Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dispatch from Winter Break

I realized today that I had been doing a lot of writing in response to news articles, opinions, comments and other people's blogs but had been neglecting my own little corner.  It is exciting to write freely and passionately once more.  I've always liked the writing process, until I hit that big old thing called THESIS.  It was a learning experience, to be sure, and I learned that I much prefer to do theatre rather than write about it once it is over. 

As for writing, I've always been into self-publishing.  There was the notorious underground newspaper in high school, then The Dumpster Times zine in the DIY Punk era, and finally this blog that began as an examination of what I could do to live a more sustainable life in my hometown.

Now what I'm looking to sustain is my own life's work and career as a public school drama teacher.  There are precious few of us about who teach grades 4 - 8 exclusively.  There are very few public urban school students who get to take drama every day of the school year with a licensed drama teacher.  To further set us apart from the norm, our students audition to get into the school and must be selected on the basis of their talents, not their test scores or GPA. 

To be given the great gift of working with these incredibly talented and eager young students is one that very few teachers are given.  As a teacher, I am constantly looking for new ways to challenge not just their skills, but their creativity and their abilities to work collaboratively and individually.  They have taught me so much in multiple ways and of course the reverse is true as well.  It has been my dream job.

For the first eleven years of our school's existence under the founding principal, we all worked in a utopian educational real life dream come true world!  I kid you not!  Trained in consensus decision-making techniques from the beginning, we worked collaboratively as a staff to create unique lesson plans that engaged students by integrating arts and academics in every classroom.  Our staff received amazing riches from a wide palette of professional development in two extra (paid!) teacher weeks every school year.  We learned how to use Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences to allow all our students to engage with their learning strengths.   We were encouraged to collaborate throughout the building, working with an annual theme to inspire our creativity.  We would do big shows based on the theme with acts from all the art areas as well as from academic classes :  Broadway Revue,  Sci-Fi Spectacular, Under the Sea, etc.

In those early years, standardized testing was not a big deal, but when it finally became a set of tests given by the ODE every spring, our students were more than well prepared.  They were tops in our district and among the very few in the state to receive "Excellent with Distinction."  Even after No Child Left Behind kicked in and the rules got tighter and the tests got more onerous, our school continued to outperform other schools.  Some people said it was because we could take the cream of the crop, but we were not looking at academic scores at audition time.  In other words, the kind of cream we were looking for may or may not bring a high GPA with it.  It may also bring students with learning challenges and those on IEPs. We also have the challenge of taking students from a wide variety of prior learning experiences and cultural backgrounds from those living in poverty to those who live in affluence and everything in between.  Our students are the most diverse in the city. From urban to rural to public, private and charter -- our unique approach and success continues to attract students from across and beyond the district. 

Next post -- how CC and RttT is changing everything, and none of it is good!

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Grade - in begins

Have arrived at the mall.  Sitting next to the carousel.  Three of us BATs so far! Comparing notes on our respective school situations.  testing, imposed common core test-based curriculum, OTES, value Added and so on.

I have learned that teachers can be suspended without pay for handing out info on the Opt Out movement. Yikes!  Good thing I've been too busy to even think of promoting that. some parents have posted links to various Opt-out pages, but I don't comment on them.

I have also learned that 4th graders had to do a language arts unit on child labor laws, and 8th graders are reading non-fiction as well on the topic of forensic anthropology. one of my brightest students was complaining how boring the work is.  Yes, lets abandon all our innovative arts-integrated curricula based upon Howard Gardner's theory of the Multiple intelligences and replace that with Pearson-produced modules that assume teachers do not know how to teach.

Taking bets on how long RttT mandates and state education "reform" laws will continue before being replaced. We need to be ready with some research-based holistic education anti-system re-positioning.

Three hours in to our Grade-in.  A very nice Mall cop stopped at our table and thanked us for all we do as teachers.

I did some work on student portfolios, my own solution for drama student assessment. I keep falling behind, distracted by all the incessant distractions and demands for me to stop doing what I know will be best for my students and instead, waste my time on bunches of acronyms provided by the state to ensure that I don't do what is best for my students. For me personally, this has be become a moral dilemma of the highest order.  Do I comply with laws I know are created to push out master teachers who teach in unique ways?  Will I be replaced by a raw Teach for america recruit or by someone fresh out college in need of a job to pay off their massive student loan debt?  Whoever it may be, they had best be compliant by nature.

As someone who came of age during the turbulence of the 60s and early 70s, the word "compliant" reeks of authoritarian overtones. I can collaborate with those who operate under the rules of consensus-seeking.  But compliant --no!

Friday, December 06, 2013

Taking Action

Tomorrow I'll be live-blogging from the Summit Mall Food Court, participating in my first ever "Grade-In."  My students past and present may wonder what I would do at a Grade-In since I don't grade.  I find it pointless to attach grades to young people exploring a wide variety of dramatic experiences and processes as they make their way from childhood into puberty. However, my students know that I am constantly responding to their work and giving them useful coaching in areas such as cooperation, collaboration, brain-storming, problem-solving, research and development, recording observations, meeting deadlines, committing to projects and seeing them through,  sharing and presenting, being at ease with  public speaking, becoming responsible, punctual and dedicated, all the while working on developing social skills and empathy.

What I teach and how I teach do not fit into the current corporate scheme of things, ie the Common Core, forced upon us by the US Department of Education, current and past.  Race to the Top is another name for No Child Left Behind with different unrealistic expectations.   

Teachers are generally pretty compliant and long-suffering people.  We show up for the professional development and do the tasks required and fill out the forms.  But this time around, we are feeling an aggressive stripping of our autonomy -- to teach!  Our job has always been to know our material and know each student.  Teachers are no longer trusted to teach without constant demands from above to prove we are moving our students ahead toward one year's growth.  Define one year's growth.   Then collect data on every student to show that they are moving forward, lock step in unison toward the highest grade possible on The Race to the Top.

Can you imagine what would happen if everybody reached the top at the same time?  Would it be a scene like Walmart on Black Friday or more like zombies over-running a shopping mall?  Tune in tomorrow and find out more!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Letter to the President

All the BATs have been invited to write letters to President Obama.  Here is mine:

November 29, 2013

Dear Mr. Obama,

I had the great honor of voting for you for President of the United States twice!  You have made some major progress in areas that have my full support, such as the Affordable Care Act and standing up for marriage equality.  Most of the time, I have your back, but I must ask as a public school teacher --  do you have mine?  

Mr. President, I don’t understand why education must be “a race to the top” -- what exactly is “the top”?  Is it moving up from number 17 to number 1 on international standardized tests?  What happens when your students have physical, emotional and/or cognitive challenges that make it impossible for them to join in the race, let alone get to the top?  Why are we racing children at all?  Each child develops at her or his own unique pace.  I know this from 20 years of teaching 4th through 8th grade drama at a public magnet school for the arts in Akron, OH.  My students come in as adorable munchkins and depart as almost grown young men and women, and I can assure you that their journeys through puberty have been anything but a slow and steady march forward in unison.  They grow in fits and starts and two steps backwards then great leaps forward and so on.

Our school was created with federal grant money.  Ten magnet schools were formed  in Akron Public Schools.  Our school is the only one that survived and succeeded beyond expectations!  From the beginning, our founders had a clear vision of using the power of the arts to transform academic instruction.  Our teachers, both arts and academic, have had continual professional development in arts integration, incorporation of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory in lesson design, and in collaborative processes such as project based learning and consensus-building.  Our school has been consistently at the top with test scores, while not spending time teaching to the tests.

All that has changed with the Race to the Top mandates.  All of our carefully developed unique curricula based upon arts integration must be set aside for the Common Core, a set of standards written without input from teachers, never field-tested and put into place at the same time that the new teacher evaluation system goes into effect.  We are being told -- your district/school/teacher/student “grade” is going to be lower this year.  No kidding!  Give students a standardized test on a brand new set of standards being taught for the first time and yes -- it’s a good bet that grades will go down.

At our Open House this fall, parents with kids currently in private schools were asking, “How many standardized tests will 4th graders in your school be taking next year?”  The answer is ten standardized tests in one year.  Most of those tests won’t be to help teachers assess students, but rather for the state to collect data on our students and our teaching, as if there is a way to quantify quality teaching via correct answers on a multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble test.  And by the way, those parents who asked how many tests responded very negatively to the idea of fourth graders taking ten sets of tests throughout the school year.

Now all teachers must go through a huge expensive waste of time process to make sure we are all being equally humiliated.  We must make up our own “student learning objectives” and come up with a way to collect data to prove we are moving our students one year forward every year even in subjects like gym and drama.  We must come up with these plans and carry through with them, even as precious class time is taken away in shortened class periods to accommodate “professional learning circles” and when students are pulled from our rooms to take computerized tests.

Teachers must now undergo two evaluations every year plus four “walk-throughs”, whereas before when a teacher achieved tenure that meant one evaluation every three years.   I am open to re-thinking the teacher evaluation process.  I would like to see exit reviews from both parents and students as a piece of it, as well as a more thoughtful rather than regimented principal review process.  A beginning teacher would need more mentoring and observing while veteran teachers who are experts in their fields should be allowed to do what they do best -- teach! 

What has to go is the Value Added nonsense.  A teacher in our building received a score of Ineffective because her students scored 94% this past year on math compared to a score of 95% the year before.  How can scores from two different groups of students ever be compared in any sort of fair way?  No two classes are the same and each class has varying combinations of positives and deficits.  And how absurd anyway, that the teacher is labelled “ineffective” when her class scored way above the district and state average in 4th grade math!

I have never seen morale so low in our building.  We used to be proud arts and academic integrationists, leading the way in developing those 21st century skills that the arts are famous for:  collaboration, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, personal and social responsibility.  Now everyone is fearful for their jobs, worried about their careers.  Teachers still in their prime are retiring in droves.  I thought I could go until I was 72 and was going to the gym twice a week to stay in shape to keep up the vigor needed to teach middle school drama.  Now I wonder if I’ll make it to the end of this school year. 

I hope you find the courage to look critically at the results of actions taken by your Department of Education.  If you want to “fix” education, look to take action against poverty and then real strides can take place.


Wendy S Duke
Drama Teacher
Akron, OH

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Closing the achievement gap

We were told that our goal this year is to close the achievement gap by 50%. Don't know if that is our building's goal, district-wide or state of Ohio -- the number seems both arbitrary and impossible.  Do we wave our magical CCSS wands and magically, all our students get A+ on every single MAP, ZAP And CRAP test?

Anyone who doubts poverty has an effect upon child development needs to read this.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

My letter to Senator Sherrod Brown

Dear Senator Brown,

I am writing to you because it has become obvious that many Democrats have abandoned the public school teachers and have sold out to the forces of "reform education." These forces are billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton Family, Exxon Oil, Pearson Corp among others. They are promoting a mandatory set of standards that were written by corporate interests without one PK - 12 educator on the writing team. Those standards were never field tested but instead were made mandatory in every state that signed on for relief from No Child Left Behind, another grandiose mandatory plan put in place during the Bush years.

Federal stimulus money was given to any state that signed on to Race to the Top, a bait and switch that has now given the states the right to judge teachers based upon their student scores on high stakes tests. Billions of dollars are going into the pockets of the test and curriculum makers in order to bring down public education as we once knew it.

Union teachers are being replaced by Teach for America recruits, recent graduates that go through five weeks of training in the summer before being assigned to teach in public schools. They get a great deal -- loan relief and a job straight out of college -- without having to earn a teaching credential. This is an insult to every union teacher who has gone through a required course of study, spent time observing and training, and finally made it through student teaching before entering the job market.

Please take a moment to remember the teachers who moved you forward the most. How many of them taught from scripts manufactured by an education corporation? How many of them ever worried whether they were teaching the same thing on the same day as a teacher in another state? The best teachers focus on each student and provide each student with what is developmentally best for that individual.

Please don't abandon us, Senator Brown! I sometimes think that teachers have become targets because we have traditionally been a job in which a majority of us are women. We have always suffered from low pay and low status and fought hard to be represented by unions. Now tenure has been over-turned by RttT. We are at the whims of the scores our over-tested students who are tuning out because the curriculum is now pre-packaged and pre-scripted. Teachers are being turned into automatons.

Many of my teacher friends and colleagues have bailed out. I was thinking about it until I read Diane Ravitch's book, "The Reign of Error." I also discovered the teachers' resistance movement is alive and well. 30,000+ have joined BATs an national online organization since forming in July and there will be a march on the Dept of Ed next July 28. I plan on attending and joining with other BATs to take back our profession from the big money interests.

I will not be supporting any political candidates who are in bed with the big corporate "Education Reform" interests. I have always supported your campaigns from the time you were my US Representative through both your senate runs. Please let me know that you are still on the side of union teachers here in Ohio.

Wendy Duke
Drama Teacher, Grades 4 - 8
Miller South School,
a public magnet school in Akron, OH
To pick up here and move forward or begin a new blog?  Haven't posted here since 2011.  Asking myself, do I go back where I started?  Or perhaps a name change might be helpful!  "Long Live the Public Schools" or "The Drama Teacher Who Avoided Rigor."

It is obvious I have a need to write about how my dream job is turning into a nightmare.  I am happy that I am not alone in this endeavor.  Not every teacher has drunk the Common Core Cool-Aid.  There's a group called Bad-Ass Teachers and can be found here and on Facebook here.  The FB group is private -- you will need to ask to join.  The group is at 31K teachers and was only formed in July of this year.  Spread the word.  Solidarity is needed now more than ever.

Bill Gates money is reaching out and spreading fast, though.  Teachers get paid to go get the training so they can lead their colleagues forward into rigorous data mining and constant testing.  And teachers are by nature compliant and cooperative folks.   The national education unions have given into the lure of the billionaires' money.  It is indeed a sad and woeful time in the history of education.  That is why I am moved to blog once more.  The resistance is growing and some strong voices are raising up valid objections to the scary course being set by the Education Corporations.

I will start posting all my links and letters to politicians, educators and policy makers.

Long Live the Public Schools!