Resource: SmileMakers.com

With back-to-school season (and therefore “classroom decor improvement” season) just around the corner, here’s an excellent website designed to help us as teachers to prepare our classrooms, honor our students, and much more: SmileMakers.com.  SmileMakers.com, a subsidiary of Staples, has a wide selection of items for your classroom, and they offer a Teacher Perks program that provides extra savings and shipping discounts to teachers.

Before the school year begins and we find ourselves pressured to think about things like Common Core implementation, test scores, and adequate yearly progress, here’s hoping we can all take time to set up our classrooms to be welcoming, warm places in which our students can thrive.

Does Education Need Its Own Edward Snowden?

In case you somehow missed it, Edward Snowden is the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who recently became a whistleblower.  Mr. Snowden used his position to gain access to and then leak information that showed that the government of the United States is violating its own Constitution by running a number of pervasive surveillance programs on its own citizens (as well as citizens of other countries).

I can’t help but wonder: with all of the horrible initiatives being implemented recently in the name of education, does education need its own Edward Snowden?

I would argue that we need whistleblowers from places like:

  • Pearson.  High-stakes tests are supposed to be kept under wraps, but one high-stakes test question in New York about a talking pineapple was so absurd that it was leaked anyway.  Pearson was paid $32 million to overhaul the New York state tests, but the tests themselves are never released publicly.  What if someone from Pearson realized the damage that high-stakes testing was doing to our children, and decided to leak all of the test items from past years’ tests?  Is it possible that we would find that the talking pineapple question was just the tip of the iceberg?  Is it possible that we might even come to the realization that as we look at these tests more closely, we realize how ineffective and imprecise a measurement tool they really are?
  • K12 Inc.  K12 is a for-profit company that runs virtual schools which, despite doing a horrible job of actually educating students, are absolute cash cows.  What if someone who worked there collected both the company’s complete financial data and data on collective student performance, then leaked it publicly?  Might we be appalled at the huge amount of tax money, intended for students’ benefit, which was instead being (A) spent on advertising and (B) kept as profit?  Might we be so disturbed by the academic performance of these for-profit online schools that states would be pressured into de-funding them?
  • Urban school districts like Chicago.  Chicago Public Schools have been in the news recently, with some leaders there that their budgets are so bleak that they might not be able to afford toilet paper next year.  That’s ridiculous.  The situation in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, and many other inner cities  are similarly dire.  What if a janitor who worked in one of those districts decided to film every sign of decay he or she encountered for an entire year, from broken windows to leaky roofs to a lack of basic supplies?  This whistleblower could then leak that information publicly to media sources, who could make everyone aware of how bad things really are in these schools.  Is it possible that this would awaken our collective conscience and help us all to decide to pass that next bond issue that came our way?  Might this sort of leak inspire us to draw a line in the sand, to say that all children deserve things like soap, toilet paper, and potable water in their schools?

A leaked video of Mitt Romney’s infamous quote about “the 47 percent” helped shape the trajectory of the 2012 U.S. Presidential election.  Is it possible that the best way to get education back on track is from a leak like those described above?

The Anti-Gifted Sentiment Behind “Closing the Gap”

The term “closing the gap” has been used in education a lot lately, as in, “We need to work to close the achievement gap between all students.”  Everyone nods their heads and sets to work on figuring out how we can close this gap.  No one questions the original premise.

I am here to tell you that the entire premise of “closing the gap” is dead wrong.  

Last summer, my school got punished by the state of Michigan for having too large of a gap in test scores between our highest-achieving students and our lowest-achieving students.  It didn’t matter that our lowest students were actually doing quite well, with the majority of them actually passing our state assessment (even with its newly-raised cut scores).  No, what mattered was that our highest-achieving students basically crushed the state assessment, with many of them getting all or virtually all of the questions right.  That created a performance gap between our highest and lowest-performing students, and the state attacked us for it.

Just to make sure this is completely clear: We were punished by the state of Michigan because our top-scoring students did too well.

That’s absolutely asinine.  To make matters worse, we weren’t alone: 10% of schools around the state received this same treatment.  Thankfully, in my school, we had administrators who were wise enough to understand that this was insanity, and that we weren’t going to sabotage our higher students in an absurd attempt to “close the gap.”

But I fear for the hundreds of other schools out there that received the same treatment.  Based on what the State of Michigan did to them, it would be in their best interests to sabotage their best students — to make sure they don’t get ahead of the other students in their learning, or even to ask them to get questions wrong on purpose on their state tests — in the name of “closing the gap.”

That’s the true evil here.  We are rewarding schools who produce data showing that all of their students are about the same.  What will that mean for the future of G/T education?  When we throw everything we’ve got into making sure that No Child is Left Behind, aren’t we also really saying that no child can race ahead?  After all, if one student races ahead of the pack, aren’t the rest now behind?

What does it mean for our future when we no longer cultivate (or even tolerate) genius?  What does it mean for the future of education when schools are punished for students being “too smart?”

From now on, whenever you hear the term “closing the gap,” your BS radar should go off.  Don’t accept that as a worthwhile premise or goal.  Advocate instead for ALL students to be taught in a way that allows them to learn as much as they possibly can, the “gap” between them be damned.

Everything We Teach About Writing Is Wrong

My name is Mark, and I’m a spelling and grammar Nazi.

If you write there when you mean they’re, let’s be honest: I’m judging you. On the other hand, if you use a semicolon correctly, I instantly figure you’re probably a person I’d like to get to know better.

This personality trait of mine frequently comes to the forefront as I teach third-graders to write.  I try to appreciate students’ written work, but I find myself blinded by their run-ons, fragments, spelling errors, forgotten capital letters, extra capital letters, and various punctuation problems.

“Start sentences with a capital letter!” I preach. “Don’t start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘because!’  Proper nouns get capitalized!  Did you remember to indent your topic sentence?”

Sometimes it gets a little desperate: “If I see the word I  written with a lowercase letter one more time, I’m going to cry!  Do you really want to make me cry?”

The students work hard to make improvements — they gradually get better at editing their work, they learn to use various tools (both online and offline) to improve their spelling, and they generally do start punctuating and capitalizing things more correctly as the year goes on.  Some of them even use a semicolon correctly at some point during the school year, and I smile.

But then I started thinking about the things that I love to read, as well as the things that resonate with others.  I just finished Choose Yourself by James Altucher, and it read like a schizophrenic joyride, trampling the rules of grammar with nearly every sentence (or, rather, fragment).  Yet I couldn’t put it down.  Jen Hatmaker got featured on the Today show for this end-of-school-year blog post, a fragment-filled, random-capital barrage that is so hilarious that over a third of a million people have shared it on Facebook.

My students have noticed this as well: “Mr. Pullen, look!  This author started a sentence with the word ‘and’!” and “Why does this best-selling novel have lots of sentence fragments in it?”

I think it’s time for me to admit the truth: what really makes writing great isn’t perfect adherence to the laws of grammar.  It isn’t perfect punctuation, flawless spelling, or correct capitalization.  It’s voice.  Great writers write with a voice that draws you in and keeps you hooked.

It’s time for me to shift my attention to the actual content of what my students are writing about.  Can I feel their passion in their writing?  Do they write something in a way that builds suspense or makes me laugh?  Do they keep me wanting to read more?

I’m not promising to quit worrying about spelling, punctuation, or capitalization entirely.  After all, grammar Nazi-ism doesn’t go away overnight.  But I am going to focus more of my energy on teaching my students to write with voice.

I’ll let them know that although good writers follow all of the “proper” rules, great writers know the rules and then purposely break them to create a certain effect.  I’ll make sure that they know that even though computers will be grading their writing on our standardized tests (which, of course, kills me a little inside), real writing is meant to have an impact on people.

And so we’ll focus on what kind of impact their writing can make… not on whether or not they started any sentences with and.

Create Something!

“Even the stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. And I’d still take the most inane collaborative website over someone watching yet another half hour of TV.” -Clay Shirky

I have three life lessons that I try to pass along to my students, and the first two are fairly universal: be kind, and always put forth your best effort.

The third lesson is one that I really just started pushing this year.  I want my students to view themselves as people who create things that matter.  I want them to be authors, programmers, artists, poets, photographers, and inventors.  Toward that end, the phrase “Create something!” and its interrogative form, “What are you creating?” have become lines I say all the time in my classroom.

Our final day of school was last Friday.  Since then, I’ve received emails from students with links to videos they have filmed, photos they’ve taken, suggestions for state laws that they’ve sent to our town’s delegate in the Michigan House of Representatives, games and animations they’ve programmed themselves through Scratch, digital art they’ve created over at Art Pad, and documents and presentations they’ve created through Google Docs.  The students’ creative endeavors have obviously continued outside the school year and outside the walls of our classroom.

I’m doubling down on this next year.  Despite switching to Common Core (or not — Michigan can’t make up its mind), despite pressures to do well on MAP testing and MEAP testing and Fountas/Pinnell reading assessments, despite everything — I am going to make time for my students to be creators.

Smarter Balanced Assessment: Practice Tests Released

Amid all of the furor about Common Core lately (at least here in Michigan), the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium today publicly released their first practice tests designed to show the world what their vision of a Common-Core-Aligned assessment will look like.  These tests were already administered by pilot classrooms earlier this spring, but will not be used officially as high-stakes assessments until the spring of 2015.

You can sample the various language arts and math tests at different grade levels for yourself through this link, or you can read more about these practice tests here.

Common Core’s PR Problem

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as of late, have been suffering a bit of a public relations problem.

The Republican National Committee is now opposed to the CCSS, saying that these standards are “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived ‘normal’.”  Many Democrats are now against the CCSS as well, saying that “the Common Core is not based on research and… parts of it ignore what is known about how students learn, especially in the area of early childhood education.”

At a state level, Indiana has halted its implementation of the Common Core.  Here in my home state of Michigan, which was one of 45 states to have fully adopted both the math and language arts portions of the CCSS, lawmakers today took a major step toward preventing the Michigan Department of Education from spending any money adopting the CCSS, essentially halting the use of the CCSS here as well.  The Michigan Department of Education fired back, emailing principals and superintendents throughout the state to tell them that if Michigan fails to switch to the CCSS, “the state’s waiver from federal No Child Left Behind standards [is] at risk and all Michigan schools [are] in danger of failing to make acceptable yearly progress.”

If anyone in Michigan still harbored doubts that education has become a political football, I think we can safely put those doubts to rest.

Look, I neither love nor hate the Common Core Standards.  We can debate their emphasis on non-fiction reading and getting students to focus more on the why than the how when it comes to math.  But no matter whether you support or oppose the CCSS, know this: Here in Michigan, we’ve been preparing to make the switch to Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessment for several years now.  Huge amounts of time and money have already been spent on everything from technology upgrades (to be able to handle the online, adaptive Smarter Balanced testing requirements) to county-wide CCSS alignment meetings.

If our Michigan government wanted to take action to not adopt the CCSS, they should have done so at least a year ago.  Adopting the Common Core State Standards, then pulling back from them at the last possible moment for such obviously political reasons, is incredibly destructive.  The email sent from the Department of Education, trying to essentially panic superintendents and principals into vocally supporting the CCSS (one can only assume that was the intent of the email?) is also horrid.

Our schools, our teachers, and our students deserve better than this.