Blog: Immigration reform as viewed from a classroom

Blog: Immigration reform as viewed from a classroom

OUR country’s immigration policies are reflected in the lives of my students. Some kids are taught from early ages to protect the people they love or those people will be sent away, never to be seen again. Some are made to lie, forced to cheat, and threatened with unnamed horrors so their undocumented family members can remain in the shadows.

One clue comes with simple questions. How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do your mother and father speak English? How long have you lived in Colorado? When the answers keep changing, you learn to stop asking.

I’ve held young children who were left, sobbing, after their parents were deported. In one case, kids were taken in by a distant aunt who likely had secrets of her own. All any of them knew was that their parents had to go away to work for a while. For children especially, there’s trauma in living below the law and fearing to articulate even the most basic facts about their family’s identities.

I once taught a child of an undocumented family that came for a vacation and stayed to care for an aging relative. They were afraid if they returned to the Middle East they’d be targeted as spies and subject to torture or even death. They didn’t care how many people lived in their apartment or how little food they could afford. Once they felt the presence of peace, they chose to risk everything to stay here, in Colorado, where they can live without fear.

One of my students had an undocumented mom with children who were born in this country. She wanted to tell the truth on the last census report about her lack of papers, knowing that being counted would bring more resources to her children’s school. But a few minutes on the Internet taught her about how our government had used census reports to find Japanese Americans and move them to internment camps during World War II. Even though she was promised that things have changed and that telling the truth wouldn’t lead to deportation, she understandably decided against filling out the paperwork.

It’s always a matter of trust when families relay their non-citizenship status to me, their child’s teacher. They want to know if I think a doctor would turn them in if their kid gets sick. Or if the court will figure out the truth when they pay a speeding ticket. Or if it’s safe to volunteer at a food bank. Or how likely it is for the police to knock on their doors in the middle of the night. Should they move, they ask, again?

They look to me for answers. But I have none, especially when our governor recently said many immigrants don’t care about becoming citizens. I can offer no assurances, no comfort to parents who want to know what’ll happen when President Obama’s executive order pledging deportation relief to undocumented parents expires.

Teachers are supposed to have answers. But in the face of families who would do anything to keep their kids at school and in my class, I’m humbled by what I wish I could tell them but can’t because, truth is, I don’t know.

[ Photo via Flickr. ]

Student Activists: Peace-seekers or Troublemakers?

Student Activists: Peace-seekers or Troublemakers?

Last month Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban, shared a win of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala’s proclamation that girls deserve an education was heard around the world. This month a private school federation in her home country has proclaimed an “I am Not Malala Day.”

How can a young woman be seen as a peacemaker and a troublemaker at the same time?

In my middle school literacy class, we discussed Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize last month and read aloud the letter the Obamas wrote to her in Time Magazine. Now it was time to discuss how some people in her home country have been less than supportive of Malala’s stance on education.

According to the Common Core Standards that mandate what must be taught in our Colorado classrooms, teachers are expected to teach students to see both sides of an issue so they can learn to develop their own opinions:

When my students learned about Malala’s win, they were excited for her. When they heard about the public opposition for her ideas, they were confused. How could the same girl be seen as a peacemaker and a troublemaker?

“How could people be mad at her for standing up for herself?” one seventh-grade girl asked.

An eighth-grade boy added, “If she knew her own people would turn on her, do you think she would have kept quiet?”

“There must be a bad side to her or people wouldn’t be mad at her,” a seventh-grade boy said.

We have a strong lesson to teach our children. Malala isn’t a politician; she wasn’t looking for fame or attention or a popular vote when she became a champion for educating girls. When you stand up for what you believe, there will always be those who disagree with you. If you find a peaceful way of sharing your peaceful message, you will be heard.

Colorado has its own movement of youth protest. Students around the state are voicing concerns over education reform and standardized testing.

Many high school seniors are staging protests, collecting signatures, and skipping classes to make a point: they refuse to be a silent witness to reforms to their education.

Kyle Ferris, a student at the Columbine High School, has led protests at his school. Success to him would mean the Jefferson County school board is acting in the interests of teachers and students and not changing the history curriculum to reflect conservative politicians.

A large percentage of high school seniors in the Boulder Valley School District, Cherry Creek and Douglas County School Districts have refused to take the new seven-hour Senior CMAS test this year.  Students from Fairview High school staged a protest on November 13th. Inside the building only seven students sat for the test. Others showed their determination by standing outside in the bitter cold protesting a required exam that included skills and information that were not part of their degrees. Why should they give a full day of their education to a test that will not help them learn anything new or prepare them for college?

2014 will be remembered as the year students in Colorado learned that in a democratic society, they have a voice and we will listen. Changes will have to be made so that districts that insist on “mining data” results for 95% of their students can continue to get funding.

An education must be a value to all. Let’s celebrate all students — here and abroad — who find ways to peacefully stand up for their educational rights. Though some grown-ups might grumble when kids force us to look at our policies and make changes, they are in fact peace-makers, all of them.

Let them play jazz

Let them play jazz

Teachers have been under the public microscope since Socrates first started instructing in ancient Greece. Those of us in the classrooms knew from the start that we were never going to get rich teaching geometry or physical education. Still, as our salaries have stayed flat, the high stakes nature of our work and expectations of accountability have skyrocketed. Much of this stems from increased pressure by lawmakers on schools to boost their test scores. And, like like much else in life, the manure runs downhill and all too often ends up on the teacher’s nice shirt.

teachers lounge 2Most people are unaware of the increasing use of “pacing guides” in classrooms. These are pre-planned lessons or programs that are purchased from the giant textbook publishers/testing companies (this includes Pearson Publishing, a fervent  supporter of the Common Core initiative that standardizes teaching). These “canned lessons” are basically designed to take the human element out of our craft. Everyone MUST follow the same guides designed by the book/test publishers to prepare students for statewide exams that, year after year, seem to produce low scores  and criticisms of teachers rather than the tests. There are elementary and middle school principals who want to walk down a hallway and hear the same lesson being taught, and the same pages being turned in every room at the same time. What about “teachable moments” in which students ask a difficult but off topic question? “Sorry – no time to answer your question, see cuz we need to hurry up and read the next section so we can meet our deadlines getting to the the word problems scheduled for today.” There’s little or no time for a teacher to be creative, passionate or engage his or her students. What is this, North Korea?

Teachers are like all other professionals: there are great ones, good ones and ones that need to be doing something else. This new method of one-size-fits-all teaching and evaluations may work for those at the bottom of the scale. But it does nothing but get in the way of the good and great teachers. (For the record, I consider myself to be a good teacher most days, and occasionally a great teacher, mostly because I have such terrific, inquisitive, spirited students).  Teaching is a wonderful mix of both a science an an art. The science comes in certain techniques that work for all students.  The art comes in knowing when and how to apply them, and how to meet the needs of 33 different kids with different strengths and learning styles.

Let me give some example. You can teach piano or football. Some kids will hit all of the correct notes and music comes out. Some will master the spiral pass or tackle. Even with the basics,  some will have no musical ear, no rhythm or no prowess on the football field, no matter how much they practice. Others are gifted, able to move you to tears by making the piano an extension of themselves, or strategize a Hail Mary pass like a chess-master. There is something innate about the way they make music or move on the field. It is soulful, emotional and takes you beyond the basics. It’s called excellence, talent. And, as educators, it’s what we strive to bring out in our students.

But if politicians, superintendents, and certain principals had their way, they’d make Peyton Manning run his offense the same way as Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. Or would have made Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninov play “Chopsticks” over and over. Younger teachers feel the pressure to conform. Those who yearn for more mojo in their classrooms often get discouraged and quit the profession.

I, for one, say enough to teaching at the lowest common demoninator. Teachers who are bored with their curricula will no doubt inflict boredom on their students. With increased emphasis on rote teaching, we can’t afford to let any more soul leak out of our classrooms. After years of teaching to the test, it’s time to call an audible at the line. It’s time to pound the ivories, play it by ear and let our teachers do what they do best – bring back the passion that led them to education in the first place.

Old school: A veteran high school teacher on starting over, again

Old school: A veteran high school teacher on starting over, again

As July melted into August this year – my 31st year teaching high school social studies — people kept asking “When do you go back?” and “How much longer?”

Both questions are in their own way a little depressing.

The first question because it seems that the notion of a summer vacation is becoming as anachronistic as the one-room schoolhouse. The old joke among teachers, “What are the three best reasons for teaching? June, July and August” has become far less apt as increasing demands cut into our summer vacations.

Every hour of every one of our 175 school days we are tasked with making hundreds of decisions, often with little time to truly comprehend what the consequences may be. Who raised their hand? Was the answer correct? What should be my follow-up question? Did that student really call the kid sitting next to her a bitch, and what do we do when the PA system announces “We have a shelter in place. This is not a drill!” Most teachers – even the most energetic and enthusiastic among us — are fried come the end of the school year. We crave time away to re-charge our mental and physical batteries.

But expectations have changed. Summers used to be spent catching up with family, reading trashy novels, working in the yard, taking naps or getting a summer job to help pay the bills. Now they’ve become over-scheduled with professional development classes, staff meetings, school emails to be kept up with, lesson plans to be written and new educational directives from the state and school district that need to be choreographed into our curricula. “Summer vacation” for teachers is now more or less a few weeks away from school. So when I’m asked “When do you go back?” it can be tough to muster an answer, knowing that I haven’t had enough of a real break.

That said, the question “How much longer?” is just as hard to hear. Implicit in that inquiry is the assumption that teachers are in a rush to reach the magic 30-year mark and retire either to a second career or the golf course. I’m happy to report that, a onth into my fourth decade of teaching; it’s still a joy to start the school year, even if my summer vacation was too short.

I started teaching in 1983 when Ronald Reagan was president and Barack Obama had just graduated college. Old yearbook pictures show a skinny, baby-faced 23-year-old fresh out of college trying to look professional and competent in his new career. There was a sense of trepidation about the weight of my responsibilities, yet also deep senses of wonder, amazement and possibility. There was not a day, not even a class period, when I questioned my calling to nurture my students’ interest in history, civics and geography. It didn’t faze me that a few months before I started teaching “A Nation at Risk,” the seminal 1980s critique on the state of education in the U.S., had been published. So began my career as a public school teacher – one that has been under the public’s scrutiny and politicians’ microscopes the entire time.

Today there is gray in my now shorter, thinning hair, and time has added a few pounds. But the past 30 years have not been a rush towards retirement and some sort of life of sponging off PERA. I’m not ready to call it quits just yet. Despite the shorter summer vacations, the swelling the class sizes, the funding cuts and unfunded mandates, I still love what I do and wouldn’t trade the new students, parents, colleagues and challenges for retirement.

So much has changed at William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, where I’ve taught for 25 years. But what matters – a sense of promise and purpose – is immutable. Students and staff showed up for the new year all freshly dressed with new hair-cuts and backpacks. The hallways were buffed and cleaned to a mirror finish. Classrooms were freshly decorated with posters reading “Welcome back class of 2014” or “Greeting to the class of 2017!” Most teachers beamed with smiles the first day (unless they’re newbies who’ve been taught, unwisely, NOT to smile until Thanksgiving so their students don’t think they’re weak). Freshmen got hopelessly lost in the long, overcrowded halls, looking for a familiar face or a nod from a teacher assuring them that, before they know it, they’ll find their way. And they have. It was hard not to notice the palpable excited of the football player waiting to strut onto the field for the first game, the overly eager student who raises her hand for every question, the emerging confidence of the shy English-as-a-second-language kid whose language skills grow every day, the ambition of the young actor hoping to land a starring role in the fall drama and the determination of the rookie teacher intent on learning the names and a little bit about each student before the long Labor Day weekend.

Still, despite the optimism of each new school year, certain frustrations set in even in the first two weeks.  Meetings – at times unspeakably long, mind-draining, butt numbing, “why-am-I-here” meetings — can suck the enthusiasm out of teachers like swarms of mosquitos in monsoon season. I’ve long assumed there’s a good reason for this form of meeting torture – but I haven’t figured it out. Directives come from the central office, the building principal, state lawmakers and everyone else who purports to know what works best in my classroom. This year, our district – Colorado Springs District 11 —  is celebrating the “Year of the Student!” which sort of makes me wonder what the other 30 years were about (the “Year of the Assistant Superintendent  in Charge of Technology” or the “Year of the Risk Assessment Manager”?) This year, we’re supposed to adhere to a new district vision called “Creating Awesome!” During a series of meetings, it has been drilled into us that “Awesome can be created by one person through their passion practice and persistence, or it can be a collective synergy of effort between and among people who demonstrate that passion, practice, and persistence while creating the outcome desired.” It’s more than a little demoralizing for a teacher – at least this teacher – to reduce all that we do down to a focus-grouped catch-phrase.

There are other challenges, including an increase in class sizes that stuffs as many as 38 and even 40 students into one classroom. Our school has gained nearly 400 new students, but not nearly enough new staff to accommodate them. Along with the influx of students comes, incredulously, a new directive to “de-clutter your rooms” from district administrators who seem oblivious to the fact that 40 kids packed into the room is the worst, and most negligent kind of clutter.

Then there’s the matter of 2,200 hormone-charged furnaces moving through a cramped school building in the August and September heat. “We realize that indoor conditions vary from outdoors, but unless there are prolonged temperatures over 95°F, there should not be a general health issues,” administrators have written us. The lack of air conditioning may not pose a medical risk, but it’s hardly an environment that’s conducive to learning. Even my International Baccalaureate (IB) seniors who are among the best, brightest and enthusiastic learners are wilting like popsicles on the hood of a car. The heat saps the joy of learning from students and teachers – all of us with sweat dripping down our shirts and onto the books we’re reading. Maybe starting school in mid-August isn’t the best idea after all.

Given all the frustrations and challenges inherent in the profession, my guess is that I’ll teach for another four or five years. Still, it’s hard to imagine getting up in the mornings and doing anything more meaningful than working with students who someday soon will assume the responsibilities of sharing what they know with the next generation, healing what ails our education system and hoping to fix what’s broken in their world. I am a 53 year-old teacher who, both by training and by fiber, is hopelessly optimistic. So, “How much longer?” If my classroom were air-conditioned, if class sizes were capped at 21 students, if the computers worked consistently, if academics were supported as much as athletics, if there were no more pointless meetings, trendy new initiatives, lawmakers micromanaging our classrooms or need to stay up at night worrying about kids living in shelters or psychopaths wielding guns at school, I’d teach until I was a 21st century version of Mr. Chips, and as long as my aging body and mind would let me do my job the way I’ve always dreamed.

[ Image by Jerry Wong ]