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.

Posted in 32 Blessings, The Beauty Around Us | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in A Student's Perspective, Education Reformation | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Education Reformation | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Part 1: A Brief History on NCLB and Common Core

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.”

A Little Perspective

In my resignation letter I listed many reasons why I was leaving the profession I love and the community I served after eleven years of teaching. In one paragraph, I mentioned Common Core State Standards in conjunction with high-stakes testing:

I am supposed to help them think for themselves, help them find solutions to problems, help them become productive members of society. Instead, the emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students. . . . That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students “right” answers, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed to be a proper education.

To my amazement, I received national attention about my resignation and was asked to appear on Fox News America’s Newsroom for a live interview. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to tell a national audience how I wanted to change the current educational system so that more people could become part of the solution. The folks at Fox News did not alert me to the subtitle they would be running alongside my interview: “Colorado English Teacher Resigns in Blog Post Due to Common Core.” Therefore, when Martha MacCullum asked me pointed questions about Common Core, it took me a few seconds to get started, and then it was difficult to fully explain my position in a three-minute segment that included four questions. While I am not a fan of Common Core, those standards are not the primary reason why I resigned.

What’s ironic about the debate over Common Core Standards is that these standards are supposed to prepare our children to be free and critical thinkers and give them the ability to make up their own minds, something that seems to be lacking in most discussions on the subject!

The other interesting result of appearing on a national station is that people have brought me into their political discussions. I have never aligned myself with any political party. I investigate candidates’ educational positions and make informed decisions based on what I discover. I want to fix what is happening in education, and, as far as I can tell, it isn’t just one administration’s fault.

I am thankful for this platform I’ve been given. It has helped me find like-minded individuals: people who care more about our children than they do about their politics; people who care more about helping children become engaged with their education again, rather than people who are only interested in creating more problems; people who put children first, as individuals, and support and respect the teachers who educate and pour their lives into those children.

A Brief History on the Precursor of Common Core: NCLB

When I first started teaching Language Arts in 2003, we worked with the Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing (specifics are below). In our school, we had quite a bit of freedom to teach what we wanted as long as we stayed within those guiding principles. In our departments, we started discussing the alignment of our curriculum and added standardized common finals to our core courses because the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was also pushing standardized tests; we wanted to give our students more practice with that format. NCLB’s purpose was to close the achievement gap. The government professed they would close the gap with “its expansion of state-mandated standardized testing as means of assessing school performance” (Time).

In 2002, the NCLB Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush:

The legislation, modeled on Bush’s education policy as Governor of Texas, mandated annual testing in reading and math (and later science) in Grades 3 through 8 and again in 10th Grade. If schools did not show sufficient “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), they faced sanctions and the possibility of being taken over by the state or closed. NCLB required that 100% of US students be “proficient” on state reading and math tests by 2014, which was regarded as an impossible target by many testing opponents. According to the Pew Center on the States, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million before NCLB to almost $1.1 billion in 2008 (a 160% increase compared to a 19.22% increase in inflation over the same period).  Combined state and federal government spending on education totals $600 billion per year. . . .  [emphasis mine] (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

Besides the financial repercussions, the other difficulty with these assessments was that the tests were meaningless to students. They were neither rewarded nor punished for their scores. The schools, on the other hand, began to worry about sanctions, funding, and meeting AYP.

For a time, our school (as well as many others around the country) tried a reward system to encourage students to put forth their best effort on the tests. Students who worked hard (based on a proctor’s subjective evaluation) could put their names into a box; each year a few lucky students won iPods, flip cameras, gaming devices, or similar items.

Near the end of the Bush Administration, the NCLB movement was losing steam:

After No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed in 2002, the US slipped from 18th in the world in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to 31st place in 2009, with a similar drop in science and no change in reading. A May 26, 2011, National Research Council report found no evidence test-based incentive programs are working: “Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education.” (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

The biggest problem with this program was that there were students who either didn’t care about the tests no matter what the school offered as incentives or students who were struggling learners, making progress but not anywhere close to “proficient” as defined by the test. With these irrefutable facts, the government still wanted to punish teachers and schools for something that was out of their control.

Race to the Top

With a new administration, came a new push to fix the issues in education:

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program was signed into law, inviting states to compete for $4.35 billion in extra funding based on the strength of their student test scores. On Mar. 13, 2010, Obama proposed an overhaul of NCLB, promising further incentives to states if they develop improved assessments tied more closely to state standards, and emphasizing other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate in addition to test scores. Testing opponents have decried both initiatives for their continued reliance on test scores, a complaint Obama seemed to echo on Mar. 28, 2011, when he said: “Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.” 

On March 9, 2011, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Congress that 82% of American schools could fail to meet NCLB’s goal of 100% proficiency on standardized tests by 2014. Duncan proposed reforming NCLB to “impose a much tighter definition of success” that supports “our fundamental aspiration that every single student can learn, achieve and succeed.” Individual states have cast similar doubts on their ability to satisfy NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress goals. A 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science forecast “nearly 100 percent failure” of California schools to meet AYP in 2014. The primary reason for failure, the study concluded, would be poor results on standardized tests by English Language Learners (ELL) and children in low-income families.” (http://standardizedtests.procon.org/)

Despite the apparent failure of high-stakes standardized testing, it is obvious the government is still pushing these tests in order to measure student and school “success.” With all the information available on the difficulties surrounding these tests nationwide (lack of student buy-in, ELL and low-income families’ unique difficulties, children with learning disabilities), the education secretary still believes “every single student can learn, achieve and succeed.” However, Arne Duncan’s definition of learning, achieving, and succeeding is based on a rigid, poorly-written document that doesn’t measure the growth and achievement of students with learning difficulties and disabilities: Common Core State Standards.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

According to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) website, the standards were created for consistency throughout the country: “Recognizing the value and need for consistent learning goals across states, in 2009 the state school chiefs and governors that comprise CCSSO and the NGA Center coordinated a state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards” (http://www.corestandards.org/about-the-standards/).

In 2010, forty-five of the fifty states adopted the CCSS with the plan of full implementation of the standards by 2013-2014 school year. Within months of schools working with the new standards, teachers began noticing the problems associated with the document itself. Teachers and parents began protesting the standards. In March of 2014, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from CCSS. Many states are now trying to get similar bills passed, or at least bills to slow down the full implementation of CCSS and the assessments created to evaluate schools, teachers, and students.

For those opposed to the CCSS, the greatest fear is that the federal government has taken far too much control of our children’s education and is dictating to our teachers what must be taught at each level and when it must be mastered.

On the other hand, for some people, especially those who are transient because of their jobs, having the same basic experience for their children across the nation may be beneficial. Also, for new or struggling teachers, it might provide a guide for what needs to be taught at each level.

As far as I’m concerned, CCSS are just standards. There is nothing wrong with having benchmarks for our learning path. The problems I have with CCSS are that they are rigid, disorganized, and unreasonable, especially at the elementary-school level.

Common Core Specific to Colorado

While I’m certain there are similar experiences across states, I’m only familiar with the implementation process in Colorado, since my teaching experiences are limited to this state.

The biggest difference between Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the old Colorado Model Content Standards for Reading and Writing is how specific CCSS are. With the old reading and writing standards, there were six for elementary and secondary students:

1) Students read and understand a variety of materials.

2) Students write and speak for a variety of purposes and audiences.

3) Students write and speak using conventional grammar, usage, sentence structure, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling.

4) Students apply thinking skills to their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing.

5) Students read to locate, select, and make use of relevant information from a variety of media, reference, and technological sources.

6) Students read and recognize literature as a record of human experience.

There were benchmarks for each grade level, but schools decided what they would do with those benchmarks. Most course leaders created a “Scope and Sequence” document that acted as a guide for the teachers. These standards trusted educators to teach their students what needed to be taught.

The Common Core State Standards for Reading, Writing, and Communicating have four standards:

Standard 1: Oral Expression and Listening

Standard 2: Reading for All Purposes

Standard 3: Writing and Composition

Standard 4: Research and Reasoning

These four are titles more than they are standards, but the CCSS document for reading, writing, and communicating includes detailed benchmarks, or “evidence outcomes” for all grade levels; this document is 173 pages long.

Truthfully, after teaching English for eleven years, I didn’t have to change what I taught to align myself to CCSS. I have a solid understanding about what is essential for my students to learn. I’ve had tremendous success with my reading, writing, and grammar programs. I have shared them with my colleagues, and we have vertically aligned our teaching lessons beautifully. At my school, we have approximately 70% college enrollment rate. Students who go on to college tell me they are far ahead of their peers because of what I and my colleagues taught them. We have incredible English teachers at my high school who work extremely hard to make sure students can communicate effectively and become productive members of society. I’ve been proud to work alongside them.

What has been difficult the last few years is having to “unpack” the CCSS: We have spent countless hours reading through the document for each level we teach, lining up our curriculum to what the CCSS deemed as critical skills, and looking at the skills students would be tested on in the spring (which will now be a battery of tests instead of just one). We have had to switch our curriculum around, so our students will be ready in 2015 for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is the new state standardized test completely aligned with the CCSS. The PARCC will replace the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program (TCAP), which was a replacement for the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP).

While I am not opposed to aligning our curriculum with CCSS, I am opposed to the hours spent away from my students. I would much rather be working with my students’ current needs and developing ways to get them caught up than working with standards, statistics, and phrases in order to be ready for a test. This concentration on CCSS has created a teach-to-the-test mentality for many teachers. I have heard many colleagues across curriculums say: “If it’s not explicitly stated in the standards for my grade level, I’m not teaching it.” There is a huge problem with that position; it encourages minimum expectations instead of exceeding expectations.

What we allowNext: Part 2: “The Perfect Storm: Common Core, Standardized State Testing, and Teacher Evaluations”

Posted in Education Reformation | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Public Education Has Become un-American

By Ann Snuggs, Guest Blogger

It’s been eight years since I walked out of the classroom, thoroughly disgusted with the path taken by the American education system. I seem to remember my term was “travesty” in describing the public schools of that time.

From Pauline’s comments, it appears that the problem has gone from bad to worse.

Education should be a joyous thing. Yes, homework can be tedious and/or boring. But learning is fun. That’s right. Fun. What point would there be in living if you never found out anything new? It would be almost like the movie Groundhog Day, living the same events over and over again.

I was born to teach and explain. Ask any of my friends who really were not interested in the minutia brought forth when the topic of conversation turned to a subject in which I have a deep interest. So, leaving the classroom did not mean I would never again associate with the learning process.

One of my current volunteer activities is to help supervise homework hour at a local youth organization. That has opened my eyes to some disturbing realities of present-day schoolwork.

The focus on testing and strategies has not only kept students from absorbing knowledge with zest and enthusiasm but has stressed many to the point of damaging health.

Most of the students I see are in grades kindergarten through fourth grade – the years when the most important basics, including attitudes toward learning – are being established. These children should not see school as a stressor. They need to be embracing new ideas and information. It’s not happening. Tests ever hover over these kids.

It’s frightening to see a third-grader almost in tears over a math problem – not because the answer is unknown but because of the fear of leaving out a step of the “strategy” for reaching that answer. (Please understand. This is not a step of the mathematical process, as in algebra, but a diagram with a cutesy name.)

Some students become so caught up in the process they don’t learn the basic facts. I watch wasted effort to “complete” work – especially on math worksheets – which for that age/grade level should already be in the head. But the required tests must have more.

I can hear the rebuttal. Students should understand the process not just get the answer. At a certain point, I’ll concede that, but to keep it up ad nauseam after the facts have been learned just in order to fit a test is wrong. Or, maybe they never learn the facts because they are too absorbed in strategies. If we had still been drawing circles then circling them in groups to solve a problem after we had already moved beyond the point of learning the multiplication tables we would have had points taken off for cheating. Of course, being caught with a calculator in class would have been cheating, too.

Anyone out there noticing my pet peeves?

Unfortunately, it’s the brightest and most creative of our students who suffer from this standardization. How can anyone think creatively if the focus is to be lock-stepped into fitting what is permitted to be learned into the mold of a standardized test? Years ago, back in the 20th Century, it was said, “Our children come into school a question mark (curious and open to learning new things) and we send them out a period (minds locked into one way of approaching everything).”

Standardization of testing, universal lesson plans, everyone on the same page at the same time. These prerequisites for the American classroom are, in fact, un-American. What happened to the individualism and ingenuity that built our nation? Take the handcuffs off the teachers. Get the politicians out of the classroom. Let those who know what they are doing do it and do it right.

Until the system goes back to allowing good teachers to monitor and adjust the material to meet the varying needs of different classes and students (yes, individual classes have personalities just like individual people) rather than force-feed the same exact diet to all, our education system will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

It’s frightening for the future.

What happened

Posted in Education Reformation, Guest Blogger | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Faults in Our Education System: A Student’s Perspective

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. 

I will not beBy Mariya Pinchuk

In a world filled with radiant colors, the students remain black and white; their canvases stripped of all personalization. Confined between four walls and a closed door, stressed out teenagers are forced to make a choice between their grades and knowledge. School has extinguished the desire to learn. Instead of opening the growing adolescent’s eyes to the world outside, the education that we are provided sheds minimal exposure when it comes to understanding material. When students enter high school, they are immediately stripped of their personal styles of writing, art, and expression. If we do not succeed in a certain area or subject, we spend the rest of our years believing that we are failures and begin to believe that we will never accomplish anything in our lives. We are taught that every person is a unique individual; however, school attempts to make all of the students the same.

The key to success is memorization. The common core does not make a difference when it comes to learning; math, history, science, and literature do not test for ability, but rather how well a student is able to memorize and recite the given material. Schools are trying to educate the children on how to succeed in the 21st century, but the standards are set by adults who were educated in a completely different manner. The past and the present are incomparable time periods. Education has to change accordingly. So how are we as students expected to be successful when we are forced to disregard our personal talents and focus on receiving a degree, which does not even guarantee us a future career?

Students are blamed for being too distracted and having no interest in school. The adult solution is to placate the kids with pills or subdue them with punishment. There is so much more to the world than what we are expected to learn inside of the classroom, and that is why students question what impact trigonometry or committing the periodic table to memory will have in their future.

We strive for rebirth, but are rewarded with destruction in the form of a letter grade. Schools label the students with flashing numbers and letters. We are compared to each other based on our grades and how well we are able to regurgitate the information that teachers assign. Kids who are naturally built with intelligence feel insignificant simply because they cannot excel in all areas. There is no given average anymore; the average grade “C” has become a failing grade in the minds of students and teachers alike. We are all programmed to strive for an “A” or a 4.0. Students live as numbers and letters. Some would rather cheat and lie just so that they can pass a class and receive the socially acceptable grades needed.

Teenagers struggle with mental health issues and anxiety but are ignored because this is not considered a “valid” reason to not attend class. Mental health issues have been grouped and shoved into a corner, and labeled as just stress, when there is so much more to them. How is a student expected to aspire when he is forced to complete hours of material in order to achieve a passing grade, and in the process feel suicidal because he is not allowed to learn at his own personal level of capability?

The American Education system strives to become similar to other countries. The attempt to copy and paste certain techniques into our own system is not a practical way of learning. Students around the world learn differently, and therefore we should not be motivated to change our system to fit into the mold. Instead, we should utilize the skills that our young adults possess and in that sense, customize our own way of instruction.

We are not being educated through our talents, but instead only downgraded for our faults. We are putting our students to sleep through an anesthetic educational procedure instead of opening them up to the universes that they possess inside of them. There is an invalid supposition: The most important aspect that children share is how old they are, which is why students are grouped into grade levels instead of levels of capability. We are told that there is only one answer in certain subjects, such as math, which resides in the back of the textbook, instead of the endless possibilities that our minds are all capable of generating.

Education has become a business; it is no longer about the students or the teachers. Standardized testing reduces a student into a test score rather than a person of value and individuality. Education has divested young adults of their voices, and maybe that is why we cannot speak up for ourselves anymore. I may be one person, and to the school I may be just a GPA, but I cannot be stifled because I have learned something during high school: No one can quench my voice if I allow myself to be heard.

This is me, taking a stand, and I will not give up. I will not be silenced any longer.

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

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