Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The short answer is that I didn’t know why, exactly. It did not begin as some sort of ideological stand, and it didn’t have to do with the ‘God’ thing, at least not directly.

It began with a conference with a family before the start of the school year. Their daughter had been homeschooled, but she was expressing interest in attending public school for third grade. They came to see my classroom, to get a feel for me and what my teaching style might be, and to find out how accepting and accommodating I would be of their religion. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mother explained, and did I plan on on reciting the Pledge, and singing the National Anthem each day? I have quite a bit of firsthand knowledge regarding that particular faith (maybe someday I’ll explain), so I already understood that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not recite the Pledge, sing patriotic songs, or celebrate holidays or birthdays. If I had truly planned on reciting the Pledge each day, I would have said so. But I had been thinking about it, and I wasn’t sure. I explained this to the mother, and, thinking on my feet, said that I didn’t have any plans to, but I would reassess that if I had students or parents who requested otherwise. The mom seemed satisfied and enrolled her daughter in my class.

So the year began and we established our classroom routines. We had our quiet work period first thing in the morning and then began our lessons. Surprisingly, after four or five years in the public school system, none of my students asked me why we didn’t recite the Pledge, the National Anthem, or the school song. It was a total non-issue. Then toward the end of the year, with the sounds of the Pledge wafting in from the next door classroom, one of my “why” students asked me. I told him that we just get busy doing other things, but did he want us to start? He just shrugged indifferently and went back to his work.

Despite the fact that my class did not do it on a daily basis, I don’t mind reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (although I do think it’s a little weird to pledge allegiance to an inanimate object and then to the actual country it represents), and I actually enjoy singing the National Anthem. I like hearing it at the ballpark and at school assemblies. But I don’t like doing either every single day. It just sounds so, well, institutionalized when it is recited each day without fail. It sounds robotic, unemotional and uninspiring. I think that when it is reserved for special events such as assemblies, it takes on more meaning – it becomes special to recite the Pledge, and special to sing our National Anthem. Besides schools, I can’t think of any institution that recites either or both on a daily basis.

I’ve never been comfortable with conformity, and as a teacher I tried to celebrate (or, on bad days, at least tolerate) my students’ quirks and oddities and different ways of learning. I tried to limit the amount of time that we all spent doing the same thing. Even though as Americans we pride ourselves on our relative freedom, a classroom full of children, hands on hearts and reciting a patriotic oath, looks to me too much like indoctrination. How easy would it be to get them to raise a hand (as one did while reciting the Pledge until WWII) and pledge allegiance to a different sort of flag?

Maybe it’s a silly thing. Maybe I look too deeply into one of the standard ingredients of an American childhood. But I’d like to think that my former students, now that they are a year older and undoubtedly reciting the Pledge every day, might actually wonder, or even ask aloud, why. That, after all, is an exercise in freedom.


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After posting about the school prayer issue in Illinois, my sister mentioned to me that her attorney friend was a little skeptical about my argument. He noted that the establishment clause simply prohibits the official establishment of any particular religion over another (B, let me know if I’ve got this wrong). I appreciate all reasoned comments and questions, because they cause me to continually rethink and evaluate my opinions (as they should).

At any rate, I think this is a common point with respect to school prayer, and to religious expression in general in the United States. And it is precisely one of the reasons why I don’t support mandating school prayer in public schools. Mandating “moments of silence” or other thinly veiled, similarly worded directives is, in my mind, basically saying, “we won’t tell you which religion you should be, but you ought to be some religion. A religion that involves praying to a god or higher power.”

No, no, no, the proponents say. You can meditate. You can reflect on your life. You can send good wishes to your aunt in Tulsa. You can work on that chunk of dry skin on your lower lip while scheming up ways to get back at your little brother.

Feh. What is the point, then? Why are some state legislators so adamant about enacting these laws if the time can be spent in sheer idleness? It is certainly not to protect a child’s right to let his mind wander aimlessly – that clearly isn’t the goal of institutionalized education – and in institutionalized education today, kids usually have more than enough opportunity during the day to take a mental vacation or two. It isn’t about giving kids a break – they get that at lunch, recess and study hall. That narrows it down to…could it be? An agenda to inject religion into public schools?

Oh, it is all so silly (and more than a little scary) and unnecessary anyway – unnecessary because all public schoolchildren already have the right to pray, and the government doesn’t have the right to tell them to, or not to:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

It doesn’t say “an establishment of a religion” (a particular religion over another). There is no article. It may certainly be implied (i.e. we don’t want a Church of America), but still – mandating prayer in public schools is an establishment of religion – not of one denomination over another, but just religion, period. It is mandating that administrators and teachers set aside time for religious practice in a public school.

A few quotes to chew on:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (from the Treaty of Tripoli, passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous vote in 1797)

“Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (James Madison)

“The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“[I am] denominated a Deist, the reality of which I never disputed, being conscious that I am no Christian.” (Ethan Allen)

“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion…has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…” (Benjamin Franklin)

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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While the Illinois legislature could have been doing other things like, I don’t know, BALANCING THE BUDGET, two weeks ago it passed a law mandating a moment of silence in all public schools. As a person who has been in the trenches of the public school system, I can say unequivocally that silence can be a good thing. That’s why I, and most teachers I know, start off the day with just that – a brief period in the morning when students have some quiet time to do independent work (often called “Bell work”). For example, I gave my students a grammar exercise (written on the board) and a math review sheet. This gave me time to take attendance and to collect homework and lunch money. It was a time to focus, to center and to prepare for the day. This “moment of silence” lasted about ten or fifteen minutes, and at any time, any student who so wished could use a moment of this time to reflect, to mentally focus, or to pray.

Similarly, at lunch time, I dismissed students to get their lunches (we ate in the classroom) based on the noise level in the room. Hungry students are quiet students, if that is what the teacher requires. Same thing for dismissal at the end of the day. Students who want to go home are quiet students, if that is the expectation. My point is that students usually have several “moments of silence” built into their school day, not because is it legally mandated, but because teachers recognize the importance of establishing certain times that are calm, quiet and focused. For religious families who wish that their children take a moment to pray silently during the day, all they have to do is ask their children, or the teacher if they say they don’t know, if there are any such times during the day when this would be possible. Teachers, by the nature of their profession, need to be accommodating.

Over the course of the past two weeks, the op-ed pages have been chock-filled with opinions on the issue. The assumption, of course, is that this “moment of silence” is code-speak for “mandated prayer.” When I was in grammar school in the early eighties, my school instituted a moment of silence. After the principal made the announcements for the day, she presided via intercom over “sixty seconds of silence,” and a little beep let us know it was over. Ever the inquisitive one, I asked my fourth grade teacher what it was all about (she just loved me, by the way). She said, “So you can pray.” Then she caught herself and added, “or whatever.” Because, you know, she apparently remembered that our Constitution has this little detail about prohibiting the establishment of religion.

When I heard about the new law (vetoed by Governor Blagojevich and overruled), I just rolled my eyes and figured, well, there are bigger issues out there to get all worked up about. Like global warming, pollution, crime, poverty, immigration, terrorism and a few minor skirmishes in the Middle East. But yesterday I stared open-mouthed at an article in the Chicago Tribune that cited the official title of this bill: the “Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act.” Come again? There is no assuming about it. This is about mandating prayer. It does not say “Silent Reflection OR Student Prayer.” It does in the body of the act, but not in the title. Notice also that the “reflection” part comes first in the title. Pretty sneaky, eh? It’s first about reflection and then about prayer. Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that for a dollar.

For someone who wavers between agnosticism and a sense that there must be some kind of universal intelligence, I have mixed feelings about the role that organized religion has played in our history. OK, some of those feelings aren’t so mixed. But I’m absolutely opposed to anybody telling me or my children, “you have to be silent right now to pray. Or whatever.” This is death by a thousand cuts to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Like Seinfeld’s “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” the “or whatever” is just a politically correct add-on. That’s why I was relieved to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, in response to a suit brought to him by an Arlington Heights parent, decided that the law is “too vague and ‘likely unconstitutional.'” I hope this isn’t the first such ruling. I’m going to go have myself a moment of silence to thank God for people who care about one of our most fundamental freedoms. Or whatever.

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So, for all 649 of you who have come to check out this blog, I apologize for taking a nearly year long hiatus. First of all, I had a whole bunch of things to say, said them, and then wondered what the hell I was supposed to say next. Secondly, I was in the middle of the most stressful year of my life, working my first full year as a new teacher on my own (previously I had been a teacher’s assistant while getting my teaching certificate and degree, and then working half time for most of a year, teaching just math and science in the elementary grades). Last year was rough. New teachers have the well-known and exhausting task of constantly reinventing the wheel, and nothing except nose-to-the-grindstone experience can truly initiate a new teacher – especially in a large urban school system with a weak administration.

And work I did. Just getting there was a trial, since the school is on the opposite end of the city from where I live, and the only direct highway link was under construction the entire year. It often took me an hour and a half to get home – a distance of about 24 miles. Remember Michael Douglas in the movie “Falling Down”? On more than one occasion I was seriously tempted to ditch my car on the highway parking lot and just wander off into the ether, muttering incoherently to myself about overpopulation and the cruel tyranny of gridlock and inept city officials.

Once I got there, I was continually disappointed about the lack of support. The principal came to observe my classroom once during the entire year, and that was at my request. There was no official curriculum to follow, other than the continual and overwhelming threat of “state standards,” which the school textbooks only marginally addressed, and in a very schizophrenic way. The principal was not up to speed on current orthodoxy, and didn’t understand how a spiral curriculum (math) is designed to be followed sequentially, not dipped into willy-nilly, depending on which “standard” one was attempting to cover.

I also became painfully aware of how much teachers are expected to compensate for all of the shortcomings of society, the ravages of poverty, the lack of parental support, and the horrors of grossly dysfunctional families. Test scores are test scores (I’ve addressed some of my concerns about the very fundamental nature of standardized tests here), and schools are held accountable all the same, regardless of mushy, qualitative things like poverty levels, cultural mores and family lives. Teachers work themselves into an absolute frenzy, and the weeks approaching the tests are almost laughable, if one could remove oneself emotionally and look in from the outside. I almost wished, at the time, that I could be one of those perky, cheerful types who doesn’t even think to question all of the systemic problems plaguing public education. I said I almost wished, because the reality is that my questioning, analytical nature is fundamental to who I am as a person, and even though it complicates my life at times, it has been part of my essence since I first learned, at a precociously young age, to ask “why?”

Not far into the year I began having doubts about how effective I could be given all I was up against. Clearly this is not unique to me, as well over half of new teachers do not make it to their five year anniversaries in this particular system. This is an important landmark, since “studies show” that teachers usually have the most impact on their students’ test scores after they have been teaching for five years. Chicago my district is aware of this and has attempted to enact various mentoring programs, but it has different rules for different schools, and since my school has good enough test scores (for now anyway), the board allows it to make up its own mentoring program. What mentoring program? Did I say mentoring program? Sigh.

At the tail end of the year, rumors began circulating about low enrollment, budget cuts and the need to eliminate some teachers. I had been at the school for four years (2 1/2 as an assistant, 1 1/2 as a teacher), so I cautiously figured I was safe. Several people had been hired since me, but a controversial little clause in the union contract allows principals to release a nontenured teacher without needing to state a reason, so none of us recent hires were truly safe. A fairly substantial part of me, however, almost wished that I would be laid off (almost wished because, you know, bills and stuff). Then I wouldn’t have a choice about it, and the thought of returning the next year to do it all over again made my stomach flip. But when reality hit, when the principal handed me that white envelope and an attempt at a sincere apology, I buzzed all over with shock. I had never been fired/let go/laid off before in my life. I have always been known to be dependable, hardworking and dedicated, and I just couldn’t believe that someone else was staying while I was being let go.

That someone else had less seniority than me by about two months. That someone else shared with me the little modular unit behind the school, built during the days of overpopulation. That someone else could be heard by my entire classroom screaming at her students multiple times a day. That someone else continually complained about how rotten her students were, and how she was cancelling such-and-such field trip because her students “didn’t deserve it.” That someone else also had a sterile, immaculate classroom that looked like it had never been used. That someone else kept lesson plans and grades in a crisp white binder with little pink and purple tabs. That someone else had about 20 fifth graders, while I had 13 third graders and 13 fourth graders, many special education students, and a third grade population that was entirely new to the school that year. That someone else quickly insinuated herself into the inner circle of sycophants who stroked the ego of the often besieged principal. And so that’s how it goes. I can’t do that, have never been able to, and probably not even to save my life could I do it – I just can’t be false, can’t present to the world one persona, while privately or with subordinates/students behave differently.

The thing that redeemed my whole experience, the one thing that made it worthwhile, was my students. I loved each and every one of them, even the ones who tested my very limits of patience and endurance. I don’t know if I am going to teach again. I truly am in limbo. In retrospect, I can see that I am a bit of an introvert – I have a very rich internal life and rarely get lonely in solitude. Even though I live in the city, I come from farming stock and have always dreamed of having a little patch of earth, some chickens, a little milk cow and real, physical work to do. In teaching, you are always “on,” always performing, always there to attend to the needs of your students, their parents (God bless you, Mrs. G!) and the administration. It’s exhausting work for an introvert, let me tell you. I love the kids, though, and miss every single one of them. Kids are amazing creatures and we should cherish, and thank our lucky stars for, each and every one.

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“The only way to be sure of whether or not every child is learning is to test regularly…”

– George W. Bush

I respect the intentions of the No Child Left Behind act. In no way should a school, through lack of organization, lack of will or lack of resources, ignore the needs of any of its students. All students should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

However, success is a very subjective idea – my definition of success for myself is probably different from your personal criteria.

That said, the vast majority of us are average. Yup. Ho-hum, Joe Lunchbucket average. We are mostly average athletes, average earners, average-looking and of average intelligence. Most of us are private material.

Private material? Ok, I’ll explain. The first standardized test, or at least the one that would look most familiar to us, was schemed up during World War I, when the military was looking for a quick and efficient way of finding potential officers among the sea of privates. (My grandmother knows about this. When we were discussing this very topic, she said, “Oh, your great-grandfather took that test. He had just finished his officer training when they sent him home. The war had ended.” This is clearly a gratuitous aside, but hey, it’s my blog. I can be proud of my officer material great-grandfather.) It was a test of intellect, of inherent cognitive ability, not of academic achievement. It was specifically designed to rank people, much like the military’s use of a hierarchical ranking system as its basic structure. It seems to work for them. The problem, though, is that educating children is different from developing a well-trained, robust military.

Here is the astonishing thing (I say that only ever so sarcastically), given the structure and stated purpose of modern education: standardized achievement tests are still used in the same way – to rank people. “Achievement” is a misnomer. The tests are structurally, by intent and design, used to rank students into the familiar bell curve, with the vast majority of students falling within the realm of “average.”

Now, I’m no statistician, but there seems to be a problem here. Public schools need to state certain goals (primarily for federal funding purposes), stating what percentage of their students should be at X percentile by year X. For example, ABC Elementary has to have a plan like, “By the year 2008, 95 percent of our students will score at or above the 55th percentile on the Acme Test of Student Achievement.”

Here’s the problem: it is statistically impossible for 100 percent, or even 95 percent of all students, to score at or above the 55th percentile. The nature of the tests simply does not allow that outcome. 50 percent of students within the testing population will fall at or below the 50th percentile and 50 percent will fall at or above the 50th percentile. That’s just how it works.

This is one way that happens: Standardized tests are examined and reviewed question-by-question each year. If, say, 60 percent of students got question X correct, the review panel will generally toss the question in favor of a “harder” one, because question X was “too easy.” But wait! If 60 percent or more of students know the correct answer to the question, doesn’t that mean that TEACHERS ARE DOING THEIR JOBS BY EFFECTIVELY TEACHING THAT CONCEPT!? You’d think. In practice, though, if the kids know it, it’s too easy. Since the test is designed to rank students, a question that is too easy must be scrapped in favor of a harder one.

Hence the opening quote – whenever somebody says, “the only way to achieve X goal is to…,” I get suspicious. Nothing gets under my skin more than black-and-white thinking. That said, sure, I’ll accept Bush’s judgment that we have to have some sort of method for evaluating student learning. Let’s call this method “testing.” But let’s design a test that truly does measure learning, not one that is inherently designed to show that, unlike in Lake Wobegone, your kid is probably…average.

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Here I am, gearing up for another year of teaching for a major metropolitan public school system, wondering what the year will bring. I look forward to meeting my new students, to getting into the rhythm of a new year of learning. As the summer quickly comes to an end, I am reminded that I have a mountain of odd tasks that I’d like to accomplish while I still have some free time on my hands.

These two things were on my “To Do” list today:

1. Call the car dealership to schedule service

2. Call HR to confirm receipt of my transcript (documenting my updated education level, and thus my salary)

I called the car dealership first. A pleasant voice answered on the second ring, transferred me to the service department, where it rang once and another pleasant voice had my appointment set in about thirty seconds.

Next, I called the school system’s HR department. It rang several times, asked me to hold (“Your call is VERY important to us,” explains a silky voice, “but all HR representatives are assisting other callers. Please hold.”) Finally, a tired sounding person answered, and I explained why I was calling. “Um. You are calling the Elm Street location. Where did you have the transcript sent to?” I explained politely that I dialed the number for the other location, which is where I was instructed to send the transcript. “Oh. We’ve recently moved.” After a little back and forth, ironing out the apparent misunderstanding, I was then informed that I needed to speak with someone else, anyway, so I was transferred to another person’s line.

After about four rings, I was asked to hold, which I did…and then I held some more. Finally, another tired sounding voice answered, and I had to explain myself again. When I stated that I mailed in the requisite application and transcript, my friendly helper exclaimed, “Why do all you people do that?!?! You should have delivered it in person!” At this point, I said, “Oh no, no, no. We are not going in that direction. I mailed it in because the form instructed me to MAIL IT IN. I asked whether you have received my transcript, and that is all I need.” My friendly helper said gruffly, “hold on.” And boy did I ever hold on. My guess is about 8 minutes (enough time to empty the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen). Then, finally, my friendly helper came back on to ask me when the transcript was sent, which forced me to log onto my on-line banking account, to tell him the date I was charged for the transcript. “So this is just your first Master’s degree?” he sniffed. “Yes, just the first.” “Hold on………” Finally, my friendly helper returned to grudgingly report that yes, my transcript had been received (I got the distinct impression that this was the result of a physical search, not something that he looked up on a database).

This is not a new experience. In fact, every single time I have had some business with the central office, there has been some sort of bureaucratic problem. Last year they needed some (seemingly trivial) paperwork from me, which, I was told, I must hand deliver downtown. Weeks after I did this (and received a date stamped copy), I was informed in a rather threatening way that I had not submitted the paperwork. I had to fax it to them (twice!) before they “received” it. Oh, and don’t even bother showing up to “hand deliver” something or otherwise in need of assistance any time between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. It will be a ghost town in the name of “lunch.” Teachers are not treated as clients – they are treated as obstacles to an otherwise blissful day of solitaire and Internet shopping. I have never witnessed such unprofessionalism, such mismanagement, and, ultimately, such waste. I guarantee I could do the work of at least four people at this bloated operation. I read with no small measure of glee about the plan to cut jobs at headquarters, in an attempt to “balance the budget.”

My point here? When the system doesn’t value its teachers, and in fact treats them with grudging condescension, I wonder what that does to overall morale, to the sense that we teachers are a valued and integral part of making any school system succeed. Students deserve the very best teachers, and teachers deserve the very best support from their districts. Believe me, every time I have an experience like this, I start thinking about working in the suburbs.

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