Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Kids are Learning DESPITE Edreform

The thing that gets me about all the ridiculous policies coming down hard on teachers, especially teachers teaching in neighborhood schools serving low-income African American communities, is that despite everything, my kids are learning! I am SO proud of them.

I teach special education for third and fourth graders in a resource room. My kids-almost all of whom were non-readers when I met them in September-are ALL reading after just a few short months. With simple exposure to almost excessive amounts of high-interest books (and never restricting them to reading books only "at their level"), beautiful culturally-relevant and diverse literature, and lots of small group/1:1 reading practice, they are getting this thing called reading. We celebrate books and our reading in the classroom, and the kids are eager to share what they are learning. Yesterday, during our Friday Peace Circle, kids were so excited to share their favorite stories, that we went well over the usual time allotment. One girl, a struggling third grader, chose to read an entire short book to the group. And we applauded and cheered her success.
This is only a fraction of the thousands of books I have collected over the years. Like so many other teachers out there, I have scoured used book stores, craigslist, ebay, library sales, amazon, befriended retiring teachers to amass a huge selection of high-interest books for my students.
 Many of my students went from difficulty sounding out CVC words, to reading whole sentences and stories. The teacher before me did a great job of reinforcing those basic letter-sound relationships, and skills like writing of the alphabet and numbers, and so when they got to my class, they were ready for the next step. Now they are reading whole pages, and some are so hungry for reading practice they ask to try the grade-level work I had intended to read orally. And they are doing it-choppy, with plenty of errors-but they are doing it!

Most of my kids could barely add single digit numbers, but now nearly all have mastered multiplication, division, fact families, factoring and multiples, etc. They are even writing, and are excited about Science and History. They are asking important questions about their world, their communities, all the protests on the news, about injustice and racism.

My student wrote this, completely unprompted, to help another student.
And my kids are kind. They have developed true empathy for others in our class. Yesterday, one student came in after gym class very upset about some encounter with another peer in her homeroom. And our little boy with autism went up to her and said, "You need to relax, let me help you relax." He went around the room and offered her toys, feeling balls, drawing items, and even wrote a list called "How to relax" on the board for her. And it worked! That little girl was soon laughing and smiling thanks to a little boy's kindness.

My kids love "playing school". They act out our peace circles, they practice their spelling words, they read books to one another, they quiz each other on math facts. They learn more in the small moments of "free time" we have built into the day as a reward than they do with all our computerized programs, Common Core standards, graphic organizers, and complex text. Their best learning is not coming from a scripted lesson plan from a scripted curriculum and is not happening because of draconian, harsh discipline strategies. They are learning because they like it, because they have had been able to experience some successes. Successes that I have had to intentionally carve out from our educational world of bogus "rigor", improper expectations, developmentally inappropriate standards, and constant ridiculously difficult and confusing standardized testing. I have had to do everything in my power to protect my kids and create a space where they are comfortable and excited to learn, instead of the dread they often feel in the cutthroat educational climate edreformers have built.

I am no superteacher. I don't have that charisma, that spark, that would draw outsiders to my classroom in awe. But I'm a decent teacher who lets my kids be kids. I am lucky enough to have support in my classroom in the form of quality paraprofessionals, so each child is getting that important one on one/small group attention-something we have had to constantly fight our district to maintain. My classroom is well-resourced, but not because the district shelled out. No, the district pays for things like test prep computer programs or all the latest fads in education like STEM. It is teachers who are paying out of pocket, through our dwindling bank accounts, and through our own sweat and tears to collect and create the kinds of materials that actually benefit our kids. We are given the Common Core workbooks, told to follow the horrid Common Core Curricula, and implement the latest computer programs with "fidelity", but then must supplement everything with our own resources-the games, the interactive art projects, the child-friendly materials off of, the advice from our colleagues and veteran educators, and the accumulation of years of experience. And most importantly we are guided by the power of those teachable moments that our curious little ones bring with them every day.

We teachers do this in the middle of mass "budget crises" where threats of layoffs, reductions in vital services like special education, cuts in pay, and the destruction of our retirement looms close on the horizon. We do it with time and money we don't have as edreform robs us of our autonomy and the resources we need to reach our students, especially our kids who live in deep poverty and have experienced untold trauma.

I know my other teacher colleagues are experiencing the same sorts of everyday successes. But I want all the edreform cheerleaders out there to understand-the learning is happening DESPITE your reforms, not because of them. We are teaching the way we know works best for kids "in the cracks", done in hiding or between mandates.

And the biggest kick in gut of all is how we are punished for doing what's right. Too many excellent teachers in my school are being given poor ratings due to a flawed and cruel evaluation system. Our school gets budget cut after budget cut when we serve the kids that can least afford these types of disruptions. Already this year we have lost four teaching positions resulting in split classrooms, large class sizes, loss of Social Studies in our middle grades, and the chaos of rearranging classrooms and schedules weeks into the school year. We lost a much needed clerk, we lost our Climate and Culture coordinator who was overseeing our restorative justice program. We lost our Japanese program. And now we are bracing for the worst cuts in living memory to hit us thanks to ideologues and the 1% elites in political office.

My kids are doing such great work. But none of that matters. We are living in a time where the kind of teaching that I believe deeply in is being intentionally destroyed with the ultimate goal of the demise of public education.

But damn all of you edreformers, I will keep celebrating my students and all their hard work. I love my kiddos. And I'm not afraid to step out of my classroom into the streets along with thousands of my union brothers and sisters to fight for what is right.