Education Reform: a Blog of Cartoons by a Nationally Board Certified Teacher

Education Reform: a Blog of Cartoons by a Nationally Board Certified Teacher.

These are very worth checking out!  Funny, yet scary-true.


Parents, is this what we want?

Stephen Round’s resignation from his job as teacher is the third public resignation of a teacher this year.

How many others have privately left the profession?  Then there are the veteran teachers who are counting down their remaining time until retirement.  I know of many.  The best teachers won’t compromise their teaching philosophies–at least they’ll try like hell not to.  But how much more can they take?  How many more will leave?  Or how many good teachers will just give up and relent to the system?  Is this what we want for our kids?  I want the BEST teachers for my kids!  I don’t want the ones who just say “oh well, let me just do what they (the mandates) say.”

With new state and federal mandates overwhelming teachers, it is becoming harder and harder for them to do their job.  The liberty for creative and innovative teaching is being replaced with a one-size-fits all approach.  This is bad for teachers.  I praise the brave teachers out there who have the guts to speak out.

But this particular post is a plea to parents–This is bad for our kids!!!  OUR children are individuals and often require an individual approach.  OUR children learn at different rates and have different strengths and weaknesses.  OUR children come from different home situations and cultural backgrounds.  Some of OUR children are more high energy, some are visual learners, some connect to learning through creative endeavors like art or music, some have learning disabilities, and OUR children’s unique characteristics go on and on and on.  How can we expect to implement a standard that demands all of OUR children to learn in exactly the same way?

The Common Core Learning Standards expect them to do just that.  The CCLS that most states adopted to receive federal Race To The Top grant money claim to provide all schools with rigorous standards in ELA and Math (other subjects to follow) across the board.  They claim to provide students with the education they need to succeed after graduation and they claim to hold teachers and schools accountable.  To be fair, I’ve heard some teachers and administrations state that there are good aspects of the new standards.  But my perspective as a parent sees more harm than good.

I know a (just turned) five-year-old in Kindergarten, who doesn’t get enough playtime.  Every day she brings home at least half a dozen Pearson worksheets.  She doesn’t get a nap anymore and often falls asleep at her table.  And as a result, she often loses recess at the end of the day.  This is the kind of teaching style that comes as a result of the “rigors” of the Common Core.

A mother of a seventh grader in a larger school system says her son is bored in math class because he doesn’t get the challenge he needs.  The teacher’s response is that her hands are tied… that the curriculum for the day gets sent to all the teachers in a top-down approach and that they must teach it on that day and in the agreed-upon method.

A ten-year-old is a good student and does well in his English class, carrying a 97 average.  But he doesn’t test well.  His first progress-monitoring assessment put him in need of services that he really doesn’t need.

A first-grader with autism is a brilliant reader, a skill that she learned with ease at the age of three.  She’s also gifted in math.  But she is bored at school and spends most days in a repetitive cycle of behavioral problems.  The teachers are too busy trying to implement the appropriate (and approved) interventions and won’t listen to the mother.  (She was even excluded from a meeting about her own daughter).

My own son is in Pre-K.  Although they still have a fairly well-rounded schedule with specials in art, music, gym, and library, New York State has decided to add to the federal Common Core mandates, placing certain expectations at the Pre-K level.  Pre-K is the new Kindergarten we are told.  My son is a high energy kid who needs LOTS of play.  Recently he has started to exhibit behavioral problems at school by refusing to participate in the academic learning parts of the day.  I fear he is already bored because those parts of the day come at the same time and in the same way.  A lot of parents are reporting the same thing–that their child doesn’t want to go to school because they hate that part of the day.  We’re not talking about a 10th grader here… These kids are 4!!!  It’s so very sad that they already hate school.  From what I understand, Pre-K never used to be like this.

I admit, being a mother of a Pre-K student has not given me a lot of first-hand experience with the school system.  But stories like these horrify me!  I don’t want this type of data-driven and corporate-driven education for my kids.  Do you?

Why, in such a large country like the United States with such a rich and diverse lot of people, would we want to set the same standards across the board?  I’ve heard it before, like at the Common Core Informational Meeting at my school.  Parents are scared.  They want their children to succeed.  They hear high standards, and they want that for their kids.  Who doesn’t?  I don’t know a single parent, educator, administrator, or extraterrestrial that would disagree.  But the Common Core Learning Standards, aren’t really about standards.

The Common Core Learning Standards are about control.  And they are about money.  As a parent, I am extremely bothered that local control, and even local input, is being pilfered by policy makers that have no real experience teaching.  I want a teacher to decide HOW they are going to educate MY children.  I want a teacher to decide what lessons to teach and how they are going to teach them.  If a teacher sees some merit in certain aspects of the Common Core, then they should be allowed to implement them in THEIR OWN WAY.  No teacher should be so hindered by all the details and mandates of a system that they come to detest teaching!  And if a teacher is in control, then I know who to talk to if I sense a problem with my children. 

High standards are not the issue.  However, it is the underlining details of the Common Core that should be unacceptable to parents.  We all need to be concerned about the increasing number of high-stakes tests and other frivolous assessments that are tied to the Common Core.  OUR kids are taking more tests than at any other time in our nation’s history!  We are the only developed country to test OUR kids in multiple-choice format!  These tests are not accurate portrayals of OUR children’s learning.  Yet they are the cause of a lot of unnecessary stress and they consume many valuable classroom hours–not only for taking the test, but also in test preparation.  Not only are OUR kids being judged by their test score, reducing them to merely a number, our teachers and our schools are being graded by the results of these tests.  It is no wonder that when so much is riding on these tests, that a culture of ‘teaching to the test’ will arise.  My principal assures me it won’t happen here, “…we won’t let that happen.”  If it hasn’t happened yet, it will… even great teachers having a breaking point… and if your job security is riding on this (or your sanity)… you’d better make sure that those scores are good.

On top of all of the high-stakes tests, all of which are developed at an enormous financial cost by an external for-profit corporation, all schools are being REQUIRED to purchase a method of student evaluation that has been approved by the state.  My school chose STAR, a product developed by Renaissance Learning.  These are computer-based assessments that test a student’s learning progress in ELA and Math at the beginning of the year, called baseline testing, and then retest later in the year to gauge their learning progress.  When students fail to test well, they are given a prescribed method of intervention and then retested and retested, sometimes with the suggestion to retest every week.  Is this how we want OUR children’s experience with learning to look like?  Although my son has yet to face any high-stakes testing, we have already committed to opting-out!  We have taken this a step further and also opted-out of the STAR assessments.  My apologies to the teachers who find STAR useful, but I will not allow my children’s data to enter the system for the benefit of the government or the profits of Renaissance Learning.  We, as parents, should be outraged that are children are being treated like guinea pigs when companies like Pearson Corporation send out their field tests that have no benefit for OUR kids or our schools.

Many schools have seen disastrous changes.  But, if your school is like my school, then you have yet to see the full fallout of the Common Core mandates.  We are a small rural school, fairly insulated for the moment.  Parents in my district have yet to see what some other schools have already sacrificed.  All in the name of creating better test takers, art, music, PE, recess, field trips, and many other valuable learning outlets are being grossly cut back or eliminated.  Even with these programs still in place, teachers in these fields are being asked to adapt their lessons to buff up ELA and math Common Core standards.  Must we wait until the shit really hits the fan, when even the schools that have managed to keep their heads above water, trying to make the best of the new mandates are going to be forced to make drastic changes?  Budgets are finite.  And when the meager funds given by RTTT run out, who do you think will end up footing the bill when schools are forced to pay for assessment systems, tests, computer infrastructure, the constant updating of software, not to mention test prep materials when it turns out that our kids’ test scores aren’t high enough?  Then you’ll see the cuts.  We, as parents, should be outraged about the direction in which OUR children’s education is headed, and about how OUR tax money will be spent!

We are told it’s necessary, like I heard at my school… “But we need to produce better readers.”  In my opinion our kids need more art, more music, more free play, more time to think creatively, more teachers with the freedom to innovate!  And my response to this talk about assessments and accountability and raising standards… why can’t we accomplish this locally?  Either our school was okay to begin with and this nonsense has no bearing whatsoever, or we know that our school needs some help and maybe if the government would put additional resources where they are actually needed, these particular schools will be able to make the necessary changes at the local level.  Teachers need to hold their students accountable.  Administrations need to hold their teachers accountable, and BOEs need to oversee what’s happening within their schools.  And guess what?  We parents have to privilege of speaking up WHENEVER we have concerns about ANY aspect of OUR children’s education.  Nobody can silence parents.  Nobody can oust us or reprimand us?

I want my son to love school.  I want him to love to learn.  But I fear in the current system of mandates, education is becoming homogenized.  I imagine that many will become bored with school and as a result become bored with learning.  In the words of Stephen Round, do we want our children to experience “a confining and demeaning education?”  I want my children to grow up with a free imagination, high level of creativity, and immense powers of critical thinking.  I don’t think they’re going to get this from the Common Core.

We need more teachers like Stephen Round to remain in the profession.  Instead these excellent veteran teachers are heading for the door.  Those that remain are afraid of speaking up.  When they do, they are considered trouble makers.  I’ve heard stories about some being asked to take early retirement.  To others it is suggested they might find another line of work.  When good young teachers, who we desperately need, enter the field, how will they perceive this treatment of their veteran colleagues?  To whom will they look, when they have questions or need advice?  Call me a pessimist, but I see a future generation of teachers who won’t question what is being handed down.  They won’t know any better.  And I do not want this for my children!  We should not want this for OUR children!

We need more teachers to speak up and expose the limitations of the new mandates.  But more importantly, we as parents need to listen to them and we need to become informed ourselves.  Then we need to speak up!  We need to voice our concerns and we need to tell our teachers, our administrators, and our representatives what WE want for OUR children.  They have to listen to us.  We cannot be silenced.  We cannot be ousted.  We don’t have to be intimidated by top-down pressures.  These students are OUR children.  We have to decide what’s best for them and make our voices heard.  My son’s teacher knows how I feel about the Common Core and assessments.  Our principal knows.  I’ve written to each member of our Board of Education.  I’ve written to president Obama and Arne Duncan.  I’ve commented in the appropriate sections at Pearson Corporation, NYSED, EngageNY, and other education-related websites.  But these entities need to become overwhelmed with our concerns–with our voices.  If we reach a critical mass of parent-outrage, we can see change.  

It’s intimidating at times, I know.  There have been moments when I really doubted my position, moments when it just didn’t seem worth it, and moments when I just didn’t think I could make a difference anyway.  But parents… We have to be the ones to carry the title of ‘pain in the ass’ and let nothing go unscrutinized.  We must call for an end to the rigmarole that education has become. Alone we just a drop in the bucket, but together we can bring that bucket to overflowing!

Eula Square Cat

Eula Square Cat.

Head on over and meet Eula.  She’s the hippest square cat around.  She tries so very hard to fit into a world that’s round round round.  Then she comes to appreciate the qualities that make her unique.  Square Cat is Elizabeth Schoonmaker’s premier picture book.  Schoonmaker is a talented artist and illustrator.  She’s also a very good friend of mine!!!

So go meet Eula!  You’ll be glad you did.

Happy Holidays at School

I love handmade gifts!  So this year Oscar and I worked together to make something meaningful for the special grown-ups in my son’s life at school.  Using the watercolor project I outlined here, Oscar made some delightful bookmarks for all of his teachers and aids!


And he made a wonderful little painting for his “Aunt,” the loving woman who watches him now and then.  He loves to ride the bus there whenever he has early dismissal.  He is excited for the annual Christmas party tomorrow after school.  I hope she is just as excited to see his painting!


I helped out too!  Sampler bags of Royal Shortbread Cookies… my specialty!


Happy Holidays!  And thank you for all that you do and the time you spend with my son when he is away from home! (I suppose I owe them Royal Shortbread for being the royal pain in the ass that I am 🙂  )

This is How Democracy Ends — An Apology

This is How Democracy Ends — An Apology.

Valuable insight from a teacher about the Common Core State Standards.  He was once on the side of trying to make the best of it.  But now he says BE SCARED!– THE COMMON CORE IS A SCAM!!!  A must read.  There is nothing good about homogenizing education!!!!!!!

My son presents a challenge

You might recall that my 4-year-old was reprimanded at school last week for swiping his buddy’s books off of the table.  He was removed from the class and the teacher called me to speak with him.  You can read more about that here.

No parent wants their child acting up or being difficult in school for no apparent reason.  But I also could not understand why I was called for what seemed like normal four-year-old lack of impulse control.  My first reaction was to call a fellow parent who has four boys, the youngest of which is in my son’s Pre-K class.  Naturally she’s been around the block a few times as far as dealing with a multitude of school issues.  I wanted her advice.  It turned out that it was her son’s books that were swiped and she thought I was calling to apologize.  She immediately said, “Really, it’s no big deal… normal behavior… they all do things like that from time to time.”

She said her son wasn’t upset about that at all, but she stated that later on in the day he did become very upset and was telling her this story about how Oscar (my son) got in so much trouble… he was taken to the office… they called his parents.  His mom assured him that he must have misunderstood, that they wouldn’t have done that…  She was almost laughing in the phone as she relayed his story when I cut her off and said, “Yes, he’s right.  That’s just what happened.”

Another parent said something similar.  Her son came home with a story how Oscar got in big trouble that day.  So I’m starting to think: Is my son being labeled as the class trouble maker?  My husband and I decided to set up a meeting with our son’s teacher.  That was this morning.

It went well.  She explained that Oscar often does not want to cooperate when they sit down to work on letters or numbers.  She stated that during these times he exclaims, “I want to be homeschooled.”  At home, we have discussed homeschooling as an option and we have friends who homeschool their children so the concept of homeschooling is understood.  This was similar to an event when Oscar chastised his peers for eating unhealthy food... I was called then as well.  Food is often a topic of conversation in our household, as are many other important things.

That’s when she said that 4-year-olds aren’t developmentally ready to understand certain topics, that they understand it in their own way and may just say things without understanding them.  I explained:  It’s not like we sit home directing him to fight the power or break the system.  And when we directly discuss anything with our son we always try to do it at a level that he can sort of understand.  But we tend to engage in open dialogue in our home, and unless it’s terribly inappropriate, our children are going to hear us talk about schooling options, food choices, global warming,  agribusiness, and a whole slew of other topics that are incredibly meaningful to us as adults, to us as a family, and in our opinion to society at large.  I’m not going to send my son into another room each time I discuss things that are critical to my core principles!

I also think that, yes, one does have to take age into consideration when discussing certain details or the complexity of any situation, but one should not underestimate young children completely.  My son might not listen to everything I say.  He might not understand all of it.  But he does hear it and he is already forming a crucial set of morals and principals.  And isn’t part of our job as parents to raise our kids with a set of beliefs about what we think is important?

I was told that it isn’t him necessarily… that it is his peers who hear these things and have never heard of homeschooling.  So?  Will it really cause such a rift to mention homeschooling in school?  If a child is raised in a religious household and came to school talking about how much he loved God and wanting to say Grace before lunch, would that matter even though it might not be a familiar subject to some other kids?  Would he be discouraged?  But when my child is simply trying to understand why mommy packs his lunch and doesn’t buy school lunch… and why mommy sends him to school while some of his friends are homeschooled… that’s too complex and developmentally inappropriate?

I’m not saying my son is discussing any of this with tact!  He’s four (almost five)!  And he is also very good at manipulating adults… he knows exactly what to say to each adult to get their goat.  Again, I’m not saying he should be allowed to be disruptive in his class!  I believe in my son following a certain set of rules and expectations, and I believe that he isn’t too young to understand that different rules apply to different environments.  Although I will never stifle my son’s desire to speak his mind, I do talk to him about appropriate behavior at school and about acting difficult for his teacher just for the sake of acting difficult.

My husband and I worry that he will be labeled as a trouble-maker.  His teacher said that absolutely was not the case.  Every parents sees their children as gifted, but we really believe (and many others have stated) that our son is incredibly creative.  For his age, he has a rich vocabulary and is incredibly articulate.  He just isn’t mainstream “good.”  He’ll probably never ever be the kid who just sits down rosy-cheeked with a smile on his face and starts following commands.  He’s a tester.  He’s a questioner.  He wants to know why.  I’m not saying he should be given free reign… not at all!  But I think that the tactics that might work to make the rest of the group conform, might not always be the best option for Oscar.

Don’t get me wrong!  I fully empathize with what it must be like to have 19 four-year-olds in a class.  And Oscar does really like his teacher.  But I sometimes wonder if she isn’t looking for the most efficient way to get all 19 to comply in the least resistant way.  Now that I say it, who wouldn’t be?  Throughout my blog posts, I have always landed on the side of the teacher.  I still believe that it is the new mandates and “rigor” of RTTT and the Common Core Learning Standards that have led to the necessity to force all of these four-year-olds to be handled exactly the same.  Fortunately at our school, the kids still get plenty of play time.  They get music and art and recess.  But for some four-year-old boys, it still isn’t enough.  As far as his expected development in literacy and math, and everything else he’s right on track.  I’m not worried.  He IS a good kid!  I just want others to see his brilliant qualities.

Then I asked, “what can we do to encourage Oscar at school?”  Apparently the way I pack his lunch might be a contributing factor.  I pack his lunch every day except Wednesday when he has pizza at the school.  From what I understand, Wednesdays are good days…. so maybe it’s the lunch?  But no, it’s not what I pack, it’s that I use washable containers and his teacher feels it’s all too complicated for him and that he looks so “defeated” and he takes a long time and struggles with it.  The other kids who bring their lunch have it easier with zipper bags.  But I’ve seen him use his various lunch containers at home and he has no problem understanding how they work.  And I will NOT pack anything in a throw-away bag, box, or container…  Now we’re back to core principles again.

His teacher said he has a lot to manage with my containers and bottles.  And I agree.  I pack a drink with his lunch, all of which is in individual spill-proof washable containers.  And I put small ice packs inside… it’s gotta be 80 degrees in that classroom.  There’s no fridge and no microwave so the situation for lunch-bringers is not all that friendly.  I have a different container for hot foods.  I just feel like everything is geared to the convenience of being on the school lunch program.  On top of that, I’m required to send in a snack and juice each day… yup more containers because I do not believe in disposable anything if I can help it.

So, I will try to streamline his backpack, but I have to wonder if that will really improve his behavior in the classroom.  Besides, he’s just one to like to take his time eating, and often times will avoid coming to the table in the first place if he’s involved in playing.  He’s just one to need lots of prompting… home or at school, containers or no containers.  By the way, he or his babysitter two days a week last year never had any problems with my containers.

It was a good meeting and I’m glad we were able to ask our questions and have our concerns addressed.  Ultimately we just want our son to be happy at school, and in general he seems to be.  We don’t want him labeled as an undesirable.  We ended the meeting by laughingly calling ourselves difficult parents… we think critically about most things and ask a lot of questions.  It’s natural that our children will grow up to be the same way.  And I’m proud of that!  I’m sure we will inevitably be dealing with other issues at school as our son learns his place in an environment that caters mostly to compliance and mainstream thinking.  There will be those that shake their heads at us and there will be some that accept it. (And possibly embrace it?)  I just want my son to have fun at school.  Oscar loves to learn and he loves new experiences.  I believe he will find his way.  But if I feel something is amiss, I will always advocate on his behalf.

Give the Gift of Art

DSC_6092Art is essential for children.  Besides the intrinsic pleasure of creating art, its value in childhood development is often overlooked in a culture of raising test scores.  Not only is it a creative outlet and a visual form of self-expression, art has been linked to greater academic success in schools.   From improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination to creating a sense of pride and accomplishment in young minds, art can provide a litany of benefits to children.

I am an artist.  I don’t mean that I enjoy painting in my spare time (I’m a stay-at-home mom–what spare time?!?!?).  By artist, I mean who I am in the very core of my being; It informs all that I am and everything I do.  I also happen to be over-educated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in the discipline of painting.  I began a career teaching college art before we deciDSC_6082ded to have children.  But ultimately, I just wanted to be home with my kids and be involved in every aspect of their childhood.  There have been times when I’ve felt conflicted and I miss the challenge of working with young adults and I miss the thrill of preparing an exhibition.  For the most part, being a mother and being home has been entirely rewarding!  But that’s besides the point.  I want to talk about children’s art!

My son goes through phases here at home when he enjoys making art, and I usually just follow his lead and provide himDSC_6084 with whatever materials he needs to spark his artistic genius. 🙂  I always saw my forte as working at the college level, but as a parent I am consistently blown away by the way my son paints!  I stand beside myself in awe at his natural sensibility for composition (the layout of the picture), and his use of color is just out of this world!  With total confidence he puts brush to paper and performs the raw act of mark-making without any hindrance by concepts of representation or style.

As a mother with a background in art, I curiously look forward to the art my children will bring home from school.  So far with my son in Pre-K, it has been mostly crayons on a print-out picture.  At our school’s open house we did receive one laminated “keepsake.”  But other than my son’s hand prints at the bottom, all the pictures looked the same, with the same poem cut out in the same shape, glued on top of the same color and formatted exactly the same.

At home, I regularly save my son’s paintings.  I have a visual timeline of his creations since he was an infant and just able to scribble chaotically across a sheet of paper.  He is now almost five and I patiently await his future creations.  When he was three, he made several watercolor paintings on artist quality rag watercolor paper.  One is framed and hangs above my rocking chair.  DSC_6080I receive praise all the time on the beautiful little abstract piece of art on my wall.  Everyone is astonished to find out that Oscar made it when he was three.  And I hear comments all the time from parents who wish they had a piece of their child’s art to save and cherish like that.

It doeDSC_6085sn’t take that much to create an environment for your child’s artistic creativity.  There are so many media you can use: crayons, pencils, watercolor paint, tempura paint, collage, rubbings, finger paints, stamps– you name it!

Oscar has a friend named Jonah.  Jonah’s mom is a friend of mine.  She once commented that she would love a framed piece of her son’s artwork.  I was lucky enough to have him for a few hours this past weekend and I thought… “why not make that happen for her?”  I’m going to tell you how he made his mom so happy and how anyone can set the stage for their child to create a wall-worthy piece of artwork that can function as a childhood keepsake, as well as a wonderful gift for family and friends.DSC_6091

Purchase any picture frame that you like.  11×14″ is a good size as it isn’t huge, but still leaves room for a decent painting.  Although any paper will suffice for a child’s creative outlet, you’ll need decent paper for this project.  If it’s too thin it will buckle and you risk the paper tearing if it gets too wet.  It’s worth it to find a sheet of artist quality watercolor paper.  You can buy these by the sheet from an art supply store or you might even be able to find a tablet of watercolor paper in your local Walmart, Kmart, or Target.

Cut your paper to fit the frame.  Then prepare the table!  Tape the paper down so it doesn’t shift and tape each edge of the paper to create a 1 1/2″ wide border.  I used artist’s tape, but painter’s tape will work well as you will be able to remove it from the paper easier than masking tape.  If you do use masking tape, just be careful when removing it.  Get out a watercolor set, a cup of water, a brush or two, and some paper towels to blot the brush, and let them paint!  That’s it!  Let them fill the space with color.  You might need to encourage them to work out towards your taped edges so that you get a nice crisp line between the white border and the painting when you remove the tape.  I like to tape down several sheets of paper at the same time and let my son move from painting to painting, doing a little here and a little there, going back and forth, letting parts dry a bit then going back in to finish it up.  I just think it gives him more freedom without feeling the pressure to “finish” any single one.

When they are done, let the paintings dry before removing the tape border.  Pull it carefully off of the paper, being sure to pull it away from the painting in case you get some tearing.  Insert your child’s beautiful work of art into its frame and… Voila!

DSC_6093photo 1

Oscar and Jonah had so much fun doing this.  It was an enjoyable experience by itself, but having a frame and taping the edge and knowing they were making a gift gave this particular project a sense of importance to them.  Jonah’s painting is on the right–he loved the idea of making a surprise for his mother.  Oscar’s painting is on the left–he hasn’t decided to whom he will give this picture.  They are wonderful, aren’t they?

I wrapped the framed painting for Jonah and he just couldn’t wait for his mom to open it.  He was beaming with pride, she said!  And her reaction:

“I think it’s the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever seen.  I can’t stop staring at it!  Jonah was so excited and so very proud to give it to me.  It means so much that you remembered me wanting to frame his art and you took the time with him to do it.  Thank you so so so much! Best Christmas present ever! I really can’t stop staring at it!”

So give the gift of art this year.  Give it to your child in the form of a valuable opportunity.  Give it to yourself in the form of a keepsake and you’ll capture a memory of their early childhood.  Or give it to others as a present under this year’s tree!