The Hegemony of the Core

Are core teacher teams supporting our students, or are they blockading the education system from change that is essential to the success of our public schools?

We should all feel that we belong on top of the world.

“Specials” teachers should be no less special than those who teach the traditional subjects. The students who excel in the “specials” should be no less celebrated or supported in their triumphs than the students who may some day ace the SATs. Below are two emails I wrote to our grade 8 Core team as part of such an effort. They became part of the school record.

Dear colleagues,

I hope you will read this in the congenial and sincere tone that I intend. Reading Core notes, I can’t help but feel a little bit left out. I am going to take this opportunity to once again ask for reconsideration of the meeting time, and even the name, of Core.

I’m sure all of us have had a student removed from one of our classes without our consent or input… I’m sure we all know what that feels like. I would wager, however, that those of us who do not comprise Core, those of us who are in the implicit periphery, experience this with far greater frequency. I’d like you to read the following through my eyes:

“[A. Student] – We are concerned about her level of dishonesty. Also, she does not stay after school to do academic work. At her meeting we thought we asked that she would be scheduled in Project Achieve – she is open to this. What block does she have available – [the Achieve teacher] asked. She is willing to give up either flute or STREAM. We all agreed she would benefit more from PA than STREAM. [Achieve Teacher] says this would work.”

Had I been in a position to contribute, I may have ultimately concurred, but I also might have told you that in STREAM, this student has emerged as the primary person directing productivity and analysis within her team. I also might have voiced concerns I have about her. I might have told you about our classroom discussion regarding a definition for “integrity,” which, at the middle school level, we have defined as the ability to hold up to the job that one is expected to do: whether that be to support a load of a certain weight, or, in the case of a person, to tell the truth, and to do the work that is expected. As I read your concerns about this student, I believe my class is a good place for her to be, given the parallels we make between engineering terms and forces and concepts in our lives that help to make us stronger citizens.

Alas, I am not in a position to contribute, and I’m left feeling very aware that the “we” who all agreed that this student would benefit more from PA than STREAM did not include me. If it had been decided that she drop flute, “we” would not include the music teacher. I believe that the approach we take at [our school] with Core … demeans our arts departments and ultimately contributes significantly to the disenfranchisement of many of our hands-on learners, and potentially, though I won’t speak for anyone else, our colleagues. I think our present Core model subjects students and colleagues to the very inequalities that we are teaching our students to recognize, and to speak out against.

I once again propose that one meeting per week for Core in each grade, be moved to take place [after school] from 2:25 until 3 p.m.

Thank you for your time, and see you in the halls!

I am learning, firsthand, how it feels to speak out against a social injustice. The only written response I received was from the note-taker, who apologized for the way the notes were worded. She also expressed a wish that all students could take a class with me. It felt like a nice bow on a bag of garbage—easily and prettily disposed of.

I responded, again to the school record:

Hi [note-taker] & all,

I appreciate your sentiments [note-taker], and am very much in agreement with you that it would be great if STREAM could be made available to all middle school kids. I hope you don’t feel responsible, or take the wording of the notes too much to heart–they are only a symptom. Core is an approach to serving a lot of kids that works for a lot of people, but I think that, with a different schedule it could serve more people. I love working as part of [our] 8th grade team, and I know I could learn a lot by being part of the group, and could also bring a lot to the table… if I could come to the table. The present system sets caring people up for making oversights, and makes it impossible for all to contribute equally–I think it is the system that is the problem.

Let’s leave this electronic communication behind. Would love to have a pizza party or some gathering in my –or anyone’s — space (or One Main?) and continue the conversation!

* * *

Alas, no one took me up on the offer of continuing the conversation. The members of Core are content with its makeup. Most remain civil to me, but I get the sense that overall, they feel less comfortable around me now. As a person who loves to create comfortable spaces, I find it painful.

But the meaning of the word “comfort” does not, from its roots, imply complacency, nor does it imply a soft, or cushy existence. The prefix “com-” means with, and the root “fort-” means strength.

My hope is for our public schools to be places where students can build their understanding and their skills outwardly from their naturally strongest foundations and interests. It should not matter if those strengths are in writing, drawing, math, music, science, or phys. ed. The teachers who witness students at their strongest aptitude should be part of the Core team. But to do that, we need to change things at the core level. As I am finding out, it isn’t going to be easy, but if like-minded teachers will speak out–and will encourage their students to do the same–we’ll get there.

Prevailing Winds in Education: How the SBAC Sets Us Back

I have been planning my spring unit in STREAM. Barring any monumental surprises, we will wrap up windmill designing and start our GPS unit.

I have a nice segue in mind. Provided IMG_0770with handheld anemometers and GPS devices, students will create a wind map of our campus. We’ll run latitude and longitude lines across a map of the school grounds and plot wind vectors on the grid. We’ll test under a  variety of conditions, analyze our findings, and decide where, if we were to put our three-foot inventions on the property, they would be most effective.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

A student is waiting for his GPS to locate satellites.

Now for the logistics. If students work in teams of five, we’ll have enough anemometers and only a few will have to share GPS units. We’re not going to walk the grounds as one big clump of humanity, so I’ll need three or four volunteer adults for the middle school classes. We’ll be able to collect data for the whole campus in a single block; groups will “own” the section they cover; and I’ll be able to hold them accountable. We’ll also need computers to upload our data in a 21st Century manner. We’ll use the Internet to see how our valley campus wind readings compare to the wind on the hilltops around us, the wind on the ridge that runs through the county, and the wind in larger world. Computers will be key as we progress in our GPS unit, and therein lies the problem.

This spring, when all teachers would be sharing the computers for meaningful projects that would represent the culmination of a year’s learning, we will be headed off at the pass by the SBAC. This new standardized test will appropriate all of our school computer resources so that every 8th and 11th grader can be subjected to more than eight hours of interrogation. For about two weeks, there will be a mad scramble for the few computers the SBAC hasn’t commandeered.

There is so much wrong with the SBAC it should be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, the name itself rolls out a red carpet. I ask you: if you were given the entire alphabet to create an acronym that tens—maybe hundreds—of millions of people were going to use on a regular basis, would you be able to come up with something better? Probably.

The very name of SBAC makes it a bitter pill to swallow. Imagine an organization contracted to come up with a new test to replace one that (almost) everyone despises. They take on this task in an era when forward thinking educators receive standing ovations as they call for innovation, quality teamwork, and strength-based education to carry greater significance in our schools. But after millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours, the group comes out with a product that is referred to as SBAC, pronounced “Essback.” Are these the folks that are going to usher education to meet the needs of the people in the new economy, with these calls for creativity and innovation? Was creativity modeled or engaged when they came up with the word Essback? God help us.

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Our learning intention for the GPS unit. Standardized testing is all about data collection and analysis, and I get that, and understand its utility. But there are more creative ways to assess our students’ knowledge.

But there’s more. This acrid acronym stands for this: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. (Maybe it was the best they could do, though I suspect if it was their best, it would have stood for Smartest Balanced Assessment Consortium.) The use of the comparative adjective “smarter” serves as a constant reminder of what came before. And the test that came before was deemed, by and large, to stink. So it is named SBAC, and each time we say it, we can remember that is a smarter than its predecessor, which stunk. Great: we can feel good about the SBAC as long as we’re looking backward. The S might as well have stood for Shortsighted. It feels SBACwards, not future-oriented. Hopefully it won’t be long before the people we voted into power realize this.

For now, I have this spring to figure out. There’s nothing wrong, really, with recording our DSC_0384field data the old-fashioned way, on paper, with pencil. It might even be good to help the students improve penmanship. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the wind will soon be blowing in a more promising direction.

Spring and Calls to Make Stuff

I am presently reading a National Academy of Engineering book, “Making Value for America: Embracing the Future of Manufacturing, Technology, and Work.” Among many recommendations, the publication calls for us to answer this question: How do we align our education system, from middle school through bachelors degree, with our dire need for developing America’s high tech manufacturing workforce?

I downloaded the book on the same day that our cold weather pattern broke. We’ve had weeks upon weeks where the temperature did not rise above freezing, when most mornings were below zero, Fahrenheit. On those few days when the temperature finally managed 20 above (in the sun), the birds and the wildlife filled the woods with song, caws, hoots, grunts, and chirps. But they were foiled. The temperature failed in its upward momentum, and the kingdom of animals went silent again, except for us New Englanders, of course. We were getting ready for Town Meeting.

Our calls were hardly dominated by that springtime, fiery kindle of desire to bring new life into this world. Our calls were dominated, mostly, by the question of what to do with the fruits of such passion: how much money should we spend on the education of our offspring? Humanity’s sincerest dichotomy must be between our urge to procreate and care for our young, and our instinctive need to protect our resources.

How could education be so expensive? Café conversations, online community forums, newspaper columns and letters to editors presented many positions on the subject. Teachers’ excellent health insurance packages was a frequent target. Alas, in America, instead of asking “Why can’t all our citizens have what our teachers have?,” we’re largely bent on leveling the playing field by taking good care away from those who have it. As an unabashed capitalist, myself, I believe in investing in the welfare, and freeing up the money, of the people who would buy our stuff.

The prevailing culprit for the expense of education in my state, though, was identified as the low student-teacher ratio—one of the best (from the quality standpoint) in the country. I’d argue that this ratio is necessitated by another ratio, the child-parent ratio. Kids get home from school several hours before their parents finish work. Two kids, no parent. More often than not, it seems, there are not two parents coming home, but only one. The child-parent ratio is woefully low, and, with zero in the denominator, is often undefined. It follows, in our system, that educators try to make up the difference. By and large, the students who take the most time in our classrooms are students who haven’t been exposed to responsible, respectful child-adult dynamics at home.

One answer is to lengthen the school day so that offspring have exposure to adult behavior and supervision until the household can be complete. Here is the cycle: longer school days make for higher costs, which make for longer work hours to fund the schools. This makes for more stress at home, which increases the number of divorces, hacking away ever more at the child-parent ratio. The village wants to be part of the equation, but in taxing itself with surrogate parenthood, it does more harm than good. It is a cycle I find far more chilling than days on end that start out below zero.

I find it most appropriate to be reading this National Academies Press book during the first notable thaw. The many authors call for a much stronger partnership, and even an intermingling, between our workplaces and our public schools. They ask that schools work their way into our businesses: not with single visits, but with frequency and consistency… with, dare I say it, a spring-like fluidity. And business field experts are asked be a greater presence in our schools—not as recruiters, necessarily, but as adults whose skills contribute to a functioning society. This will allow students to see the relevance, and, more importantly, the application, of what they are learning. Equally worthwhile, it will permit teachers to stay current as to how their subject area applies to the workforce outside of school. And, it will greatly improve on our youth/adult ratio, without more strain on our school budgets and the taxpayers that fill the coffers. For this intermingling to happen, the manufactured barrier between our youth and our workforce will have to melt significantly.

We are presently in our third day of snowmelt. My picture window looks out on a hillside tree lot. There is a giant, dead white pine that has been settling into the earth over the past few years. Its rotted stump is five feet in diameter, and a family of red squirrels has taken up residence in it. This time of year, they emerge and tear back and forth along the prone trunk. They scamper down regularly to nose around for beechnuts and acorns, or to pull apart the cones cast down by the many pines still alive out there. All year I have been watching a herd of nine whitetail deer follow a course parallel to the stream from the hemlocks below to the hardwoods above. It is progressively harder to distinguish the younger from the older. The young have been provided for by the adults in a healthy, natural ratio, and the young have constant exposure to the world into which they will graduate. It is a natural system, and it makes perfect sense. Our educational system could borrow more ideas from the systems of the natural world. Is it ironic that a publication about the future of manufacturing calls for such a thing?

Teams for Middle School STEM projects

In STREAM, students group in teams of three to four to solve problems. Often, especially at the beginning of a new term, I let these teams be self-selecting.

Here are the roles that team members may fill (often taking two or more):

  • Builder: The kid(s) who are going to put the project together. Often, other team mates may be called in to help.
  • Blogger: The chroniclers, journalists, editors. These kids tell the story of how the
    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    The team blogger, taking pictures of table testing.

    team solved the project. They are not to just give step-by-step directions. They are to tell of the hurdles encountered, and the solutions that the team thought up. These kids photograph the work as it progresses, and create a blog, Power point, or Keynote presentation for the project.

  • Skeptic / QA: The kid(s) who double-check that directions are followed and goals are being met. They are the kids with rulers, levels, squares, and so on.
  • Researcher: The kid(s) who look for ideas on the internet or through other resources such as the media center.
  • Machinist: The kids who like to work with power tools, hand tools, and can follow specifications. They generally aren’t bothered by noise, can cut a straight line, and have good fine motor skills.
  • Requisition: These are the kids who are resourceful. Our budget is not huge. These kids dumpster dive (we discuss safety & respect for property & privacy!). These kids go to other teachers with lists of needs. They know where the maintenance office is.
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The prompt: We’ve talked about STREAM and how we’ll approach projects as teams. What are your strengths as a worker? What do you think you will bring to the table?

The first day of class, I explain the concept behind teams, using Apple Computers early years as an example. Pared down, Jobs was great at coming up with ideas for gadgets and caring about how they looked. Wozniak was a great engineer. They needed an adult to make them feel more official. Both Steves had a tendency to be socially precarious, so they needed a good schmoozer to help them get money to fund, etc. etc. I’m amazed at how many kids know a lot of the story, and want to discuss the finer points, but it’s important to keep the concepts to teams.

On that first day, I ask kids what they feel DSC_0751they bring to the table. This becomes a journal entry. I have a dream that some day, a kid who doesn’t like to work with tools will say “I need to work with someone who likes tools.” It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not sure if it is because they see no connection between the strengths journal entry and the establishment of teams, or if it is just because this is middle school, and it’s simply more important to be with your friends.

It is always interesting to see the criteria by which students band together. It may be based on gender, maturity, socio-economics, or shared interests, like sports. Socio-economics usually trumps all, at least at the outset. Over the course of a term, though, teams morph: sometimes because I assign it; other times because students realize they need an expertise that they don’t have, and can’t do without. When a team change comes about as a result of the team recognizing a need, I count that as a great success.

I make a strong connection between the ability to focus and be productive, and future success in the workforce.

DSC_0755The habits and qualities of productivity, care, planning, respect, and so on, are not attached to a job or a project, they are attached to the person who has them. And so, if team members aren’t getting along, I sometimes refuse them a change.

The journal prompt: "There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

The journal prompt: “There is a relationship between how you contribute to your team and how you will contribute to a job in the future. What habits do you think will carry over into your adulthood?

Learning to work together is key. Such discussions about this are part of the STREAM DSC_0757class, and are often the subject of journal prompts. I think they have a strong effect, and I often sense relief when I make a team change. I think this is because at the middle school age, it is hard to branch off without implying friend-disloyalty.