‘Reaching Out More Widely -Posts’ Posts


Refocusing Teachers Speak Up

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As the year draws to a close I’ve been thinking about refocusing Teachers Speak Up. While I continue to believe that teachers need to re-brand our profession with the wider public, I haven’t had much success making that happen, even on a small scale.  Yes, people tell me the effort is important, and yes, they like to visit this website. But there are so many pressures limiting folks from doing the writing, or getting other teachers to do so. You know what they are, so I won’t recount them. But the options are limited, too, for getting teachers’ stories published in media that will be seen by the larger community. For example, I organized a roundtable discussion with a small group of teachers and editors at a big city newspaper. The editors seemed jazzed by the exchange of ideas, but never followed up, never even answered my later emails. This is not fun. I’m a person who needs some response and success in order to keep going.

I’m not abandoning this effort — but I intend to shift it a bit. This was helped along by a conversation with Sonia Nieto, a courageous, long-time campaigner for a more just and supportive education. I’ll seek to use teachers’ stories to encourage fellow educators to stay with good, meaningful instruction, in spite of the pressures that in many places seem to be undermining it. Teachers need this. Meanwhile, I will continue to invite and share stories of great classroom moments. But I will be putting more effort into identifying individual teachers willing to do this and helping them with the writing (to the extent that they need/desire such help). And I will continue to work on finding venues for sharing those stories.

So in that spirit, here are several such sharing opportunities. I hope you’ll take a look, either to consider submitting something to them, or just for your own encouragement:

  •  Why I Teach — where educators and share their stories and thinking. This is a branch of the Learning Matters TV education news organization. You may not agree with all that Learning Matters appears to support, but Why I Teach is open to your voice and your ideas.
  • Talks with Teachers — describes itself as “Inspiring stories from America’s great educators,” a cross between how-to stories and reflections on teachers’ struggles.
  • Scholars Speak Out page of the Journal of Language and Literacy Education — mainly a list of educators’ blogs. But you can propose to tell your story on it by contacting Meghan Thornton (thornton@uga.edu) at the University of Georgia.

Joyous holiday wishes to all!

–Steve Z

The Latest PISA International Test Score Comparisons

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The latest PISA international test score comparisons are out, and they portray US education is pretty mediocre. According to the charts, we ranked 20th among other countries in reading, 30th in math, and 23rd in science. As parents, community members, politicians, and education critics begin asking about these numbers, we teachers need to be well informed about them. So along with knowing about the report itself, it’s wise to understand some of their limitations. An excellent article on the Education Week “Curriculum Matters” webpage outlines these. For example, the difference between scores in many cases is not statistically significant, so the actual order in which countries are listed means very little. The best we can actually say about the ranking for US reading scores is that we’re somewhere between 19th and 31st. Rather, we’re grouped among a cluster of countries, with no clear difference among them.

But while we must acknowledge that American schools are not overall high flyers these days perhaps the biggest question is what we should be doing about it in schools that struggle, and this is where teachers’ voices need to be heard. Of course we’ll hear plenty from advocates of harder tests, blanket standards, more charter schools, and firing lots of teachers. But thoughtful educators should do all they can to inform the public and policy-makers about the factors that really can make a difference and that continue to be neglected in too many of the efforts presently called “school reform.” Read Sonia Nieto’s new book, Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds. Or study the role of student attitudes and the classroom contexts that influence them, in the Chicago Consortium on School Research study, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Non-Cognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance. And then speak up about these things and what you do to address them in YOUR classroom.

Teacher Pensions Are Under Attack

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While it may have been a quiet holiday for most of us, the Illinois state legislature was busy readying a vote to reduce pensions for teachers and state employees, as a way to address the under-funding of the pension system. Of course, no one seems to talk about the legislature’s habit of skipping required payments into the system. So teacher pensions are under attack, with the timing cleverly arranged calendar-wise to minimize public attention or opportunity for those affected to voice their concern.

At least the unions in the state are speaking out. So how about teachers’ own individual voices? I was able to find one rather whiny letter to the editor from a retired teacher, on a local small-town newspaper.

But here’s a contrast on another issue, in  — surprise! — the state of Texas (thanks to Debra Gurvitz for calling this to my attention). There, the state board of education was being lobbied by far-right activists to reject the adoption of several science textbooks that, horrors, explained evolution as a central principle in biology. But Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network, launched a petition drive on the CREDO Action website and obtained 163,000 signatures. Here’s the story, from the Texas Freedom Network website. And here’s what the campaign web page looked like in the midst of the effort. We don’t know how many of the signers were teachers, though of course having the argument come from parents is even better. Either way there’s a lesson here!

Helping Teachers Connect with Communities at NCTE

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I’ve gathered a group of articulate educators for a session on helping teachers connect with communities at NCTE next week.If you are attending the convention, we hope you attend — it’s session F55, Saturday, Nov. 23, 8:00-9:15 AM. Peter Smagorinsky will be our featured speaker. He has written portraits of many outstanding teachers and had them published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. and has strong ideas about the need for teacher voices. Then we’ll have discussion tables led by a selection of very smart educators. They’ll introduce various perspectives on this issue — and then invite participants to start writing, right at the tables.

Our illustrious table leaders:

  • Leila Christenbury, Virginia Commonwealth U.
  • Millie Davis, NCTE Outreach
  • Cathy Fleischer, Prof. at Eastern Michigan U.
  • Kevin Hodgson, teacher in Southampton, MA
  • Penny Kittle, teacher in North Conway, NH
  • Mindi Rench, teacher in Northbrook, IL
  • Harry Ross, Prof. at National Louis U., Chicago
  • Lauren Rubin, Prof. Development Coordinator, City University of NY
  • Andrea Zellner, Graduate student, Michigan State U.

If you’re not attending, yourself, but know someone who is, do pass on this message. And think about conducting a similar session at a conference yourself. This is one way to actually help teachers to start writing.

The Courageous Teacher Responds to Governor Christie

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The Courageous Teacher Responds to Governor Christie

OK, people! If you haven’t already seen it, here’s how the teacher herself — the one who had Governor Chris Christie yelling in her face — responded in a letter on her blog. (Incidentally, if he was one of her students, what would be the consequence of such behavior in her class? Actually, I’d hope he’d be sent to a peer jury for a restorative justice experience — perhaps it would help him rethink his relationships with the citizens of his state.)

To tempt you into reading the whole letter, here’s just one juicy highlight (in response to his remark that ‘You people always want more money’:

What do I want? What do ‘we people’ want? We want to be allowed to teach. Do you know that the past two months has been spent of our time preparing and completing paperwork for the Student Growth Objectives? Assessments were created and administered to our students on material that we have not even taught yet. Can you imagine how that made us feel? The students felt like they were worthless for not having any clue how to complete the assessments. The teachers felt like horrible monsters for having to make the students endure this. How is that helping the development of a child? How will that help them see the value in their own self-worth. This futile exercise took time away from planning and preparing meaningful lessons as well as the time spent in class actually completing the assessments.

Christie should receive HUNDREDS of such letters on his website. Of course, his staff will keep them from displaying — but they’ll know we are out there!


Who Else Will Respond to Governor Christie

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Watching the news lately? Seeing/hearing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yell at a teacher  and say all teachers want is more money? NJ school spending has increased, he argues. She then writes to him on a blog, “You have portrayed us as greedy, lazy, money-draining public servants that do nothing. I invite you to come do my job for one week, Governor Christie.” He had previously referred to some schools as “failure factories.”

So who else will respond to Governor Christie?

The facts themselves are in much dispute. Standardized test scores (if you think they mean anything) are, in New Jersey, some of the highest in the country, with some of the racial gaps narrowing — though of course scores are lower in poor areas. And spending? Christie’s administration lumps all education spending together, including construction, old debt, pensions, to get an extremely high number — $18,047 per pupil in 2011-12. But when the categories are separated, the 2012-13 classroom-focused amount was only $8,564. And the range of spending between districts was — like everywhere else in the nation — striking — $25,938 per child in the richest district vs $13,317 in the poorest (again, these totals include much beyond the classroom). Here’s the Wall St. Journal’s report on the controversy over how to count the funds.

So who else will respond to Governor Christie? And how do we help people understand the real story of our classrooms?

Teacher Voice Has Made a Difference in New York

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If your swamped with your own teaching responsibilities, you might not have followed some of the news — for example the latest chapter in how teacher voice has made a difference in New York, where new state tests have had a disastrous roll-out. First, check out some of the thousand responses that Lucy Calkins received from teachers when she set up a website to gather them. Smart kids crying and concluding they’re stupid, questions that could have various right answers, confusing multiple materials booklets, not enough time to do well, but too much time spent altogether, inappropriate reading levels, etc., etc.

Criticism rose from parents, teachers, principals, superintendents. The state education commissioner, John King was shouted down at a hearing and cancelled further sessions. But now he’s back-pedalling, reducing the testing somewhat, but not addressing the main issues –yet. Here’s one news account in a local Brooklyn paper.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the hue and cry came so late in the game, with teachers and kids really suffering before the voices grew strong and numerous enough. So are the rest of us going to wait until similar new tests arrive in our own states — and then try to overturn them after the fact?

Just trying to say why it is that teachers need to be speaking up NOW.

More Voices Calling for Teacher Voice

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So there are more and more voices calling for teacher voice to be heard by the public and policy-makers. The latest is blogger K Michelle McGlothen in an ASCD post today. I’m heartened to hear more people urging this. What troubles me, though, is that just us advocates saying it should happen doesn’t necessarily make it happen. So I’m looking for fresh ideas for how to get our voices out there. Peter Smagorinsky suggests creating a relationship with a local news reporter, who can then feature teacher stories that we gather. I’m trying that here in Chicago — without success so far. Other ideas? Talk to me!

Another Voice Urging Teachers to Speak Out

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Thank goodness I’m not alone trying to get teachers writing about their work for the larger community. Peter Smagorinsky, at the University of Georgia, provides another voice urging teachers to speak out. Visit the website “Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care” to read his suggestions on getting your words out there. Peter describes how he got started submitting articles for Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog, with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and lists a number of venues for getting oneself heard/read.

Peter will be keynoting a session I’ve organized for the NCTE National Convention Nov. 22-24. In line with the goal of maximizing teacher voice, Peter’s talk will be followed by discussion tables at which teachers can dialogue with leaders who have actively promoted teacher advocacy. We’ll also ask everyone those at the tables to start writing their own pieces about their work, right there on the spot, to make sure that this effort begins to get some legs. We’ll have a great lineup of table leaders, and I’ll tell more about them in another blog, shortly. So if you’re a teacher s planning to attend the Convention, join us at our session, early Saturday morning — 8:00-9:15 Nov. 23rd — and you’ll have a great time helping to explain the great work we do in our classrooms.

Teachers Speak Up is back in action

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Dear Friends and Followers–

The TEDx event I organized, which took place Sept. 28, was so much work that I had to just let some things go for a couple of months until it was over. Then I skipped town for a few weeks to rest up. And now at last Teachers Speak Up is back in action.

First about the event: The theme (no surprise) was “Exploring Teacher Voice Beyond the Classroom.” In short talks that will go up soon on YouTube, ten outstanding teachers described their great work in their schools and urged policy makers to adopt strategies to support their successes more widely. One, for example, was on the power of restorative justice to resolve high school students’ conflicts and disruptive actions constructively instead of punishing them. School attendance, attitudes, and achievement improved as a result. Check out the program, speaker bios, and brief talk summaries at www.tedxwellsstreeted.com (Sorry about the weird name — a result of TED’s rules). Once the talk videos are up on YouTube, we’ll need everyone’s help to get them as widely viewed as possible.

Meanwhile, the attacks & undermining of public education continue more intensely than ever. I wrote the following letter to the editors at the NY Times in response to a grievously destructive piece by editor Bill Keller. My letter did not get published, of course:

Dear Editors—
Like so many Americans, Bill Keller (NY Times Op Ed, Monday Oct. 21) proposes to fix education by improving individual teachers. Raise the teachers college admissions bar to get smarter students and schools will pay them better after they graduate? Come to Chicago where budget cuts are leading great teachers (not all of them, fortunately) to be fired or to quit and you’ll see whether that works. Further, the way labor markets work in this country is that by raising pay an organization gets a larger pool from which to pick the best candidates. They don’t wait for workers to get better first. Compare Keller’s approach to Tom Friedman’s description of Shanghai’s path to strong schools (NY Times Wednesday Oct 23) . There, schools are organized so teachers collaborate, learn with highly competent peers, and grow more effective. Education critics fail to understand that this is how education actually improves.
–Steve Zemelman, Director, Illinois Writing Project, Chicago

Now here’s the thing: Along with powerful critiques of current education policy like Diane Ravitch’s new Reign of Error, we’ve simply got to get the story out, about teachers’ great and hard work that matters. So those of you who follow this blog simply must take action to help get more of these stories out to the public — and then tell us about it so we can encourage still more teachers. Just reading the blog or telling me it’s great is not enough. And at some point if this is not happening, I will abandon this particular effort & find another strategy. There’s little point in us educators just talking to each other about the situation. So I figure I’ll give this another 6 months. So respond to this post and let me know what you can do.

–Steve Z