American Politicians Are No Longer Taking the American People for Granted

Politicians historically have paid attention to voting classes that might help get them elected, and ignored marginalized voters. They fought for the local vote — whatever their version of local might have been. Maybe they fought for your vote, too, in election seasons if you were part of “their” constituency.

A great many people got thwacked up the side of the head HARD recently. Please don’t dump this blog en masse, but I’d like to say maybe that’s NOT such a terrible thing. Maybe we needed this election. Democrats needed to realize they were losing large chunks of the union vote — and for good reason I’d say. If these guys are the unions’ friends, I’d hate to see our enemies. Right now my Facebook feed is full of posts from desperate teachers who are hoping to receive their pensions, pensions they paid for year by year, paycheck by paycheck.

I was not nearly as surprised as many friends when election returns rolled in. I’d thought the election would not follow the numbers expected. Did the democrats honestly expect people in Flint, Michigan, and other nearby Heartland areas would stay in their corner? Why? The sitting government systematically poisoned their children. For that matter, when Donald Trump asked the inner city African-Americans to vote for him and said, “What do you have to lose?” I thought he had a point. I live less than an hour from South Chicago. A few years ago, I served on a jury that convicted a man of murder for a gang action down there. That gang action had been revenge for a previous killing a few days before. Lately, papers have been pointing out that Chicago’s murder rate is not as bad as implied because other cities also have high murder rates. Ummm…no. The fact that we are shooting each other all over the place does not diminish the problem in Chicago. For one thing, we need to focus on who is getting shot. Chicago’s problem is mostly a south-side problem located in gang territories, and those kids getting shot tend to be African-American kids because of the de facto segregation in that city.

Who will help those neighborhoods? So far, no one has. That’s unacceptable.

Eduhonesty: I have been trying to write happy posts and this post took an unexpected turn. But I did intend to point out a positive and I do see one. More and more focus is falling on South Chicago. And a great number of stunned coastal democrats have realized that the Heartland has been suffering, losing jobs and hope, blow by blow, until those voters decided to try to take the whole system down and blow up the status quo.

When that many people become so desperately unhappy, the time for soul-searching has arrived. Now that the election is over, I talk to many people involved in that soul-searching. What happened? Why did it happen? How can we fix this mess? Millions of people suddenly came awake.

For South Chicago and the world, that newfound awareness may turn out to be exactly what people needed. The oh-it’s-sad-but-I-have-to-get-to-my-pilates-class mentality has shifted. People are taking trains to protests instead of cars to coffee shops. We are energized and motivated. Now we have to learn to talk to each other and LISTEN. But I believe that can happen. That’s part of being a teacher. You don’t give up. You communicate. And communicate. And communicate. You keep going until you get somewhere. You fix what you can.

My positive for the day: I have friends who have gone out for rallies this last year, many of whom had never spent a day inside the political scene before. Activism is rising. New voices are demanding that government respond to their needs.

Democracy will be the better for these startled, new voices.


Next Happy Post about America — Bullying

(I would love to own this car. What’s your car craving?)

On Wednesdays, the mean girls may wear pink. But U.S. schools mostly take bullying very seriously. When a former student used an internet photo to pressure another girl in school, she was put out of school for the rest of the school year. If she’d had any disciplinary track record, she would have been expelled.

Our efforts continue to be uneven. We still have a few old-school “boys will be boys” superintendents out there. Most of the time, though, if a student complains about being targeted by another student or group of students, schools respond today. They help.

They also take a proactive stance toward the problem. We discuss bullying. We offer protection to the bullied. We separate students and talk with them to resolve problems. Deans do informal counseling, while counselors sit down with students to teach conflict-management strategies. We work to make our hallways safe.

The fight’s not finished and never will be. I suspect mean is written on some kids’ DNA. Others get hit and decide to hit back, and since they feel they can’t go after (or to) parents or guardians, they search out vulnerable fellow students.

Let’s take a moment, though, to appreciate the fact that most schools have been stepping up to the bullying plate with vigor and purpose. We are aggressively pushing kindness and civility, and as I talk to various students, I realize that we are winning. Those odd kids out? Many of them are doing just fine, and when they have problems, other students step in to help them. Mimicry tends to get shut down fast, for example. With coaching, kids learn to be protectors and defenders.

As I write this, I remember an autistic boy who leapt onto stage while I was subbing in a middle-school drama classroom. He came up right next to me and demanded to know my age and the year and make of my car. I answered factually, then looked at the class. They were amused, but they helped the kid when he climbed back down into the class. They were kind. We went on as if car makes and models were a natural test for all new subs.

Eduhonesty: Today, I want to celebrate Random Acts of Kindness, found everywhere in schools when we watch for them.

A Happy Post about America

I have a book from Mayo Clinic on how to live stress-free. I’m afraid that the only way to live stress-free is to die and become a zombie or sociopathic vampire, but that’s not the topic of this post. We can use a few positives right now. I’d like to share one happy thought about America that has always impressed me.

We are wonderfully generous about letting people into college. A person can take classes forever. The loan scenario gets tricky, but careful people who don’t dig deep financial holes get to peacefully go on learning throughout their lives. Americans who want to become teachers or nurses in their forties can switch careers, often without quitting their day jobs. My evening education cohort included three people definitely over forty as well as that smattering of thirty-somes and the “kids.” We spent two years of frequent, long evenings together, but mostly that experience felt like fun. For that matter, if you are looking to learn for the sake of learning, check out Coursera.

So many options, so little time. Local community colleges tend to be affordable. Sometimes employers pay for classes, too.

Overall, the world tends to be less flexible, but America generously hands out second, third and fourth chances to men and women who decide they have laid their last tile, fixed their last burger, or raised their last kid. We seldom close the gate for chronological reasons. We love comebacks.

Eduhonesty:  “Help will be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” The same tends to be true at America’s local colleges and trade schools, as well as many universities.

P.S. Unfulfilled dream or two, reader? Why not lay out plans for making those dreams happen? If your plans look too demanding, you can shelve those ideas for awhile, but change may be waiting right around a corner. Sometimes all we have to do is put on our walking shoes.

P.S.S. Here’s a wild story for today. I had a friend years ago who was avoiding paying student loans by staying in school. I lost track of her, but I found out last week that she has been taking at least six credits per semester to defer her student loans for around 40 years now. I don’t know if she is brilliant or crazy. She has no husband or kids so only her own credit is on the line. If she dies, I guess taxpayers will pick up those guaranteed student loans.

I am told she is getting a Masters in Software Engineering at the moment.

Imagine — all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. The only cost? You never get to stop taking classes. Like I say, brilliant or crazy… I don’t know which. Maybe both?


Road Trip? Family Vacation?

I am off in the land of no Internet myself, visiting family. I am visiting old friends, eating salmon, and helping elderly parents. I try to convince my elderly father that he can go to Jack-in-the-Box without a coupon. I travel back-and-forth from Tacoma to Seattle in gruesome traffic. I buy books.  If you are ever in Tacoma, the Tacoma Book Center down by the Tacoma Dome is one of the best used bookstores anywhere in my view.

Thought for today: if you are taking a road trip, maybe you want to work in a university or two,  depending on the age of your kids. I did the junior-year college driving tour around the East Coast, but it occurs to me that junior year may be late for that effort. We want our kids to visualize themselves on campus. We want them to have some idea of what sort of campus would feel most comfortable. Late elementary school is not too early to start. I am not talking an extensive campaign, and I’d keep any lectures or explanations very short. But campuses often have fun little museums and college towns can provide the best barbecue or ethnic food anywhere. I would reminisce and let the questions come naturally.

The problem with that big tour is sometimes at the end it can be like, “now, was that one Middlebury or Williams?” Too much comes too fast. It’s overwhelming.

Why not spark the middle-school imagination while cruising some back roads in enforced family time?


Happy summer!

Hi, teacher readers! Please share this with anyone you think might benefit. Almost all of you are off now. I have friends doing a last week here or there, but mostly the grades are done and the classroom cleaned. If you are lucky, you managed to leave most your items waiting for you in August. My condolences to those who had to move classrooms, those who have been relocated or those who do not know where they will be teaching next year.

If you are in a Title 1 school and have been riffed, I’d like to reassure you that I was riffed five times and always got recalled. Still, you have the best of all reasons to get out and look for another, better position. Principals know that great teachers get riffed simply because they have too few years in the system. They like to rescue the riffed sometimes, too.

Summer is here! Maybe we technically have a few days to wait, but the pools are open and the iced tea and lemonade are everywhere. No more homework to grade unless you opted into summer school. No more behavior to manage. Relatively few or no meetings to attend. If you decided to help the Curriculum Committee or some other summer group, kudos to you for your concern and dedication. I did a few curriculum summers.

What now?

Now I strongly suggest you take time off. If you have to plan a curriculum or teach English, fine. But you need to recharge too. May I suggest treating yourself? Let the house go. This is your chance! Go swimming. Pick up the books your favorite authors slipped by you. Find or buy the television you missed. Catch up on Colony or Game of Thrones. Go for a walk in a state park. Enjoy a museum without having to count heads and keep children off exhibits. Make hot chocolate with sprinkles. Create the perfect Arnold Palmer. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Write a haiku. Write a book. Take a ceramics class. Hug people you love.

And put all the pressure down. The grades are in, the papers home or in the trash. You may still be running, because running becomes a habit. Working all day and night can become a habit. Teachers! If your habits have you cleaning the basement, please put the Windex back in the bucket. Take the kids or just yourself to Dairy Queen instead.

Embrace the summer.

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” ~ Bil Keane

“I’m Not Stupid!”

An underexplored aspect of bilingual programs, worth putting out on the table again.

When I asked her if she was a bilingual student…

I was talking to an attractive Hispanic girl as I walked up the stairs of my school, a new student who was beginning seventh grade. She was all smiles, excited about the upcoming year, a cheery presence in the somewhat battered corridors of this older middle school.

I asked her if she was a bilingual student.

The smile vanished, replaced by a look of indignation.

“I’m not stupid!” She said emphatically.

When I explained that I was the bilingual teacher, she let it go. We resumed our banter. But this is one aspect of Illinois bilingual programs that never seems to hit the radar and I think it should. What is the effect of being in a bilingual program for year after year? One effect is having to deal with the contempt of those students who passed the exit test long ago, or those students whose parents withdrew them from the program as quickly as possible. In other words, one effect is being made to feel stupid by your peers.

I can just see this likable girl telling a friend at lunch, “she’s still in the bilingual program,” while the two of them make small moues of disgust. The Hispanics don’t associate much with the African-Americans here and, interestingly enough, the “regular” students and bilingual students keep apart too. Some of this partition is a natural consequence of having separate classes, but I’d be willing to bet that “I’m not stupid!” figures in as well.

Falling from a Greater Height

In many parts of America, in meeting after meeting after meeting, all across the nation, districts are figuring out how to implement new harder, Common Core or Common-Core based standards despite the fact that many students were unable to meet older standards their states were using before the Core. Why? How is this supposed to work?

In response to our students’ too-often-failing leaps as they tried to vault the test bar, governmental and educational leaders are choosing to deliberately elevate the bar, a strategy which makes no sense without additional resources, resources which I do not expect to become available. No one made extra resources available to help schools under NCLB, not in any meaningful fashion. No one helped with RtI. No one supplied substitute teachers while six teachers in my school left the building to brainstorm for Rising Star, an Illinois, NCLB-inspired improvement plan. In these challenging economic times, while a few districts may be lucky enough to be given extra government grants, most of our urban and financially-disadvantaged schools are scrambling to find money to fix broken technology, repair ancient plumbing, buy paper and hire teachers and teaching assistants. We have no extra money. Who will help us? Who will help our students to hit these tougher standards? We were often sweating blood in our attempts to meet previous standards.

Many financially-challenged districts today are using what scarce resources those districts can free up to buy new Common Core-aligned books and software right now. When the U.S. government pushed the adoption of a new, altered curriculum, that curriculum opened up a tremendous money-making opportunity for publishing companies. Schools are replacing as many textbooks as they can afford, buying new materials “aligned” to the Common Core. Districts want the book that has been written to maximize scores on new Core-aligned state tests.

How is this helping students?

Eduhonesty: I am in no way against standards. But the staggering opportunity costs created by new standards deserve to be out front and on the table. As we pay for new books, software, supplies, professional development, and curriculum committee meetings, we ought to be looking at our costs in terms of the gains we can expect to see.

My question: If NCLB did not work — and no documentation suggests it did — then why do we expect new, more demanding standards to work? With Draconian threats for districts that failed to hit targets, NCLB demanded improvements. Those improvements did not materialize. Why will new standards work? How will new standards work?

With more money for more tutoring and longer school years, I could see the standards improving education. But without that $$, all I see are more confusion and higher opportunity costs coming at us.

Valuable Summer Advice for Newer Teachers


(This is being reprinted as I work on a book, but this advice could be helpful to many teachers. Readers, please pass this post along to fellow teachers who may benefit — teachers in struggling districts with high turnover rates.)

My eldest girl is busy planning her lessons for next year. I am not. I would plan my lessons but every single year of my last four years, I have found myself teaching different grades and/or subjects. I suspect I will teach 8th grade language arts and social studies, but I can’t be sure.

This is a subtle cost to being part of a poor district that sees constant personnel changes. I won’t do a lot of work before fall because for all I know I’ll end up teaching 7th grade science and math instead of the English and social studies I taught this year. Two of four of last year’s bilingual teachers will be gone next year. (At four years, I am an old timer.) Who knows whose role I will fill next year? For all I know, I will be a resource teacher without a classroom.

P.S. Actually three of the four bilingual teachers were gone.

P.S.S. The following year, I left the district. The year after that I came back. At that point, nobody familiar was working in the bilingual department. They had all become strangers.

Eduhonesty: Be careful! I have known people to plan and prepare new materials all summer only to find out in August they have been transferred to another school and grade within their district. If you work in a district with high turnover, I recommend laying out your framework and timing, but after that let it go. Once you know your plan, stop. Daily materials can wait. Go swimming. Make ice cream sundaes. Play.

Too much can change between June and August.

Tough Questions from the Left Side of the Bell Curve

My former Principal’s an exceptionally smart guy. I served on his Building Leadership Team a few years ago and I would say he picked his team well. I’m not sure any of us even minded the prospect of all that extra work we put in to prepare a plan for the state showing how we were going to raise school test scores.

Here’s the problem, though: All across America, school districts have been working furiously to bring up their test scores, running like desperate hamsters trapped in endlessly rotating wheels. Because we are running at top-speed, not nearly enough teachers and administrators on America’s school-improvement teams — or regular folk across the nation, for that matter — are asking critical questions: To what extent are the tests themselves and the scores themselves creating our problems? To what extent are the test-associated curricula themselves and increasingly difficult standards that create these curricula themselves creating our problems? To what extent are the tests and curricula themselves forcing the purchase of inappropriate materials? To what extent are those Common Core-adapted books themselves adding to our problems?

Too few people are asking whether raising test scores is the best or right strategy. We are told higher test scores are necessary to prepare students for college. We are told all students must be made college-ready. What if we are wrong?

I am reminded of the joke about the man looking for his car keys:

A cop walking his beat one night finds a man down on his knees, searching for something on the street.

“What are you doing?” The cop asks.

“Looking for my car keys,” says the man.

The cop helps him look for awhile without success, then says, “Think back. Where were you when you last had your keys?”

“I don’t know,” the man answers. “Down the block on the other side over there, I think.”

“Then, why are you looking here?” the perplexed cop asks.

“Because the light is better under the streetlight,” the man answers.

This hackneyed joke fits today’s educational climate perfectly. Current strategies usually involve forming committees and discussing the problems that are keeping test scores down – without regard to whether or not test scores are actually the problem or merely the symptom of another, greater challenge that needs to be addressed.

Rather than forming multiple committees and launching into lengthy debates about where the test went wrong, though, and why not all our students are ready for college, I know what we ought to try first: Take 20 students at random from a failing school and have each student try to read one page of their science book aloud. Then check for understanding. Many students can pronounce words that are pretty much nonsense syllables to them. Repeat this page-reading exercise in other subjects.  This is so basic I feel stupid writing it down, but many people who ought to be smarter seem to miss a large point nowadays: If a student can’t even understand the simplest paragraphs in a textbook, learning new material becomes hard — or even impossible.

Some students who are being used as fodder in this college-for-all plan are ludicrously far from ready for college – and I am certain textbook choices and time lost to testing and test prep are contributing to that lack of readiness. When we prepare all students for exactly the same test, a portion of those students are being prepared for an inappropriate test – an act tantamount to being taught inappropriate material, material for which they are not yet ready and cannot be made ready with a couple of hours of after-school tutoring. At least part of every grade’s student population in the U.S. today is being prepared to be hit up the side of the head by an educational battleaxe.  Test results document this. These are the students on the farther left side of the testing bell curve.

State test preparation creates its own knock-out blow for these “left-side” students. We hand “Ezekiel” a literature book he cannot read. We know he can’t read the book or we figure this out quickly. Do we then select an appropriate book or class for Zeke?  No, we can’t do that. If we’re a poor district, we may only have that one book. Textbooks are expensive. Some of them cost over $500 apiece, although most cost a more “reasonable” $70 to $100+ something. Even a more prosperous district may not choose to change the book or class, though, because Zeke is supposed to learn what is in the book he was given: This book has been specifically prepared to match the content of the state standardized test.

If Zeke is highly motivated, or his parents are highly motivated, he may come for tutoring or seek help in a resource class, trying to understand what his book says, assuming tutoring is available. My former middle school didn’t offer resource classes the year I first scribbled this down in a notebook, although we did manage a couple of months of Illinois State Achievement Test prep classes after school. We offered free tutoring with outside firms to qualifying students that year, but transportation and language issues often rendered this tutoring unusable. Teacher tutoring time was scarce, between the busses arriving 15 minutes before school, endless meetings after school,* and the natural reluctance of students to give up their half-hour lunch.

One year, a government grant provided funding for a few days of afterschool tutoring each week, along with a Friday homework/test make-up session, but even with those additional learning hours, many students had no chance to catch up to the material being presented each day in class. The one woman tutoring math some days might have 20 students from three grades to help. Those required unit tests written by the outside consulting firm on the East Coast thoroughly documented our failure to catch students up with tutoring. Official, after-school tutoring disappeared again the next year. The district had received a fat grant, too. I am not sure what led to the death of official tutoring. Maybe the absence of any evidence that tutoring was improving test outcomes?

In a lower-scoring school, Zeke’s teacher can have many Zekes. That teacher may be trying desperately to help students read the district’s math or literature book, or he or she may be illegally copying some other, better book, burning through paper in an effort to teach the curriculum without books.  (An unreadable book might as well be no book.)  Regardless, Zeke may quickly decide he hates his classes, especially if his teachers decide to slog through the books that Zeke cannot understand.

*Meetings varied, but I might have all-school, science, mathematics, and bilingual meetings to fit in.

Eduhonesty: One-size-fits-all testing has to stop because it leads to one-size-fits-all educational approaches that grossly underserve many students — not to mention ridiculous numbers of useless or nearly useless meetings. Getting together to figure out how to teach students the same thing at the same time, regardless of whether these students are in bilingual programs, special education or regular classes, inevitably leads to substandard teaching to exceptional students, those students who are unready or long-past-ready to learn the agreed upon Single-Content-to-Rule-Them-All.

Resilience Falls on a Spectrum

Again, I will rephrase a central question that has been posed before by this blog:

How many children and adolescents are resilient enough not to let regular, low test scores affect their view of their potential? This question shouts at teachers giving standardized test after standardized test, but I hear its whispers echoing as we adopt Common Core Standards. I return to those tests I was required to give my students, tests based on standards sometimes more than four years above their documented academic levels of achievement when they first entered my classroom.

One problem with assessing damages from irrational testing rests in the difficulty in measuring human resilience. For some students, those failed tests might as well be water off the duck’s back. The degree to which a kid feels sad or defeated by events varies from day to day and kid to kid. In Myers-Briggs terms, some kids are thinkers, some are feelers and a percentage hover in the middle. Some go down obediently. Some fight back against the injustice of our inappropriate tests and standards. Some judge themselves wanting, while others perceive they are playing a loaded game. Some do whatever they feel like at the moment. If classrooms had chandeliers, a tiny but persistent group of high-energy boys or girls would have to swing on those chandeliers for the pure fun of it, especially on test days.

Current wisdom wants us to believe that resilience can be cultivated through adoption of positive-feedback loops, and I believe that concept stands up to scrutiny – to a degree. The girl who gives herself positive self-messages has a better chance of standing up to today’s testing onslaught than her more pessimistic counterparts. “I will study harder and I will do better on the next quiz” certainly beats “I hate this class and I can’t do math.”

But like autism, resilience and its cousin optimism tend to fall along a spectrum. Some people see that glass as half full, others see it as half empty and a few even see the glass as a dangerous, breakable object that may shatter into sharp shards at any moment. Maybe optimism stems from higher serotonin levels, maybe from familial support and trained coping strategies, and likely often both, but resilience and optimism are not distributed equally.

I helped in a public preschool last year, working with a group of three-year-old children who were mostly nonverbal or barely verbal. They tended to have supportive parents, a reason they were receiving special services from their school district so quickly. Some were laughers, some were criers, and some were prone to tantrums. Laughers sometimes cried and might also have tantrums, but we knew our criers. I can name them still. I can name the kids who would be excited by a new challenge. I can name a few kids who always said, “Help!” and looked anxious when asked to try something new.  If the Principal had asked me to list anxious kids, I could have written out that list. My list might not have been perfect – some kids mask anxiety well and others whine so much they may seem more anxious than they feel – but that list would be a good start. By three-years-of-age, some children react to pressure with fear, and pressure can be as simple as being expected to wash your hands, find the symbol that represents the first letter of your name, and then write your name.

One child’s fun challenge is another child’s “Oh, no!”

I’m drifting a bit as I emphasize the individual differences between America’s students, but I am also becoming progressively more concerned as we attempt to cultivate resilience in our students. Yes, mindset matters. Yes, resilient students do better in school. But I wonder how often we are emphasizing resilience now because we have created a toxic learning climate that is stripping away some or even many students’ self-esteem.

One reason I knew the time had come to retire from teaching: I’d reached the point where I no longer felt like bringing down the hammer on my cheaters. When administration required that I give impossible tests to my students, tests set sometimes a full six years above their documented, functioning, academic level, I had a hard time getting excited about cheating. If I had to play a game I could never win, no matter how hard I tried, I might have cheated too.

I reflect on my last formal group of students sometimes. A few students succeeded under the Common Core No Excuses regime of that year — the academically strongest kids and a few others with exceptional drive and willingness to seek help. But almost everybody else got walloped. I worked relentlessly to keep them in the game, to salvage their hope. Sometimes I bought them Saturday morning McDonald’s treats just to get them to stay in the game.

But every single child in the world is unique. In a fight on the playground, some fold into a fetal position, some come out swinging, some run away, some call for the teacher, and some keep pounding away even after they realize they have lost, and the blood from their nose starts choking them. Some fight fair. Some pull out hair, clumps that blow through the hallway later. (Clearly, I have seen too many fights.)

I expect the Common Core Standards to fail America’s students because those standards have been designed to be One-Size-Fits-All. One size never fits all. The petite women of my acquaintance almost all look silly in serapes hanging down to their calves and ankles.

My last official teaching year felt unreal at times, as administrators kept demanding I give tests and quizzes my students could barely read. To illustrate, I’ll offer another copy of a 7th grade Common Core unit test given to a bilingual student. The special education teacher had to give identical tests and quizzes to her cognitively delayed students, too, and those students’ tests resemble the test below.


This is what happens when a 7th grade Common Core Unit Test hits a student operating at a 2nd grade level in English and a 3rd grade level in mathematics up the side of the head. I could pepper this chapter with similar efforts. This is what happens when a student’s academic level differs sharply from a required standard. Raising the standard for this student, absent a tremendous amount of remedial tutoring, will only produce a sillier set of answers, too.

Let’s forget all the details above, though, and ask the one question that matters most: How did this student feel at test’s end?