The Role Of The Artist in Trump-time

The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.

Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could  I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read?  How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking  when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education?  It all seemed futile.

Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well.  You can listen to her speech here:   https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.

I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account –  to call them on the carpet for every outrage.

That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.” 

And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a  teacher of teachers.

I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.

I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take  money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.

Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence.  With that art and with one another we can fight back.

Let’s get busy.

Lin-Manuel Miranda or Common Core: Pick One

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and the Common Core’s kind of class could not be more different. Which class do you think  best helps kids to excel as learners and thinkers?

Choice One: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Just two days before his final performance in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a former high school teacher, spoke to 200 high school teachers and described what he thought learning should look like.

He used his experience in the theater to talk about the classroom. He advocated that teachers engage students in questioning  and connecting with what they are studying. He explained how students become stronger thinkers by listening to the ideas and questions of their classmates. In Miranda’s kind of classroom, the teacher does not give students the one right answer but rather expects them to have their own individual, well-referenced interpretations and their own evaluations of  ideas. The teacher creates a classroom community in which diversity of thought is valued and in which the students explore ideas by engaging in intellectual endeavors together. The teacher knows that students benefit from being aware of their own learning and thinking processes so engages them in considering how they go about learning something and how their minds work. The teacher brings his or her own joy and purpose to the classroom and delights in the students finding joy and purpose of their own as they read, write, and think together through the school year.

Read Miranda’s own words here:

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Choice Two: Common Core

The accompanying 15-minute video shows you what a Common Core English class is like. David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, is the speaker.  The lesson is for a 7th grade class ; the topic is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.  View here.  In this lesson, the teacher has all the answers. The  meaning of King’s letter is, as the Common Core insists,  found “within the four corners of the page” and must be dug out. The students are not allowed to personally connect with the letter, ask their own questions, choose a line of significance to them, or explore the historical background of what King wrote. They do not analyze how the actions of  society in King’s time or theirs connects to King’s advocacy for justice. Students, instead, are asked to figure out King’s intent in writing the letter by analyzing the word choice and rhetorical structure he uses.

In the beginning of the lesson, David Coleman says that his lesson will debunk the three “popular” ways of teaching literature, but, little does he know, those ways are not popular at all. He wrongly says those three “popular” ways are: the teacher summarizing for students what they are going to read before they read it, the teacher asking students to predict what will happen before they read it, and the teacher using what they read to teach a concept like main idea or cause and effect.  He doesn’t mention at all what is really the reason we teach literature: to engage students with provocative ideas and provide them with opportunities to  construct their own meaning about those ideas.

Decision Time: Pick One of the Above

It is one or the other.  Lin-Manuel Miranda or  Common Core . You can’t have both because the two approaches are philosophically and pedagogically opposed to each other. Both require close reading. Both require students to use text evidence. The difference is in whether you see education as pouring information into the empty heads of passive students or see education as inspiring students to be all they can be.

Choose wisely.

 

 

Added Proof: The Common Core Hurts Kids

The Common Core State Standards were marketed as serving to “close the achievement gap”. That did not happen.

The designers and promoters of the Common Core determined that standardized test scores would be the measure of achievement. By that limited measure of achievement, the achievement gap increased. As  Results Are in: Common Core Fails Tests and Kids shows, NAEP scores of students whose education was focused exclusively on the Common Core curriculum decreased while NAEP scores for students in affluent suburbs whose education is not limited to test prep for standardized tests increased.

Fairfield University Professor and Network for Public Education Board member Yohuru Williams argues these tests, which are manifestly unfair to the neediest children, feed into racial determinism in American society while closing doors of opportunity for Black and Latino children.

More important than standardized test scores, the quality of the education that students who are educated with a Common Core curriculum have is vastly inferior to the education  that other students in affluent suburbs and independent, private schools have.  The Common Core curriculum does harm to children in their early years in school because it limits their development as thinkers and learners. Similarly, The English Common Core inhibits thoughtful reading, effective writing, and critical thinking.

The true achievement gap of being productive, analytical, competent citizens and workers is increasing. That is the injustice. That is the real harm that the Common Core curriculum is doing to children of color and children of poverty. Shame on us.

 

It’s All Over But The Cheering

 

Right before an institution dies, things get a little crazy. Think of the days before the fall of Rome and the days before the French Revolution. That is where we are now in terms of the misnamed education “reform” in Connecticut.

Things are getting crazy.

When the Connecticut State Department of Education threatens to withdraw needed funds from school districts in which some parents decide to not have their children participate in unreliable, invalid tests, then we know the end is at hand. When a governor prioritizes the opening of new publicly funded but not publicly accountable charter schools for a few over the funding of public schools for all, then we know the end is at hand. When the State Board of Education champions the Common Core as “far better than anything we have done before” although those standards were written by employees of testing companies, not educators, and contradict literally all research in how children learn best, then we know the end is at hand.

The test-and-punish era of education “reform” in Connecticut will soon meet its end because its craziness has become evident to so many.

It is clear that standardized testing can never close the achievement gap, that the Common Core Standards are not good learning and do not give students the skills they need for their future, and that the education “reform” effort is not reform at all but a way to remove public education as a right for all while it provides substantial financial profit for the investors.

So what is the path forward?

David Kirp in a recent New York Times piece points the way. He analyses why the schools in Union City, New Jersey improved while the efforts in Newark failed. In Newark, huge infusions of money, most notably 100 million dollars from Mark Zuckerberg, and outside talent did not bring success. In fact, they might be the reason for the failure. In Union City, by contrast, the school improvement efforts were led by a team of principals and teachers within the district who focused on how students learn best, how teachers teach most effectively, and how parents can be engaged in the schools. Through this process, learning took center stage, the culture of the schools changed, and the achievement of the students took off.

The Harvard School of Education report,” How High Schools Become Exemplary”, also points the way. It describes how 15 high schools improved the achievement of their students. In all 15 schools, the improvement was a result of a team of educators within the school recognizing what their students needed to learn and how they could learn best and accepting responsibility for meeting that need. They created a mission and determined priorities for their school, designed a plan for adult learning, developed criteria for judging student work and teacher practice, and provided resources and incentives. In all 15 schools, the leaders for the school improvement came from each school and overcame some teachers’ resistance to change because those teachers trusted the motives, the competence, the reliability, the collegiality, the intellectual diligence, the courage, and the hard work of the leaders.

The way forward is clear.

Here is what we must do in Connecticut:

1. Make school improvement a local enterprise. It must begin with the leaders having trust in the staff to grow and learn. As Michael Fullan, a leading expert in school improvement, has said, the first principle of school change is to “love your employees”. That comes from knowing them.

2. Set up authentic and focused collaboration among the teachers so that they become the kind of open, questioning, active learners they will teach their students to be.

3. Analyze the needs of the students. Determine how they learn best and what is it they need to learn. Design ways to assess both what they learn and how they learn.

4. Conduct adult learning experiences focused on improving instruction.

For many years, I have been part of creating positive change in Connecticut’s schools, both in suburban and urban districts, in schools with high standardized test scores and those labeled as “failing schools” due to their standardized test scores. I know for sure that collegial leadership, collaboration, and attention to how students learn and how we can best teach by the educators in an academic department, a school, or a school district offer the only path forward for increased student achievement.

Let’s give the test-and-punish version of “reform” a good burial and move on.

The kids are waiting.

Brain Surgery and the Common Core: A Replay

As 2015 comes to an end, I am reposting Brain Surgery and the Common Core, the post that, far and away, had the most readers in the eight months that this blog has been in existence. This post is a reminder of how the Common Core Standards are terrible standards.

I hope that this critique of the Common Core is part of the 2016 rallying cry for parents to opt their children out of tests on those inadequate standards, a rallying cry for school districts to not design curricula based on the intellectually bankrupt Common Core, and a rallying cry for good teachers everywhere to speak up about what learning really is and to make sure that real learning, not test prep, is what they foster in their classrooms.

As Brain Surgery and the Common Core points out:

There has been absolutely no field testing of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. There was no study conducted to see if meeting the standards in grades k-12 led to good grades in college and future employment. It is anybody’s guess if doing well and meeting the 42 K-12 Common Core English Language Arts Standards will make for success in college or lead to a job.

In 2016, we can do better for our children. We can work to provide them with an education that teaches them to question, that provides opportunities for them to learn through collaborating with others, and that encourages them to value their own ideas and to express them articulately. It is with those skills that students of today will be ready for lives with engaged minds and will, as adults, create for themselves higher education and career paths that are rewarding and fulfilling.

Moving Forward By Going Back To A Basic: Reading Literature

The fate of the nation may well rest on what two high school English teachers from Glastonbury High School, Steven Nicastro and Timothy Sanderson, point out in their op-ed piece in The Hartford Courant (December 20,2015), which is printed below.

The say, and all of us in the field of English know, that the Common Core has greatly reduced the amount and quality of literature read in our classrooms from kindergarten through grade 12. That reduction diminishes the lives of our children and adolescents as they have limited ideas and questions in their heads about the human experience, fewer challenges to their imaginations, and fewer examples of the power of language. That reduction in the teaching of quality literature even undermines the very intent of the Common Core: to build a competent workforce.

The Common Core is supposed to make us more internationally competitive, but how can it?

With the Common Core, the United States is the only nation in the world to set limits on the teaching of literature and to privilege the teaching of informational texts. Students are taught to read informational texts to understand the writer’s point of view and to gain the information that the writer presents. Reading literature, however, provides a much different challenge to readers. There isn’t just one set of facts to be gained from a poem, short story, play, or novel. There are possibilities to be explored and various interpretations to be created and supported. What the author intended is of no consequence; rather the individual meaning that the reader creates from the evidence the text offers is what matters. Reading literature fosters inquiry, requires speculation, demands interpretation, and honors creativity- all skills necessary for thoughtful careers, including in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

I have seen, as an English teacher and as a supervisor of English teachers, how reading literature enriches the lives of students and enables them to be deeper, stronger, more whole individuals than they would be without reading literature, without discussing in class a wide range of questions and perspectives about that literature, and without writing about the ideas offered by that literature. Witnessing students’ personal and intellectual growth from reading literature is what inspires me more than knowing that reading literature will help to produce their increased competitiveness in the global marketplace. But even for that goal, our children and adolescents need to be taught how to read literature.  

How to make that happen in Connecticut?

Easy. 

Rescind the Common Core and go back to the Connecticut State Standards. The Connecticut State Standards require that we teach all students in kindergarten through seniors in high school the two different ways of reading: reading for information and reading in response to literature. The Connecticut State Standards acknowledge that reading literature teaches students a valuable and unique way of thinking.  The Connecticut State Standards require that we truly educate Connecticut’s children and adolescents. We must reinstate those standards. Now.

 But first, read on……….

 

Classic Books Disappearing From Schoolrooms

STEVEN NICASTRO and TIMOTHY SANDERSON
Emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math squeezing out literature classics

“Give me my students, give me my books and close the door on your way out.”

A colleague used that pithy mantra whenever a new trend in education emerged. This was not a refusal to embrace new initiatives; it was a statement about our priorities as English language arts teachers — students, books and a place to bring them together.

With those three essential ingredients, our teaching and our students would be successful. Now, however, one of those fundamental ingredients is disappearing: books.

You read that right. Books are disappearing from our classrooms. Books — the be-all and end-all of teaching kids to be better readers, writers, thinkers and human beings — are going the way of the dinosaur. It’s an alarming trend we can’t ignore.

Many schools are eliminating the classics of literature, the backbone of any self-respecting English language arts class, in favor of “choice” books such as pulp fiction that offers comparatively little challenge.

Anyone with affection for reading and the study of literature has to wonder how this could happen, why school officials would allow it to happen and why there isn’t more outrage.

In part, the cause of this terrifying trend is the Common Core State Standards emphasis on short articles and excerpts of nonfiction, particularly historical and scientific documents, which are easily assessed on a standardized test. The Common Core website indicates that “fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading.”

This translates to fewer works of great literature, more nonfiction.

Of course, we can’t separate the curriculum changes wrought by Common Core from the forces driving those changes: the realization that the U.S. lags behind other countries in education and the resultant emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). According to the Common Core website, “It’s no secret that most of the best jobs out there that today’s students can hope to find are in the STEM fields.”

You don’t need to be an English teacher to read the writing on the wall: The increased focus on STEM minimizes the humanities, placing ever-decreasing importance on liberal arts and resulting in a nation of job-ready graduates with a limited view of what it means to be a human being.

Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post that the dismissal of a liberal arts education comes from a misunderstanding, particularly about America’s international rankings on math and science tests. “Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math,” Zakaria wrote. “And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.”

Even the staunchest proponents of STEM-centered education would have to concede that minimizing language arts is at best premature, at worst, unnecessary.

Sadly, students who once embraced the classics, including Shakespeare, now flinch when given lengthy novels and dramas — books that might get in the way of math and science homework. As literature slowly disappears, our more than capable students become reluctant to read, analyze, discuss and connect with complex books. They miss the value of immersing themselves in books, of reflection, particularly on others’ ideas, and of the sustained focus needed to work through difficult material.

No one contends that STEM subjects aren’t important. We often remind students that if they don’t learn algebra, they will never learn to think in certain abstract ways. Beyond their ability to stimulate cognitive function — a worthy goal — STEM skills are essential in today’s global economy.

But books, the soul of humanity, are essential, too.

The solution is a matter of balance: Offer high-caliber STEM courses and preserve literature in our language arts classrooms while using nonfiction to supplement the themes of such literature. For the ability to read literature effectively can produce smart scientists, trustworthy techies, ethical engineers and mindful mathematicians, individuals who understand the power and the responsibility they hold and the effects their innovations will have on humanity.

To school administrators, school board members and state legislators, we offer this slightly altered version of our colleague’s stance: Give us our books, give us our students and come visit our classrooms to see what happens when you bring them together.

Steven Nicastro and Timothy Sanderson teach English language arts at Glastonbury High School.

Not One Step Further: Stop Now

Here is your holiday gift from this blog which advocates for real learning. Your gift is: The magnificent use of the English language. And a call to action.

In The Hartford Courant (December 18, 2015) piece below, Gina Barreca beautifully and pointedly uses metaphor and imagery to show how  the Common Core, with its invalid and unreliable claims of “college and career readiness” and its hugely expensive and equally unreliable standardized tests, destroys learning for all children and adolescents in K-12 schools and dooms the underclass to remaining the underclass. She argues persuasively against bringing that injustice to the young adults in Connecticut universities. Hooray for Professor Barreca!

As Connecticut parents, politicians, and educators, let’s take her message into the new year and act on it. Opt out of standardized testing. Rescind the Common Core. Evaluate students as learners, not as test-takers.

But first, enjoy this wonderful piece of writing:

Universities Teaching To Test: A Disaster
by  Gina Barreca

Achieving accountability through testing is like achieving truth through waterboarding, achieving affection through bribery or achieving beauty through plastic surgery: You can’t actually trust the results.

To emphasize metrics and measurement at the expense of learning and understanding is to marginalize what can’t be measured. It puts pressure on precisely the wrong points and, like a chiropractic adjustment gone terribly wrong, can cripple rather than cure.

Connecticut is considering implementing a new version of outcomes-based funding for universities and colleges, thereby bringing policies already shown to have some disastrous effects in K-12 schools to a new level.

As someone who has taught at a state university for almost 30 years, I have a horse in this race.

I choose my words carefully: The language of gambling has pervaded the vocabulary of education, especially when it comes to standardized testing, and that should make us jittery.

The thousands of articles and hundreds of books on testing, both pro and con, regularly refer to “high-stakes testing,” and “gaming the system.” Most recently, when reading Connecticut’s task force notes, I was struck by the fact that the consultants hired to advise the politicians and other committee members suggested offering “momentum points” when students in colleges reached certain milestones. Our local casino offers “momentum dollars” when you put enough money into the machines and pull the handle enough times. It was tough to avoid the comparison. Isn’t assessment by outcome a version of waiting to see whether you can get three lemons in a row and thereby judge yourself a winner?

While it’s fine at the race-track or the roulette table, it’s corrosive to talk in binary terms about winners and losers when it comes to learning. It’s deeply misguided to evaluate students, teachers and educational institutions by seeing how profitable they can be when they cash-out on their returns for the lowest possible investment.

Part of the movement toward “outcomes-based” support is an emphasis on preparing graduates to enter jobs where there are “workplace shortages.” Yet as my friend Barbara Cooley put it, “Teaching to the corporate demand is not exactly a recipe for original and independent thinkers.”

While vocational training is an important and vital mission of some distinguished institutions, they are usually proud to identify themselves as such. To make all educational institutions into training grounds to meet the immediate needs of in-state corporations or large-scale employers has never been the mandate of any great university or college, whether public or private.

According to Timothy A. Livengood, a research astronomer at the University of Maryland, perhaps the greatest error of standardized testing is “The insufficiently scrutinized belief that the test evaluates the thing it is advertised as evaluating. Resulting in [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia believing that African-Americans who score poorly on such tests are actually less capable, or less genuinely well prepared than people who score highly. And Larry Summers ignoring decades of research to argue to a bunch of women that the reason they weren’t all math professors is that they just aren’t up to the task.” Test results can be rigged, too, in their interpretations.

According to a 2014 Gallup-Perdue Index, three of the most important factors in educational success are excitement, encouragement, caring. These are not delivered by teachers who whip their students into crossing finish lines. If we extend policies that fail in schools to colleges — teaching to the test, teaching so that everything can be “measured” by some useless standardized grid devised by the impoverished minds of egregiously overpaid consultants — we’ll usher in a new level of diminished possibilities for students who do not attend private, expensive universities.

To do so will add to what’s called the “education gap” — except that the division is not a gap; it’s a moat, a separation constructed and vigilantly maintained so that the poor and underserved will not be able to cross over into the territories held by the rich and privileged.

How much do you want to bet that Ivy League schools are not teaching to test? How much do you want to bet that they’re not adopting the short-sighted goals of performance-based funding? Why should the ambitious, dynamic and intellectually driven students at public universities be offered anything less than their more privileged counterparts?

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She can be reached through her website at http://www.ginabarreca.com.