Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Big Test

One Hundred Years From Now 
(excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft)

One Hundred Years from now 
It will not matter 
what kind of car I drove, 
what kind of house I lived in, 
how much money was in my bank account 
nor what my clothes looked like. 
But the world may be a better place because 
I was important in the life of a child.

Thirty one years ago I began my life as a teacher. It’s hard to figure out how many students I have hung around with during all that time. For the last 14 years, I have had mostly the same ones for two years. Years ago I had the same amazing child for three years in a row. So, an exact number is hard to come by. But it’s a lot.

Each year, each group is different. Each child is an individual so special and unique. I have taught in three states, 4 different school districts, under six superintendents, in nine different schools, under ten different administrators. Change is definitely the constant.

During all of that time school policies have changed and the emphasis toward test scores has become pretty intense. Test scores have always been important but back in the day, it was in a global way. There wasn’t the pressure to perform on high stakes tests that there is today.

It started for me when I worked in southern Indiana in the early 80’s. Our school was underperforming when compared to another school just a mile or so away. On paper, most descriptors were similar. We had about the same number of kids bussed (yes, bussed), the same number of free-and-reduced-lunch, same average household income, etc. Our principal compared our test scores to our sister school on the overhead projector, flipping chart after chart up to demonstrate our shortcomings. How could they perform so much better than us? What were their teachers doing that we weren’t doing? She was getting pressure from the higher-ups and was just passing it down the line. It’s hard to blame her.

What we needed, she determined, was a task force to investigate. I was drafted to be on the task force. Long story short, we went over to our sister school several times at different times of day. I probably wasn’t the right one to be on the task force for lots of reasons. I wasn’t what you would call a traditional teacher. I didn’t stand up in front of the class with the teacher’s edition and read what the teacher was supposed to say. We didn’t do very many worksheets in my class. My kids wrote pretty joyfully, but they were able to write what they wanted to for the most part. My students read a LOT, but it wasn’t from the second grade basal reader most of the time.

So my view of the situation was a little skewed when I visited the school down the road. What I saw there was remarkably similar to what I saw at my own school. Basically, the curriculum was driven by the textbooks. Basically, everyone in the same grade level taught everything the same way at the same time. The kids sat at their desks for the majority of the day. There was not much conversation. It was a transmission model of instruction where the children were sort of passive recipients of information. I didn’t know that I could really say much in our report without getting myself in trouble. It seemed that this school was following the same awkward model of instruction as our school.

The question still remained. How were their kids testing significantly higher than ours?

On our last visit to the higher testing school, we went first thing in the morning. The children in the second grade classrooms I visited came in, quietly put their things away, and sat down to complete a bunch of worksheets. It seemed pretty status quo to me. The difference was, these worksheets were exactly like the standardized test all of the students had to take in the spring. These worksheets were even made, and sold to school districts by the same company that published the test.

Ah ha! These children were being prepared to take the test by taking the test every day, a little at a time. Their test preparation was with the test. Not that the questions were exactly the same. But they were almost the same. So, these children spent nearly an hour every day going over the test. They spent almost five hours every week preparing for the test, which amounted to about ONE HUNDRED FIFTY hours at least.

Now I had to wonder when the children read. When did they have the chance to write their own stories? When could they create their own math stories for each other to solve and engage in science conversations? When could they read the books they wanted to, the authors they loved, dive into a genre and not come up for air for a while? When could they talk about current events and listen to great books read aloud? I never felt like I had enough time to get in all of the important stuff, much less fit in an hour each day of test-prep-worksheets.

So when we reported out at the next faculty meeting, I raised my hand to speak. It was a no-brainer… “The reason their test scores are so much higher than ours is that they teach right to the test every day.” My principal must have known this. We were probably sent over there so we would come up with the conclusion that we needed to spend the money on the same materials. Her agenda was clear. She just wanted the suggestion to come from the teachers. I lamely thought that she would agree with me that this was just wrong; that spending thousands of dollars to buy their test-prep materials would amount to paying ransom to the very test-makers who were calling the shots.

She shut me up with a glare and a, “See me in my office,” spoken through gritted teeth. I did see her in her office and she bawled me out like a second grader for my “careless remarks”. Of course they weren’t “teaching to the test” as that would be illegal. Their test preparation materials had been reviewed and selected with care. Furthermore we were going to purchase the same materials and use them with our own students and that I had better hold my tongue from now on.

I did hold my tongue… pretty much. We spent thousands of dollars on the workbooks and I expect that our test scores did improve. I was only there for another year-and-a-half so I am not aware of the long-term results. I expect that in terms of the test scores, they delivered the desired score increases. I did not use the materials much. We did some exercises before the test so the kids would be used to the multiple-choice format. The thing is, my class’ scores were pretty high anyway. Even before our investigative task force, our scores were fine. Most of the best of what happened in our room was not tested anyway. Pencil-and-paper-fill-in-the-dot tests do not truly measure reading ability let alone a kid’s passion to read. They don’t accurately measure problem solving ability or curiosity or motivation or pleasure seeking knowledge. I guess my big question is, what did they miss? All of those children who practiced taking the high stakes test hour after hour, day after day… What might they have done in school that was a better use of their time?

This following poem is something I posted a couple years ago, but I think it fits here as well. I am a teacher of little kids. I don't just teach math or reading or social studies. I don't just teach children to take tests. I teach children. This poem by Ina Hughes reminds me.

We pray for children

who put chocolate fingers everywhere

who like to be tickled

who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants

who sneak popsicles before supper

who erase holes in math workbooks

who can never find their shoes

And we pray for those

who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire

who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers

who never "counted potatoes"

who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead

who never go to the circus

who live in an x-rated world

We pray for children

who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions

who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish

who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money

who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key

who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink

who slurp their soup

And we pray for those

who never get dessert

who have no safe blanket to drag behind them

who watch their parents watch them die

who can't find any bread to steal

who don't have any rooms to clean up

whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser

whose monsters are real

We pray for children

who spend their allowance before Tuesday

who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food

who like ghost stories

who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub

who get visits from the tooth fairy

who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool

who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone

whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry

And we pray for those

whose nightmares come in the daytime

who will eat anything

who have never seen a dentist

who aren't spoiled by anybody

who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep

who live and breathe but have no being

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must

for those we never give up on

and for those who don't have a second chance

For those we smother... and for those who will grab the hand of

anybody kind enough to offer it.

Ina J. Hughes

At school we have a moment of silence every day. "Please pause for a moment of silence," says the child who reads the announcement. It used to mean nothing to me. It was just this little moment where I would mentally prepare for the school day ahead. Now I pray for children.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


A woman cries amid devastation in Port-au-Prince

Witnesses described people crying for help amid the devastation. [Photo: Matt Marek/American Red Cross]

See full size image

On this early Saturday morning I couldn’t sleep. I woke up thinking about Haiti. I’ll bet a lot of people in our country did. How can you not? If you have seen any news lately, if you have read any newspaper or viewed news on the internet, you have seen it. Pictures of people crying, footage of children being pulled from fallen buildings, torn bodies piled up on the sides of streets, miracles and tragedies. You have heard the voices and seen the tears and blank stares of survivors, the brave doctors and regular citizens rushing to aid of others.

In a rare show of unity, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have banded together to solicit aid from citizens of the US and the world. There was an international concert last night along with a telethon, asking people to give whatever they can to help rebuild Haiti. Among the folks I saw perform were Kid Rock, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Jennifer Hudson, Bono, Sting.

To me, this is America at its greatest. We do have the capacity to come together in times of need. I don’t know how much money has been donated to date, but I’ll bet it’s a lot. I can’t begin to imagine how many prayers have been offered up for Haiti. Countless. For many people this is a call to action. A cause. Something important to do.

Among several the bloggers I follow, Haiti is what has become their focus. There are many ideas for ways to collect money, on how to get food medicine and supplies to Haiti. There is a collective sense, I believe, that whenever this kind of tragedy strikes, whenever there is this kind of physical and psychological suffering, we feel that pain as well. We feel the need to help. That is a big part of what makes America great. That is what makes us human.

But, almost unbelievably, there are those who are using this terrible human event to further their own agenda. Crazy, isn’t it? Who hasn’t heard Pat Robertson’s rant from his 700 Club platform that this happened to Haiti because of a pact they made with the devil 200 years ago so they could get out from “under the heel” of the French? According to Pat Robertson, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” And, “Of course, ever since then they have been desperately poor.” So, that little kid who I saw being pulled from the rubble who lost ten of his family members is being punished by God for some pact they made with the devil (whoever “they” are) 200 years ago?! Not my God.

I’m not saying Pat Robertson is an idiot, but one HAS to wonder about his agenda. Is it to get people to buy into is vengeful, wrathful god? Is it to place fear into the hearts and minds of his listeners? Is it to clarify his purported stranglehold on “the truth”? Is it to solicit more donations?

Glen Beck, conservative talk show host, said that he has a problem with President Obama’s pledge of sending Haiti $100 million dollars. Mr. Beck feels strongly that that aid should be left to charitable organizations and that the US should only provide military for security. When I heard Mr. Obama’s pledge I was embarrassed by how small that seems. That is approximately the cost of keeping 100 soldiers in Afghanistan for one year. Aren’t we on the way to sending 30 or 40 thousand more troops into Afghanistan?

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggested that President Obama would use the tragedy to better his image with, “the light skinned and dark skinned black community in this country.” [?????] He suggested that aid to Haiti would allow President Obama to appear “humanitarian and compassionate.”

Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s agenda is obvious. They seem bent on getting people to see any and everything Barack Obama does as evil. Even a true no-brainer such as helping our neighbor in their time of deepest trouble and pain is a wrong-headed, unpatriotic, subversive plot to these guys. I don’t think they truly believe this in their hearts (for their sake, I hope I am right) but they are nothing if not true to their form. That’s not my patriotism.

When this kind of tragedy strikes, it brings out the best in our country and, unfortunately, the worst. It is my sincere hope that we take the high road and do EVERYTHING we can with the wonderful resources with which we have been blessed, to make a positive difference in the lives of the poor people in Haiti. We have so much to be thankful for. One way to show our gratitude is to be generous.

Monday, January 18, 2010

An Old Man

Over the holidays I was in a few airports. In Albuquerque I was waiting at the gate and I saw this elderly Hispanic man reading a newspaper. I was reading a book myself, but I like to watch people at airports. He was right across from me. I looked up as he put his paper down on the empty chair next to him. Unselfconsciously, he cried. I didn't see what he was reading in the paper. My guess is that he read an obituary of an old friend or a sad news story. When I got on the plane, I wrote this poem in my notebook. Then I got to thinking about the alphabet and how it can make you laugh and cry. That's where the poem/song "Twenty-Six" came from.

Anyway, this little piece is sort of the prequel to "Twenty-Six".

I saw an old man
With his head in his hands
His life running by
Just like falling sand

Tears in his eyes
Grief on his face
Another sad member
Of the human race

His collar turned up
To shield from the cold
Nothing matters now
Not possessions or gold

The newspaper next to him
Opened up wide
Black and white faces
Passed to the other side

Vincent van Gogh's Old Man with his Head in his Hands (At Eternity's Gate) Graphic

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Full Circle

A few nights ago, I saw a former student. That happens when a teacher stays in the same place for a while. You run into someone out in a store, at the movies or at the park. Sometimes the child is just a few years older and it’s easy to see the little one you taught before. They’re just… bigger. There are still high school kids who come back to reminisce about elementary school. And we have reunions fairly regularly so I get to keep up with the slow but relentless changes as my young friends mature.

Since we started our careers in Michigan 31 years ago, then moved to Indiana for several years while Heidi got her doctorate, I never run into anyone from really early in my teaching. My first class of 11 year olds from back in 1979 would be 42 now. Wow!

A few nights ago we had an annual event that I always look forward to. We call it information night. Since The Center for Inquiry is a magnet school, parents may select from CFI or other magnets. Thanks to our brilliant superintendent and school board our district is all choice. Parents may choose to send their children to any school or program provided there are openings and it doesn’t lead to segregation within the district.

One night a year parents and children come to CFI to learn about us; to see if they want to bring their kids to school here. There are many fine schools in Richland District 2 so this evening is a time for us to share who we are, what we do. Of course I am biased, but CFI is an awesome place for kids to go to school.

Kids learn and laugh and – sometimes cry. Teachers do too. The teachers are dedicated professionals who take the job very seriously. I take that back. It is more than a job. It is a way of life.

Our principal, Lyn, begins with an overview of the Center and shares a bit about our philosophy. This year we shared a video project Heidi created of us teaching over the years. It shows kids being amazed at a magnet exploration, kids sharing phenomenal pieces of writing, interviews with student teachers, kids reading, singing, exploring math, etc. After a parent (and friend) shared why she chose CFI for the education of her two little ones, the perspective parents were encouraged to visit the classrooms.

After returning to my classroom for a few minutes this young couple walks into the room with two little ones in tow. The man smiles broadly and I know I know him. I walk up with my hand outstretched and apologize for forgetting his name. I recognized him as a former student from my last school.

“Mr. O’Keefe. It IS you,” he said, in almost a whisper as he shook my hand. “I heard your name but I didn’t know for sure until I saw that old guitar on the video. It’s me, Jake.” Now it hadn’t been THAT long. CFI opened in 1996, so Jake must have been in my third grade class in 1994 or ‘95. Fourteen or fifteen years, right? Of course both of us had changed a lot. I’m about 10 pounds heavier, I wear glasses full time, my beard is ¾ white, my wrinkles deeper, my hair is shot through with gray.

I remember Jake as a little shy at first but he warmed up pretty quickly. I remember him always having bed-head; his front teeth were a little too big for him. But those bright brown eyes and big smile haven’t changed much. They just morphed into those of a handsome young man. He and his wife were thinking of enrolling their little girl in CFI. There would be a good chance that I would have her in my class if they choose CFI and she got in.

This happens to teachers much younger than me. I have heard lots of teachers say that they taught former students’ children. But it still left me a little breathless to know that I am the age where my little ones now have little ones of their own and that I might even teach some one day.

I asked Jake what he remembered about third grade with me all those years ago. “Not much really.” He sort of looked inward for a moment. “You read to us a lot,” he said. “Good books too. Like maybe Charlotte’s Web.” OK, I am an old softy. That is the book we are sharing for literature study right now. “And I remember having pets. We had that turtle, right? What was its name? Angela?” I had Angelo for about 25 years. Just last summer he finally made it to his real home in our woods. “And we sang a lot of songs too. Didn’t we write some songs together? And we sang ‘Down on the Corner’ that oldies song.” If WE don’t teach them about Creedence, who will? Am I right?

Jake’s daughter was a little too shy to talk to me. She clung pretty tightly to her daddy’s leg. But I recognized that red-brown hair and that shy smile. She still has her baby teeth but I’ll bet her front permanent teeth will be a little big for her face for a while. Maybe she’ll have bed head too. But she will grow into a beauty – just like her beautiful parents.

It doesn’t bother me that Jake doesn’t remember specifics about the SC History he learned in our classroom or how I taught him long division or all of the standardized tests we did back in the day. I’m glad that when he thinks back about third grade he remembers the feeling of it; the classroom pets, the books we shared and that old guitar. It would be an honor to teach their child, to be a part of Jake’s life again in a different way. It is always an honor to teach little kids.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Card From Nancy

I just got a Christmas card from an old friend. We’ve only known each other for a couple years actually, but we went through a lot in the short time we hung out, so Old Friend seems like the appropriate term for our relationship.

Chance, luck, fate – God – brought us together on a trip to Rwanda a couple summers ago. When we went I was a little unprepared to share anything with the people of Rwanda. I brought my old guitar and did manage to share music with some of my new friends. At the Sisters of Mother Teresa’s I played for a party we hosted for many of the children. At one point while we were there I played for some of the female survivors of the genocide. There was a blind young woman, older women with missing limbs, some who seemed out of touch with reality. Some who were simply left homeless. The Sisters never turn anyone away. ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Step by Step’ by Rich Mullins were the songs I played there. Several times, with my little scrawny voice, I played those songs. I’m sure most of the women didn’t know what the words meant. But some listened. And when I finished, some showed their appreciation.

Another time I played was for the children of Sonrise School. My friend Cindy and I taught the children some songs and they gave them back tenfold. Then they sang for us and blew us away.

Nancy Strachan and Cindy Charles with our
new friends in the
gazebo at the Bishop's house.

But Nancy? Nancy brought her beads (suitcases full of beads) and her skill as a teacher and taught many women how to make beautiful earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Nancy left those

women with enough beads and wire and fasteners to open a business. She taught them how to take their profits and to buy more beads. We videotaped the instructions so they could go back and see how to do some of the tricky parts if they forgot. Nancy had it all figured out.

We had some joyous experiences together, getting to meet and share time with Immaculee Ilibagiza – the writer of one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. We celebrated mass with Immaculee’s wonderful cousin Ganza. We toured the beautiful countryside, visited holy places; fell in love and friendship with beautiful people.

We also shared some terribly sad moments. Together we went through the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the resting place of a quarter of a million people. We cried until we ached. We went to Ntarama where 5,000 innocent ethnic Tutsis were killed in a single night by extremists. It is a church no bigger than a Seven-Eleven.

Sharing those experiences made us automatically old friends. Tucked into her Christmas card this year was a photo of Nancy with a girl Heidi and I sponsor at Sonrise. Sophia was a little girl when I saw her those two-and-a-half years ago. She was in fifth grade I think. Now she is a tall, slender and lovely young woman. In the photo Nancy has her arm around Sophia’s shoulders. She is as tall as my old friend Nancy now. Both of them have these gentle smiles. Beautiful smiles.

The thing that is so amazing about Rwanda is that now it is all about forgiveness. After the violence – forgiveness. I can’t come close to understanding how they do it. But they do. Little Rwanda is the heart of Africa and could be, if we could watch, listen and learn - the heart of the world.

There is this short and simple but really sweet little piece on the front of her card. Of course I connect it to Rwanda and our time there. How could I not? I know that technically this isn’t the Christmas season any longer. It’s funny how the season seems to start the Friday after Thanksgiving, a month before Christmas, but ends the day after Christmas. Breaking all tradition, here is the little piece from the front of that card. Here’s to Christmas Spirit throughout the year.

Every time a hand reaches out

To help another…

That is Christmas.

Every time someone puts anger aside

And strives for understanding…

That is Christmas.

Every time people forget their differences

And realize their love for each other…

That is Christmas.

May this Christmas

Bring us closer to the spirit

Of human understanding,

Closer to the blessing

Of peace.