I caused her as a teenager. However, I also thanked her for the blessing she thought was a curse. Carol Linn is and has been a blessing since the day she was born. Throughout my pregnancy, I prayed that she would be a girl; I was blessed when I held her in my arms for the first time. She was perfect in every way: She had a full head of black hair, perfect eyebrows, big brown eyes, and beautiful fingers and toes.

As she grew, she proved to be a mischievous child, always getting into and out of precarious situations. When Carol Linn was a year and a half she would climb out of her crib after I put her down for a nap and get stuck on the changing table. She would call for me to come rescue her. She seemed to know what she wanted but didn’t know what to do once she got there. She had such confidence in herself, even at this age.

She also had courage. After we said goodnight to the girls, Carol Linn would crawl out of bed, crawl into the playroom to get a toy, and crawl back into her bed, like a little ninja, without us ever knowing or hearing her in the adjoining room. In the morning she would have a bed full of Barbies.

I think it was this self-confidence and courage that allowed her to verbalize her anger. She was four years old the first time she told me she hated me. I had sent her to her room as a punishment for something. She wrote “I hat Mom” on the wall with a permanent marker. After we made up, she crossed out “hat” and put “luv” instead. As funny as that story is, it didn’t prepare me for the number of times I heard “I hate you!” during her teenage years. I didn’t believe that she meant it, but she was pretty convincing.

I know I made a lot of mistakes as her mother. That could be what led her to be indifferent towards me as her parent; she didn’t seem to need me in her life. I wanted her to depend on me, but she never did.

I got so caught up in her disobedience that I forgot the ultimate goal as a mother was to raise an independent woman. Carol Linn was independent already. Instead of realizing that, I battled with her; we despised each other. We hurt each other in ways that made it difficult to find our way back to each other. In February of her eighteenth year, I naïvely thought I would gladly say goodbye to her the day we brought her to the airport. Instead, I cried uncontrollably the whole time.

I didn’t want to lose my child; I just wanted the pain to end. When she left, the pain did vanish. None of the past year mattered anymore. But it was too late because I lost my child anyway.

Now, she has the freedom to choose her own destiny; freedom to live her own life, far away from me. She needed distance, so she could test her wings. As much as it still hurts to have lost my precious little girl, it needed to happen. I had to make room for a new relationship.

Carol Linn has been living with her sister Nicole for two years now, and I can truly say I love the woman she has become. I tried so hard to make her become someone she wasn’t that I missed out on the amazing person she already was. I wanted her to be me now, not the me I was at 18. I made so many mistakes at that age; I wanted her to learn from my experiences. Life doesn’t work that way though. She had to choose her own path, her own way, on her own terms, exactly how I did it.

With distance and time I think I have gleaned an understanding of Carol Linn’s frustrations. I tended to point out the differences between her and Nicole. I know how that felt. I could never measure up to my older brother. It made me angry. I’m sorry I did that to her.

All the time I spent being frustrated with Carol Linn stopped me from acknowledging her wonderful qualities: She is kind to people, and she forgives often, but protects her heart. She lends a hand to anyone who asks, even if it’s someone who has hurt her before. She loves to read and write. Her sense of humor is amazing. She catches on to things quicker than I ever do. She has great taste in music and movies. She also has an innate ability to see the beauty around her and to frame it through her camera. I am so impressed with her pictures.

While she was under my roof, it bothered me that Carol Linn hid her life from me. But now, I see the truth: I was jealous and insecure because I wasn’t part of her private life. I now understand what admirable qualities Carol Linn possesses: She can keep a secret; she keeps her private life private.

In addition to learning to appreciate all of her wonderful qualities, Carol Linn has taught me to let go of the things and people I have no control over, including the past. I wish I could take back those angry words I said so many years ago, but even Carol Linn would say, “Don’t have regrets, Mom. It will be okay. It’s in the past. Move forward.”

She has also taught me the true meaning of love. It’s easy to love someone who treats me well. But how do I love someone who challenges me and despises my opinions?

I just love her. That’s all. I love her because she is Carol Linn, that same beautiful human being I gave birth to. She doesn’t have to agree with me, think I’m the best mother ever, or believe that I made the right choices for my life. I just have to love her, love the woman she is.

As I sat in Nicole and Carol Linn’s apartment on a recent visit, I watched them take care of their home and each other. They have an obvious love for each other that only sisters can have: They share private jokes, knowing smiles, and comforting cuddles. They give each other the freedom to go their separate ways with the security of a family to come home to. In some ways, it was bittersweet for me: I know I didn’t always provide that type of home for them, but I’m thankful that despite my mistakes, my love provided them with enough guidance to create that security for themselves. Their love consoles me and fills me with joy.

Our legacy of love has been filled with challenges, but it’s those challenges that shaped us; it’s part of the love my grandmother and mother offered to me and what I offered to my daughters. And it’s that same love I see in them, and the love they give to me. None of us have lived perfect lives, but we have learned to love deeply in this imperfect world. I know that my daughters’ lives will be filled with love, wherever their paths take them, because they are endowed with this legacy.

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A Student’s Perspective: Common Core: One Size Does Not Fit All

Our students know what they need; we need to find a way to get their voices heard.

By Gina Galjour

Imagine an education system in which a student’s knowledge is evaluated by a set of fifty questions, a system in which the federal government decides what students need to know at the end of the year—an education without representation. With common core, that vision could become a reality. Centralizing the education system is most definitely not the answer to strengthening America’s education.

Common core is basically the federalization of education. Instead of the local and state governments deciding what education plan their communities should follow, federal officials determine the whole nation’s education by a list of standards. The K-12 standards describe what a student should know at the end of each grade. This can be beneficial to teachers and students, as they know they are teaching and learning the right information, but the standards can be ridiculously low or ridiculously high. One of the Kindergarten common core standards is:

“Analyze and compare two- and three-dimensional shapes, in different sizes and orientations, using informal language to describe their similarities, differences, parts (e.g., number of sides and vertices/“corners”) and other attributes (e.g., having sides of equal length)” (CCSS.Math.Content.K.G.B.4).

In Kindergarten, the majority of children do not know how to read and write proficiently, much less describe the vertices of a three-dimensional shape. It is not the federal government’s place to determine what a student should and should not know. Students should be allowed to receive help when necessary and also have the opportunity to go beyond the lesson plan. Centralizing education may help raise some schools’ standards, but it may also lower others. Each community is different and should have their own standards in order to improve a student’s education and allow him/her to excel.

With Common Core, there is no “why” involved. Why does a first grader need to know how to draw three-dimensional shapes? Teachers teach what they are required to prepare for the national standardized test. With this “teach the test” approach, students are merely memorizing the information, not learning it.  Likewise, standardized tests do not measure several important things a teacher would see in school such as the work ethic and improvement of students. Standardized testing would not recognize the improvement students would have made throughout the year, leaving them feeling unaccomplished.

One Size Does Not Fit AllCommon Core is a false utopia, a seemingly perfect society in which students learn the same and have the same learning environment. But, everyone learns and does everything differently. People are not robots; one size will never fit all and centralizing education is not the answer.

Sources:

http://www.freedomworks.org/content/top-10-reasons-oppose-common-core

https://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/Curriculum/CurrDet/TabId/186/ArtMID/793/ArticleID/140/Common-Core-Good-Bad-Possible.aspx

http://www.corestandards.org/

A Student’s Perspective. My students have a lot to say about the current education system. Instead of telling you how they feel, I decided to let them speak for themselves. Some articles originally appeared in The LHS Revolution (thelhsrevolution.com); others are created specifically for this blog. Their parents have signed permission forms to share their work here. Read, comment, question, but remember they are students; be respectful. Thank you, Pauline Hawkins

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Part 2: The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations

The last few weeks I’ve been putting together my thoughts on the current educational system to explain, in detail, why I wrote my resignation letter. Since it was a lengthy post, I decided to split it into two posts: Part 1: “A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core.” Part 2: “The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations.”

The Problems with Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

As we unpacked CCSS, we started asking: “What were they thinking?” The skills and competencies don’t line up vertically for each grade level. There are huge gaps in the CCSS in some areas and plenty of overlap in other areas, as an example, I created a chart for the grammar section in Standard 3: Writing and Composition. (CDE Link) (Chart: Content Area standard 3)

Currently, the 9th grade grammar curriculum at my school includes comprehensive instruction on 4-level analysis of sentences. Students learn parts of speech, parts of sentence, phrases, and clauses, and how those 4-levels work together to create the two parts essential to communication: the subject-predicate set. With this information, students are armed with the language and skills necessary to correct sentence fragments, comma splices, and run-ons. Students also understand how to use phrases and dependent clauses correctly to create varied sentences. They learn about colons and semicolons, how to introduce quotations correctly, and the difference between active and passive voice. They learn all of this in 9th grade; in my opinion, there is no other way to teach grammar. CCS Standards don’t mention half of these skills and other skills are distributed across grade levels arbitrarily, since students need certain information like semicolon lessons in order to correct comma splices.

Another example of “What were they thinking?” is the CCSS requirement that teachers of eleventh grade American Literature need to teach a Shakespearean play. Last I checked, Shakespeare wasn’t American.

Honestly, good English teachers will cover all the material necessary for students to communicate effectively; that’s why having this document dictate rigid, yet incomplete standards doesn’t make any sense. Adding to that, the Common Core creators have given us a document that doesn’t align curriculum clearly or logically.

To summarize, the CCSS may be a poorly written document, but it is not evil in and of itself, at least not at the secondary level for writing, reading, and composition.

Common Core State Standards at the Elementary Level

My experiences with CCSS at the elementary level are from a parent’s perspective; my son is in 3rd grade and is struggling with the standards for various reasons (Link). Even though Ian may have unique reasons for his struggles, I know he is not the only child struggling. Here is an example of a 1st grade math test based on CCSS: http://roundtheinkwell.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/the-math-test.pdf

After looking at the above example and countless others popping up all over the internet, I really don’t know what the writers of CCSS were thinking when creating the elementary standards.

Children at the primary levels come from a variety of backgrounds and abilities and develop at different rates. There is no such thing as a homogeneous set of five year olds. Children’s development is wildly unpredictable and varied. “A year’s growth in a year’s time” catch phrase can’t be forced upon children physically; why should anyone think it would apply mentally? We can offer the opportunity for a year’s growth, but not all children will reach the same level at the same time; similarly, some students will exceed those levels. This does not mean there is anything wrong with the students who aren’t there yet or the teachers who teach them. Children will just develop at different rates. The CCSS does not account for those differences in development.

There has to be a better way to help children develop at their individual rates. I have a few ideas (Primary School and Education Reformation Posts), and I know other early childhood schools have great programs that work with children wherever they are developmentally, rather than pushing them to reach a standard before the children are ready to do so. The important thing to note is that children go to school to become the best they can be; they are not there to become a statistic for some government end game, whatever that may be.

In addition to learning the subjects in school, elementary students are also learning about themselves and how to behave and interact in social situations. Before the government mandates, elementary teachers had more time to help students with their social skills–a big part of their early development. In my experiences with my own children (I have a 9 year old, a 20 year old, and a 26 year old) and the students I have taught the past eleven years, I have noticed a huge difference in their social interactions over the years.

As an example, my 9 year old was told not to be a “tattle-tale” when he was in kindergarten by his teacher. So to my son, being a tattle-tale was worse than trying to figure out how to handle a situation by himself. If a child took his crayon, he yelled at that child. When a child spit on my son, he hit the other boy. He got a referral for that–in kindergarten. On the other hand, when my girls were younger, their teachers told them, “Go ask for your crayon back. If he doesn’t give it to  you, come tell me.” Children need to trust the adults in their lives to help them understand how to navigate through their childhood. Instead of teaching them how to empower themselves and correcting bad behavior, teachers are too busy trying to teach children standards those children are not ready for.

In conjunction with this, there is an alarming trend in preschool: “More than 8,000 toddlers in the U.S. were suspended from preschool at least once during the 2011 school year” (http://www.politico.com/story/2014/03/civil-rights-education-race-equity-104879.html).

Why are children that young getting suspended? This is the exact age at which children need to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t; these conflicts are teachable moments. If children are acting out, could it be because they are confused by what they are learning or that the teachers are too busy teaching standards and aren’t available to help them maneuver through their social issues?

As teachers, our purpose is not to teach to the standards anymore than the purpose of building a house is to adhere to the building codes. You build a house to live in. We teach students so they become productive members of society.

The Perfect StormWhat is the perfect storm?

The real problem with CCSS is what the states are doing with those standards. As far as I know, 43 of the 44 states implementing CCSS are also requiring that students take state standardized tests based on those standards (all of them moving towards PARCC by next year). The third element is that teachers will be evaluated (by different percentages depending on the state) on how well those students do on the tests. As a colleague of mine said, they have created a perfect storm.

Think about what all of this means: Teachers have to teach a curriculum based on a poorly-written document to students who are all developing at different rates; teachers’ jobs and pay will depend on how well those children do on the state tests. Teachers will get frustrated with students who are not keeping up because those students could lower the test results, thereby hurting the teachers’ chances of getting a good evaluation. Teachers must then continue to teach all students, even the ones who are far behind, the new material in order to get it all in; the students who are not caught up get additional homework until they catch up to where the CCSS dictate each child should be. This perfect storm puts teachers in survival mode: They are being forced to think of themselves and their school’s overall performance first, and put the individual children and their needs second. This perfect storm also puts underachieving children in shut-down mode: They are overwhelmed with class work and homework that is beyond their comprehension. They begin to develop a poor self image, which will last the rest of their education if someone doesn’t step in and put a stop to this dysfunctional system.

Add to that, some students are very aware that their performance on these assessments could hurt their teachers. If they like their teachers, it creates added anxiety for those students to perform well; if they don’t like their teachers, they may intentionally do poorly to hurt them. Even if students are not aware of their power over teachers, some may feel their teacher’s anxiety and stress and begin to internalize it. This is a lose-lose situation.

It is important to note that juniors will also have a new battery of tests next year as well, which will conflict with their AP testing schedule in May of 2015. The addition of more tests at the junior level will burn students out and take even more time away from classroom instruction.

The most confusing aspect of this perfect storm is that the state standardized tests are not a creation of CCSS. (For more information on CCSS and state tests go to http://prospect.org/article/pencils-out) The big business of state testing is what is left over from No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability framework; the “test and punish” accountability paradigm remains in effect even though the CCSS creators and the current administration proclaim these tests as punitive and not a reliable measure of intelligence and effective instruction.

What is becoming more frustrating is the polarization in the political arena about education. What gets lost in these political debates is what actually happens in the classroom between teachers and students. How does this standards-driven, data-collection, test-abuse movement affect our children and teachers? More and more of our children are participating in bullying, self-harm, and/or drug abuse. Children express their pain outwardly or inwardly depending on the personality of the child. They feel frustrated and defeated by the labels these standardized tests put on them and by being pushed through their education whether they understand the material or not. As for teachers, we are caught between doing what is mandated by our legislature (a time-consuming and exhausting process) and protecting our students from the abuses occurring in this educational system.

Most teachers are doing everything possible to reach those lost children; our hearts break for them when they no longer have the ability or desire to engage with any part of their education. I know when I look at my students, I don’t see numbers or data. I am not producing machines in a factory; I am educating human beings who are all different. I want to celebrate their beautiful uniqueness. Instead, what the current educational system is doing is throwing our children into a perfect storm without a paddle.

The answer is The Money. What is the question?

Every year I start my classes with telling my students that I will know they are learning, not when they have the answers, but when they start asking the right questions.

What are the right questions here?

First, who is benefitting from this perfect storm? It is certainly not the teachers or schools. Students are not reaping any benefits whatsoever. Taxpayers are not seeing any benefit from the money being poured into education; that’s why so many people refuse to vote for any increase in taxes to help education.

Who does that leave? State and federal government and publishing companies.

In 2002 during the Bush administration and NCLB, PBS Frontline reported that the top four publishing companies reaping the benefits of that movement were “Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson. According to an October 2001 report in the industry newsletter Educational Marketer, Harcourt, CTB McGraw-Hill, and Riverside Publishing write 96 percent of the exams administered at the state level. NCS Pearson, meanwhile, is the leading scorer of standardized tests” (Frontline).

In 2008, it was reported that the combined state and federal government spending on education totals $600 billion per year.

In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates the national cost for compliance with common core will be between $1 billion to $8 billion and the profits will go almost directly to publishers. According to Peter Cohen, CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division, Pearson School, ‘It’s a really big deal. The Common Core standards are affecting literally every part of the business we’re involved in’ ” (Huffington Post).

In addition, “Pearson is busy marketing common core textbooks, common core staff development, and common core student and teacher assessments. Its website brags ‘Pearson’s close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative is embodied in our professional development’ ” (Huffington Post).

So, the bottom line: Publishers are making a fortune off the original NCLB framework, and our state legislators are continuing to sell out our children to these businesses. Making education about money and power is antithetical to the nurturing that is necessary to educating children. What’s worse, these companies are also producing test preparation guides and CCSS textbooks. The companies benefiting from the destruction of public education are also destroying our children’s futures.

Here’s a few more questions to guide any interested parties:

Why does Pearson currently have the controlling interest in CCSS and the tests created to test teacher effectiveness?

What is the government getting in return for making Pearson rich?

Does the government really have our children’s best interest in mind?

My Plea

Regardless of what we may be up against, what we have in our favor is choice; we can choose to fight what is happening in public schools.

What we have is a voice: One voice is a drop in the ocean. “Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops.”

What we have are actions; we can protest and boycott these tests.

Choose. Speak. Act.

Join me.

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