Thursday, July 30, 2015

Missing Cuomo

It has been almost 6 months since my #InviteCuomo post. Alas, my offer was not accepted. I know that I was one of thousands of teachers who attempted to engage you, Governor, in a dialogue by asking you to step into a classroom and see the reality of education. And in the process, allow you to see that the failing schools myth you so loudly trumpet is not exactly what it seems.  While your silence to our invites did not surprise me, there were a few days where I nervously imagined what it would be like for you to enter room 356. I had made lots of promises of what you would see. As I have been reflecting this summer on the past year with my 7th graders, I think you missed so much more.  Boy, did you miss out.

You could have attended our PSA Film Festival, an event attended by students, teachers, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. Here we celebrated weeks of hard work by small groups of students on our team who each wrote, directed, acted, produced and edited a public service announcement video. They chose an issue they wanted to inform other students at Farnsworth Middle School about, crafted a message and found a creative way to get their message across. You wouldn't have seen it in their videos, but they struggled and fought through lots of frustration in bringing their ideas to life. But they succeeded and were amazing. Watching each video, you wouldn't be able to guess at each student's standardized tests scores. There is no bubbling or regurgitating of textual details. Students were tasked to find something that means something to them, which fueled their research, and ultimately their message. Sitting in the audience of our little film festival, I know you would have been impressed with what these 12-13 years old have to say about what is important to them. You missed healthy ninjas, portals to other worlds, and superheroes wiping out litter. You could have laughed with us as I unveiled their blooper reel as a surprise gift to them for all of their hard work. But you missed it.

You could have watched them craft realistic short stories. Stories that reflected the problems they face. You would have overheard conversations about developing characters, creating 3-D scenes, and the purpose behind dialogue and how to punctuate it. You missed the chance to read their drafts about heartbreak and loss, triumph and confidence, challenging authority and doing what's right.  You would have watched as students revised using feedback that I gave them via voice comments I recorded using an app called Kaizena. You would have been amazed at how we incorporated technology into the writing process and probably would have remarked how much things have changed when you were in school. But you missed it.

I thought if you were going to pick a time to visit room 356, it might have been around testing time since that seems to be of great importance to you.  You would have watched as instead of test prep, we began work on a realistic/fantasy novel called A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  (You might have been shocked when you heard me offer test prep packets to students who wanted them but that we would not be spending time during class because we had more important work to do. Some kids took them...most did not.) As we read the novel, you would have marveled at the questions and insights students grappled with during discussion. Later in the year, we would learn just how important this work was. You see this story is ultimately about a boy of my students' age who is coming to terms with the fact that his mother will ultimately lose her battle with cancer and the importance for him in talking about what he was dealing with and the importance for his friends and family to not treat him any different because of what he was going through. You see, a few weeks after we finished reading this novel, one of my own 7th graders suddenly lost his father to cancer. The novel helped us all during this terribly difficult time as we all coped with such a devasting loss. You missed the empathy my students showed as they learned the news, and the love and care they demonstrated as their teammate returned to school. I have never been so proud as a teacher. But you missed it.

Look, I know you are busy. You have a state to run. But in making education one of your priorities, it is every educator's responsibility to make sure that the decisions being made are based on what is actually happening in our classrooms. When you revise the teacher evaluation system or create the new receivership plan looking through the lens of test scores only, you do a great disservice to what is actually taking place in schools across New York State.  When you are not taking into account students' lives in and outside of the classroom, you ensure that nothing will change.  You are missing the chance to truly make a difference to not only improve students' academic success but their success as citizens and as human beings. Those are the lessons that matter most.

Test scores are such a skewed view of our educational system.  Basing decisions around them is misguided and has caused what I fear is irreparable damage. Damage to the students, who despite being told to have a growth mindset, are pigeonholed by tests and given the message that numbers are the true measure of learning. Damage to teachers, who despite being told to encourage critical thinking and problem solving, are handed curriculum and standards that don't acknowledge their expertise when it comes to crafting lessons and responding to the learners in front of them. We are demeaned by the numbers we receive, which vary from year to year, because the our students change each year, the assessments change each year, and a myriad of other variables that make the evaluation system invalid. If you were to step into a classroom and observe the realities of our day, I believe you would realize the absurdity of trying to place our, students and teachers, work on a point scale.

So with the start of school a month away, I am inviting you once again to visit room 356. Or return to any of the many invites you received last year and choose any of those classrooms. I know no matter who you choose, you will find things that will amaze, surprise, and impress you. I know the classrooms you visit have the power to put you back in touch and help you to see a clearer picture that test scores simply do not offer. I know you would still be welcome. Let's begin the dialogue that has been missing and begin to create a system that ensures success rather than failure. Check your calendar and see if there is any time during the 10-month school year to visit. I am hoping you won't miss out.

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