Author Archives: A Safe Place to Write

Never Ready: #TeacherConfessions #FirstDayofSchool

“No one is ever ready!” My father barks (1)

Today is the first day of school for millions of kids, parents and teachers across the country.  And for weeks, everyone has been getting ready.

Kids and their parents have been getting ready for weeks, tracking down items on the school supply list, watching carefully for those awesome sales at Staples, Target and Office Max. Last night, backpacks and lunch boxes were painstakingly loaded and uniforms were carefully laid out, ready for that early morning alarm and new school day schedule.

Teachers have been getting ready since the final day of school last June (yes, really). They have spent the summer recharging and planning for the year ahead – new units, fresh classroom management plans, and innovative strategies they learned at professional development over the summer (No, teachers do not get the summer off); they’ve carefully set up their classrooms and have worked to incorporate the expectations of the school administration that has never left the building over the summer. School custodians have cleaned the building from top to bottom (those floors are waxed!) and are ready to see their handiwork scuffed and fingerprinted by noon the first day.

Excitement fills the air. The first day is filled with great expectations. Everyone seems ready for the first day of school.

Except me. I was never ready. Not as a kid. Not as a parent. Not as a teacher. Try as I might, I was the teacher who was never ready for the first day of school. Not even at midnight the night before.

 I spent much of the summer honing my craft: reading, learning, going to professional development, creating units, gathering materials, and re-designing my classroom.  Oh, and constantly thinking and talking about my classroom (to my friends and family, I apologize).  The amount of planning and preparation I undertook, the amount of time I spent setting up my classroom, putting together my classroom library, writing letters to my students – it made no difference.

I was never ready.

I am talking about not just the first day of my first year in the classroom but each and every first day up to and including my last year in the classroom.

The more you teach, the more you know that Murphy’s Law applies with an unrelenting vengeance to classroom instruction: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” And, as the poet above points out, the “shoelaces” will ultimately wear out and break and you may have to make do with a “belt” that is not your best.

I tried so hard to be ready for that first day of school. But, alas, within 10 minutes, I discover that what I thought was the perfect morning meeting classroom rug shed like crazy, covering my students’ freshly ironed uniform pants with a layer of fuzz (yes, the one I paid $89 for at Crate & Barrel – we vacuumed that sucker every day, but still, it kept on shedding). By noon, there weren’t enough desks in my room, as I hadn’t planned for the steady flow of students sent from the school office who weren’t listed on my roster because they hadn’t registered until the first day of school (always forgetting that the classroom size limit in the union contract has no real meaning the first 20 days of school).

But somehow, despite the fuzz and lack of desks, despite not being ready for everything (including my sweet new student from West Africa who spoke no English except for “Hello” and “Thank You”), we are off to our “life-or-death destination”: another year of teaching and learning.

And somewhere in the middle of that first day chaos, I remember that I will never be ready for everything that happens – on the first day of school or each day that follows.

I won’t be ready for the moment when Quavonte, Joe and Conwanis bring me the Reader’s Theatre translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and request to use the original or “real” language in their fight scene between the Montagues and the Capulets, because, “like you said, Mrs. Dempsey, there’s nothing like iambic pentameter. Shakespeare just sounds better. He’s got the beats.” I won’t be ready for the January that every student turns in their “winter break” reading and writing packet because it was “kind of fun to write poetry and stuff.” Be still my heart.

I also won’t be ready for the moment when a student, in a flash of temper, grabs a pair of scissors and stabs another (minor flesh wounds, thank God). Or the morning my gifted writer and rapper shows up to school drunk out of his mind, having poured his mother’s cognac into a bottle of sunny delight (and still carrying the evidence with him into the classroom).

Despite Breathless Preparation, I

The first day of school preparations that leave us all breathless remind me that despite the fuzz, the wounds or the spiked sunny delight, my students and I will continue to learn as I teach. Preparation is critical. But so is bobbing and weaving, and incorporating and appreciating the unexpected.

And so, at the end of the first day, I have arrived. I finagle extra desks from the kind custodian, add and cross-off names in my no longer pristine gradebook, and I stop at the Dollar Store on my way home to buy multiple lint removers, so that we can be ready for the fuzz tomorrow after morning meeting.  And then I remind myself that no one, including me, is ever ready.

 –261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2Karen

#YesAllWomen #NotAllMen #HopefulForCulturalChange

she is someone Up early. Made coffee. Opened Laptop. Checked social media (how I track my son who lives 1200 miles away, but who never posts anything, but you never know, so it is important to check anyway).

I am bombarded with the appearance of #YesAllWomen tweets.  Often, I am in awe of the power of Social Media.  This is one of those times.

As I scroll through ten tweets, twenty more are posted.  And it’s 5 a.m.  And these #YesAllWomen tweets are being tweeted by women and men. I am enthralled and captivated. Encouraged and enraged. Dismayed yet hopeful. Definitely hopeful – despite my feelings of  horror as I read countless women’s stories of fear and suffering and pain and death, clicking obsessively between Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.   Why hopeful?  Because finally we (meaning women) are talking about and sharing our stories, #nofilter.

And I believe that every woman has had at least one still lingering encounter with a man or men  that was frightening, humiliating or harmful. But usually, we keep these stories to ourselves.  Why are we generally silent? Why do sexual assaults and rapes go unreported? Home training.  Media messages.  SHAME. So many reasons.

GOOD girls do not place themselves into situations that lead to these horrifying encounters; girls who do probably are”at fault” somehow because they dressed too provocatively, drank too much, were too friendly or flirtatious, or in the “wrong” place.  Sometimes, we experience these encounters with male figures in positions of power: fathers, employers, clergy.   Silence is safety.  So we chalk it up to a “life lesson learned,” rather than reveal how we allowed or, better yet, lured a man to “lose control.”  We quietly bandage our wounds which never quite heal and which make us wary of the world. Almost always, we feel such shame about these experiences, we work hard to forget they ever happened.  But it is impossible to truly forget.  These episodes remain etched in our souls, our psyche, our skin.  #YesAllWomen

I was 19.  I was a passenger on the Illinois Central Railroad in 1978 – I had taken the 9:20 p.m. train out of the Randolph Street station in Chicago and was traveling home (I still lived with my parents) to the far south suburbs. At the time, I was attending night classes at Northwestern University.  I would scurry down Michigan Avenue as class let out at 9 p.m. and I was always relieved to make the train and slide into my seat, always out of breath.  My nightly routine, Monday – Thursday, after commuting to the city on the 7:08 a.m. train to work a full day before I raced to class.  I was a seasoned commuter.  I was savvy and smart.

Except this one night.

For some reason, I grabbed an inside seat.  I was tired and wanted to just lean against the window for the 55-minute ride home.  I started drafting a paper due the following week and got lost in my work.  At some point, a man took the seat next to me and opened his newspaper. I wasn’t paying close attention.  My fault.  At some point I became aware that the man’s hand had drifted onto my leg, and was moving up and down from my knee to mid-thigh.  Startled and unsure, I quickly pushed it away, thinking the man was asleep, as his eyes were closed. Just minutes later, it happened again, and I realized that the man’s other hand was inside his trousers.

I stopped breathing.

I hastily stuffed my papers and books into my backpack and pushed past the man who took the opportunity to grab my ass. I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to die.  But I never made a sound.

I stood in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights in the train vestibule next to the conductor for the rest of the trip home, fearful the man would approach me as I got off the train.  I kept reassuring myself that I was overreacting.  It was no big deal.  I hadn’t been raped – just touched.  It could have been so much worse, right?  My own fault, sitting on the inside seat.  Stupid girl.  You know better.  You are fine.  I leapt off the train when we arrived at the platform, and fled down the stairs two at a time.  I remember the cars on the busy avenue that ran beneath the station, honking as I dashed across the street to the lot where I parked my car.  I still hear the sound of the lock (manual) as I hurriedly slammed the door closed, shaking and sweating and crying and swearing.  When I got home, everyone was already asleep.  I threw away the clothes I was wearing and scrubbed myself clean in the shower, trying not to wake up the rest of the family.  I never told anyone. I remained silent. But for weeks I felt that disgusting touch over and over again.

Commuting was never quite the same after that.  I was distrustful of men who took the train and opened their newspapers, even though #NotAllMen behaved in this manner. In retrospect, minor incident.  Especially when compared to the killings in Santa Barbara this past Saturday and many of the stories I’ve been reading this morning. But for my 19-year old self – it was a big deal.  And I didn’t know how to talk about it. What gets me infuriated now, is that an adult male on a crowded train knew that he had the power to do what he did – that I would give him that power and not call him on it.  What gets me even more infuriated now, is that the man felt he could masturbate and touch a young woman in public – without her consent – with impunity.  And at 19, all I felt was overwhelming shame for putting myself in such a position.

Like most of us, I now have read quite a bit about the young man at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who felt he had the right to seek retribution against all women because he had been sexually rejected or overlooked by women – that the women should be punished.  I watched a portion of a video he posted on YouTube. It was too disturbing to watch through to the end, especially knowing the outcome, even though I have seen and heard a version of these sentiments before. So I read the transcript (click here to read it, if you’ve missed it: gruesome, but informative).   Now, seven people are dead, including this mentally disturbed young man, his roommates, two sorority sisters, and a man at a convenience store.

And I am deeply saddened and terribly uneasy. 

After reading the news accounts of the UCSB tragedy on Sunday, I read an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune entitled, “Disregarding feminism a sad trend for young celebs.”  A few days prior, The New York Times published  “Who is a feminist now?”  Both pieces center on an odd(well for me, anyway) definition of feminism held by many (Rush Limbaugh comes to mind), a “zero sum” game if you will, where the rights of men are somehow diminished if women are granted equal rights.  And apparently, the idea that feminists have “chips on their shoulders,” are “militant” and “don’t like men” still exists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.   These views are held not only by a number of popular celebrities, but by the current chief exec at Yahoo, all of whom are women.  I wonder if these “non-feminists” realize they have greater access to power and independence because of the “feminist” movement.  Are we teaching the history of the 20th century to our children?

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These “post-modern” views of feminism also make me uneasy.  Because I really want to believe we are farther along in the women’s movement, despite the gender pay gap, despite the increasing and incessant emphasis on the female body, despite the hyper-sexualization of young women, despite the hateful lyrics of some pieces of popular music, and despite the continuing use of the word “bitches.” In my view, feminism means equal rights for women and men: equal pay, equal opportunity, equal voice.  It means women who serve in the military don’t subject themselves to sexual harassment or rape – and when they are so violated, they have recourse.  It means respect between men and women.

This morning, I felt great relief at this Twitter explosion, despite the trolls and the #NotAllMen response (#nokidding), for as this tweet aptly states:

And these stories are being told, some in 140 characters on twitter, some on tumblr, some on FaceBook, and some on blogs on #WordPress.  The secrets of women are being disclosed and both men and women are empowered.  Because there is great power in this telling of truths, of revealing the roles of oppressor and oppressed.  Only by acknowledging these roles can we alter them.

I hope and pray that #YesAllWomen is more than a #trend and that it leads us beyond the important conversation and debate to real action and change.  Honestly?  I am used to feeling vulnerable when I am alone – simply because I am a woman. Statistically, the odds are rarely in my favor.  So I plan and live accordingly.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if younger generations of women no longer had that fear? In the meantime, you might want take a look at the Twitter feed.  YESALLWOMEN

 – KarenDSC02405

 

Death by Death

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”  Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Book thief quote

I have struggled to write this post for months.  And then, I just decided to take it “bird by bird.”  Still, it has taken me weeks to post it.  No, it still isn’t perfect.  But, in the spirit of being a “good enoughist,”  I pushed the button today.

 A dear friend’s husband died last April from lung cancer (he never smoked); he was 43. This is not supposed to happen and an uneasy chill entered my soul. I felt powerless and incensed:  what is God thinking?  Then, not long after, three dear friends of my husband died in rapid succession, leaving behind a bereaved spouse. As we left the last memorial service, I briefly decided (in a very self-absorbed way) that God might be putting me through “widow” school. I mean, my husband is significantly older than I am and maybe I needed to be ready for the next stage of my life – when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?  I did manage to recover from this moment of temporary insanity after remembering that not everything that happens is all about me.

I found the unfathomable grief deafening.  And terrifying. I hugged everybody and murmured worthless words that I desperately wished were comforting. But I felt powerless and STUPID. I had no idea how these graceful widows actually felt.  NO CLUE.  I could sense the sorrow, but I could not feel it with them.  I was an outsider – but I really didn’t want to be an insider, despite my clumsy ineptitude.

 For death, as Hamlet notes, is the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”  Although, Hamlet cannot possibly be right, as his dead father paid him a visit only a few scenes before he uttered these words.  Of course, Hamlet was not in his right mind.  I relate to Hamlet a lot.

 There was a lot of death last spring and summer.

 And then, the unthinkable happened.  My dear friend Nancy was diagnosed with incurable cancer.  Nancy: the definition of what it means to be alive.  She was whole-hearted, full of zest, passion and love.

And despite the word incurable, I was certain Nancy’s cancer could be cured.  We just needed to find the right remedy, the right doctor, the right hospital.  I researched treatment options for her cancer like a woman possessed and efficiently put together a binder with tabs and places to record symptoms and medicines and tests and infusions and never-ending visits to doctors. I accompanied her to meet with docs to get a second opinion.  I kept very busy looking for solutions.

 Because Nancy could not die.   Who in their right mind thinks this way?

And despite my will for her to live, Nancy, the soul I loved and cherished, began to leave her life here on this earth.  Slowly, steadily, gracefully: on her own terms.  Even though I didn’t want her to leave – not just yet.  Well, I never wanted her to leave.

This is because I still didn’t (and probably still don’t) have a handle on this death being part of life thing.  There is this tenacious piece of my soul that refuses to accept that we cannot be with those we love forever and ever.  I understand that suffering is part of life – but death?  Who in their right mind thinks like this?

 Nancy knew this about me.  So, she kindly and gently helped me understand that she would die.  Despite my “valiant” efforts to help her get cured.  I drove her to chemo whenever I could.  I meditated and prayed daily, imagining her surrounded by healing blue light, as the therapeutic poison dripped into her veins.  When I arrived at her door after being away for three weeks, Nancy no longer could walk on her own and she was breathless even when lying down.  Her energy, which always had seemed boundless, had been stolen from her.  She appeared to be looking off in the distance most of the time and it was difficult for her to talk.  I think part of me knew that Nancy had begun to disembark from this world and she was seeking her way to the next.  But my heart refused to acknowledge it.

So, I was the friend she asked to come to the “end of life” discussion.  I think she knew I needed to hear the devastating news directly.  Frankly, it never dawned on me, as I drove Nancy and her daughter over to the hospital for what I thought was the next round of chemo, that there would be no more life saving efforts.  I saw that Nancy seemed even more depleted and made a note to ask the doctor for a blood transfusion, because I was sure her hemoglobin was too low.  I chatted away like we were going out to lunch.

 With my notebook and pen in hand, sitting next to Nancy in her wheelchair, furiously taking notes as the oncologist, in a detached voice, talked about the failed chemo and continuing tumor growth, I asked, “ok, what’s next?”  But nothing was next.  Well, no cure was next.  And no, there was no need for a blood transfusion.  I was filled with dread and my heart began to hurt, like someone was beating me on the chest.

 As the doctor left the room to get the papers to “release Nancy to hospice care,” I just kept writing furiously, vowing to stay in my head, ignore my breaking heart and silently prayed for a medical miracle despite this damned, seemingly indifferent doctor.  Nancy’s daughter had been softly crying and quietly apologized.  The room was so quiet, except for the sound of my pen scratching senselessly across the pages of my notebook. And then, Nancy said, “Allison, don’t apologize.  Your crying is perfectly normal.  Of course you’re upset.  I’m the weird one. I’m so detached.”

And with that, despite my heartache, I laughed – as did Nancy – as we had laughed together so many times before when sharing the sorrows and joys of our lives. Allison’s tears were soon mixed with laughter (Nancy’s laugh was one of the most infectious on the planet). I said, “Thanks for sharing that.  I am so glad you noticed your detachment. I thought it was just me.”

It was at that moment, I got it.  She was getting ready to depart – and looking towards her next life, in “the undiscover’d country.”  How like Nancy to help me see what I did not want to see.

For years, Nancy and I had talked as only good friends do as we “fast-walked” the Chicago lakefront path, often meeting before dawn to fit the walk into our hectic schedules.  But now, Nancy embarked on a journey that only she could take, with her family and friends at her side, but yet, alone, all by herself.

 I hated that she was alone.

 Nancy was the friend in the past 10 years that often helped me whenever I felt most alone.  She listened, supported and laughed, no matter what. Despite my relocation 1300 miles away, we i-chatted most days.  Often, she greeted me as soon as I opened my laptop in the morning.

I hated that Nancy was leaving.

Like Mary Magdalene, who clung to the earthly Jesus, I wanted to hold onto Nancy.  She knew this about me.  And even as she suffered through the final stages of cancer, she tried to help me let her go.  Slowly and lovingly.

I last saw Nancy and hugged her a few days before Christmas.  She died 3 weeks later.  On her terms.  And I grieve.  Every day.

 I realized at Nancy’s memorial service how much trouble I was having letting her go, despite her work to help me in my stubborn quest to keep her immortal. I fled the service quickly, consumed by grief, and I continue to struggle with the swiftness of her death (barely 6 months after diagnosis).  I watched cancer, that evil beast of a disease, ravage her body, once the epitome of strength and endurance. My yoga teacher, my shiatsu specialist, the woman who did 100 things a day could no longer sit up for more than a few minutes without being out of breath. But cancer never took away her wisdom, her beauty, her sense of humor, her love, her kindness, her empathy.  So selfishly, I wanted her to stay.  Despite her suffering.  Some friend.  Who in their right mind thinks this way?

 I know I must help clear the path for Nancy’s spirit to “move on” – these are the instructions I remember from the memorial service.  And I panic every once in awhile that I am hurting her by not clearing the path properly.  I’m not experienced in this death business.  Honestly?  I hate leaving places once I am having a good time.  Nancy and I used to joke and laugh about this difference between us – we would be out at a gathering or watching our boys play baseball together, and I would linger at the end, hugging everyone goodbye (sometimes twice).  And I would look to hug Nancy goodbye and she was long gone…she always said she knew when it was time to leave and that drawn-out goodbyes were not her style.  Clearly.

A dear friend, and widow, who despite her own grief, has gently reminded me that the souls that leave earth still visit us.  And though I sometimes claim to be an unbeliever in the spirit life (like Hamlet), most of me believes that we are watched over by those that have gone before us.  And so, every morning at my workout, when I clasp my hands together in a yoga pose and gaze over my left shoulder, I say softly, “good morning, Nancy.”  And sometimes her laugh enters my ears and I see her briefly smiling before me, surrounded by blue, healing light.

 And every day, I work to sweep the path for her, always wondering if I will get any better at this, death by death.

nancy  Continue reading

Daring Greatly to be an Imperfect “Good Enoughist…”

Pure Barre 100 club Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.
Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. 

Back in February, I set this small goal for myself:  before Easter, I would attend 100 Pure Barre® classes at the studio here in Naples.  And I did – I attended my 100th class on Good Friday, with two days to spare.  For me, this is no small achievement.  I am still in disbelief that I managed to accomplish this tiny feat (not to mention I got these “100 club” sticky socks for my feet).

As I have hit my mid-50s (in only a few short months I will be closer to 60), my listing of body trouble spots has grown to an impressive catalog –with bone spurs, herniated discs, menopause and osteoarthritis to name a few.  I would love to say that these practical signs of aging are the reason I’ve been out of shape, lost my core strength, and gained a few pounds.  And, when I’m practicing the art of self-compassion, I believe there is some truth to that.

But until recently, I haven’t been that compassionate towards myself, especially my body.  Over the past 50-odd years, whenever I do think about my body, it generally is with strong feelings of shame and remorse.  If only I was more perfect, was more athletic, ate the right foods, I would look better and be a better person.  I’ve had shame-free moments, of course.  Some even lasted for a few months.  But, overall, when I think about it (and I hate thinking about it), I generally have been totally ashamed of my body for most of my life.

I won’t bore you with the litany of sins that my body reflects or its countless flaws.  I often thought I learned about my body’s many shortcomings when it was too late to really do anything permanent about fixing them.  I learned about these many defects through interaction with a variety of sources, including messages from family and friends, as well as mass media (including but not limited to: Noxzema commercials, the cover of Seventeen Magazine, the Sears Catalog and TV in general).

As it happens, I’ve spent the bulk of my life (well, since 1971) focused on my diet: I’m starting a diet Monday, I’m on a diet, I need to diet, I can’t thinking about a diet right now.  I was always hesitant to be physically active as I had been teased (sometimes people can be unthinking) about how I looked (fat and/or stupid) when I rode my bike, ran, jumped or danced.  Many felt the need to instruct me on what I should eat and exactly how I should exercise – because whatever I was doing was wrong, in their eyes.  And I burned within from the shame of it all.  I also hid – a lot.  The scrutiny sucked the energy from me.

I had fleeting moments of “success” at different stages of my life and deep panic as I struggled in vain to maintain a certain weight.  But, overall, the idea of “healthy striving” was foreign to me and the goal was always unachievable:  perfection.  Judgment, shame, and blame framed my view of my body.  Despite the fact that I gave birth to a healthy son, finished college, law school, made partner at the firm, finished grad school, and managed to teach for 5 years, my body (which houses my mind, heart and spirit) was disgraceful, loathsome, vile.  I have pretty much talked to myself using these words on a daily basis for more than 40 years.

The two men in my life – my husband and son – are the antithesis of me.  My husband, despite his years, is an adept tennis player, swimmer, biker and hitter of groundballs. My son is a certified personal trainer who fields ground balls and played soccer and baseball in high school.  In fact, I don’t believe there are many sports my son doesn’t like, except maybe curling.  These two can get me on a tennis court (if no one else is playing) but I usually try to wiggle out of it somehow.  I’m petrified at anyone watching me swing a tennis racket, despite my husband’s encouraging words and shouts of, “great hit.”  My husband and son find me beautiful.  But I don’t believe them most of the time.

I am still slightly shocked that I ever walked into the Pure Barre® studio.

gifts of imperfection

Upon reflection, I think it has something to do with this work I started doing (imperfectly) on perfectionism, thanks to Brene’ Brown (check out The Gifts of Imperfection – it is a goldmine!).  I picked the book up in Target to give as a gift – and kept it.  As I have aged, I have grown so cynical about the “self help” books and theories as I find it all a bit self-absorbed.  But what is more self-centered than the human who spends so much time seeking the unattainable?  The idea that my flaws could be viewed as gifts was the hook. So I’ve read the book.  And for me, it has been so helpful.  Brown provides “ten guideposts” to help cultivate what she describes as a whole-hearted life.  The book is pragmatic, short, to the point, and full of resources and ideas that can help us change how we live our lives.  Not overnight, mind you.  Like Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” The Gifts of Imperfection focuses on the power of being authentic and vulnerable.

 God, I hate not to be invulnerable.  Really.  I must be indomitable.  A badass.  Goes with my big ass. Vulnerability is not intuitive, let alone the concept that perfectionism is anything but the ideal.  And authenticity?  As Brene’ admits, it is not always the safe option.  For me, a daunting choice.  So much risk when I put myself out there.  The pursuit of perfection is the “perfect” suit of armor.  Who can criticize me when I already am criticizing myself?

not good enough itis

I have come to believe that, as Brene’ so wisely points out, seeking perfection is soul-sucking and obstructive and self-destructive.  Perfection is unattainable, but if it is our primary goal, it leads to self-blame (and self-centeredness):  “I’m not good enough.”  Brown makes perfect sense to me when she writes that we need to embrace our imperfections to find our “truest gifts:  courage, compassion and connection.”

So I’ve started to work on overcoming my desire to be perfect and to become a “good enoughist.”  And I started in my most vulnerable, imperfect place:  my body.

I’d done the BMI calculations and checked out the weight/height charts and knew that I was hovering on being unhealthy.  I needed to exercise and eat a healthy diet.  I worked to incorporate some fruits and veggies and more protein into my diet.  I added regular exercise: I rode my bike (wore dark sunglasses) and took Pilates (small or private classes so no one could see me) but had to stop Pilates because of bone spurs in my right shoulder.  Honestly?  I think I was hiding out in these forms of exercise and I wasn’t being “self-compassionate.”  In a way, I was still suffering from total perfection paralysis.

But one morning, after refusing to play tennis (again – worried about what the real players would think), I stared in the mirror at my aging 50-something face (artfully lined by life’s unalterable progression) and thought, “why do I work so hard at not working out rather than work hard at working out?”  So, rather than just agreeing philosophically with the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection, I actually began to deliberately and intentionally practice Brene’ Brown’s formula (she doesn’t say it this way exactly but it helps me to think of it this way) for letting go of perfection: (1) engaging in self-kindness (“I am trying my best”), (2) understanding that feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the human experience (“I am never alone in my struggles”) and (3) being mindful of, but not exaggerating my “painfail” emotions (I recognize my feelings but I try not to be “swept away by negative reactivity.”).  Practice is the key word here – some days are better than others, and I often am reminded of that phrase “fake it ‘til you make it.”

So – I walked into Pure Barre® Naples last November.  It was risky and I felt ever so vulnerable. I chose Pure Barre® because I love to dance (it is a low-impact, full body workout based in part on ballet) and I love losing myself in music. Of course, I took the introductory class first (the one that teaches you the basics so you can move precisely and perfectly (ahem – I added those “p” words) when you actually take a regular class…) but then signed up for ten classes. And then for a month of unlimited classes…every month.  I loved it but I really had to work hard at self-kindness (you do look in the mirror a lot and I had been hiding not just from others but myself – lord, my butt is huge – but booty’s are in, right?).   The studio set up is about a common humanity – the group classes are about a community working toward strength, energy and good health, all to the beat of the music.  The instructors are all incredible, supportive and encouraging (every time I hear an instructor call out: “great form, Karen,” it still takes a minute to realize they are talking to me).  The idea is that the 55 minutes at the Barre is a “time for you.”  It is not about comparing my body or my ability to someone else’s.  It is not about reaching some impossible standard.  It is about my physical well-being and me.  What a magical gift.   I even began to dress differently for class after the first month – hiding in baggy clothes didn’t help my form.  And yes, my body is still imperfect and flawed. But it is getting stronger and it feels healthier every day. And I’m not hiding it so much anymore.

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And sure, a few people in my life have freely offered some negative critique of my new-found joy in working out at Pure Barre®  (and yes, they are poking at my vulnerability) and I’ve had to work hard on my “shame-resilience.”  But, after attending 100 classes, I realize I own this piece of my life.  And somehow, through a daily (sometimes hourly) practice of self-compassion, I achieved a minor milestone. I am looking forward to more moments like these, but I am savoring and celebrating this moment. Because many days I might still feel afraid, but still, more and more days I feel grateful and joyous – and very brave and very alive.  Maybe I can be a courageous and vulnerable badass.

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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.

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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!

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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).

Duncan Youngkids

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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