Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Silver Lining: An Insightful & Supportive Guide to Breast Cancer, By Hollye Jacobs, RN, MS, MSW

Silver LIning Cover

“Cancer.” Loathsome and foul.  Relentless. The treatment is brutal.  My most immediate experiences with Cancer have been as an outsider: daughter, sister, friend of patient.  Over the years, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about breast, colon and liver cancers*, stumbling through complex medical jargon.

And I searched high and low for something resembling a handbook that addressed, in “people-speak,” a patient’s day-to-day realities of dealing with “Cancer.”  My search has ended, thanks to Hollye Jacobs, an RN, licensed clinical social worker and  palliative care provider, who was diagnosed with Breast Cancer at the age of 39.  Hollye has published an insightful, compassionate, practical, graceful, honest, and humorous guide to dealing with breast cancer titled:  The Silver Lining.

The book is drawn, in part, from Hollye’s blog,  The Silver Pen which, like her book, looks to serve as a guide and inspiration to “navigating the realities of cancer.” The chapters center around Jacobs’ own life journey with cancer (she writes a heartfelt explanation of why she does not personally view cancer as a battle) and each includes a memoir portion, a section on “practical matters” (key clinical details about managing the patient experience), and some silver linings.

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Hollye’s narrative is accompanied by beautiful, uplifting and elegant photographs taken by her friend and gifted professional photographer, Elizabeth Messina, whose words in the introduction resonated with me:

“The day that Hollye told me that she had breast cancer, I felt haunted with helplessness. I wanted to hug her, to bring her flowers.  I wanted to do something, but nothing seemed quite right.  I did not want to burden her with my fear and sadness.  I also knew that I could not eliminate the intensity of the path that lay in front of her.”

I’ve felt this way – with my mom, sister, dad, and my dear friend, Nancy – after they were diagnosed with Cancer and during their treatment and recovery.  You do what you know how to do to help them, and it never ever seems quite right. Messina offered to take photographs to help Jacobs record the journey. The photos were initially intended as a personal gift of love.  The two of them only began to envision the book a year after Hollye’s diagnosis.  An inspiring collaboration of healing and friendship.

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Jacobs’ guide in the early pages of the book of  what to do when facing a cancer diagnosis is invaluable, in my own experience, as there is a mental fog that envelops patients and families during these initial weeks.  She offers  a primer on medical tests and types of breast cancer/staging,  a list of coping mechanisms for needle phobias, questions to ask during tests and questions to ask at the time of diagnosis. And that’s just Chapter 1.

The subsequent chapters cover:

  1. communicating with children about your cancer diagnosis,
  2. navigating the surgical experience (Jacobs had a double mastectomy),
  3. and the unique experiences of chemotherapy and radiation.

Her humor is ever present (the chemotherapy chapter is titled “Chemo Sobby”) and she doesn’t sugarcoat the side effects of treatment, reporting that she had all listed side effects except seizures, with details on vomiting, pernicious diarrhea, mouth sores, and constipation.  Jacobs offers practical advice as to how to deal with these and other treatment side effects and, in her eternal optimism, views them as a “silver lining” as she is able to write about her experience with them and offer guidance to others as to how to navigate them.  Her chapter on the emotional impact of cancer treatment is also a must-read for cancer patients and families.

The final chapters of The Silver Lining include a list of comprehensive resources and address the ebb and flow of recovery once treatment ends and what life after cancer looks like. I think Jacobs’ focus on her marriage and working her way back to intimacy with her HOTY (Husband of the Year) make for compelling  and inspiring reading.

I love the “Lifelines” set in the margins of each chapter in The Silver Lining. These brief notes offer worthwhile, thoughtful and practical advice or encouragement:

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Many of these “Lifelines,” and much of Jacobs’ practical advice about chemo and radiation, could be applicable to other forms of cancer as well, despite the books focus on breast cancer.

I follow Hollye’s blog and I was thrilled to win an advanced copy of the book from the publisher (Atria Books) in a giveaway on Goodreads.  But, honestly?  Before reading it, I was pretty skeptical about the “silver linings” bit.  I’ve witnessed Cancer from a variety of angles and I struggled with the idea that there are any silver linings to be found in the living with  all that comes with it.  Here are some of Jacobs’ personal silver linings:

  • seeing a hummingbird outside her window when she was wretchedly ill from chemotherapy
  • vile tasting medicine managed pain
  • feeling isolated from the world helped her tap into her “inner resources”

To me, these “silver linings” made sense – they  gave Jacobs a focal point (and some days she had to look really hard to find the silver lining) and helped her endure a painful, rotten Herculean journey. Jacobs is no Pollyanna – she is emphatic in stating that CANCER IS NOT A GIFT.  But she writes that she had two choices about how to handle her diagnosis:  from a place of fear or a place of optimism.  I admire her courage and her resilience.

This is a practical and hopeful book for anyone with breast cancer, especially those in the initial stages of diagnosis, undergoing treatment or in the early days of post-treatment. There isn’t much specific information for those faced with a recurrence of breast cancer (and I pray Jacobs never has to walk that path), but I do think there is a great deal of supportive material in the book for patients who experience recurrence, especially in her chapter on “Sustenance & Soulfulness,” which describes nutritional and complementary therapies to help with cancer treatment.

The-Silver-Lining-Maureen-Abood-1024x768My personal “silver lining” or “lifeline” in the book was the section for friends and family, Being With, where Jacobs compassionately sets forth the “practical ways TO BE:

  •  PRESENT
  • PATIENT
  • CALM
  • A GOOD LISTENER
  • HONEST & COMMUNICATIVE
  • NORMAL
  • PERSISTENT….and
  • DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY!  

No, not all of us are wired to look for “silver linings” in hard times and individual personalities have to find their own coping mechanisms for dealing with Cancer. Nonetheless, even for those with different approaches, The Silver Lining offers practical, insightful “lifelines” for people impacted by Cancer.

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*A great book that discusses Cancer  from a medical/scientific/historical perspective is The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  Accessible to the non-scientist, it lays out how society has dealt with Cancer through the ages.  Fascinating read.

 -Karen  DSC02405

I’m Pretty Much Nailing This Parenting Thing

There was bird poop on my porch steps this morning and I was elated. Because where there is bird poop, there is a bird who is chirping the message that spring, spring, spring is almost here (in weather, I mean, I am aware of how the equinox works).

Therefore, in celebration of the fact that it is spring, complete with showers, and the fact that our staff bathroom had toilet paper in it today (it’s the little things people), I am writing an uplifting piece about the milestones I (and my husband) have reached as a parent in the first seven and a half months of my son’s life.

Let me preface this by saying that I went into this whole parenting thing already sort of an expert. I teach, after all, and therefore know a thing or two about kids. So these milestones go above and beyond those basic achievements.

Now it’s time to report back on how well we have excelled as parents. Here goes:

The Disposable Diaper Achievement:

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At one month into parenting, we turned the corner on cloth diapering. Maybe it was the fact that our son’s diapers caused his rear end to be twelve times the side of his head and pushed him into baby clothes six months ahead of his age. Maybe it was too difficult to remember to put out the diapers for pick-up on Saturday mornings. Maybe it was too hard to hand-wash the wool diaper covers. Or maybe it was the fact that our son peed a lot. And insisted on being changed after every urination. Whatever it was, cloth diapers had to go.

While using cloth diapers it was not unusual for me to change my son’s diaper, put him down for a nap, and have to change his diaper again before he had fallen asleep. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m not sure if it was me or my husband who got the brilliant idea to switch to disposable diapers at nights so that we could sleep in longer than 15 minute increments, but I think we both knew that once we made that concession, we were well on our way to becoming a cloth-diaper-free house. And so it was that within two months we earned ourselves the Disposable Diaper Achievement.

Responsible Screen Time Award:

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We don’t own a TV at our house, a fact that saves a lot of time when Comcast tries to offer us their latest amazing deal. But we do own a computer and a Netflix subscription. Let’s be honest, that’s at least as good as a TV, and makes the opening statement of not owning a TV immediately less impressive.

My husband read a book that told us to limit screen time for children before the age of two. A worthy challenge. For the first few months of our son’s life we were careful to always point all computer or phone screens away from his face. Amateurs.

Anyway, the author of this book has clearly never been stuck in Chicago’s rush hour traffic with a screaming child, having already sung all verses of every song you’ve ever heard, exhausting all possible items of interest pulled from every bag and purse in the car. If the author had been in this situation, they too would have earned the Responsible Screen Time Award, an award that goes out to any parent who, in a moment of panic or fatigue, is able to use technology to soothe or distract their child.

If you need any assistance with earning this award, might I suggest a free download of the app “Magic Fingers”. You’re welcome. (I also endorse youtube videos.)

The Best Intentions Organic Homemade Baby Food Honorable Mention:

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At his four month appointment, the pediatrician told us we could start feeding our son rice cereal. My husband and I gave one another knowing glances. It was really a shame to see our pediatrician so behind in the baby food conversation. Doesn’t he know that rice cereal causes diabetes, is probably full of arsenic, and will make our child obese?

When he asked us directly, we smugly answered that we were making our own baby food. What we meant was that we have a food processor and intentions of peeling, pureeing, and storing our own homemade (organic) baby food. We hadn’t actually MADE it. (Our pediatrician gave us a sympathetic smile and said, “God bless you guys. But seriously, Gerber baby food is good, too.”)

Several days after the appointment I happened to be at Babies R Us, and there happened to be a sale on organic baby food. I picked up a box of twelve little jars. After all, we needed more storage containers for our homemade food.

It’s been three months since then and to date we have boiled and mashed one sweet potato. It wasn’t an organic sweet potato because Costco doesn’t carry organic sweet potatoes. Our son didn’t seem to mind. And that is how we managed to put ourselves on the list of parents who have earned The Best Intentions Organic Homemade Baby Food Honorable Mention.

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There have been a few other important milestones so far including, but not limited to, “Allowing Your Child to Sleep in His Swing Until the Swing Stops Swinging” Award, and the “Supplement With Formula Because Pumping More Than Once A Day At Work Is A Pain In The You Know What” Award. And let me not forget our newly achieved “Using Food To Stop Your Child From Screaming At Target” Award.

I am sure we have many, many more milestones to hit before we’re done. (Perhaps some will be shared by all the veteran parents in the comments section below.)

As my mother-in-law says, “Parents have to do what works.” (She gave very similar sex advice to us when we got married, but I digress.)

In any case, I’m proud of all we’ve accomplished so far. It makes me pretty excited. Almost (but not quite) as excited as seeing bird poop on my back porch.

April is National Poetry Month – Celebrate!

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“Poetry is everywhere – it just needs editing.”        –James Tate

I have had a heck of a time writing this week’s teaching tip.  I had it planned out in my head (sort of) and had begun to collect resources to support teaching that centered around National Poetry Month.  And then I wrote a first draft – it took me nearly 6 hours to write and reflected my ADD.  And, as Rachel kindly and gently noted, “it was pretty long and maybe we needed to divide it into 3 parts.”  In truth, it was not only long, but it was everywhere.  And it needed a lot of editing.  James Tate’s quote about poetry is making me feel a little bit better about it.

So this week’s teaching tip is #1 in a series about teaching poetry, with a focus on “go to” resources for your classroom (or at home) to plan at least a little bit ahead for a month of poetry everywhere.  And parents?  There are some poetry ideas in here for you as well!

April is the perfect time to celebrate American Poets and Poetry!  It has been a long winter and celebrations are great ways to rejuvenate weary students and teachers.  There are countless ways to celebrate:  Collect and read poetry, respond to poetry in writing or art, write poetry or perform poetry.  You can write to poets.  You can make recordings of kids reading poetry.

Poetry is my favorite genre to teach: it teaches kids about good writing, the crucial importance of language, and how to read and think critically and carefully. Moreover, poetry gives kids the opportunity to reflect on the people they are and the world they inhabit, and to imagine the people they wish to be and the world they hope to create.  Remember: Poetry is a worthwhile genre across the academic spectrum: Language Arts (reading and writing), STEM, Social Science and Performing Arts.  


Click on the underlined links to check out these resources firsthand to create poetry units or to weave into previously planned lessons:

The American Academy of Poetspoets.org

This is the place to go for poems, interdisciplinary lessons (many aligned with the common core standards) to teach poetry, and ideas for celebrating poetry in your school or classroom.  Click on the “For Educators” menu to find tips for teaching poetry, poetry resources for teens, curriculum and lesson plans, great poems to teach, essays on teaching, and a teacher resources center.  Check out The Listening Booth.  Other highlights include:

  • 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry MonthTons of ideas to weave into your classroom or school or at home to celebrate poetry!  Put poetry in an unexpected place!  Write a letter to a poet!
  • A POEM IN YOUR POCKET: Share a poem with everyone you meet on “National Poem in Your Pocket Day” which is Thursday, April 24, 2014.  Select a poem or compose an original work and carry it with you in your pocket all day, sharing the poem and the fun of National Poetry Month wherever you go. The site has poems to download (.pdf format) ready to share in your classroom or school or with your friends and neighbors.
  • The 2014 Poet-to-Poet Project:  This is a special multimedia educational project for students in grades 3-12 to write poems in response to the poems of living poets (classrooms can watch YouTube videos of the poets reading and explaining the creation of their poem) and send them to the American Academy of Poets.  Students have until April 30, 2014 to submit their poems. The American Academy of Poets worked with a curriculum specialist to design a series of standards – based lesson plans, with Science connections, together with activities and resources to support students who participate in this project:
  • The Literature of War (Grades 10-12)Students develop a poetic vocabulary and pursue an examination of the effects of war on those involved in the fighting and those they leave behind, moving chronologically through time.  The unit concludes by looking at the world’s most recent acts of war, the effects and ramifications of the events on and following September 11, through the reading of poems written since that date. As a culminating activity, students are asked to respond with a poem of their own that they illustrate with relevant images found on the web.

Poetry-Foundation-Logo-horizThe Poetry Foundation

This is an awesome website with thousands of poems and short bios of poets.  It is easily searchable for specifics.  It also has a wide variety of resources with ideas for teaching poetry across the spectrum:

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Poetry Out Loud

The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation partnered with U.S. state arts agencies to support Poetry Out Loud, a contest that encourages the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.  The site has suggested lessons and class schedules.

Although the official contest is designed for high schoolers, the materials could be adapted for classroom use in younger grades.  Here is a link to a downloadable .pdf of the 2014 Poetry Out Loud Teacher’s Guide.


PBS NewsHour Poetry Page

A compendium of PBS features on contemporary poets and poetry that might be relevant to the previously planned lessons you are teaching in your classroom (a simple way to weave poetry celebration into your current instruction).   

In particular, take a look at the project of the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway, called “Where Poetry Lives, “which focuses on “issues that matter to Americans through the framework of poetry.”  Some interesting pieces for parents and teachers alike that are certain to generate meaningful discussion.


ReadWriteThink

A comprehensive list of resources and ideas for lesson plans and assessments focused on National Poetry Month.

 

shel silversteinShel Silverstein

This page contains teaching and learning materials using the poetry of the late, but forever beloved children’s poet Shel Silverstein.  Who doesn’t love The Giving Tree? Here is a  link to the downloadable .pdf of Shelebrate National Poetry Month 2012, which is representative of the engaging curriculum found on this website.  Shel’s poems are accessible, meaningful and so much fun.  Parents should  might want to check out Shel’s website to access Shel’s poetry (samples), animations and activities and for a list of his poetry books.


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NY Times Learning Network

Here are thirty, easy, quick and engaging ideas for ways to respond to and appreciate,  create,  and perform poetry, all with connections to the larger world.  With links to specific teaching resources.  Designed with teachers in mind!

 

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The Poetry Archive

I couldn’t leave this site off this list even though it seems to be a UK site.  It contains a wealth of materials about poems, poets and the art of poetry,  with online recordings of poets from around the world reading their own work.  There is a menu of teacher resources with materials for teaching students at all ages starting at age 5, with ideas about how to incorporate listening into a lesson.  It also houses “The Children’s Poetry Archive” which allows a search by “poetic form.”   Here are some Tips for getting the best out of the Archive.


More next week!

-KarenDSC02405

Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble…

TEST CAULDRON

So…I’m weighing in. On the bubbles. And the #2 pencils.  My views on this exercise in futility are in line with Rachel’s (not much of a surprise, I know).  Two weeks of ISAT testing (the Illinois version of standardized tests, known as THE TEST in Chicago) is mind numbing, frustrating, exhausting.   But , in truth, I am growing a bit weary of the constant critique of standardized testing without an equivalent effort towards generating viable alternatives for measuring student learning and teacher accountability.

But I suppose we need to figure out what’s broke in order to fix it.  So here’s what I think about the bubbles.

THE TEST pisses me off.  Just so you know where I stand.

I’m praying my former students don’t read this, because my opinion doesn’t jive with my words…the words I began to utter roughly 2 years into teaching:

“This is important because it will be on THE TEST.”  

All eyes would turn toward me, albeit briefly, and a hush would fall over the room. And I would feel HORRIBLE, and I would think, “I have become a bad teacher.”  In truth,  I used THE TEST ploy more often than I care to admit.  I had learned that my students (and their parents) had been conditioned to believe that the ONLY things we learned that were important were those that were on THE TEST.  And sometimes, I wasn’t sure if the problem we were solving or what we were learning or working on together would actually be on THE TEST  But I said it anyway, because I knew, sadly,  that THE TEST would clothe the concept or skill with gravity and importance in my student’s eyes.

I had approached teaching with the idea that THE TESTwas not supposed to be the focus – authentic learning and teaching intermingled with social justice – that was the focus. I figured if I developed and effectively taught engaging and meaningful curriculum that covered the state learning standards (Yes, I kept a checklist), my kids would perform well on the state tests.  My own assessments (formal and informal) would tell me if the kids were getting what I was teaching.  Assessment is an integral component of instruction.

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But then, the bean counters showed up, claiming to be able to NUMERICALLY QUANTIFY what my kids were learning and how well I was teaching (Ah, yes: ADDED VALUE) and whether my school was worth keeping open.  Okay, the bean counters were there when I started teaching in 2005,  but somehow, their voices grew LOUDER and their power and influence seemed much greater as the years passed.  I think it was because they were shouting at the top of their lungs:  ‘DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION!’ Which means many things to many people.

Over, time, It became impossible for me to shut them out.  Especially when the fate of our school (probation? closure?) was ruled by the counters, the beans (the data or test results) and how, exactly, they were counted (or construed).

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So meeting after meeting, teachers and administrators pored over and disaggregated data (mind you, it was 6 months old). We were precise – we were going to use this data to increase profits – whoops – raise achievement by analyzing this data and build – whoops – target instruction for each and every widget – whoops – student.

I BEGAN TO HATE DATA. In truth, it doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the students, their real progress or their potential.  Generally, it never takes into account who these kids are or where they’ve been academically or emotionally.  In my experience, THE DATA overall lacks context.

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But I succumbed to the pressure to “get my kids ready” for the state test by dutifully using the “interim assessments”  doled out by the district  which would ensure we would get our kids on track to do well on the test.  Never mind that these interim assessments were not, in educational parlance, “aligned” with what I had been teaching in my classroom.  The results of these assessments: more DATA.

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In a flash, we were assessing kids monthly, sometimes weekly. Bell-ringer math tests that were reviewed by the administration to assess student recall of math facts.  Dragging students to the computer lab (which was almost never available otherwise) to complete ridiculous assessments:  long, contrived reading passages followed by multiple choice questions.  Practice, Practice, Practice.  My 8th grade boys one year figured out that if they answered the questions for a passage INCORRECTLY, the test ended.  And yes, they knew what they were doing. Suddenly, kids who were reading at or above grade level seemed barely literate. I was chastised (not by my students) for not emphasizing the importance of the so-called interim assessment. It was my job to sell it to them.

And all I kept thinking was just how smart and clever those guys were for thinking outside the bubble.

Standard-Tests

Standardized testing with high stakes (the fate of students, schools and teachers) is, in my view, preposterous and extravagant.  And yet, we continue to engage in this exercise year after year in our public schools, with a perplexing emphasis on those schools where student populations live in poverty and amidst life-threatening violence.

Yes, it is essential to know what our kids know and don’t know after a year of instruction (although ISAT tests were administered with roughly A THIRD of the school year remaining). Sure, it is important to objectively assess kids and examine the data in a timely fashion to see if they are learning  what we are teaching – and so we can figure out what to do when they are not learning.

BUT should a school’s future – a kid’s future – really ride on how well they perform on a multiple choice test on a given day?  How reliable is this data? How timely is this data?   What does this data tell teachers?  Administrators?  Especially after it is massaged by the bean counters and provided to teachers months later, and sometimes well into the following school year.  THIS TYPE OF DATA – FOR TEACHERS – IS OF LITTLE VALUE.

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The most recent numbers I can find reveal that the U.S. spends about $1.7 billion every year on standardized testing. A lot of beans.  But the overall “costs” are actually much higher.  Last week, the Washington post published a piece that listed 13 ways high-stakes standardized tests hurt students (click here to read it). Here are my personal top five intangible costs of standardized tests:

  1. Loss of Instructional Time: Assessment and prep take time out of the learning day.  No way around it.  The minutes beforehand to get our kids to focus on the assessment and the minutes after to get them to regroup after intense concentration.  Valuable time.  I’m not talking about classroom assessments – I’m talking about the standardized test assessment practice to “gauge” levels of performance.  Oh – and generally, state assessments eat up at least a full week of instruction. No, I’m not kidding.  Even allowing restroom access is a big deal during state testing.  And as Rachel points out, our neediest kids who are pulled out for one-on-one time for learning and social/emotional support are neglected during these testing days (often because the specialist teachers who are pulling students out are proctoring tests).
  2. A Narrow Focus: As I mentioned above, my students had previously determined that if it wasn’t on the test, it wasn’t worth spending time on.  I did my best to dissuade them and worked to keep them curious, applauded their questions, and celebrated their learning successes – with the purpose of cultivating life-long learners.  Filling in bubbles is boring, after the initial adrenalin rush (kids are naturally competitive for the most part).  I think it is our job as educators to reward curiosity and awaken the imagination of our kids. An overemphasis on multiple choice tests requires our students to think in, rather than outside of, the box (or bubble).
  3. Increased Stress : The pressure on students is ENORMOUS.  They are carrying the weight of their own future (“Will I meet standards?  I better exceed standards!”) and often the fate of their schools and teachers. I’ve written about my kids who throw up, cry uncontrollably, or start a fight to get out of the testing room.  Anxiety is high because it should be.  The test matters.  And for kids who are living and surviving in high stress homes and neighborhoods, the test can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
  4. Internalized Failure:  NEWS ALERT:  NOT EVERY STUDENT WILL MEET STANDARDS BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF THE TEST ITSELF.  In Illinois, the test is a combination of norm-referenced and criterion- referenced items (ISAT 2013 guide) which are used in a mysterious formula (guarded like the gold in Fort Knox) to determine whether students “meet” standards.  Norm-referenced tests are comparative (comparing the test taker to a group of peers) and thus a certain portion of students will fall at the lower end of the bell curve (failing to “meet” standards).  I’ve often wondered who this group of peers might be when testing inner-city kids. As Rachel noted, the test passages can be pretty white, with middle-class scenarios.  My favorite one had an illustration of a camper and a campfire and one of my students was concerned about why people were living in a bus in the forest.  I made a note of going over campers the following year when I was getting my students prepared for the test.  I have digressed.  My point is this: some students will always struggle and after failing to “meet” standards in 3rd and 4th grade, well, they give up. It takes a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get some kids to even fill in the bubbles on the test.  Kids who think they are academic failures are generally the kids we lose by the time they get to high school.  
  5. The Numbers Game: It takes a while for test scores to be calculated and calibrated.  Really?  Don’t let anyone kid you about the ease of standardized test scoring.  They don’t just run these scoring sheets through a machine and spit out the scores.  These beans are so important (in terms of education dollars) that districts spend months analyzing the outcomes and work to produce the best possible outcomes (eliminating test items, etc.).  Also, schools get points for kids who meet standards and extra points for kids who exceed standards.  Except, much of the time, administrators who are pressured heavily from above, push teachers to focus on the groups they can “move.”  If kids are certain to be below standards, they can be gently set to the side while we work on beefing up the scores of other kids.  This is not education.  This is not Social Justice.  It’s a racket.

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Here’s an interesting pro/con standardized testing discussion to look at BOTH SIDES of the debate: Testing Arguments if you aren’t sure where you stand on the issue.  Me? You know where I stand. A system of bubbles is fraught with trouble.

I think it is time to turn the energy away from the debate and toward a solution: an authentic system of teaching and learning accountability developed at the school level.  Let’s stop trying to create widgets and, instead, work to foster thoughtful thinkers, mindful humans and world changers.

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The View Past The Limit

I got through my first year of teaching by getting drunk every Saturday and going to church every Sunday. It isn’t a pretty truth but there it is. It helped that my roommates made sure I wasn’t alone on the weekends in case I had panic attacks. And Karen kept me hydrated on a nearly daily basis with Starbucks hot chocolate.

On weekends before my sister and brother in law moved out of the country, I would ride the train to their home an hour west and play with my nephews and cry for hours on my sister’s bed. Suffice it to say it was the hardest year of my life.

Early on I got a care package from a dear friend in Minnesota, a teacher himself. When I called to thank him I asked, “How do you do this? How can you possibly survive being a teacher? I don’t think I can make it through the year.”

He said, “Yeah, but it’s like marriage. You can’t let yourself think about divorce. You don’t give yourself that option.”

There are plenty of really good reasons why people get divorced. That’s not the point of this blog. His words have stayed with me because they offered me a different truth. By giving myself the option of leaving, I would be gone long before I walked out of the door.

A few days later while talking (crying) to my dad on the phone he said the other big truth of that year. “Raye, pretty soon this year will be a distant memory.”

I didn’t leave. That year was impossibly hard. The kind of hard that plumbs the depths and changes you forever. The kind that leaves you sitting in Lake Michigan a month after the end of the school year, so drunk you can only crawl, screaming at God until there aren’t any more tears, there isn’t any more voice.

I started therapy the following week. (I like to imagine that God was sitting next to me in Lake Michigan.)

Parenting, for me, has been a different kind of hard, but the same kinds of panic. The first few weeks my husband had to rearrange his schedule to be available in the event that I started to go to the dark place, as I like to think of it. The first few weeks, I visited the dark place daily. But as time has gone on, the visits have spread farther and farther apart.

I don’t get drunk anymore. I still go to church (almost) every Sunday.

But parenting, like teaching, has taken me to the edge of the place where I draw my limits, where I put up my boundaries. And then it has put me in a M52 turbojet and taken off. I don’t really know what or where my boundaries are anymore.

Last night my baby woke up at 11:30pm, shortly after we went to bed following a dinner with friends. He did not fall back asleep until 1:45am. We are welcoming his first tooth. My alarm went off this morning at 5:15am. I honestly don’t know how I got myself out of bed this morning.

I didn’t know it was possible to be exhausted to the point of nausea, and still cradle my son with awe and wonder, even as the thought, “This is ending with you going back to sleep whether you like it or not” scrolls across my brain like a screensaver.

Last Sunday I was driving home from a friend’s house, baby in the backseat. I was trying to wrap my mind around how I would find the inner resolve to get through the work week. It was dark, and I was waiting at a red light. I looked to the east, and there was the moon. Full, and so bright the whole sky was awake.

It reminded me of that first year teaching. Everyday I drove down Lake Shore Drive. And everyday I made a point to look out over Lake Michigan and admire the beauty of the sun coming up, its rays kissing the water, showing off its artistic ability. I thought of it as choosing life each day, instead of choosing death. Choosing to live that day, instead of just surviving. Choosing not to walk out the door. Choosing to remember that the day would not come again.

The light turned green and I was brought back to the present. I drove the rest of the way home, but I kept glancing over at that full moon. There was not an answer to my questions, other than to get up each morning and do the next thing.

But for right then, there was just that moment, that moon, that sky. There was just the decision to choose life.

And the awareness that one day, this too will be a distant memory.FullMoon660

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet…

twitter graphic

This week’s teaching tip focuses on Twitter and its use as a teacher resource.  It’s a great source for professional development and it supports collaboration among teachers within a school, a district, a country, and yes, the world.  It is also a wonderful social medium to practice writing.  Really. 

Twitter tweets rock.  Honestly, I never thought I’d say this – 140 characters?  Are you kidding me? What can anyone say that’s worth reading in 140… but wait.  It takes a lot of writing prowess to write a meaningful and coherent thought in 140 characters.  True sentences, often, are whittled down to the pith (think Ernest Hemingway).

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway revealed his struggle with writer’s block: “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

twitter hashtags

Twitter can be a good place to practice writing — and also search for — that “one true sentence.” It is chock full of sentences (okay, “tweets”) that can lead the reader to knowledge, personal/professional support, and often, the truth (always be on the look out for trolls, political ax grinders and The Onion, among other Twitter accounts, that can lead you astray).  And yes, Twitter is full of digital noise (think about the notes or texts you confiscate during instruction).

In fact, teachers can use the power of Twitter to build a one-of-a-kind, fully-customized, digital network that permits them to quickly share resources, voice concerns about educational policy, and lend or seek support from other teachers. Differentiated teaching & learning? Yes.  Twitter can be utilized as differentiated professional development (who has not yearned for this in the teaching profession?)

If you haven’t created a twitter account, and aren’t sure how it would work, here are some examples of teachers on twitter.  Then, go to twitter.com and create your free account. Remember, it’s public so put up a nice photo of yourself and take some time to set up your profile.   And then, tweet!

twitter reader

Twitter is NOISY! Determine which accounts you should follow.

Twitter can feel like being in the middle of Grand Central Station during rush hour and being hard of hearing.  People, ideas, music, videos, are flying around all over the place.  OVERWHELMING.

BUT, the user (that’s you) has total control of the accounts he or she follows (and unfollow).  You decide what you want to read and hear.  So,  begin by following educators you know or have worked with.  Twitter helps you:

  • connect and converse with those other teachers who attended professional development with you last week
  • lend support to one of your colleagues who is struggling with classroom engagement.

It makes sense to follow the established “experts” – these tweets will often have timely information relevant to your teaching practice, and can help you hone your craft.

twitter books

Here are a few of the twitter accounts which provide valuable teaching resources/guidance that Rachel and I both follow:

  1.  @edutopia:  Inspiration and Information for what works in education.  This account and its companion website (www.edutopia.org) have tons of research-based teaching ideas with an eye on the looming common core standards.  Love this.
  2. @DiscoveryEd: This is a global account that focuses on all aspects of classroom teaching and technology.  Companion website: www.discoveryeducation.com.
  3. @pbsteachers: PBS loves teachers!  Free digital resources and loads of great content for your classroom in all subject areas.
  4. @USATeducation: Resources from USA Today to connect student learning to the world around them.
  5. @NCTM: Tweets about Math teaching  from the the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (Also take a look at their companion website Illuminations for additional teaching resources).
  6. @Tolerance_org and @Facing History:  A plug for my most favorite teaching resources as a social science, history and literature teacher. Teaching Tolerance provides teachers with phenomenal free teaching materials and Facing History provides meaningful curriculum (and supportive, ongoing, reflective professional development from amazing people) geared toward promoting tolerance and combatting racism across the globe.
  7. @NCTE:  The National Council of Teachers of English tweet information on teaching (resources), common core and educational policy for pre-k to HS educators.  (Also check out www.NCTE.org and www.readwritethink.org for great teaching materials and ideas).
  8. @rethinkschools: Rethinking Schools focuses on teaching for social justice, anti-racist education & equity in public education policy & practice.  Tweets provide information, links to resources and thoughtful education policy discussion.
  9. @NSTA: The account of the National Science Teacher Association with a focus on all things STEM!
  10. @NEA:  The twitter account of the National Education Association which covers happenings and discussions on teaching and educational policy.  Here’s a place to help you stay in touch with what’s happening in terms of common core and teacher evaluation, along with other issues in education, even if you don’t have time to read the paper or watch the news!

twitter dude

Tweet: but don’t forget the #hashtag#

Compose tweets – talk about your teaching, your thoughts about educational policy, what is happening in your classroom, and concerns about assessment, lesson planning, common core or classroom management.  Post links, post multimedia.  Post what has meaning to you – what you wish to have a conversation about.  Tweet once or twice a day.  And respond to the tweets of others. And use:

twitter-hashtags

What’s a hashtag?  It is a word or phrase that is preceded by a # or hashtag.  In the noisy tweeting world of twitter, the hashtag categorizes tweets.   Use hashtags when you tweet and want your message to be part of a larger conversation beyond your followers.

There are standard hashtags (that the tweeter professionals all know and monitor) that will pull your tweet into a larger conversation beyond your immediate followers.  Make sure you use a relevant hashtag and you will reach others who are talking (whoops, tweeting) about the same topic.  Use more than one hashtag if your tweet applies to more than one topic, but choose wisely. If you want that hashtag’s community to value your input, take care to keep that twitter stream relevant and meaningful.  

Here is a long list of the Educational Hashtags which will allow you to place your words (tweet) within the purview of others monitoring those hashtags.  Use this list to monitor other conversations that might be meaningful to you (just type it in the search box on your twitter page).

A worldwide Twitter conversation known as #edchat takes place every Tuesday at 12 p.m. Eastern time and 7 p.m. Eastern time.  It’s worth monitoring and any educator can join in to discuss and learn about current teaching trends, how to integrate technology, transform their teaching, and connect with inspiring educators worldwide. Click here: #edchat  to learn more.  Discussions here also focus on education policy and education reform.

Try it!

Twitter-leader

Practice and read and learn.  It’s cool.

And, in conclusion, take a look at these wonderful teacher: Painful Hashtags.  Some might look woefully familiar!

In Their Own Words (A Book Review)

When I was about ten, I spent a full year checking out, then renewing, my favorite book from the library. Finally for my birthday my mom and dad gave me a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore, The Red Balloon, who special ordered the book for me. What was the name of the book? My Prairie Year, based on the diary of Elenore Plaisted.

my prairie year

The book was put together by Elenore’s granddaughter. I made my mom read the book to me over and over again. I loved hearing about the different tasks involved in living out in the prairie. I imagined running through the sheets drying on the clothes line. I was thankful I didn’t have to warm the irons up on the stove before pressing my clothes. I loved reading about how Father tied a string from the barn to the house so that he wouldn’t get lost when he went to the barn to milk the cows during the winter blizzard. (I thought about tying a string from my house to my garage several times this winter, just in case.)

The book made homesteading in the Dakotas in the late 1800s come alive for me. And the pencil drawn illustrations are beautiful.

When I started teaching, I came across another book that I loved almost as much. It has become a “sacred text” in my classroom, which means that we read it again and again. This book, also a memoir, is called When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.

when

Though the setting is in the mountains of Appalachia, there are many obvious comparisons. Rylant uses incredible imagery as she tells of visiting her grandparents home in the mountains. In prose so lyrical it almost reads as poetry, she illuminates everyday events, such as eating so much okra that she makes herself sick, warming up water for the evening bath in the old wood stove, being baptized in the local pond, and killing a snake as long as a room.

My love of memoir has grown with me as I have gotten older. The stories we tell of our lives are some of the most precious gifts we can give. Both these women have given incredible gifts of time, place, and adventure. In continuing the Women’s History Month theme, I wanted to highlight their voices and their stories.

In my own classroom, I use these books as “mentor texts” to highlight personal narratives in writing. In my home, I can’t wait to read stories to my little boy that tell of women like these two, strong and courageous. (Because it’s important to grow strong daughters, but it’s just as important to grow sons who respect strong daughters.)

My hope is that they will be well loved books in many others’ libraries.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Intended Audience: All ages