A Fundamental Difference

When I started this blog, my son was in school and I was swept up in the fight against excessive testing and standardization in public education. I continued this fight passionately, well after we pulled our son from school and began homeschooling, a choice that is a perfect fit for our family and one that has quite surpassed all expectations. In short, the homeschooling journey has been extraordinary.

My voice in all things public education has diminished and lately almost wholly disappeared, namely because I felt like my opinions didn’t matter anymore. I mean, who am I as a homeschooling parent to tell public school parents and teachers what their business should be? I resisted the ‘our world/ their world’ mantra for quite a while, but over time became exasperated as the tension between these two worlds became too much and I realized that clearly the allies for whom I had been fighting did not see the unity between our two worlds as much as I did.

I still believe that all children, regardless of the type of educational environment they find themselves in, deserve a meaningful education in which they play a primary role in their own discoveries. I still believe that parents have the right to be fully involved in their children’s education, and I still believe that teachers ought to have the freedom to exercise their expertise in the classroom. But for me, the fight against testing and top-down control became just a tiny part of what does not work in public education, at least not for me or my kids. And I realize that, while my opinion might not mean much to those that choose to remain committed to public education, I am still entitled to my opinions.

Even now that I linger at the sidelines when it comes to discussions of public education, they surround me everywhere I go. Sometimes I feel like I learn more about how people really feel as a fly on the wall than I ever did as an activist leader of a major Opt Out group. Whether I’m waiting outside my kids’ gymnastics or getting my hair cut, everyone seems to be complaining about education.

There are many topics of discussion but one of the most common items of complaint is homework. I watch children being proctored by their parents in between activities at my local YMCA all the time, their tired faces and sighs as they fill in blanks and erase spelling mistakes. I hear parents talk amongst themselves how every night is a battle, how their kids are so tired, how they don’t see a point to homework for a first grader. One of the parents, who happens to be a kindergarten teacher, said if that happened to her kids she would refuse the homework. Another second grade teacher spends the hour waiting for her own children in activities, correcting the homework of her second grade students. Why has homework became such a contentious topic and one where parents and teachers feel they have no choice but to simply comply? Why are so many elementary teachers assigning homework and why aren’t more parents opting out of this distraction from life when experts assert that homework in the younger grades provides no benefits to learning and all parties see the chaotic fallout of the homework trend? See here, here, here, and here, to get you started. But it’s not just this anti-establishment homeschooling mom who is complaining! Teachers have begun to stop assigning homework, and parents who see the ill-effects are refusing to engage in the homework cycle.

Last year, I had the privilege to attend a presentation by Alfie Kohn at nearby Walton Central School, where my my own pedagogical ideologies were confirmed as Kohn spoke of education without homework, without testing, and without grades. And this is where my journey, my deep philosophical beliefs about what education can and should be like for children breaks away heavily from business as usual in the classroom. It isn’t just about the excessive testing or whether Common Core math is good or bad. These issues used to be the big deal for me, and I couldn’t understand why parents did not opt out, or why teachers thought the Common Core was a good idea. I now see a more fundamental difference: whether one takes the tests or not, whether one likes close reading or not, whether addition takes two steps or ten, children are being forced out of their childhoods in an overly structured system that disallows the input of the learners themselves and sterilizes the entire process of learning.

I overheard another conversation between parents last week. The second grade teacher parent asked the other parents about registration for an activity that would structure her children’s spring break days. She then stated that after witnessing her kids “going crazy without structure” during a recent snow day, she couldn’t bear to think about an entire week of them being home “without anything to do.” Before I continue, let me state that my opinions are simply that: opinions. I make decisions that are right for my family and would never directly criticize another parent or teacher for making a different decision. We all parent differently, I realize, and the beauty of teaching is that all teachers  should be allowed to exercise their own unique teaching methods and personalities. But for me, hearing this conversation was shocking. To me it was the ultimate confirmation that the decision to homeschool is the right one for us. I don’t give tests; my kids don’t have homework; largely, they learn what they want and when, and are thriving academically, socially, and mentally in this environment! But the core of my beliefs stems from the notion that kids nowadays are being robbed from their childhoods and natural tendencies with a constant over-structuring that begins when they stagger out of bed in the morning, continues through the school hours, extends to the pre-dinner homework battles, and rolls over into any free time they might have had to themselves.

If my children were in school, I would most certainly opt out of testing, and say no to homework. That is my right as a parent. But how could I possibly preserve childhood without the freedom my children have at home to be themselves and make their own decisions?

When It Was Still Alive

My initial impression of the large brick structure on Draper Avenue was one of curiosity and sadness. The vacant building was a school no longer. Now it was just empty and neglected. The first floor was boarded up, and we could see that many of the windows of the second story were broken. A general appearance of ruin was everywhere. It was obvious that many years had passed since smiling children had crossed the threshold of the old Draper school.

We had made the one and a half hour drive to Rotterdam, NY to follow up on a Craig’s List post advertising the contents of a school—tables, chairs, cubby units, shelving, wooden play kitchens, easels, chalkboards, whiteboards, and much more. My friend, Robin, had called me earlier that morning with the proposition of a spur-of-the-moment homeschooling excursion.

“You up for a field trip?” she asked. Naturally, I was!

I followed her in my own car and our caravan of two vehicles, two moms, and five children hit the road ready to claim what we were hoping would be homeschooling treasures. She had her eye on some real slate chalkboards and cubbies for storage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but was interested in a wooden kitchen set for my two-year-old daughter, and was optimistic I might find something useful for my six-year-old son’s learning experiences at home.

Our exact destination was unknown to me. Robin had arranged to meet the Craig’s List poster at noon at a specific address. She followed her GPS, and I followed her. During the drive I wondered where we would find our treasures. Would it be a recently closed school? Perhaps it was a warehouse or some sort of storage unit, or possibly even someone’s garage. We headed up route 88, and eventually arrived in Rotterdam. Not long after that, we finally turned onto Draper Avenue on that rainy, cold day, and for the first time we beheld the sight of the desolate and lifeless building.

“So sad,” I thought though I wasn’t surprised. Many schools across the state have lost their purpose for different reasons. My own alma mater closed its door after merging with a neighboring district. The buildings of both districts were repurposed after a new and larger school was built for the newly consolidated district. Mergers, budget insolvency, declines in enrollment, and competition from Charter schools are some reasons why many neighborhood schools are now empty. They have closed their doors to learning, and the families of the communities in which these buildings stand must go elsewhere for their children’s education, while these grand structures of brick and mortar cease to serve their intended purpose. In some cases, like my school, these buildings are sold, renovated, and reused. But in many cases the structures stand vacant for years, slowly deteriorating from lack of use and lack of love. They become large crumbling reminders to those around it of tender years of learning and laughing, of Miss Smith’s caring demeanor or Mr. Wagner’s sense of humor. They contain memories of growing up and growing wise, while making a few of life’s mistakes along the way. They contain memories of chalk dust and scraped knees; of the big game and of passing notes in class; of first crushes and of broken hearts; of colors, teachers, locker combinations, and good friends. The memories are infinite.

After several moments of surveying the unwelcome facade of the school, we drove around the block to the rear of the building and the Vischer Avenue entrance to the school’s now vacant and cracked parking lot, where we were to meet the man from the ad and his teenage daughter. Viewing the unused structure from the rear galvanized the feelings of emptiness and despair. From the vantage point of the long-unused lot, the revelation of years of disuse and the immensity of disrepair was finalized. The severity of long-forgotten days of glory and purpose was complete.

The building and its grounds occupy an entire block in its community. This block is surrounded by streets lined with houses. People live here. This is a neighborhood with its heart far removed. My thoughts immediately produced visions of this school as the thriving and welcoming center of a community, bustling with the activity of teachers and children and parents. I pictured its residents, possibly many generations of families, who entrusted their children to this institution. I wondered if those who purchased houses in this neighborhood did so with the intention of living nearby their neighborhood school. I wondered if they moved in with the excitement and warm knowing that their children were nearby, safe and cared-for. I also wondered how many children were displaced by the Draper school’s closing. Where were they now? Where were they at this very moment, at noon on a Friday? Where were they having lunch today? And how does this community feel about the empty days that now occupy an entire block of space between Draper and Vischer Avenues?

Despite the grim picture painted by the outside of the school, I was not prepared for what we were about to see on the inside. We were led into the dark and cold interior through an auditorium door, broken glass, dust, and debris littering our path. Following the flashlight ahead of us, I urged my children into the gloom, up the incline of the auditorium floor with row upon row of empty chairs to our left, while the shadows of children who used to occupy this space for programs and events flickered in my imagination. We left the auditorium through the rear and found ourselves turning right into what was once the main hallway of the first floor of the school, and what had since become nothing more than a tunnel of destruction and broken dreams.

We paused momentarily while our hosts left us to turn on enough electricity to illuminate the chaos hidden behind the artificial night created by boarded-up windows and layers of dust. It was clear that vandals had on numerous occasions entered the building and left their mark. Nothing proved sacred. The lockers that lined the hallways in groups were damaged, dented in and covered with graffiti and splashed paint. That was just the beginning of the damage and decay we would find in the old school building. Due to vandalism or other reasons, the walls were riddled with holes of various shapes and sizes, some large enough to lose a child! The ceiling was missing in numerous spots revealing the internal structure of the building, with wiring and tubing that once supported the day to day activities of this school now tangled and hanging. The floor was in no better shape. Buckled and warped, any wooden floors were destroyed, while tiles throughout the hallway were broken and missing.

We were all filled with a sense of bewilderment, and with a sense of adventure. Continuing down the hall, we quickly turned right again into the gymnasium, now gray and filthy. Here, most of the school’s salvageable contents were assembled. Tables of all shapes, with adjustable legs, were stacked on one side—circles, semi-circles, rectangles, and trapezoids. Chairs of various sizes occupied another section of the gym, and I could already picture classrooms furnished for children of all ages. Many of the padded panels that used to line the walls of the gym were removed and stacked in several piles. There were shelves, cubbies, and storage units of all varieties. Desks, file cabinets, and other random items one would normally find in a school were arranged in long aisles down the length of the room. The entire gymnasium had become a warehouse of items for sale.

Upon entering the gymnasium, we came directly on a large charred depression in the floor. Vandals had set a fire there and it had burned several inches into the wooden gym floor. Although the fire did not penetrate the subfloor, in the dim light the charred black circle appeared to us as a deep hole. My son’s eyes widened as he asked our host if there were any deep pits in this school. Misinterpreting my son’s fear as excitement, the man answered, “Yes! The basement is a giant pit!” I quickly reassured my son that we would not be going there, then I stepped into the charred space on the gym floor as proof that he would not fall through.

It didn’t take our children long to discover the floor scooters, covered in dust and filth, which had once entertained countless children during gym and recess periods. They immediately began racing down the aisles created by the layout of tables, desks, and chairs while Robin and I examined the contents of the gym. The far end of the gym was the dumping ground for everything that was broken or burned. A large 50 gallon plastic garbage can caught my eye, filled with irregular chunks of thick glass. Above it, the shattered remnants of the basketball hoop and backboard hung solemnly.

We were told that pretty much everything we see or find was for sale. Most everything was contained in the gym, but we were verbally given a layout of the school, both downstairs and up, and were instructed to “watch the kids and have a look around.” The light switches in the classroom should work, we were told. And he added, “Be careful of the ice on the floor down the hallway.”

With our sense of adventure far outweighing any fear and reservations we might have had, we began our room to room investigation. Knowing that the school layout was essentially a horseshoe, our plan was to walk the entire downstairs to the end of the horseshoe, inspecting the classrooms one by one. We would then go upstairs and walk the horseshoe back in the opposite direction, where we would return to the first floor right where we started.

We approached the first classroom downstairs across from the gym. Groping the wall just inside of the classroom door, we flicked a switch to reveal the sad remains of a space once occupied by a teacher and many children. The classroom was largely empty of anything useful. It was dirty, with debris everywhere. Boarded-up windows lined the wall opposite the door, and a large empty depression on the floor beneath the windows was filled with rubble. Something used to be there and had been removed. I can only guess that this was where the radiator or some other heat source was installed. Chalkboards from days past still lined the perimeter of two adjacent walls. On top of one chalkboard, a white board had been permanently installed, perhaps a welcome upgrade to the teacher of this classroom. There were numerous desks that still remained and they were pushed together in one end of the room. There was a broken shelf against one wall, and a freestanding presentation board with its felt torn away. Like the main hallway, peeling paint and a buckled floor were the predominating features of this room.

Our survey continued, room by room down the first floor hallway. The rooms were similar in their state of chaos and disrepair, and they were similarly dismal. For the most part they were empty, the remaining contents varying slightly, with sometimes a desk and a shelf, or a table and a chair still present. Our children set to work immediately scavenging their own treasures. Where adults tend to perceive emptiness and lack of value, children often find importance. Small mementos of students past were revealed and gathered. Our kids collected pencils and sheets of stickers, among other things. My son found several hall passes, laminated cards that were attached to a rope that could be worn around the neck of the student going to the library, the bathroom, or the nurse. In one room, he found two photographs of the children who we could only assume were once students of that classroom. Pennies, long-lost handwritten notes, empty file folders, erasers, metal washers and other random hardware were among the collected treasures.

As we passed through the ice-covered section of hallway, I noticed that every fire hose had been removed from their wall boxes where they must have hung neatly coiled and unneeded for many years. Whether these hoses were used to put out the fires of vandals, or whether the vandals themselves pulled them out in sport, we did not know. The ice on the floor of the unheated school could have come from these hoses. It could have come from a burst pipe before the water was turned off, or it could have come from the weather leaching in through holes and broken windows. We passed carefully and turned left on the first corner of the angular horseshoe.

Here, we were obviously in the lower elementary grades. The tables and chairs that still remained were smaller. The cubbies were little and the bits of evidence hanging on the walls told a story of teachers in charge of the school’s youngest learners. Some rooms still had the names of the teacher written in large print tacked to the wall by the door. This is where most of the stickers were discovered. Despite the youthfulness of children who used to occupy these spaces, the story ended the same as in the other classrooms. These spaces too had lost their purpose and were deserted, leaving only trace evidence to the many wonderful encounters between teacher and student to which these classrooms had been privy.

After finishing our survey of every room on the first floor, we were ready to climb the stairs to the second. Fearing the potential of being locked in a stairwell, I went through first to test the door from the inside. It opened, and so we all piled through and walked step by step to the top floor of the school. Much of the glass in the windows of the stairwell doors was shattered. This was to be the case throughout much of the upstairs. There was more light upstairs as the exterior windows were not covered by plywood. Many were broken, and in back corners of classrooms and in holes in the walls, the carcasses of dead pigeons and piles of feathers and excrement were everywhere. Whether the damage was actually worse upstairs or whether we perceived it that way due to the increased visibility provided by the windows, the feeling on the second floor was one of eery desolation. Our children still searched for treasures, but my son became fearful, and his fear soon passed to my daughter who I ended up carrying through much of the upstairs tour.

At this point, my memory becomes blurry. Room after room of broken furnishings, filth, and destruction, had both anesthetized me to the experience and homogenized my response to the individual classrooms. Robin found a few large tack boards in good shape that weren’t permanently screwed to the walls and we took those with us. I found a bifold freestanding easel with a chalkboard on one side and a felt presentation board on the other, so we took that with us as well.

At one point, I remember passing by an elevator on the wall to our left. A large gap was clearly present between the doors that no longer closed completely, and a large hole had been broken through the wall to the right of the elevator doors. We could easily see into the deep shaft and I remember holding my daughter tighter and grabbing my son’s hand. We came to the end of the second floor, and I was relieved to walk back downstairs and find the entrance to the gym right there.

I had one more request however. I wanted to see the art room. I asked our host where it was and if I could go there. He said yes, and explained that it was located on the ground floor, below the first floor. He warned me that we would have to go by flashlight, and that I would find the room in shambles. Apparently vandals had centered one of their parties down there, turning tables and breaking everything in sight. I was looking for a flat file, but it quickly became obvious that there was nothing of value left in that art room. I came across many empty gallons of tempera paint that had been scattered and crushed. Their contents, which were spewed across floors, doors, cabinets, and broken tables, became visible in the ever-shifting beam of the flashlight. The only color I was to see that day in the entire school was in these splashes of paint. A space that used to breathe creativity and exaltation now exuded only malevolence and indignity.

Hearing the panicked voices of my son and daughter, who were in Robin’s care down the hall and who thought I would be lost in the dark forever, I quickly left and together we all returned to the gymnasium to pay for the few items we wanted.

While we were waiting for our host, we spoke with his teenage daughter. She was a confident and articulate young woman. She asked us if we homeschooled our children. When we said yes, she excitedly informed us that she had been homeschooled her entire life, excepting a one year trial of public school. I was blown away at how confidently she was able to converse with us, the way she carried herself, how capable she seemed in helping her father in this old building, and at the level of mutual trust that obviously existed between them. I thought to myself, “These are qualities I want to imbue in my own children. These are things that are just as important as formal academic achievement.” This young woman was fourteen and she explained how much she loved homeschooling. For some reason, I was relieved to hear this from a young woman who was obviously thriving at life on this educational path. I sometimes have moments of doubt about my choice to remove my son from the well-worn path of public school.

We left the old Draper school cold, disappointed, and maybe even a little bit depressed, and needed a hot cup of coffee to warm our bodies and our spirits. While we drove to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, my son bombarded me with many questions about the old school. We talked a little about it in the car and I left knowing that a homeschooling field trip, which at first seemed to me of questionable educational value, ultimately created a multitude of lessons in history and society.

I can’t help but continue to think about the old school, it’s history (which we are currently researching), and its ultimate fate. I replay the images of that Friday in my head and am still confounded by how one of society’s most recognizable structures (everyone know a school when they see one!) can simply be abandoned and left to rot. Is it in the name of progress that small schools are unable to serve a purpose in their communities no longer? Is bigger necessarily better? I’m sure there are correct answer from both sides of this debate.

As for me, I am a product of a small K-12 public school. I graduated with a class of 22. I never felt like we were lacking anything, though perhaps there is some truth to the idea that shared resources and consolidation can provide more opportunities for their students. While touring the old Draper school building, I was reminded of the experiences I had in a small community-based school, which as I mentioned does not exist anymore. I can’t help but wonder if what it has become is indeed an improvement. I sometimes drive by the large oppressive institution that was built to take its place and I shudder. I know that this new district has become one of the poster children of education reform, the Common Core, assembly line learning, teacher oppression, and scripted module curriculum. Although we do not live in this district, for me this is the ultimate horror and what I fear most for my own children’s education. To me, this is the reason I have chosen to homeschool my son and daughter.

The physical description of the Draper school building is difficult to put into words. But the societal implications are even harder. I think my son described it perfectly while we were beginning our tour of the first floor. He asked me a question. And although the exact question he asked escapes my memory, the way that he framed his question remains vivid in my mind. His words were, “…when this school was still alive?”. I can’t describe it better. The Draper school was once alive, vibrant and active, the heart of a community. And now… it’s dead.

First Day of School… well, not really


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Today school starts in my district! Everyone I know has been posting first-day-of-school pictures of their children.  I feel compelled to share mine!

Part of the morning was spent inside. We all did tasks we consider boring. I cleaned the kitchen. My son did some Common Core approved writing practice 🙂  My daughter sucked the pigment from a non-toxic gray marker.

Then we moved onto more serious subjects. For my daughter is was Fundamentals of the Sub-compact Tractor, with an emphasis on backhoe digging and fruit tree transplantation.

My son focused his attention on Hydro-Geology. Then he did some experiments in buoyancy (or lack thereof) and water displacement.

Who knows what the afternoon will bring?  We’ve lunched and napped (well, one of us did and still is thankfully) and now we’re ready to continue.  So far, we’re really enjoying this first day of school!

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The Right to Opt Out

There are many different things going on in education today, and they have raised concerns by a growing number of people from across the country. The dialogue has been heated as we grapple to understand the logic in things like the new Common Core State Standards, APPR, inBloom, corporate profiteering, and excessive testing. These things are all worthy of discussion and in my opinion work in unison to destroy an environment of authentic learning. They are all connected and the results have been disastrous with school closings, low teacher morale, kids dreading the school day, and parents kept purposely in the dark about the whole mess. But the latter is starting to change.

I’d like to focus this post on testing and your right to opt out or refuse these tests in New York State. As excessive testing and related pointless and time-consuming activities like test prep can consume up to 25% of our children’s academic year, it’s time for parents to rise up and say NO MORE! We cannot stand by and watch our kids disengage from learning, losing any deep and meaningful connection to their education. We cannot allow qualities like creativity and innovation to be replaced with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to learning and a ‘teach-to-the-test’ mentality driving the curriculum. Curriculum itself is being narrowed to cover only what is on the test and is largely concerned with areas of ELA and math, giving less importance to other subjects. It fosters superficial learning and rote memorization; Test prep* drives kids to retain information just long enough to pass the test, and then that information is easily forgotten and replaced with the next round of tested material. It does not foster deep thinking and creative problem solving skills. It also teaches kids that there is only one correct answer to a question in academics and in life, when we know that in real life this is rarely the case. It fosters a deeply seated fear of failure, when in fact making mistakes is a normal part of any learning process. We see kids with high levels of stress, reporting stomach- and headaches as a result. All of this together is a large reason why so many kids hate school these days. Standardized tests do nothing to foster a child’s natural love of learning. In fact, it does the opposite. Furthermore, these tests cost tens of millions in taxpayer money in New York state alone, and the additional mandates associated with them cut into our districts’ budgets and force us to make cuts to faculty & staff and other valuable programs. These tests use our children as pawns to judge their teachers and their schools, and they promote the idea that tests scores and data charts are more important than the individual student. Let us not forget that test scores are an unreliable way to judge students, teachers, or schools. And tests contain cultural biases that are generally unfair to students of color or non-English-language students. The list goes on and on.

There are so many different tests out there and the regime can vary from state to state and district to district. The majority of these are administered unbeknownst to most parents. The only ones that are widely publicized are the so-called state tests, which are administered in grades 3-8 in the spring over the course of 12 days. To be sure, these are the beasts that dominate education, causing chaos and fear among the school population and disrupting learning in many ways from endless test prep, to the tests themselves, to the time and money invested in grading them, paying for substitute teachers, etc. These tests are high-stakes tests that can make or break students, teachers, and their schools.

But what about field tests? Many parents don’t even know what they are or that their children are being subjected to them. Field tests use our children as guinea pigs so that testing companies can try out new test questions before marketing them on the ‘real’ tests. Certain grades/ subjects are chosen at certain schools and the children there are given an extra test. Field tests are even embedded in the spring state tests. Corporations like Pearson Education stand to make a fortune selling tests to states like New York, with whom it has a $32 million contract.

With New York state’s controversial APPR plan, schools must submit a detailed plan on how teachers and administrators will be evaluated. This plan, which must be approved by the state, includes SLOs (student learning objectives). At EngageNY, we learn that a Student Learning Objective is “an academic goal for a teacher’s students that is set at the start of a course. It represents the most important learning for the year…. It must be specific and measurable, based on available prior student learning data, and aligned to the Common Core… Teachers’ scores are based upon the degree to which their goals were attained.” If, as a parent yet unfamiliar with the all of these terms and going-ons, you find this hard to understand, you are not alone. Just look at the litany of links, videos, and how-to’s offered by NYSED (New York state education department) so that teachers can familiarize themselves with the concept. SLOs can be teacher-created, they can be part of the state tests, or they can come in the form of state-approved third party assessments. In many cases, our children are subjected to yet more testing to rate their teachers. And in most every case, you as a parent will be completely unaware that any of this extra testing is taking place. You might even find your child coming home one day saying they just took a test in gym class!

I mentioned state approved third-party assessments. These are computer-based tests that our schools must purchase. My school uses STAR, a product by Renaissance Learning. Often times these assessments are part of the SLOs in the APPR plan, but sometimes they are just part of the mandate that schools must administer a pre-test, post-test, and various benchmarks along the way to judge student progress. I am not opposed to teacher-created methods of assessment–authentic assessment–for their own use, but I have many reason to oppose third-party assessment tools for use in SLOs and progress-monitoring. You can read those here.

And there is more testing to come, with PARCC assessments for K-12 slated to roll out for the 2014-15 school year. This is going to affect our schools and our children.

*Test prep is big business, considered a commonplace key to success. It reinforces the concept that the test is the main goal, and with the right test prep anyone can succeed.  Not only is test prep replacing real learning in our children’s classrooms, it is being marketed to us as an ‘aid’ to help our kids ‘succeed.’ Take this site, where we are asked if our kids are “preparing for the New York State Testing Program, also known as NYSTP?” Or this one, where we are told that “some races are worth the extra effort” so you’d better get “the Kaplan edge.”