Monday, July 6, 2015

It’s National Give a Kid a Book Day!

I am declaring today, July 6, National Give a Kid a Book Day (NGKBD).

What is Give a Kid a Book Day? It is a day when every adult takes time out of their busy day to let a child know how important reading is by giving that child the gift of a book.

Why Give a Kid a Book Day? We have days for everything. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Grandparent’s Day. Administrative Assistant’s Day. Boss’s Day. National Tapioca Pudding Day (That’s on July 15 for those who wish to celebrate). So, why not National Give a Kid a Book Day?

Why July 6? It seems as good a day as any. July is a month when most children are off from school. Giving a child a book now will give them something productive, entertaining and even edifying to do. It may also help to combat summer loss syndrome, that pernicious affliction that causes students to lose their learning gains by not sufficiently exercising their reading muscles over the summer. It is also my son’s birthday and I have given him books on every one of his 38 birthdays and I am pleased to say he is a reader.

National Give a Kid a Book Day is dedicated to the many hard working people who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day we will recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll.
This year’s Honor Roll inductees are as follows:

Luis Soriano – In 1990, Mr. Soriano, a teacher in rural Colombia, was concerned about the high illiteracy rates of local children. Luis owned two donkeys, so he decided to create the “biblioburro” or “library donkey.” For the last 25 years he has been loading up the donkey’s saddlebags with more than 100 books and traveling to remote villages where he picks up kids, gives them a ride to school and gives them a book to read. All this despite the fact that Mr. Soriano has a full time job and was once attacked by bandits (I would have loved to have seen the robbers' faces when the saw the contents of those saddlebags). Over the years the biblioburro has reached more than 4,000 children (Mental Floss, July/August 2015).

Lisa Willever – Willever, a former school teacher in Trenton, New Jersey, set a goal of providing a book for each and every school child in this impoverished small city in Mercer County, New Jersey. She solicited the help of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, the fire department, the New Jersey Education Association and others and within a month had collected over 7,000 books. The books were delivered to Trenton schoolchildren one Wednesday in June, where one teacher remarked, “All the kids wanted to do today was read” (Trenton Times, 2015).

Words on Wheels – College students on bicycles can be seen wheeling through north Philadelphia delivering books for summer reading to children who are participating in the “Words on Wheels” program. The program, part of an alliance between Tree House Books and First Book Philadelphia, takes the books directly to the children at their homes through volunteers from Temple University. As Vashti Du Bois, Executive Director of Tree House Books puts it, “Research has shown us that just by having books in their homes [children] increase their reading ability by one grade level” (Groundswell, 2013).

My mentor, Dr. Susan Mandel Glazer, now professor emeritus from Rider University, was a huge advocate for giving children the gift of books. Whenever Susan gave a child a book, she also included a lollipop. After observing this over and over, I finally asked Susan why she always included a lollipop. She said, “I want to send a message. Reading is sweet.”

Do something sweet today. Give a kid a book. Throw in a lollipop if you want, but just do it. It will feel good and it will do good. If you happen to read this on a day other than July 6, give a kid a book anyway. Every day is a good day to give a kid a book.

If you have nominees for the NGKBD Honor Roll, please send them along to me and I will honor them next year on the second annual National Give a Kid a Book Day.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Poetry

Happy Birthday, America. This July 4 we can celebrate that the land of “liberty and justice for all” has gotten a little more just and a little more free. I hope in coming Fourths of July, we can continue to say that, because we still have a long way to go.

Here is how I will celebrate – by sharing three different poetic “songs” about the American experience.

This first one celebrates the working men and women of our country and is written by our first truly American poet.

I Hear America Singing
by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
     and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the
     deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
     as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the
     morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at
     work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
     fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

This second poem reminds us that there are those among us who have had to fight, and must continue to fight,  for their seat at the American table.

I, too
by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

This third poem is written by the newly appointed poet laureate of the United States; the son of migrant workers from Mexico and another group still fighting for a full measure of liberty and justice in America.

Song Out Here
Juan Felipe Herrera

if i could sing
i’d say everything         you know
from here on the street can you turn around
just for once i am                     here
right behind you
what is that flag what is it made of
maybe it’s too late i have
too many questions where did it all come from
what colors is it all made of everything
everything here in the subways
there are so many things and voices
we are going somewhere but i just don’t know
but i just don’t know
do you know where that is i want to sing
so you can hear me and maybe you can tell me
where to go so you can hear me and just maybe
you can tell me where to go
all those hands and legs and faces going places
if i could sing
you would hear me and i would tell you
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright it would be something like that
can you turn around so i can look into your eyes
just for once your eyes
maybe like hers can you see her
and his can you see them i want you to see them
all of us we could be together
if i could sing we would go there
we would run there together
we would live there for a while in that tilted
tiny house by the ocean rising up inside of us
i am on the curb next to a curled up cat
smoking i know its bad for you but
you know how it is just for once can you turn around
a straight line falling behind you it’s me i want to sing
invincible                                             bleeding out with love

just for you

Enjoy the holiday and remember that the “rockets’ red glare” need not blind us to the fight for social justice that continues and that is the very definition of what this country stands for.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

State Teacher Equity Plans: Following Data Down the Rabbit Hole

You may remember that last fall with great fanfare, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in another of a long line of misguided educational decrees, announced that they were requiring states to develop new plans to ensure equity in the distribution of quality teachers (I wrote about this decree here). Well, now those plans are in and available for public inspection here.

Education week has looked at twelve of those state reports and provides a good summary of what they found here. Basically, some of these reports offered a few new ideas, but others recycled ideas from the last equity plan from 2006 or reported on the progress they had made with certain programs.

Reading these lengthy, dense reports could be a really good cure for insomnia, so I only looked at two of the reports, one from the state where I live, Pennsylvania (80 pages)and the one from the state where I work, New Jersey (40 pages).

Here is my summary of the two plans:

The Pennsylvania report said blah, blah, blah, professional development; blah, blah, blah teacher preparation; blah, blah, blah new funding formula; blah, blah, blah we don’t have good data, so we need to get more data.

The New Jersey report said, blah, blah, blah support novice teachers, blah, blah, blah differentiated approach; blah, blah, blah we have lots of data, but none of it is helpful in identifying quality teachers, so we need more data.

I will give Pennsylvania credit for recognizing that the state needs a funding plan that addresses financial inequities across the state. Of course a funding plan is no guarantee of equity. New Jersey already has a funding plan, but the governor and the legislature have refused to fully fund it.

I will give New Jersey credit for recognizing that all the work and data collection that was perpetrated under No Child Left Behind to identify “highly qualified teachers” did nothing to improve equitable distribution of effective teachers. Low and behold, they discovered a disparity between “highly qualified” and good at your job.

I would like to save New Jersey, Pennsylvania and every other state a lot of time. Data is not going to improve the equitable distribution of highly effective teachers. Collect all the data you want, refine your metrics all you care to, install all the new teacher evaluation measures you desire, but it won’t make a jot of difference. In fact, this obsession with quantifying will make the disparity even greater.

Here’s why: It’s the working conditions, Stupid.

Teachers choose where they want to work, by and large, based on working conditions. Teachers want to work in a clean safe school that has all the resources and materials that will allow them to do the job well. Teachers want to work in a school that has a climate of collaboration and a spirit of teamwork. Teachers want to work in a building where they have supportive administrators who value their efforts and offer them informed, constructive criticism.

The federal and state obsession with data will actually exacerbate inequity. If teacher evaluations are going to be based in some large measure on student standardized test scores, teachers are going to avoid school districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Teachers understand that standardized test scores for students living in poverty will be lower than affluent students’ scores no matter how good the teacher is. They also understand that evaluations based in large part on student test performance is a highly invalid, unreliable way to evaluate their performance. Test-based accountability is simply unable to identify effective teachers and it labels as ineffective many many fine teachers who do choose to work in high poverty areas.

Highly effective teachers also desire a high level of autonomy because they understand that the classroom teacher is best positioned to make instructional decisions about individual children. Inner city schools have responded to instructional challenges by becoming more and more prescriptive in their approaches to instruction. Highly effective teachers do not want to teach in a place where they are expected to be on the same page in the textbook as their colleagues on any given day.

Highly effective teachers have no interest in a school model based on merit pay. A reasonable living wage that considers their preparation and professional status is enough. Teachers recognize that the best schools to work in are collaborative and that hare-brained ideas like merit pay destroy a collaborative climate. The corporate reformer’s notion that competition is good in all things is simply wrong; it is particularly and specifically wrong in a profession like teaching.

Highly effective teachers are appropriately certified teachers. Reliance on Teach for America dilettantes to fill spaces in classrooms in schools with high concentrations of poor and minority children is, in a word, racist and it is counterproductive to the goals of getting highly effective teachers in those classrooms.

So here is my plan for dealing with the inequitable distribution of effective teachers (it is not 80 or even 40 pages).

1.     Attack poverty and segregation on all fronts by providing wrap around services including health care, decent minimum wages, early childhood education, family counseling and food security.
2.     Spend the money needed to make sure all schools are clean, safe places to work.
3.     Pay appropriately and in a way that recognizes the value of experience and advanced study.
4.     Work with school administrators to help them develop leadership skills that foster a school climate of collaboration and teamwork.
5.     Focus teacher evaluation on instructional improvement and work with individual teachers and teacher representatives to develop teacher improvement plans, mentoring services and processes for dismissal when necessary.
6.     Foster teacher autonomy by developing teacher professional learning committees that work together to analyze student work and to design instruction to meet all students’ needs.
7.     Recognize that teachers are not motivated by financial reward, but by recognition of a job well done from an administrator who knows what s/he is talking about.
8.     Hire only appropriately certified teachers.
9.     Lower class sizes.

If states can build schools that follow this plan, they will attract highly effective teachers; in fact, they will have them knocking at the door. It sure beats chasing unhelpful data around and around like a hamster on a state constructed exercise wheel.