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!