‘Reach Out to Community -Posts’ Posts


What Rigorous New Tests Will Do to Children

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OK, with the new year I think it’s time for some RED MEAT. You need to be angry enough about how public education is being changed that you will decide it’s time to speak up.

So here’s what teacher Anthony Cody has to say about what rigorous new tests will do to children. Do read it for yourself, but to whet your appetite let me summarize. He draws a parallel to the tradition of testing in China, which was originally designed long ago to make access to government positions more egalitarian. But it ultimately has led to graduates with high test scores but low levels of real knowledge and skills, since everyone puts their energy into preparing for the tests. And he further sees the new tests that will yield just a 30% pass rate as a way for the privileged to “prove” that many kids simply aren’t “college and career ready” so it’s their fault if they can’t get jobs.

Do you agree with Cody’s analysis? Or perhaps you see the Common Core as a way to insure that everyone gets at least some education, even if individual students’ and teachers’ talents, strengths, and interests are ignored? OK I’m baiting you. Any takers? And would you be willing to send your response, anonymously if you wish, to a local newspaper?

The Real Story on the US PISA Test Rankings

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So here’s the last word from Teachers Speak Up for the crazy year of 2013.

I know most of you, or your educator colleagues, have been shy about telling your own story to the public. But how about sharing some info about the real story on the US PISA test rankings. OK, you’ve been so busy teaching that maybe you don’t recall what these are, so just to remind you: Every 3 years the Program of International Student Assessment administers tests on reading and math to students in 65 countries. The 2013 report puts the U.S.  in 24th place. Sounds bad, right? Public education detractors point to this as evidence that you, as teachers, are failing.

But the details tell a different story. For example, if you look just at the scores for schools where incomes are in the top 10%, the U.S. comes in FIRST. And schools with the lowest income families, well you guessed it. Here’s a great 5-minute video that summarizes the real, troubling statistics — which are not just about schools, but about the influence of poverty in America.

So if you aren’t ready to tell your own great classroom story, how about sharing the video with your friends and colleagues. By the way, it was shared on a new social media news site, www.upworthy.com that’s getting lots of attention — and that’s good.

So happy new year to all. Let’s see if our work can prosper in this next cycle of our lives.

–Steve Z

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!

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

Yet Another Great Atlanta Teacher Portrayed

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Yeah, I’ve been working away on planning for the TEDxWellsStreetED event in Chicago, scheduled for Sept. 28, so it’s been quiet here at Teachers Speak Up. But I saw yet another great Atlanta teacher portrayed by Peter Smagorinsky in the Atlanta Journal Constitution blog hosted by reporter Maureen Downey. So please read about Atlanta teacher Dave Winter. But as Smagorinsky points out, he’s not unusual even though he’s won many awards — there are loads of teachers like him everywhere.

So even if you’re hesitant to brag about your own great teaching, you can pen a portrait of an outstanding colleague. Do this NOW, before the busy-ness of the coming school year closes in.

And do it because school districts like Chicago’s are de-funding strong public schools at a disastrous rate.

Need help getting your story into the public media? Contact me here and I’ll help you.

Doctor offers teachers a lesson about the importance of story

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Rachel Naomi Remen, is an outstanding doctor, medical reformer, and author. This doctor offers teachers a lesson about the importance of story. She gives us this lesson in a story in the DailyGood website. “In medicine,” she explains, “is often dismissed as ‘anecdotal evidence,’ a sort of second class data.” However, stories are the engines of change, as she elaborates: “One of the most skilled activists is a genius of change, a woman who can enter a room of people who have held opposing positions for years and . . . enable them to work together as colleagues. I asked her how she manages to do this. ‘Simple,’ she said. ‘You just change the story they hold about themselves and each other.'”

We teachers need to listen to Dr. Remen and learn to do this too.

Classroom or School Videos Can Tell a Powerful Story

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Not so excited about writing to describe your great work with kids? Are you more of a visual learner & communicator? Classroom or school videos can tell a powerful story as this one from Whittier Middle School in Poland Maine very nicely shows. As you’ll see if you watch the students spent 8 weeks researching history topics. So the work is in-depth — and the kids have a lot of choice about what to investigate. It’s especially interesting that the teachers combine these valuable approaches with the Common Core standards focus on argument. Even better: the Maine Dept. of Education has featured the video, so it’s getting wider attention.

Nothing to fear in putting this kind of information out there for the public to see. And if you don’t have time to make the video, I bet there are plenty of kids in the school with the skills and energy to film it for you.

Mini Lesson on Writing a Teacher Story

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I urge teachers to write about their teaching to build more support for their work, and get their stories out to the public in some way. But many ask, “What should I write about? How do I start?” Perhaps this is because so many of us have had our voices silenced, as one teacher describes in a recent Education Week Teacher article.

So here’s a mini lesson on writing a teacher story – at least one way to do it. This would also work well for someone writing about a great teacher he or she had.

  • First, it’s a good idea to think about the audience and purpose for your story. If it’s going to a wider public (which I think is really important) here’s what I suggest: Avoid education jargon.  It needs to be vivid and grab people’s attention. It ought to have a clear point that non-educators can relate to. And it shouldn’t sound whiny – sure we have plenty of obstacles, but let’s inform people about what good teaching really entails and why it matters.
  • Now, think of some very specific, concrete moment in your teaching experience — a student who was a real challenge but who made a breakthrough during the year, or a class that was disengaged and you found a way to reach them. Want examples? Visit my blog on the Patch.com Evanston news site for three great stories. Or read this piece at Education Week Teacher just the other day.
  • Next, try to picture one or several very specific moments when this student or class was struggling, resisting, or having a lightbulb go off. One of my favorite examples is in teacher Megan Allen’s testimony to Congress. Write a chunk of narrative to describe this moment (or moments). Ralph Fletcher’s books on teaching writing talk a lot about the power of focusing on such moments.
  • Next step: Talk about what you learned from this professional experience — or what you’d like a reader to learn from it, or what it tells us about education policies or practices. This chunk will probably go at or near the end of your piece. You could hint about it at the start, but don’t go into a lot of theory or explanation there because that will bog things down.
  • Finally, there will be some trimmings to add — introducing yourself and/or the scene at the start, adding a punch-line at the end, some connective tissue along the way.

I’m sure there are other approaches, but I’ve seen this work really powerfully. So now write your piece and send it to me at teachersspeakup1@gmail.com !