Resisting the Rush, Supporting Our Children: Talking Back to the Common Core, Mandated Testing, and the Silence of our Impoverished American Families

In American public schools today, we are not only fighting a “War on Poverty”, but we teachers who care so deeply about our students are often passive participants in a War on the Children of the Impoverished. So many of the mandates of our public schools today (which are attended mainly by impoverished children) are directly turning children off to schooling and deepening the ever-widening disconnect between school and reality, which is readily documented in any volume of the history of American public education.

Reading David Elkind’s best selling book The Hurried Child triggered my sense of urgency over the reform that we need in our schools today. It has little to do with the insane Common Core expectation of all children knowing how to read by the first day of first grade, as Elkind points out – this does nothing to support lifelong habits of reading.

The reform we need is the reform that makes school less of a “pressure cooker” for our impoverished public school students and more of a place that fosters love, learning, and a love of learning. I don’t have all the answers, but reading The Hurried Child is encouraging me to make a commitment to talk back to the incredible stresses that my students face.

I'm talking back to robbing children of a childhood for my own two children (above) as well as the children of my neighbors and friends in the City of Boston, the United States of America, and across the world.

I’m talking back to robbing children of their self-worth, not only for my own two children (above) but also the children of my neighbors and friends in the City of Boston, the United States of America, and all across the world.

What are the stresses of schooling that our students face? (pp. 176-181)

  • There are increasing amounts of theft and violence in schools. Here is an article about a school I used to work in that had unlocked side doors and a community center that led into the school. When I worked there, which was prior to the shameful crime documented in the article, the school was broken into multiple times, and many laptops and projectors were stolen. Furthermore, I was working at another school building when a drive-by shooting occurred on the main road and a bullet damaged the window of the school library. 
  • Schooling places false expectations on students. One I’ve seen frequently is students placed in Algebra I classes who do not have a basic mastery of their multiplication tables. Another is the Common Core expectation that children are reading by first grade. Not to mention the non-stop testing which is fully inclusive – our special education and beginning ELL students take the same tests as students without disabilities and language learning needs. 
  • Children are labeled quickly and early for behavior and learning disorders and disabilities. This is getting better in my district with more careful processes for identification and Response to Intervention , but still – often the only way for children to receive interventions is to state that they have a disability. And sometimes those interventions aren’t even available. For example, not one school I’ve worked in has had a dedicated reading specialist to serve children with dyslexia nor dedicated ESL teachers for advanced ELLs (WIDA level 4 and 5).
  • Schools push children into adult busywork that includes routines of boredom and stress. I would love to see a vocational program offered for our middle school students  who love to work with their hands. Many of my former students are succeeding at our district’s vocational high school in areas such as cosmetology (barbershop), culinary, and auto body, but that opportunity came along for them after years of feeling inferior.

Keeping an Eye Out for the Signs of School Burnout 

“When children have to drag themselves to school day after day to face repeated failure, they sometimes develop chronic symptoms, which can be physical or psychological.” (p. 193)

These symptoms include:

  • dissatisfaction with school
  • fatigue
  • poor work habits
  • sleep disturbance
  • allergies
  • headaches
  • ulcers
  • colitis
  • agressive bullying
  • quiet withdrawal
  • chronic cheating
  • excessive drug and alcohol use (pp. 192-194)

So what if what we the educators are doing in schools is literally making children sick? Is our obedience to higher ups (including the federal government) actually harming our children?

How Can We Support Our Students?

Elkind provides two interesting assessment tools, a Stress Test for Children and a Contract Evaluation form, which parents and educators can use to reflect on children’s stress levels as well as the expectations placed upon and support given to students. However, it is clear that it is our responsibility as educators, parents, and concerned citizens to talk back to school stressors through writing, discussion, and political action.

Rise Out: A Professional Learning Community for Teens

Throughout this school year, my husband and I, both musicians and former members of several Boston-based bands, had the honor of mentoring Alex La Rosa, an 18-year-old songwriter and guitarist, through the process of arranging and recording his debut album. Alex connected with us through my long-time friend Laura Fokkena, founder of Rise Out.

 What is Rise Out?

Rise Out is a non-profit organization that provides a professional learning community for teenagers who do not attend high school but rather participate in home school or alternative independent study programs. Teens enroll in Rise Out on an annual basis, and each participant is expected to complete an independent study project.

My husband and I attended Rise Out’s end of the year celebration at the Boston Public Library at Copley two weekends ago, and Laura gave a wonderful introduction to the presentations, explaining that she does not believe that bullying or schooling toughens teenagers, but rather that students grow best when they are respected and listened to.

I personally found it incredible to see what these young people were able to do when given time, resources, and support to pursue their own independent projects, which included historical research, public health and fitness, technology, engineering, and the arts.  Below are a few highlights:

Matthew Allen: Self-Navigating Drone

Although Matthew is only a junior in high school, he is already a collaborator with fellow scientists from Google, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Draper Labs through his internship at Danger! Awesome, a “makerspace”, which Matthew explained is like an artists’ studio for the technologically inclined. For his Rise Out project, Matthew created a hovering robot that can self-navigate through a forest. Matthew explained how the Rise Out program has given him the connections and confidence “to be the person [he] always wanted to be”. Through Rise Out, Matthew had the confidence to pursue (and ultimately gain acceptance to) the VAST (Vermont Academy of Technology and Science) program at Vermont Tech, which will allow him to simultaneously complete his senior year of high school and his freshman year of college.

Matthew powers up his self-navigating drone at BPL – Copley

Kate Mitchell: Learning with the Farmer’s Market

Kate’s project touched on two topics dear to my heart: public health and education. Kate’s project stemmed from her observations of  families at the Medford Farmers’ Market; she noticed that while parents shopped for vegetables, all of the kids ran to the cookie booth.

Kate decided to create a learning booth for young children at the farmer’s market that featured vegetable activities such as vegetable face sculptures and vegetable stamps, and she also published a recipe book for families.  She also published her own Her aim was to create a positive association between young children and vegetables, so that kids are excited about eating vegetables at home.

Already a reflective educator, Kate humorously addressed engagement of young children during her presentation: “When I asked kids if they wanted to learn about vegetables, I didn’t get a huge response, but when I asked, ‘Do you want to play with vegetables?’, kids started coming to my table.’ Kate was proud to announce her program’s sustainability, as the Medford Farmer’s Market plans to continue with Kate’s curricula and recipe booklet next season.

 

Kate shows a slide of a turnip face craft, just one of the activities she designed to connect children and vegetables at the Medford Farmers' Market.

Kate shows a slide of a turnip face craft, just one of the activities she designed to connect children and vegetables at the Medford Farmers’ Market.

 

 Alex La Rosa: Observing from Aphelion EP

Alex La Rosa began playing guitar a little over a year ago, and he has already written hundred of songs. “But only sixty are set to music,” he explained, prior to the performance of “Don’t Believe Them”.  For Alex’s Rise Out project, he recorded his five song debut EP “Observing from Aphelion”. Alex will be attending Berklee College of Music’s Summer Songwriting Workshop in late June.

Alex La Rosa’s deep vocals and rhythmic guitar punctuate his performance of “Don’t Believe Them”

Reflection

After viewing these presentations, I thought about my middle school students in Dorchester, and I felt incredibly inspired. What would my middle schoolers do, given time, support, and resources to pursue individual interests? I would love to create an independent research or independent study group, even as an after-school program, for my students at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. If we treat all children as gifted children, then all children will display their gifts. I truly appreciated working with Alex this year, and I’m sure we will be seeing more from the incredible young people involved in Rise Out in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Author and Activist Michael Patrick MacDonald Visits the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School

I was both surprised and thrilled when my colleague Susan Lovett sent out an e-mail about arranging a visit for author and activist Michael Patrick MacDonald. I jumped in right away to help organize this event for our school, the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School.

Years earlier, I had taken Mr.MacDonald’s book All Souls: A Family Story from Southie out of the library and read it cover to cover over the course of a single weekend. The book is a memoir of MacDonald’s early life in South Boston during the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the story that unfolds is much more than a personal narrative. All Souls offers a historical narrative with vivid first-hand descriptions of  Boston’s busing era and the influence of notorious criminal “Whitey” Bulger on the Southie neighborhood. The novel is also a spiritual journey of resistance and resilience on the part of young MacDonald, whose bright soul, curiousity, and dedication to his family and community shines through the trauma of living under the effects of poverty, crime, and death. The writing and publication of the book itself is a tribute to MacDonald’s bravery and activism, breaking the unwritten “code of silence” that long prevented the residents of the Southie neighborhood and others like it from reporting and discussing crime, drugs, and deaths plaguing their communities.

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My autographed copy of MacDonald’s first novel

 

During Mr. MacDonald’s visit to our school on Tuesday, the acclaimed author spoke to a group of about fifty of our students, who were specially selected to attend the event based on their commitment to social justice and community leadership. Mr. MacDonald talked about the City of Boston’s Gun Buyback program, and he read a passage from his second novel Easter Rising which discussed the post-traumatic stress he experienced following the deaths of his brothers. The students had many questions to ask Mr. MacDonald, and he thoughtfully answered each and every one of them.

After the presentation, students received copies of All Souls (one young man even brought his own hardback from home) and had the opportunity to have their books signed. The students were overjoyed to talk with a real author, and I saw many students reading their books in the hallways while walking back to class. In fact, I taught a class right after Mr. MacDonald’s visit, and I had to ask students to put their new books away to focus on the lesson – this is the kind of focus issue that I am more than happy to see!

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Students gather around MacDonald to have their books signed.

Two students from Academy 1 smile and show the cover of the book.

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Sixth grade student Rasha shows his beautiful smile as he stands next to Mr. MacDonald.

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7th graders Mikel and Kiajah look on thoughtfully while Mr. MacDonald autographs Kiajah’s copy of All Souls.

Over the course of the week, many teachers reported to me that students were carrying the books in their backpacks and “showing off” the autographed books to students and teachers alike. My colleague Alice Laramore commented that the students were treating the books “like a trophy” of Mr. MacDonald’s visit.  I myself have ordered additional copies to use with my intermediate and advanced ESL classes in the last quarter of the year as part of a unit on argument and persuasion – at the conclusion of the unit, students will produce argument essays about how to best prevent violence in an urban community. Mr. MacDonald sent me some photographs of toy gun buyback programs to inspire our students to perhaps organize their own drive. The note I received from Mr. MacDonald read: Jennifer, please share these images from past buybacks and concurrent toy gun turn-ins organized by middle school aged kids, in case that might inspire some local community organizing in the school with the local community. These toy gun turn ins (in exchange for non violent toys and books donated by businesses like Toys R Us and Publishers like children’s lit Houghton Mifflin) are very fun.  And it’s a great way for teens, pre teens, and the smaller children to feel a sense of voice and agency.

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Photograph of mothers from Charlestown as promotion for Boston’s third gun buyback

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Mr. MacDonald with a young activist and organizer

Mr. MacDonald’s visit was a perfect fit for our school – our building itself is a symbol of triumph over violence, as our school was built by activists on a lot that was once a hub of criminal activity. Formerly named the New Boston Pilot School, the Lilla G. Frederick (LILL-LUH, not LYE-LUH) is itself named for a Grove Hall community organizer.

A Literary Surprise on a Tuesday Night

On Tuesday evening, my phone rang, and it was a number I did not recognize. I usually never pick up for unknown callers, but for some reason, I did. The voice on the other end asked,”Do you accept book donations?”

I didn’t have to think for anymore than a split second.

“Yes!” I replied affirmatively.

“Can I drop them off to you today?” asked the voice.

“YES!”

The caller was a very generous Roslindale resident and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt employee named Emma R., and she left a beautiful collection of books on my front porch. Her donation will be shared with my middle school students at the Lilla G. Frederick and with clients at the Roslindale Language and Literacy Center. Thank you, Emma!

A sofa full of new friends.

A sofa full of new friends.

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A Box Full of Joy

Open the Door To Liberty: A Biography of To

Open the Door to Liberty! A Biography of Toussaint L’ouverture
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on reversing the narrative about slavery to demonstrate the strength of those who were treated as slaves  in the Americas and the Caribbean.

No DAmsels

No Damsels in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Women
This book will be a part of my ESL unit on mythology and folklore that I am planning in collaboration with 826 Boston.

Malala Yousafzai News Broadcast

Below you will find three wonderful video clips from Japan’s NHK Television Broadcast about Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the United Nations in July. It was interesting to watch and re-watch these clips in Japanese. Although I do not speak any Japanese, the images alone served to tell Malala’s story and how it has affected children in Pakistan and around the world.

 I am so pleased that my student Quddus Rodrigues and his fabulous “super mama” Filomena are featured in this compelling program. Quddus is a model of how reading and writing can inspire us and empower us to advocate for others. I love that he is a young man that stands for education. As Malala says: “Let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge…Education is the only solution.”
Quddus’ Clip in the Broadcast
Malala Broadcast, Part I
Malala Broadcast, Part II

Ask the Reading Specialist: Helping Your Reading Challenged Child

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I will be doing a special talk for parents and families this Wednesday at the Roslindale Branch of the Library. At the end of the session, I will also demonstrate some games and techniques for helping children and teens learn Dolch words. I will also have handouts and resources for the audience to take home. I am really looking forward to this presentation because it is a way to use my education and knowledge to help in my community.

Rising Star: Quddus Rodrigues, Teen Civil Rights Advocate and Creative Writer

I am extremely proud of Quddus Rodrigues, who has been my student for the past three years at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School. I have always known Quddus to be a thoughtful and creative person who expresses a deep concern for those around him, and it has been to my absolute delight that his talents have been recognized both locally and internationally in recent months. I will now present you with a photo essay of  Quddus’ life as a rising star in both the civil rights and creative writing arenas.

Thursday, July 11, 2013: Preparation for Malala Yousafzai Documentary

Quddus prepares for his interview for a Malala Yousafzai documentary for NHK television.

Quddus prepares for his interview for a Malala Yousafzai documentary for NHK television.

In late June, I was contacted by Yoshiko Uno-Flukes, a UK-based researcher for NHK television, a respected Japanese station. NHK is producing a documentary film on Malala Yousafzai, to whom my students had written letters in October after she was attacked by the Taliban on her way to school. They were especially interested in Quddus’ letter. Last Thursday, Quddus and I prepared for the interview for several hours by reviewing the events and responses to Malala’s shooting and recovery, including the well-written piece “Girls Who Risk their Lives for Education“. The above photo shows Quddus writing his responses to interview questions provided by NHK while referencing an article.

Friday, July 12, 2013: Grub Street Orientation

Quddus and his mother, Filomena, attend his Young Adult Writing Program Orientation at Grub Street.

Quddus and his mother, Filomena, attend his Young Adult Writing Program Orientation at Grub Street.

Quddus poses with the famous Grub Street red typewriter.

Quddus poses with the famous Grub Street red typewriter.

Quddus and Filomena enjoy post-orientation sushi, shrimp-fried rice, and Boba tea in Chinatown after the orientation.

Quddus and Filomena enjoy post-orientation sushi, shrimp-fried rice, and Boba tea in Chinatown after the orientation.

In April, at the suggestion of my colleague and dear friend, author and educator Paula Leoni, Quddus completed his application for the prestigious Grub Street Young Adult Writing Program Summer Teen Fellowship. This program awards young adult writers with a stipend and provides them with a three week intensive writing experience that includes instruction from and meetings with published authors. Click here to read his application. The piece “Mystery Mansions of Madness” will have you in stitches!

Last Friday, Quddus, his mother, and Paula attended the orientation at Grub Street, located in the Steinway building at the edge of Boston’s theater district. Afterwards, they enjoyed a sushi dinner at which Quddus apparently tricked his mother into eating a mouthful of wasabi. Luckily, laughter quickly ensued! 

Special thanks to Paula Leoni for providing the photographs.

Saturday, July 13, 2013: The Making of a Malala Documentary

The NHK film crew captures Quddus and his mother strolling through their Dorchester Center neighborhood.

The NHK film crew captures Quddus and his mother strolling through their Dorchester Center neighborhood.

The NHK film crew captures the art of thinking, writing, and reflecting.

The NHK film crew captures the art of thinking, writing, and reflecting.

The NHK crew interview Quddus.

The NHK crew interview Quddus.

NHK records Quddus' reactions to Malala Yousafzai's recent speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.

NHK records Quddus’ reactions to Malala Yousafzai’s recent speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday.

The NHK crew records Quddus' verbal reflections on Malala's speech.

The NHK crew records Quddus’ verbal reflections on Malala’s speech.

I was so impressed that NHK traveled all the way from New York City on a hot Saturday afternoon to interview Quddus. He is certainly a very interesting young man.  I cannot wait to see the documentary.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Quddus grabs a caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks before the Grub Street orientation. He complained, "It's so much work being famous! You always have to have your picture taken!" HA!

Quddus grabs a caramel Frappuccino at Starbucks before the Grub Street orientation. He complained, “It’s so much work being famous! You always have to have your picture taken!” HA!

Waking Up

Quddus poses with his fellow writers on the first day of the Young Adult Writing Program.

I was so excited to receive the following text from Quddus on Monday afternoon: “Had fun made friends had a great time”. I cannot wait to attend the final celebration. I’m sure we will all be hearing so much more about Quddus, a rising star on a bright path. We are all so proud!