You Are Not Alone: The Value of Speaking Up, Together

Today’s post is written by second grade teacher and guest blogger, Emily Kaplan. On Saturday, May 21st Emily presented at the 6th annual Boston-Area Educators for Social Justice Conference with DEY’s Co-Director Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin. The workshop was titled: Defending the Early Years: Finding your voice as an early childhood activist. Emily is a reflective teacher who went from feeling discouraged and alone to feeling empowered – and part of a movement. How did that happen? We asked Emily to share her journey as an emerging activist, as a way to encourage and inspire other early childhood teachers. And that is precisely what happened on Saturday. Please read and share Emily’s story below:

You Are Not Alone:

The Value of Speaking Up, Together

Emily Kaplan

            Good morning! My name is Emily Kaplan, and I am so very excited to be sharing with and learning from you all here today.

 

Last year, I taught second grade at a “no excuses” charter school in Boston. In the past few months, I have written several articles about my experience there, as well as the systemic forces which support the existence and growth of these dangerous and counterproductive pedagogical environments.

 

A few days after an article I wrote was published in the Washington Post, an e-mail popped up in my inbox with the subject line “THANK YOU!!” It was from a woman who teaches at a charter school in another state.

 

“Hi Emily,” it began.

 

I don’t often do this, but I just wanted to thank you for writing your article about your experience in your no excuses charter school… While reading your article I felt like you must have been in my head reading my mind to have views so heavily aligned with mine. I also teach at a “no excuses” charter… We are seeing these exact trends in our kids from K-12th grade… I would repost your article but I won’t…yet…

 

As much as my article seemed to bring comfort to this woman, her e-mail brought me tremendous relief as well. I had been terrified to put my writing—my experience and my convictions— out into the world. I feared retribution, personally and professionally. What I feared most deeply, however, was that I was writing into a void: that it would turn out that no one would be listening at all.

 

But that is not what happened. After I began to write about my experiences, I heard from a lot of people. Some of them, as expected, were angry; I am proud to say that I recently had an entire Huffington Post article written about how short-sighted and simple-minded I am.

Most of the people I heard from, though, were educators who felt just as strongly as I did about the same topics. Many were young teachers from around the country whose thoughts and experiences were parallel to mine. Others were educators with decades of experience who wrote to say that I had voiced what they had been feeling for years, that the way this country educates its youngest students has changed for the worse. “I did not retire with joy as I hoped I would,” one teacher wrote. “We need to become a coalition and advocate for developmentally appropriate education for children.”

I agree, wholeheartedly. But I also think that we’re already partly there.

There are so many people who share this mission, and many of them have organized. I’m honored to be here today with Defending the Early Years, a group of brilliant, passionate, experienced educators and academics who fight the good fight, day in and day out. The Teacher Activist Group, The Badass Teachers Association, The Boston Education Justice Alliance: these groups are doing excellent work, and I credit them— 100%— for granting me the courage to take my first baby steps in joining the world of early childhood activism.

 

Last year, when I was teaching at the charter school, things were going— how do I say this diplomatically?— terribly. I struggled every single moment of every single day. And I began to think that not only was I a terrible teacher, but also that I was deeply crazy.

Nearly everyone around me, after all, seemed to be on the same page, downing the Kool-Aid like water at a marathon. I must have been the one who was wrong.

So, in desperation, I looked online. Was there anyone out there who felt and thought as I did? Was there any chance, that is, that I was not insane?

Within a few keystrokes, a whole world opened up. I was not the only one who felt this way— not by far. There were whole communities, organizations, books, academic careers devoted to dismantling the type of approach to education that I found myself in. No, I wasn’t crazy. And I was going to take start taking notes.

I transitioned from survival mode to journalist mode, from cowering in the corner to playing offense. For the rest of that school year, I viewed every troubling situation I found myself in, every example of the type of pedagogy I so deeply disagreed with, as material for my future writing.

This is how I got myself through my time at the charter school. And this is how I came full circle— to join, in baby steps, the community that helped me survive. We are not alone. And the more we band together, loudly, unapologetically, the stronger we will become.

 

Thank you.

 

To read more posts from Emily Kaplan check out:

How Parental Power(lessness) Distinguishes Suburban Public Schools from Urban Charters – originally published by EduShyster

and

All I Really Need to Know I (Should Have) Learned in Kindergarten – originally published by EduShyster

How Parental Power(lessness) Distinguishes Suburban Public Schools from Urban Charters

by Emily Kaplan

This piece originally appeared on EduShyster.com

This is how you get your child into a public school in an affluent suburb:

  1. Make a lot of money.
  2. Buy a house in an affluent suburb.

Congratulations! Your child will now receive a top-tier education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is entitled,  exercise your right to go directly to the administration and complain. (Your tax dollars pay their salaries, after all.) Work with teachers and administrators, many of whom have decades of experience, to create an individualized education plan for your child. Do not fear retribution: your child cannot legally be driven from the district in which you have chosen to live.**

**If you still feel that your child is not receiving the best education property taxes can buy, you may choose among several courses of action, including: going to the school committee (an elected board on which sits one or more parent representatives like yourself); running for a seat on said committee; sending your child to a private school; or moving to another suburb, where you may repeat the steps above until you are satisfied.

This is how you get your child into a Boston charter school:

  1. Possess the social capital to be informed about the existence of— and application procedures of— charter schools. (Good luck to recent immigrants, particularly those who do not speak English!)
  2. Make the harrowing decision that the education your child would receive in the local district school is so under-resourced and/or deficient, academically or otherwise, that you are potentially willing to tolerate one or more of the following characteristics of many charter schools:draconian discipline; an obsession with testing; a developmentally inappropriate curriculum; a curriculum which is not culturally representative of your family; an inexperienced team of teachers and administrators, many of whom have never taught in any other environment; treatment as a pawn in a drawn-out political ruckus about charter schools’ right to exist and/or expand (or not.)
  3. Attend lottery night, at which you will be informedby a charter school administrator that if— and only if— your child “wins the lottery,” he or she can have the chance to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and succeed there. (According to her, if you “lose,” of course, the chances of your child having a fair shot in life are slim to none.)
  4. Look around the room of parents and their children, all of whom are just as desperate for quality education as you are.
  5. Realize that, statistically speaking, 90% of them will “lose.”

If you “win,” congratulations! Your child has a chance of receiving a decent education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is extraordinarily lucky to have “won,” well… she can always go back to the district you fled, right?school bus

*       *       *

Charter schools in Boston compare themselves to public schools in the city’s most affluent suburbs. If their students’ scores can match those of wealthy suburban children, they reason, they will face similarly abundant opportunities in life.

Even if scores are comparable, however, the schools themselves are not. While the best suburban schools provide students with a balanced school day and curriculum, enriched by a well-resourced environment led by experienced educators, the common charter school model is vastly different. Here, the school day is far longer (at many, children are in school for over nine hours), and even the youngest children have recess for only up to twenty-five minutes. (Where I taught last year, my second graders did not have recess until three in the afternoon, after they had already been in school for eight hours.) Suburban parents would never stand for the very things which make these schools distinctive: a rigid, punitive discipline system which suspends students as young as five; a pedagogical philosophy which prizes quantifiable outcomes above all else, thus elevating testing to the forefront of the curriculum; and an ultimately counterproductive ignorance of children’s developmental need for exploratory play.

These urban charters tend to be run by white women in their twenties whose lived experiences differ sharply from those of their students, who largely come from low-income families of color. Their charter schools feel like reflections of them, of armchair philosophies about what poor kids need, and not the kids themselves. (These schools’ ideas and “best practices”reverberate in the echo chamber of the no-excuses universe, made up of charter networks which seem less distinguishable from each other with each passing year.)

That is, while suburban schools feel like the neighborhoods in which they are situated, these charter schools certainly do not: in the words of one educator I know, they feel like “schools for black kids run by white people,” imposed upon the communities they supposedly serve. And they feel like this, I think, due to all of the reasons listed above, but also in no small part to the parent recruitment process: while parents with means move to the suburbs because they want their children to attend “good schools,” urban parents who can’t afford to move out of the city must choose among a set of dismal options.

In a nutshell, then: suburban parents run toward; urban parents run away. Running toward is empowering; escaping never is.

Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system. Charter parents are certainly not— and by questioning it, they have everything to lose. (The racial undertones of this environment—black parents should be grateful for the education these white educators so generously provide— are significant.) Unlike suburban students who attend district schools, students at urban charter schools can be expelled or pushed out— and no parent wants to be forced back to the district which drove them to enter the charter lottery in the first place.

Urban charters wield this power to ensure compliance from students and parents alike. The strict discipline for which charters are infamous is applied to parents as well as their children. Unlike at suburban schools—where parents are welcomed to join the PTA, to volunteer, to lead projects, and to meet with an administration that must earn their support—parental involvement at many urban charters is as unidirectional as it is punitive. If a student accumulates enough behavioral infractions, for instance, he or she must serve an in-school suspension until the parent is able—on one day’s notice—to take time off of work in the middle of the school day to observe the child in class for an hour and a half. Teachers and administrators threaten students who break the rigid rules of the school with parental involvement: “If your behavior doesn’t get better,” they tell these five- and six- and seven-year-olds, many of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet, “your dad will have to keep missing work to come here. You don’t want him to be fired, do you?” Parents who do not comply are told that the school may not be for them.

Take it or leave it, be grateful, kowtow: we know what’s best for your child.

Ultimately, this serves no one.

Last year, I had a student whose family and pediatrician believed she had a learning disability; I suspected the same. The parent was desperate for a way to help her child; she requested a school evaluation so that the girl could qualify for special education services. Before the meeting, for reasons I still do not fully comprehend, the school determined that the child did not qualify for services. When I expressed discomfort with this decision, I was informed that the staff members who had performed the evaluation— not me, not the pediatrician who had known the child from birth, and certainly not the child’s mother— were somehow the incontrovertible experts on this child and her learning needs. (Furthermore, I was icily informed, because I had questioned the school’s decision, I was no longer welcome at the meeting where this news would be broken to the parent.)

At a suburban school, a parent would have the power to challenge this determination; here, the parent’s only recourse was to remember— as administrators sighed at the end of almost every internal evaluation meeting— that “at least she’s not in public school.”

Perhaps, but that misses the point: charter schools should strive to provide the best education possible, not just one some deem the lesser among evils. Without parental involvement at all levels, however, charters will continue to stagnate in the ways that matter most. The steps for success, then, seem abundantly clear.

This is how wealthy suburban schools succeed:

1. Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.

This is how urban charter schools would succeed:

1. Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.

Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher living in Boston. She has taught in urban public, urban charter, and suburban public schools. Contact her at emilykaplan@post.harvard.edu.

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Senior Advisor Nancy Carlsson-Paige Reflects on the 2016 Network for Public Education Conference

The 2016 Network for Public Education Conference, held April 15-17 in Raleigh, NC, is truly an experience—something hard to describe.  For a few days in April, education and social justice activists from around the country come together in a burst of energy and synergy to share lives and ideas and to build an education movement for equity and justice for all children.

I was glad that Denisha Jones, DEY National Advisory Board member, and I attended because our session was the only one focused exclusively on young children.  Our panel was called T-E-S-T and Not PLAY is a Four-Letter Word:  Putting the Young Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform.  Susan Ochshorn, early childhood author and journalNPE 2016 3ist, moderated, and we were joined by Michelle Gunderson, first grade teacher and early childhood leader in the Chicago Teachers Union. We covered many issues in a short time including the decrease in play and active learning in classrooms for young children, the disproportionate effects of corporate education reform on black and brown children and those in low-income communities, and the need to strengthen our advocacy for young children.  Lots of folks attended the session and I was really glad we were there to connect early childhood issues to the larger landscape of education reform that were the focus of the conference.

Many people came up to me over the course of the three days in Raleigh to tell me how they follow DEY, appreciate us, and benefit from using our materials.  It was really heNPE 2016 2artening to realize that we are voicing important ideas and issues that might otherwise not be accessible to teachers and parents.  People are using the papers we’ve put out in a variety of ways as well as our fact sheets, and many say they read our website regularly.

At the conference, we learned about many new documentary films being made about the current state of education in our country.  All of these films and how to order them are listed on the NPE website.   In a separate session we saw a “fine cut” preview of the almost finished documentary Backpack Full of Cash.  This film is being made by Sarah Mondale and Vera Aranow who made the PBS series called SCHOOL which received so much acclaim.   Their new film unwraps the movement to privatize our nation’s schools, telling a straightforward and understandable narrative through the eyes of the communities affected.   The film should be out in the coming year and I think its time is right.

On Saturday, we listened to a riveting keynote speech from Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP, about the history of racism in our schools and the continuing reality of systemic racism that permeates our society today.  Rev. Barber is a gifted orator who can move his listeners to new levels of awareness by his artistic crafting of words and powerful delivery.Themes of charter schools, over-testing, privatization, racial justice, poverty, global education, democracy, and public education ran through the speeches and sessions of the conference, helping all of us to heighten our understanding and also our resolve to continue our work.  I felt re-energized about our work at Defending the Early Years, proud of what we do, sure that we should keep on.

Maybe next year YOU will want to attend the Network for Public Education conference—you won’t be disappointed!

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Emily Kaplan’s reflections on “No Excuses” charter schools – Please Read and Share

On Thursday, an important essay was posted in Jennifer Berkshire’s brilliant blog
EduShyster. This post, All I Really Need to Know I Should’ve Learned in Kindergarten, was written by Boston-area elementary teacher, Emily Kaplan. The post has already been featured on ECE PolicyWorks, and here at DEY we hope that the piece will continue to gain traction and attention. We believe in ampliphying teachers’ voices, which have been drowned out and often discounted in our national conversation about education policy and reform. In her essay, Kaplan documents her experiences and observations teaching at a “No excuses” charter school, as compared to other teaching experiences she has had. She poses many questions, including the following:

…what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?

Kaplan’s piece also opens the door for important conversations about race, poverty and education. The following is the comment left by DEY’s Senior Advisor, Nancy Carlsson-Paige:

This is a terrific article that I will share widely. Thanks, Emily, for seeing through the smokescreen of rote learning and chants for success which have just about nothing to do with real learning in the early years. Thanks too for great descriptions of developmentally sound education–the place where kids gain the deep capacities for real success: thinking deeply, solving problems, imagining and creating, inventing, getting along with others, gaining confidence socially and as learners. And thanks to Dienne for naming exactly a problem we white early childhood educators have. We need stronger alliances, more diverse voices and more trust across groups if we are going to give all young kids the best education possible. And Emily, thanks for naming poverty as an obstacle to that goal. We can’t solve it all in the schools.

Click here to read Emily Kaplan’s full essay on the EduShyster blog, and don’t forget to also check out the comments!

DEY at NAEYC’s Annual Conference

DEY Panel at NAEYC
Our DEY panel at NAEYC received a standing ovation! Diane Levin facilitated our panel on the challenges of the Common Core – drawing on the expertise of Joan Almon, Constance Kamii and Lilian Katz. Their messages, which are captured in the advocacy reports they have all published with DEY, truly resonated with the audience. We were able to archive much of the session on video, and have added the clips to our Defending the Early Years’ YouTube Channel.
You can also watch clips from our organizing meeting with Denisha Jones. We had over 50 people in attendance to work with us in identifying key educational issues as well as potential next steps for dealing with the issues. Thanks to Blakely Bundy for her immense help in making this event a success!

Testing in K: too much, too soon

Today’s blog post is written by a guest – Phyllis Doerr – a kindergarten teacher from South Orange, NJ. The original article was published in her local paper on July 2, 2015. We publish this updated version here with Doerr’s permission.

Testing in K: too much, too soon

Point of View

By Phyllis Doerr

As we wind down a year of tremendous controversy in the realm of education in the United States, I thought I would share some of my input given in January to a New Jersey Board of Education panel on testing led by Education Commissioner David Hespe.

As a kindergarten teacher, I find the trend to bring more testing into kindergarten not only alarming, but counter-productive and even harmful.

In the kindergarten at my school, we do not administer standardized tests; however, hours of testing are included in our math and language arts curriculum.  In order to paint a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September for 5-year-old children.

The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our “nursery rhyme” unit.  Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense, using the word correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word were used incorrectly, they would circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed — a foundational problem for this type of test.

My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word “market,” from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” After explaining the setup of the test, I begin. “The word is market,” I announced. “Who can tell me what a market is?” One boy answered, “I like oranges.” “Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?” “I like apples. I get them at the store.”  We’re moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, “It’s where you go and get lots of things.” Yes! What kinds of things?  “Different stuff.”  Another student chimes in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nod.

“Now, I will give you a sentence with the word ‘market’ in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence and doesn’t make sense, you circle the frown.” A hand goes up. “Mrs. Doerr, what’s a frown?” I explain what a frown is.

Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

The students who are not twisting around backward in their chairs or staring at a thread they’ve picked off their uniforms nod their heads. “Please, class, listen carefully. I’ll tell you the sentence again: ‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ That makes sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food.”

A hand goes up. Terrell says, “I like soccer.” “Okay, Terrell, that’s great! But did I use the word ‘market’ correctly in that sentence?”   “I don’t know.”

Another hand. “Yes? Ariana? What do you think?” “My dad took me to a soccer game! He plays soccer!” “Thank you for sharing that, Ariana.” The students picked up on something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. “Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?”  At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

So here we find another huge problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-year-old’s imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds OK to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergartners — unencumbered imagination.

After explaining why we might not play basketball in the market, I called on a volunteer to come up and circle the frowning face. She went straight to number 3 on my giant test replica, skipping 1 and 2, and circled the frown. Why? She’s 5 and has never seen anything like this. Give the same student a floor puzzle of ocean life and she and her friend will knock it out in 10 minutes, strategizing, problem-solving and taking turns with intense concentration.

The rest of my “test prep” for the 5-year-olds went about the same.

Then came the real thing.  As testing must be done in small groups since the children cannot read instructions and need assistance every step of way, I split the class into two or more groups to test.

The results of the administration of the test on the first group were mixed. Despite being the higher level students, their very first test was definitely not an easy task. Instructions for anything new in kindergarten are painstaking, but for a developmentally inappropriate task, it is nearly impossible. For example, making sure my little test-takers have found their place on the page requires constant teacher supervision. I cannot just say, “Number 2” and read the question. I must say, “Put your finger on the number 2.” Then I repeat, “Your finger should be on number 2.” Then repeat it. And repeat again, since some have difficulty identifying numbers 1 through 10. “Let me see your pencil ON number 2. No, Justin, not on number 3. On number 2.”  I walk around and make sure that each child is on the right number – or on a number at all. If you’re not watchful as a kindergarten teacher, it is common to have a 5-year-old just sit there, and do nothing test-related — just look around, or think, or doodle.

Next, I tested a second group. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circled every face — regardless of expression — on the whole page, another just circled all the smileys and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, “Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5.” She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. “What’s wrong, honey?” “Mrs. Doerr, I’m tired,” she cried. “I want my mommy.”  It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, “Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?” She nodded.  I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

So this is kindergarten.

We force children to take tests that their brains cannot grasp.

We ignore research that proves that children who are 5-6 learn best experientially.

We rob them of precious free play that teaches them how to be good citizens, good friends and good thinkers.

We waste precious teaching and learning time that could be spent experientially learning the foundations of math, reading and writing, as well as valuable lessons in social studies, science and health.

I support and enjoy teaching much of our math and language arts curriculum. Teaching vocabulary is a valuable practice. However, I contend that testing in these areas at this age is not only meaningless, since it does not accurately measure a child’s academic ability, but it is actually counter-productive and even damaging.

Further, I contend that my students are no further along at the end of the year than they would be if we eliminated most of the testing. In fact, they might be further along if we eliminated testing because of the time we could spend engaging in meaningful teaching and learning. Finally, I believe that a child’s first experience with formal education should be fun and exciting, and give them confidence to look forward to their education, not full of stress and fear because they did not measure up.

Parents and educators must speak out against harmful trends in education so that they can be reversed immediately.

Phyllis Doerr of South Orange is a kindergarten teacher.

 

A Letter to Lucy Calkins from a weeping 2nd grade teacher

Today’s blog post is an open letter to Lucy Calkins written by Angie Sullivan, a second grade teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are helping to share her thoughts far and wide. Writer’s Workshop is one of the many tools that have shifted – and not for the better – under the Common Core State Standards. Does Angie’s experience strike a chord with you?

WritersWorkshop

I’m doing some homework.  I currently teach 2nd grade.  For a couple of decades I have taught grade levels K-2.

I love writer’s workshop. Used it throughout my career having learned about it initially as an undergraduate at BYU in 1987 – a realm of whole language at the time.  Writing was impressed on me as integral in reading literacy and I never forget the basics of that theory.

That said – and to the point – I view common core as a political manipulation.

It is very difficult for me to embrace it – since I consider it malpractice at the K-2 level. I use it because it is mandated but it would be difficult for me to even pretend that common core does anything but harm my at-risk language learners as applied in the state of Nevada. Scaffolding is not enough when there are not enough hours in the day and children need time to learn English.  I teach in spite of common core which is disjointed and bizarre.
There is one writing common core writing standard for Kindergarten students in Vegas – write a fact and opinion paper.
Yep.
And that is all.
Children who have never picked up a pencil have one global standard – write a paper.
I’m weeping as I read through these pages in your book up to 13 as you describe fine tuning your writer’s workshop research and somehow expressing a loving common core at the same time.
I’m having a very difficult time thinking something as beautiful, powerful, and developmentally appropriate as writer’s workshop works smoothly with the terribly inappropriate, developmentally gross common core.  I appreciate that this program is an attempt to try your best to fill in the holes with solid examples and sample lessons, but question why we would accept this as professional educators.
While common core meets the needs of a few – in my experience it ensures the failure of the many.
Bad standards – are still bad – as we try to spackle best practice in layers over the top of them.
So as I teach my kids to do – I will write you now through my tears and weep for the best practice writer’s workshop bundle that shoved into the cavernous hole that is K-2 common core writing.
What have I learned?  We are all victims of the monied lobbying that became standards for most every state.
Even the stalwarts of the finest practice like yourself.
And that makes me weep some more because I understand but it is still a travesty.
Angie Sullivan
2nd Grade Teacher
Las Vegas, Nevada.

Angie also sent us this –  When researchers have to put disclaimers like this right in their product – something is wrong:

WWexcerpt