Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Syracuse Area Teacher Explains Why Her Conscience Forced Her To Retire

 A Copy of This Letter Appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard

In recent years, increasing numbers of veteran teachers have found themselves leaving a profession they love, often years before they expected to.  This year, it is my turn to move away from work I cherish because it has become increasingly challenging, and at times impossible, to teach with integrity.

As government and business leaders have focused on fixing what is portrayed as a broken educational system, the mandates imposed systemically damage our schools instead of improving them.  Demands to measure, evaluate and rank our students and teachers have taken the focus off learning and shifted it to producing test scores.  To be sure, changing instruction will often increase test scores, but veteran educators know that learning has likely not increased.

Standardized tests are one measure of learning, but should not be the primary or only measure. Instead of moving toward authentic assessment practices such as portfolios and real life problem situations, we increasingly base decisions about learners and educators on multiple-choice type measures. These measures neither assess nor promote a focus on the natural curiosity and passion in children, the traits that promote true life long learners who will transition into successful and independent adult workers.

When the so-called rigors of the new student and teacher evaluations were first brought to our schools five years ago, I watched many colleagues leave because they knew the changes would not benefit children and had the potential to damage the schools they loved.  I stayed on out of my love for the students, who bring such joy to learning, and because I believed it was important that we in the front lines within the school work to preserve authentic learning practices.  Unfortunately, as each year passes, I have found my day – and my students’ day – filled up with assessment, evaluation, and documentation, crowding out time for exploration, collaboration, and deeper learning.  Increasing amounts of time are spent proving teachers are doing what the standards and mandates dictate, crowding out time to plan, prepare and instruct the kinds of lessons that engage students and lead to lifelong learning.

I can no longer encourage six- and seven-year-old children to keep trying to improve scores in biweekly tests that do not reflect real learning in math and reading and actually steal chunks of valuable instruction time.  I can no longer answer questions from parents concerned about test scores and encourage them to turn to computerized programs which do not have the power to foster interest in deep learning in their children, and are instead too often just a form of electronic baby-sitting.

After 38 years as a teacher, I’ll miss my students so much, and I’ll miss my colleagues, some of whom look at me with envy for being able to leave, but my leaving is bittersweet.  The authentic and engaging differentiated learning community we spent our careers striving to create is being replaced by mandated, scripted instructional programs with a “one size fits all” focus.  I hope that soon we will re-awaken to what real learning is and turn our focus toward supporting our schools and their children in these changing and challenging times, working to strengthen instead of break down, our schools.

Karyn Dieffenderfer

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Great Upstate NY Principal Announces Why She Has Decided to Retire

Dear Parents,

                I am writing to you with an extremely heavy heart.  After almost twenty years in this beloved school, I am announcing my retirement.  This is very bittersweet for me, because I have come to really know and believe in the wonderful children you have graciously shared with me over the years.  I have had the wonderful opportunity to watch them as beginning Kindergarteners learning to navigate around the school independently, and learning the correct bus number to take them back home at the end of the school day.   Each of them has a different birthday, and they come in a variety of sizes.  Some have had the advantage of having attended a preschool program, but many have not.  They will all learn and develop in their own very unique learning style, and at their very own unique rate.  By no means are they standardized.  They are however, the very best that you have placed in our trust and care.  Our job is to nurture them, and guide them along the path in becoming lifelong learners, and kind, caring people.

                Throughout the course of my years, many of the children have shared with me just how overwhelming elementary school is for them.  There is so much for them to learn.  Some of them struggle to learn to read, and know that they are a little behind their classmates when it comes to the actual reading level that they are on --- in other words, each child learns to read at a different rate than their peers.  Some children have a form of dyslexia which has been medically diagnosed, and must work their way through all sorts of frustrations when learning to read.  They need the gift of time.  It is unfair for them to be subjected to taking a state mandated test that is 2 to 3 years above their grade level.  It is heartbreaking to watch children have meltdowns, and shutdown because the reading level, and questions on a state level test are so far above their reading level.

                This year, we were able to enrich our science curriculum through the use of environmental instructors from Earth Spirit Educational Programs.  Children in grades K through 5 were able to go outdoors throughout the school year.  Children need opportunities to get outdoors and learn about their environment, and nature.  They need to learn about their surroundings.  It is important that children feel a sense of freedom.  It is my hope that you will continue to support this excellent program for years to come. 

                I can no longer watch as corporate elites tear the heart out of public education due to their own personal greed and avarice.  I cannot stand by in silence as they promote five week teacher training programs, and student test scores linked to teacher evaluations.  The tests are developmentally inappropriate.  To continue to use these assessments in this manner is malpractice.  Parents have a right to see these tests and to know what the expectations are for their child.  You will need to be aware of the U.S. Secretary of Education, John King’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  While ESSA allows states to pass laws allowing parents to opt children out of taking the state tests, the draft regulations would make any such state “opt out” law simply a vehicle to setup high opt-out schools to be labeled failing.  This would put parents in the position of, either exercising their right to direct their children’s education or, putting their children’s school into the crosshairs of the federal government’s over-reaching regulations.  Last year, Allendale had 75% opt-out.  We would be labeled a failing school according to this dichotomy.  The battle continues.  Please remain vigilant.  I certainly will.

                I am thankful for the opportunity to have watched thousands of children become fine, contributing members of our community, and feel that an important part of my heart and soul will remain within the halls of Allendale.  I thank you for having welcomed me into your homes, to have invited me to dance recitals, First Communions, graduation parties and weddings.


Marge Borchert

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Ramon Jimenez Educational Forum Inspires the Bronx

The Ramon Jimenez Memorial Education Forum that took place today in the Bronx was an incredibly moving and important event. Huge credit to Aixa Rodriguez and Aldo Perez for all their hard work in putting it together. Brilliant author presentations, incredibly moving tributes to Ramon Jimenez, lots of networking, great food, discussion of the important issues facing the people of the Bronx. I came away from the Forum with lots of new contacts, ideas for projects, plans for an oral history interview with the remarkable Assemblyman Jose Rivera, and a renewed and deepened appreciation for Ramon Jimenez. His daughters remarks, which ended the formal presentations moved me to tears. "We had a real hero in the South Bronx" she told the crowd after providing us with a revealing account of Ramon's final three years, including stories many of us didn't know. She was right. Ramon WAS a hero. And his example with continue to inspire us as we take on the challenges of a time when immigrants are in the crosshairs of ruthless politicians, gentrification looms as a serious threat to some Bronx neighborhoods, and our public schools continue to deny Bronx students access to sports the arts and so many other things which would make them connect more to their school experience. We will continue to fight. Ramon Jimenez wouldn't have it any other way

Friday, June 24, 2016

Misplaced Priorities in Bronx Schools

I am not an expert on pedagogy. I am not an expert on curriculum. I am not conversant with standards, testing, or graduation requirements.
However, as product of the New York City public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade, and as someone who has interviewed more than 100 people about their experience in Bronx schools from the 1940's through the 1960's I know this- school teams, school bands and orchestras, school newspapers, theater programs and arts programs change lives, especially for young people coming from poor and working class families.
Programs like this not only inspire young people in and of themselves, and create strong relationships among students, and between students and teachers, they build confidence and make everything else that goes on in school more tolerable.
Given this observation, why is it that so many schools in the Bronx today look upon teams and arts programs as extraneous to the "real business" of school, which is getting students to acquire basic skills and pass tests? Don't they realize that eliminating creative outlets for students will ultimately undermine their quest to improve test results? That it will drive up drop out rates? Make students disillusioned with formal education?
There is something really destructive taking place right now, especially when it comes to sports. During the past five years, I have approached principals in six different schools with the opportunity to have Fordham students create men''s and women's soccer teams for their institutions and NOT ONE has taken me up on the offer, even though the offer involved access to Fordham facilities and opportunities for tutoring. It was not that the principals rejected the offer, its that they let it die a silent death by not following up.
What makes this even sadder is that in all of these schools, the majority of students were immigrants who came from countries where soccer is the major sport- especially Mexico and West Africa- and where students already possessed some skills. Not only would creating teams for them give them an opportunity to achieve success in something which they are confident, it might enhance their chances of college admissions and scholarships.
But clearly, creating teams, and creating arts programs is not much of a priority in the Bronx, especially in the new "small schools" which have swept through the borough.
And this is very destructive, and very sad

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dixie Chicks at Madison Square Garden- A Celelbration of Women's Power

Imagine being at a party with 20,000 people dancing, singing, cheering, high fiving and sharing food with the people next to them. That was the Dixie Chicks concert at Madison Square Garden last night. I have been at many great concerts over the last 50 years, from the Rolling Stones at Madison Square in 1969 to Hugh Masakela in Berlin in 2008, but I have NEVER felt crowd love at a concert like this one. The audience knew every one of the songs the Chicks played, including their brilliant tribute to Prince "Nothing Compares to You" sang along with all, and danced to the rocking numbers. Which was encouraged not only by the impact of the songs themselves, but the Chicks incredible musicianship and kick ass band mates. These three brilliant women played guitars, percusission, keyboards, fiddle while singing impeccable harmonies during to songs filled with history and meaning. to everyone there- songs from the early days of their career when they were the hottest and best loved group in country music, and songs that followed their excommunication from country for making negative comments about George Bush during the Iraq War. The audience knew them all, and loved them equally. Which was a statement in and of itself
And the audience, that was a show in itself. I have never been in a crowd like this in New York City, maybe anywhere. Imagine you took a representative group of country music fans, big, strong, proud, casually and sometimes skimpily dressed, and overwhelmingly white, and elminated most of the men! That was the Garden last night. Filled with women fheir late teens to mid fifties out to PARTY! None of whom looked like they wanted to or could fit in skinny jeans! These were women who ate pizza and fries and hot dogs and chicken fingers with abandon and drank huge amounts of beer!
The three women in front of me and Liz, fortyish, attractive,looking like they came from small town or suburban New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Long Island, were constantly hugging each other, taking selfies, dancing, and swilling so much beer Liz and I prayed they weren't driving home. The Dixie Chicks clearly represented a bond between them, one that they didn't share with husbands or boyfriends., i they had any. And they were one of thousands of groups like that around the Garden.
Which brings up a point. When the Chicks were excommunicated from country music after making negative comments about the Iraq War, it shattered their lives. They lost their audience. Their songs were banned from the radio. They were no longer able to tour. And they had to reinvent their musical identities, which they did brilliantly with a subsequent album,"Taking the Long Way Home" produced by Rick Rubin , which used what happened to them as a theme. But their sudden and total exclusion from coutnry music radio, and its associated performance venues was still crushing. The people who loved you and led their lives to your music turned their backs on you. And the question remained. Did they have an audience following this catastrophe? And if so, who was it?
Well, this concert answered the question for me. Their audience wasn't hipsters, or ( oresent company exluded) Park Slope or Upper West Side liberals. It was country music loving WOMEN who identified with their message of defiance, joy, love and refusal to be kept down by arrogant and powerful men- women who would have looked at home at a NASCAR Race or a barbecue or a country music bar.
And what about the Dixie Chicks politics- their opposition to War, their involvement in prison reform, their support for gay rights? Well, it didn't seem to bother them a bit..They rocked to "Wide Open Spaces" and "Goodbye Earle" and shouted the words of "Not Ready to Make Nice." No America, there are a lot of working class and middle class white women NOT READY TO MAKE NICE about the injustices in our society. Live with it. It is part of our reality and it was celebrated last night
Which brings me to the close of the concert where the Chicks brought out their children and hoisted a Rainbow Flag to honor the victims of the Orlando shootings. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
This was an evening of celebration of love, of female power.
Because when all is said and done, the Chicks were powerful. transcendently talented women who were punished when they criticized the most powerful man in the country. Then the powerful me who ran the country music industry wanted to make them disappear and almost succeeded.
But they came back, defying all odds,thumbing their nose at their abusers, and producing the same great music that was almost silenced.
And THAT, my friends, is a story a whole lof of women can identify with

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Orlando: Letter from a Gay Friend

I just received this letter from a former student living in Brazil who came out shortly after he graduated.. I needed to share it here because of its powerful message:
Hey Doc, I wanted to reach out to you about what happened in Orlando. I've been shaken by this in a way that I'm having a hard time putting to words.
As someone who has always known the dangers of living in a world that is often hostile to gay people, I've always tried to tell myself that the best of people will inevitably prevail. Yesterday, I was wrong.
Gay bars and gay clubs are where men and women who are rejected from every other place in society go to. They have always been a place where no matter how bad someone felt about themselves, there were others who probably felt the same way. When most institutions turn their back, gay clubs are often the one place that, with all their shortcomings, accept gay people explicitly for who they are. The one place where you can express that purest of emotion without the fear of harm or judgment. Something as simple as a hug or a kiss.
This was an attack on a vulnerable community and if I'm drawing any strength from this, it's been from the outpouring of support from around the world. From Muslim brothers and sisters who have denounced this act and have lined up to donate blood. From our President who affirmed the dignity of the LGBTQ community and from my friends near and far.
The gay community will not be broken by this because perhaps more than most communities, gay people know full well what hate can lead to. I believe that the best of America will emerge in the aftermath of what happened not because I think so but because I must.
Thanks for listening Doc. I just needed to share that with someone and I know you'll take my words to heart as you do for all those you stand up for and defend.
Unrelenting love,

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The "Undercover Trump Supporters" of Eastern Long Island

Twelve years ago, Liz and I purchased a vacation home in a working class neighborhood of Eastern Long Island called "The Springs." Over time, we have gotten to know our next door neighbors, almost all year round residents, who are a combination of Latino immigrants and long time white working class and middle class residents of the East End. The connection between the two largest groups is complicated. Whites and Latinos work in the same businesses, send their children to the same public schools, play on the same teams and especially among young people date and forge friendships across racial and cultural lines, but rarely interact socially as entire families. Moreover, based on articles in the local newspapers and conversations with white neighbors, there is an undercurrent of resentment of the Latino newcomers relating to issues ranging from noise, overcrowding in houses and loud parties to the growing presence of non English speaking students in local public schools.
Given the tension about the Latino presence in the Springs, made more complicated by the daily interaction of Latino and white residents in virtually every local institution, I wondered how the Trump candidacy was going to effect my neighborhood and my neighbors. Here was a candidate who voiced resentment of undocumented immigrants in raw, incendiary terms which I knew, from my own experience, produced fear, resentment and anger in people from the groups targeted, even if they weren't undocumented. How would my neighbors who were Trump supporters express their support and how were my Latino neighbors going to respond?.
Well, so far, I have been unable to find out because I have seen not a single Trump sign on a lawn in the Springs, nor a single Trump sticker on a car. What is going on? Does it mean that all my white working class and middle class neighbors are signing off on Mr Trump's appeal?
Not at all, says one of my East End friends, who lives in community thirty miles away. Huge numbers of her friends and family members, many of whom are civil servants, plan to vote for Donald Trump because they feel the growing presence of undocumented immigrants has destabilized their schools and communities. Some are torn up inside about this because they have strong ties to the Latino students they teach or Latino co workers; others are filled with a rage that spills over into overt racism, but combined, the two groups constitute a huge cohort of what my friend calls "underground Trump supporters" whose numbers may be large enough to sway the election.
As for the reluctance to display their Trump support openly, what my friend said was revealing. One of the reasons Trump is getting support, she said, is that anyone raising questions about immigration in her community, especially if they are a public servant, is accused of being a racist. Trump's fiery rhetoric about immigration allows this long needed discussion to take place; And in a community where the Latino presence in the schools has grown so rapidly that it has strained resources to the breaking point, that has gained him huge support.
But it is a support that is filled with fear, ambivalence, even a little guilt. Many Trump supporters are afraid that if they put Trump signs on their lawn or Trump stickers on their car, they will enrage or offend the Latino co-workers, clients, students, and neighbors they interact with every day. Not only could this lead to arguments and fights, it could jeopardize their employment with schools or government agencies, whose leaders would view open signs of Trump support as racially incendiary in a multiracial community. Trump supporters KNOW their ideas offend many people, but they are desperate to make their voice heard so that issues important to them are addressed. Some don't care what anyone thinks about their identification with so controversial a candidate, but many do and they are trying to keep the "blowback" to a minimum
What we have here is a very tense situation even though there are no signs of the militias or storm troopers that some people on the left feared the Trump candidacy would inspire. Trump supporters on the East End know their public endorsement of the candidate would offends many people they live and work with But feel they have no choice but to vote for him to protect their families and communities,
It is a very sad state of affairs.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Defending the Vulnerable in Our Workplaces Schools and Communities

Last fall, in the face of several disturbing incidents on the Fordham campus, students, faculty and alumni came together to launch a "Zero Tolerance for Racism" campaign to defend the values of our community and let members of vulnerable groups know they were not alone. The great thing about this campaign was how broad based it was-including students with no history of activism along with athletes and campus leaders. It also crossed the political spectrum including Republicans and conservatives as well as Democrats and liberals. It gave people a chance to stand up for the kind of university they wanted to be part of, a university where all people were honored and welcomed
As the Presidential campaign threatens to take an ugly turn, with riots and protests possible at campaign rallies, and rhetoric targeting individuals and groups on the basis of race, religion and nationality already being aired, I think it may be time to organize committees in workplaces, communities and schools to make sure that no vulnerable people are targeted for violence or harassment.
The goal is simple: to prevent the political passions triggered by this Presidential race from poisoning the atmosphere on the ground to the point where people attack their neighbors, co-workers and fellow students.
In normal circumstances, I would not say such committees are necessary, but these are not normal times. I suggest that people quietly reach out to friends neighbors and co-workers to see who is willing to step up to keep things from getting out of hand in local communities and institutions.

Why I am NOT Jumping on the Hillary Clinton Bandwagon

The logic of "The Lesser of Two Evils" has brought us, under the last two Democratic Presidents:
1. A "welfare reform" policy that pushed huge numbers of indigent people into the low wage labor market and ended up vastly reducing worker bargaining power.
2. Harsh incarceration policies, federal as well as local, that have cemented the US status as the worlds largest jailer.
3. De-regulation of financial products, leading to a vast expansion of power of major banks, the rise of hedge funds, and the increased concentration of wealth in a small number of hands
4. The privatization of public education in the US and the selection of charter schools and national testing as the major responses to education inequities.
5. The negotiation of trade deals that led to the massive exportation of industrial jobs. and the further devastation of once vital regions of our industrial economy
The US is now a more unequal nation in terms of distribution of wealth and income than it has been at any time since 1929. And two out of our last three presidents have been Democrats.
So forgive me if I don't jump on the Hillary Clinton bandwagon. I will fight the racism and xenophobia emanating from the Trump campaign with every ounce of energy at my disposal, but not to the point of endorsing an election strategy which has done little to prevent the transformation of the US into an Oligarchy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Bronx: A Great Immigration Success Story

I will NEVER support measures to deport undocumented immigrants, especially not through roundups and police state tactics . Here's why; In the course of my research on Bronx history, I have had a chance to interview several people who came here on work visas or as visitors from various African countries and managed to stay in the US. Their stories were hearbreaking and inspiring. In every instance, they have contributed far more to this country than they have taken away
One person, who is currently a custodian at a Bronx school, described a twenty year path toward citizenship and legality that included work at car washes, stores and resaturants; enrollment in high school as a day student, followed by the receipt of multiple trade licenses in evening schools, and a work history that has always included a minimum of three jobs. Never, in his entire time in the US, has he slept more than 4 hours a night.
Another person, who now runs a successful import-export business and owns a food store, described being cheated and exploited by numerous landlords as he struggled to gain citizenship; along with participating in five different arranged marriages until he finally achieved his goal.of becoming an American citizen. He now employs more than 20 people here and in his home country and is a deacon in his local church.
If these stories were exceptions, I would be skeptical of their significance. But everywhere African immigrants have moved to in the Bronx, they have contributed to the revival of once decayed neighborhoods by working incredibly hard at multiple jobs, usually in transportation, health care and retail businesses, opening businesses, founding churches and Islamic centers, and pushing their children to work hard in school. If you look at valedictorians of Bronx high schools, you will see a huge representation of children of African immigrants. Some of these wonderful young people have ended up in my classes at Fordham- others have ended up attending Ivy League schools.
If people want to have a real debate on immigration in the US, fine. But make sure this is done dispassionately and fairly and includes stories of the kind I have just shared. And don't leave out the Bronx, which for the most part, remains the site of a great immigration success story.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Why Do Current School Policies Neglect What Works Best in High Needs Schools?

In the course of the more than 300 oral history interviews we did for the Bronx African American History Project, we found that the greatest in school contributors to educational success, separate from family, church and neighborhood influences, were personal relationships developed with teachers, coaches, arts instructors and school counselors. Such relationships were mentioned in literally scores of interviews we conducted with Bronx residents, most of them African American, who grew up in the borough from the 1930's through the 1960's. They developed during school hours, in practices and rehearsals that took place after school, and during night centers and after school programs. In some of the interviews we conducted, mentoring by teachers, coaches, music instructors, and advisors to students publications was described as "life changing."
If this evidence is at all persuasive, and I think it is, then we need to ask why virtually every dominant education policy makes relationship building and mentoring so difficult. Today, many Bronx schools lack sports teams and arts programs, have revolving door teaching staffs, and lack the counseling staffs to adequate serve their student population. Moreover, few have the after school programs and night centers which were fixtures of Bronx schools in the 1950's and 1960's. Policy makers are so obsessed with raising test scores, and shutting down schools where test results are deemed inadequate, that they put teachers and administrators under such pressure that they have no time to develop relationships with students.
How schools without arts, sports, school publications, plays and concerts is supposed to be a place which inspires students from low income neighborhoods to succeed, in school or in life, is a paradox no one has adequately explained.
But because economic elites support this stripped down model, that is exactly what we see being promoted in poor communities from the Bronx, to Detroit to Chicago and Philly and Buffalo.
It is failing miserably, and reaping a harvest of bitterness that we will suffer from for years to come

Berkeley School District Agrees to Independent Investigator in Response to NAACP Pressure

From Perdaily by Leonard Isenberg

In response to incessant credible allegations of endemic racism and disparate treatment of both African-American employees and students, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has agreed to hire an independent outside investigator to look into these claims and report back to them in detail in a timely manner.

Berkeley Unified Logo.jpg

Not only has the Berkeley NAACP pushed for such an investigation, they have also made a suggestion as to who might independently conduct such an investigation, while laying out what should be the scope of what such an independent investigator might look into.

While the BNAACP initially only took exception with the effects of racism on employees and students, what they now intelligently seek to have BUSD implement is an investigation into the causes and a BUSD structure of checks and balances that doesn't seem to have functioned for years. How could such alleged illegal behavior have continued for so long without any awareness or appropriate action being taken by the BUSD Board or any other entity within the district?

To get a better idea of the scope of investigation that BNAACP has asked for and BUSD Board has tacitly agreed to, please check out the following link:

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Why Graduation Requirements in NY State Must Be Modified- A Letter to the Regents

Letter to Regents by Susan Ryan Murphy

I want to applaud you for taking the time to consider the idea of easing graduation requirements for our seniors. This is an amazing shift and gives me hope that NY can overcome the problems encountered in recent years. I hope the new graduation requirements include a path for those whose main disability is reading comprehension. There are rumors that the English Regents will remain as a graduation requirement. Keeping the English Regents in place “as is” could pose problems for our students. Before this decision is finalized, I urge the Regents who have never seen the test or read the questions to take the time to read through the questions before any decisions are made. I teach English and am all in favor of literacy standards. But, this Regents is not testing what you think it is testing. First, there are 3 reading passages which assess reading comprehension. The reading level of these passages is often as high as grade 14. Questions focus on understanding metaphor and sarcasm, skills that are listed as disabilities on the IEPs of some of our SWDs. No matter how much remediation these students receive, they will never be able to answer these questions. (It's like asking a student who is color blind to pick out the red and green M&Ms.) In order to have a chance at passing this exam, a student needs to answer 12-14 multiple choice questions correctly. Mathematically, that makes sense. But when you look at the test and the 24 multiple choice questions, there are never 12-14 questions that a student with a reading disability could answer. They all struggle with poetry (4-5 questions). In years when the poem has had a sarcastic tone (leveled at grade 14) my weaker readers have gotten every question wrong. The remaining 19 questions are also paired with at least one text grade 12-14. Questions focus not on general comprehension of the passage, but on understanding a specific vocabulary word in an isolated sentence. Often these words cannot be defined in context of the passage. Other questions ask students to make inferences or to unpack figurative language. Weak readers are not good at this. My college bound students will answer almost every question correctly in September on the pre-test and, of course, will do the same the day of the Regents. My struggling students will only get 3 or 4 questions correct on the pre-test. By June, they are able to answer 7-10 questions correctly … but that may not be good enough. Second, the writing portion of the exam relies on reading comprehension skills also. Students must read an additional 5 passages and write 2 essays based on those readings. The first set of criteria on the grading rubrics assess the sophistication of their understanding of the reading passage(s). Students with a reading disability will not score higher than a 2 on this criteria. It is a rare that a poor reader will write an essay with a wide range of sophisticated sentence structures, sophisticated vocabulary, or error free language. Yet,this is what the rest of the rubric assesses. So, a poor reader, by definition, will be a poor writer on this particular exam. The argument essay is graded with a raw score of 1-6. Raw scores of 4-5-6 are almost impossible for a weak reader. My students have shown tremendous growth this year as readers and writers. Yet, while their writing scores were at a 2 on the pre-test … now they are writing better 2’s. On a good day, they might score a 3 … or average out to a 2.5. My college bound students, however, have moved from a pre-test score of 2-3 to a post-test score of 5-6. The literary essay is graded with a raw score of 1-4. On the pre-test, most of my struggling students left a blank page instead of writing an essay. The passage was so difficult to read that they couldn't follow the directions. (I have taught these children for the past 3 years … they knew enough to write the essay … but they couldn't understand the reading passage in September.) They have learned reading and test taking strategies this year and are now writing essays that score a 2. When I add up all of their points on practice Regents exams, they are scoring between 40 and 60 points. It sounds like I'm a terrible teacher. Yet, most of these students refused to read and write when I had them as freshmen. Most do not have IEPs or 504 plans. They have worked hard and overcome so much. Upon graduation, they are planning to enter the work force, the military, or, possibly, a two-year college to further their BOCES vocational studies. This exam does not assess the literacy skills that they do have. If they were asked to write an essay about how to repair a transmission, to weld aluminum, to debone a chicken, or to remove a virus from a computer, they could each score a 6. But they aren't very good at writing about how an author uses metaphors to create a central idea. Thank you for all that you are doing to help our students to graduate.

R.I.P. Muhammad Ali

Just received an email from one of my students informing me that Muhammad Ali had passed at the age of 74. I feel empty inside. Muhammad Ali reinvented what it meant to be an athlete in American society, paid the price for his courage, and ultimately became a folk hero even to those who originally rejected his transformation. I cannot think of the 60's without his face and his words. Like many great athletes before and after him, he was charismatic as well as supremely talented. He entranced people with his lightning movements in the ring, his poetic predictions, his rare physical beauty. But at the height of his popularity, he identified with a black nationalist religious organization that turned the ideology of white supremacy on its head, changed his name, and ultimately, was willing to give up his entire career and the wealth associated with it for refusing induction in the military during an unpopular war. No athlete of his stature, black or white, had ever taken a step of this kind. He was excoriated for this by sportswriters and much of the public, but became a folk hero to many young people,white as well as black, who felt the same way about the War in Vietnam.
This step elevated him into a human rights figure whose stature transcended sports. When he returned to the ring in the late 60's, his fights became major political events as well as athletic contests. His first fight with Joe Frazier, which I saw at a theater on 96th street and Broadway with thousands of people outside trying to get in, was the most exciting single sports event I was ever part of. Everyone I knew was watching. It was as if all the events reshaping our lives-war, assassinations, racial upheavals- were with us in the ring.
Ali remained with us as a public figure for many years after, his career outlasting the War that helped define his public identity. As his speed and skills diminished, he continued to win big fights through guile and courage, taking as much punishment as his rival and nemesis Joe Frazier had endured. His courage, which ultimately took a toll on his speech and brain function, won him the admiration of even many who had deplored his political stance. He became an American and global icon, a survivor as well as maker of history, a symbol of endurance and vulnerability as well as an athlete of rare beauty and skill, and a public figure willing to sacrifice wealth and fame for his beliefs.
Now he has left us, Our country is a very different place than it was when he came upon the scene in the early 60's.
More than any sports figure of his time, he helped to change it.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Jim Horn's New Book Should Be Required Reading in Every School District in the Nation

Jim Horn's new book "Work Hard,Be Hard: Journeys Through 'No Excuses' Teaching" should be required reading in every school district in the nation. Horn provides a devastating portrait of how what is essentially a Sweatshop model of schooling for children of color attracted huge support from philanthropists-many of whose own companies profited from Sweatshop labor- along with elected officials in both parties. That a model that depends so heavily on intimidation and behavior modification, for teachers as well as students, has become a model, not only for charter schools, but public schools, reflects a society where the prerogatives of great wealth have overpowered humanity, common sense and our best understanding of child development. Those who romanticize this "results driven" model need to come to grips not only with Horn's portrait of what it means to teach and learn in such a school, but his analysis of the antecedents of this model in post civil war industrial education. That we as a society have invested so heavily in institutionalized educational abuse for the children of the poor is damning enough; that we now want to spread it to all public school children suggest what a grim future is in store for most of our population if current economic trends continue! Every school board, superintendent, and principal who extoll the "No Excuses" model or promotes a pedagogy that sees test results as the sole criteria of achievement and learning a should be required to read this book. We are heading down a path that is crushing joy and creativity among more and more of our young people, and driving the best teachers out of the profession 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Harlem Memories by Ty DePass

i was born in Harlem -- W.117th St., 1/2-block off Lenox Ave. the brownstone owned by my Great Aunt Sissy was the anchor for family moving north from Louisiana, as well as for an extended family of "uncles," "aunties" & "cousins." there was always a pot of red beans on the stove & a welcome for every visitor. (in this fashion, my Honduran-born "Paran," or godfather, was inducted into the family)
as a child, i remember Malcolm's outdoor rallies, pushcart vendors & African bookstores on 125th St., block parties & open fire hydrants in the summer. in the early '50s, horse drawn carts still carried blocks of ice, piles of coal & cold watermelon or cabbages. but most of all, i remember Harlem as the home to black people from the Caribbean, Central America & Mother Africa.
my last good memory of my mother was as a young adult, then living & raising a family in Virginia, having a quiet drink, listening to live music at Small's Paradise on W.135th St.
i always thought i'd return to Harlem someday, but i fear it won't be the place i left so long ago. Ω