May 4th, 2014

Common Core: Opportunity and Potential

(First published at the Vermont Agency of Education blog.)

Imagine there is a wide field of grasses, and each blade is one of the possible math concepts to teach. Then, imagine someone running around, cultivating the wild grasses that never took seed, the ones that are growing heartily and need to flower fully, and expanding the grassland in all directions. That person is constantly exhausted. The field is huge, and the grasses have limited depth. But the person keeps running, trying to cultivate all of them, but never quite managing to do so. Weeds grow. Areas are unmaintained, because the field is endless.

Mathematics is an abundant field with many, many concepts. The teacher is the person running around this field endlessly.

The Common Core has limited the field, and required that certain grasses take root, deeply. The math concepts in the Common Core per grade level allow teachers to focus on certain skills and make sure all students master them. This then allows each grade level to build upon the one before it, especially after this has been in place for several years, we will see less gaps, more evidence, and more cohesion in our math scope and sequence, and in our math learners themselves.

In the meantime, teachers are in that difficult transition time where they are creating materials, filling gaps from other years, and trying to figure out a way to gather, report, and share data. This is no small task, and we must work together to find ways to support teachers in this meaningful work, and also to promote the sharing of good practices to use with Common Core, such as successful reporting systems, unit plans, plans for classroom structure and curricular mapping, and so forth.

For new teachers, the Common Core can be daunting or liberating, and all shades in between. With no program to follow, new (and experienced) teachers run the risk of teaching concepts from the Common Core in a scattered, disorganized fashion. It can be overwhelming to plan a cohesive math curriculum at a particular grade level for a year. That is why it is so important that schools and districts support teachers in this work—utilizing math experts and quality resources—and give teachers the time to do the work. We face an exciting opportunity with the Common Core, but we must all work in the field together, supporting the growth of our young math learners and our teachers.

 

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January 12th, 2014

New Posts on MomsRising, Moms Clean Air Force, and Non-Toxic Kids

2014 ecotiptue

 

Last week was very busy in the area of environmental health and in my posting.  I wrote articles on Non-Toxic Kids, and for MomsRising and Moms Clean Air Force.

 

On Non-Toxic Kids, I reviewed the top 3 stories of the week. GMO free Cheerios, new flame retardant rules, and Triclosan under review by the FDA top the list.  The issues to report on and decisions to make as a parent are endless! I also wrote a post sharing 8 ways to help children avoid toxic chemicals at public schools. This is an issue near and dear to my heart as a teacher, parent and writer.

 

At Moms Clean Air Force, I shared my take on the top 10 children’s health stories of 2013. These clearly indicate how regular parents are impacting the decisions companies are making for the better. We have the power– and in 2014 we need to continue to use it to move markets and legislation in favor of protecting public health versus profits.

 

On MomsRising, I shared  10 tips for a green, toxin-free and healthy 2014. These were from the MomsRising weekly Twitter chat I host called #EcoTipTue. We had three great guests and lots of participants who shared their ideas and goals for 2014.  The ideas are inspiring and give me hope that we will continue to make great progress is raising healthy families and protecting kids everywhere.

 

 

 

November 7th, 2013

Vermont Teacher of the Year (Alternate) Speech

TOY speech

 

I was honored to be part of the Vermont Teacher of the Year process this year. After interviews with the State Board of Education, essays, and observations I was one of three Vermont finalist teachers.  Luke Foley of Northfield Middle and High School was named the Vermont Teachers of the Year for 2014, and I was the alternate. I had the opportunity to speak at the ceremony, and here are my comments:

Thank you so much, Secretary Vilaseca. It is truly an honor to be here with this group of innovative teachers, and supporters of public education.

 

I thank the Vermont Agency of Education, The Board of Education, the Teacher of the Year committee, and the Northfield community for providing this opportunity to celebrate Vermont’s teachers and to bring teacher voice and leadership to a wider platform. If we are to truly make schools better, it must be from the inside out, using teachers to shape, lead and innovate school policy and decision making.  There are thousands of teachers across this great state who are making a difference in the lives of our children. We must ask for their input. Give them the tools to lead and create better schools. Help them get the resources they need to teach and to be heard. And support them once they are in the classroom with mentoring programs, collaborative and supportive learning environments, and professional compensation.

 

Our society is changing rapidly and our schools should be as well. Teachers need the tools to create innovative, personal, and individualized learning grounded in local communities. We need to provide authentic learning opportunities through leadership and service learning to engage our students.  Our students (and schools) should not be judged on the scores of one test, one day, in one hour, but in multiple and varied ways, over time. Then we can consider the whole child, and reintroduce humanity into education—wide swaths of integrated, in-depth learning, unhurried, supported, guided and motivating.

 

Information is free and accessible.  Instead of being the sole instruments of information, teachers are facilitators in growing flexible, creative, critical thinkers who can solve the complex problems our world is facing.  Our students need experience with this.  Service learning and school wide leadership experiences can transform school climates, promote learning between grade levels and ages, increase engagement, motivation, feelings of community, and engage students in higher level learning through authentic experiences in their schools and communities.  The way our communities see our schools and kids are also transformed—communities are deeply involved in their schools and see children and teenagers as allies, partners and instruments of hope that can solve complex problems.

 

Isn’t that what we need right now, especially in today’s political climate? Thank you, and congratulations, Luke.

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September 12th, 2013

A Finely Crafted Education

handcrafted by o.lila

Teaching is personal.  It is the constant, minute-to-minute decisions teachers make about how to best help students, within the context of personal connections, individual personalities, temperaments, and humor. It is a delicate dance of nurturing, challenging, questioning, exploring, and supporting while maintaining the fragile student sense of self.

 

Learning is individual. It doesn’t conform to grade levels, testing schedules, higher and higher standards or even our best intentions.  A child’s mind and educational growth is full of quick bursts, set backs, giant leaps and incremental, steady growth based on innumerable factors.

 

As any teacher will tell you, the profession has gotten exponentially more complicated and challenging, and educators have fewer and fewer resources. The answer, many think, is to run schools like businesses.

 

It’s no wonder we are not seeing much success with this model.  We have huge institutions overcrowded with students; crumbling, dismal classrooms; teachers forced to teach to a test, on specific timelines; removal of essentially all personal, creative instruction and the flexibility to pursue the interests and passions of both the children and the teachers.

 

It should be no surprise then that one in three teachers are quitting in the first three years, and fifty percent in the first five years. Teachers are in increasingly hostile, stressful, and demoralizing situations.  They struggle with the daily increasing expectations, rushing around and feeling like they are treading water while society tosses them more and more bricks to hold.  This has a profound impact on the climate of the school, and ultimately, the students.

 

What if we finally admitted that teaching and learning is not a business—and started treating it with the care and attention that we would treat our own homes? Personal, individual, creative, flexible, and unique.

 

What could this look like?

 

A place where each child is treated as an individual, and not just in name or window dressing.  Children come to schools with a unique set of experiences, passions, backgrounds, ideas, skills, and deficits. What if our job as teachers was to uncover this specific set for each child, and map a personal, unique education for them based on this?

 

It’s an idea so simple. Figure out the intricacies of the child and plan for growth with individual, small group, digital, and whole group instruction.

 

Collaboratively, teachers, parents and students could develop educational goals to be met for each child, or age level cohort. Available resources include (but are not limited to) Common Core, researched-based math and literacy programs, and other curricular timelines.  Teachers, parents, and the students acknowledge that these resources may not work for all students and tailor goals specifically for each child, realizing that each student has their own internal timeline and set of needs.

 

Growth is monitored through an individual portfolio, using specific goals, and multiple ways of engaging students to meet them.  Students working closely with educators pursue goals utilizing digital media, and individual and small group instruction. When possible, student goals will be linked to leadership and community service opportunities. Students will begin to see connections between their daily goals, their educational journey and the health of the local community. Each day, students would participate in reflection about these goals and determine ways to improve their journey.

 

Through this we will see more motivation, engagement, and purpose than we see in our public schools right now.

 

How do I know this? I’ve seen it in action with service learning. When students identify a problem, set goals and a timeline, work toward them, and reflect on this growth, nationally we’ve seen high school dropout rates go down, civic engagement, responsibility, attendance and motivation go up.

 

The days of a sage on the stage delivering knowledge are over. What we need now are small, focused, driven groups of learners under the coaching of trained educators, pursuing specific goals in a nurturing, collaborative environment.

 

What about the environment? This kind of school begs for smaller, more home-like learning environments. Spaces that have ample and comfortable space for small groups, individuals, and larger groups to meet and work. Reading nooks, creative workspaces, safe spaces, ample books and full access to technology tools are essential.

 

We have to let go of traditional learning environments to embrace this new model of individualized and community connected learning. Our schools would need to either be retrofitted or recreated into fluid, comfortable learning environments, or communities could take advantage of lower home prices and convert several homes into clusters of age specific learning communities.

 

The teacher’s role in this would evolve into a mentor, facilitator, collaborator and community liaison. Teachers would be responsible for developing plans with 10-15 students. They would create schedules, coordinating with community and school resources, and teach lessons to help meet each child’s unique goals.

 

Teachers in an age group learning community would meet daily to collaborate with each other and develop the best educational plans for their students. Invited to these meetings at different times would be parents, specialists, and community leaders. Together, we would constantly grow, monitor and enrich each educational plan.

 

A morning for a typical fifth grade child would include a morning meeting with age level peers, small group math instruction and practice with a teacher or online, then reading and writing about a topic of interest with an online or in person group of kids. After lunch featuring local, organic and homemade food, the child participates in exercise determined by the educational team: running, yoga, hiking, or team sports. The afternoon is focused on hands on, service learning projects in the areas of science and social studies, but interconnected with all subject areas. As the students grow older, connections and opportunities within the local (or digital) community grow stronger, more individualized, and complex.

 

This kind of education could also be respectful, inclusive, and appropriate for students who need specialized instruction. Currently, it takes too long for many students with special needs to access their education in meaningful ways. In this new model, specific goals could be written into plans and be less obtrusive, since everyone has a unique plan (unlike our current model, where special education students are the only ones with individualized plans). So, taking the typical fifth grader, if they have experienced trauma, or have a learning disability for example, they could get community based counseling, or skill work as part of their plan as soon as they needed it.

 

Personalized education will be expensive, no doubt. But our current industrialized educational bureaucracy is extremely expensive as well. Shifting our resources to develop these types of learning communities would take time, careful planning, and vision, but each community could do so by utilizing community and educational leaders, policy makers and school boards. By working together, these entities could develop trust, community and collective vision, and find themselves less at odds with each other. Aren’t we all focused on the same goals of improving education, providing opportunities, and bettering our communities?

 

If we can put a man on the moon, create cars and the Internet, we can personalize and individualize education and ground it firmly in local communities. This kind of targeted, individualized student growth, closely monitored, will outpace any we have ever seen. Dropout rates will plummet and more students will get what they need.  With this significant investment in our youth and local communities, we will see student outcomes that rival those all over the world. What will we gain? Focused, driven, connected and civic minded individuals who know how to work toward goals, solve complex problems, and reflect on their progress. I think at this point in our history, we need them more than ever.

 

image: by o.lila on Flickr under CC

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April 16th, 2013

Mourning the Losses: Boston and Big City Races of the Future

me runningHow could you?

 

How could you take something that shows the goodness of humanity, the spirit of cooperation, and the sublime energy and goodwill of thousands of people, and forever alter it. One of the only places left where everyone runs together—the elite and the regular people. Working people. The 4 am runners. Late night runners.  Those who push their babies in strollers. Runners of all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds. They run the same path. Or so they say in Boston—they run in the footsteps of giants.

 

How could you take this great equalizer, this mass of positive energy and effort, this collective moving forward to a goal, a goal that meant countless hours of commitment, energy, and time—and turn it into something horrific.

 

Running and marathoning is forever changed.  We are fundamentally changed.

 

You see I remember that exact spot. I remember walking through the streets, right after finishing that great race years ago, so tired I wanted to lie down on the pavement and it was nothing but the beauty and kindness of volunteers that shuttled me to water, food, a medal, my family. Walking so vulnerable, so weak, so open, so trusting.

 

How could this be exploited?

 

So many people use running to work through grief. To remember a loved one. To work through hardship, challenge, addictions, and find their way back to health. Running has saved me on many occasions, and I do not say that lightly. When my father died suddenly, it was one of the only things that tethered me to the earth. Where I could think freely—even yell, cry, and sprint—in anger. I needed that space. That time. That freedom.

 

For big city races, that freedom is gone.

 

You may say I am overreacting. But our kids will never know the freedom we had, and took for granted, in these events.  These often life affirming, moving events.

 

They will never know how running down Boylston street, lined 20 people deep, roaring with cheers for you, as a normal, regular, slow runner, feels.  Running among all these people without a trace of fear. Not one inkling. Because that’s how I felt.

 

When in front of my eyes, finishing the 2001 Boston marathon, a man fell, staggering in the last ¼ mile, fellow runners rushed in, and held him up and they crossed the line together. The tunnel roared, quaked with support, love, encouragement. I was moved. I was carried by this energy in the last ¼ mile, guided by their kindness.

 

Now that has all changed. We cannot assume goodwill, kindness, and encouragement will prevail. We cannot make any assumptions about our safety. Our big city finishes are forever changed.

 

I mourn the loss of this. Of the loss in our sport, the loss of our freedom, and the terrible injuries suffered by volunteers, supporters, friends and family members of marathon runners. Most of all, I mourn the lives of the 8 year old child, and the two young adults lost in such a senseless crime.

 

Other countries already know about this. We have finally, irrevocably, joined them.

 

There is no turning back.

March 16th, 2013

Eat Non-Toxic: a manual for busy parents available now on Kindle!

 

 

Eat Non-Toxic: a manual for busy parents based on all that I have learned while blogging, researching, cooking, and parenting. It’s a guide for busy parents looking to limit their family’s exposure to chemicals and toxins in food and feeding gear. The manual is packed with practical and quick tips for parents, recipes, where to go for more information, and Cliff Notes for the most sleep deprived among us.

 

After BPA was banned in baby bottles and cups for children 2012 by the FDA (finally!), I wanted to update the information to include this and the latest research about the use of plastics in baby bottles, cups, and waterbottles. I also wanted to make sure all the links, research, and resources were up to date.

 

And then all of a sudden, I had a newly updated edition of the ebook! I uploaded it to Kindle and now it is on sale at Amazon. Already its gotten some wonderful reviews (thank you readers!).

 

If you have a Kindle, or an ipad (with the Kindle app) you can have the book delivered to you in less than a minute for 3.99. It is easy and fast!

January 17th, 2013

Letter for Newtown (and all) Teachers

Last month I wrote a letter to the fallen teachers of Sandy Hook in Connecticut. I was deeply moved after learning about their last acts of selflessness. I viewed my teaching colleagues with new eyes, and my perception of bravery is forever changed.

You can find the letter here at the Fox News opinion page.

Later that morning, I was contacted by a producer at the Megyn Kelly show to do an interview. I ran to the special education office, plugged in my computer, and was interviewed live via Skype. Both Megyn and I were close to tears as we recounted the heroism of the brave teachers who lost their lives protecting their students.

You can see that interview here. 

I’ve been touched by the many teachers who found this letter inspiring and comforting. In small and big ways, we need to lift each other up, to change the perceptions of teaching as a career, and work together to protect children from harm.

 

December 17th, 2012

Talking to Children about the Horrific Events in Newton

A main focus of this parenting blog is keeping kids safe. In effect, it is what do every single day, every moment in caring for our children. From the day we are first pregnant, we fret about what to eat, how much to exercise, our prenatal care, and plan for how we will best care for our babies. We worry about how and what we will feed them, then as they learn to move, we protect them from dangers in our home, and hold their hands as they learn to walk.

One painful reality we all learn quickly is that we can’t protect our kids from every hurt, pain, or heartbreak.  There are lessons in skinned knees, hurt feelings, and disappointments.

This week is different. We need to question what children need to know about the tragic shootings in Newton. We have been reminded how even in our schools, where countless people surround our beautiful children with love, support and safety, unspeakable horror can happen. It has rattled us to the core. We mourn with the parents who are facing the loss of their most precious, deepest love. As we hug our children, we mourn for the loss of those who can hug their children no longer.

Read the rest of this post at Non-Toxic Kids

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October 6th, 2012

15 Must Read Books on Education in the U.S.

 

I’m so thrilled to have my book, Why Great Teachers Quit and How We Might Stop the Exodus chosen for the Christian Science Monitor’s list of 15 Must Read Books on Education.

 

I have wonderful company…one of my heros, Jonathan Kozol, and other well known education writers and leaders such as Diane Ravich. I’m pleased to see several new voices on the list as well.

 

Thanks to the Christian Science Monitor for including the voices of real, practicing teachers who have an in the trenches perspective that is much needed in the national conversation about teaching.  Just yesterday, I led a workshop for teachers in New Hampshire and they voiced many of the themes in the book. All of them admitted to extreme frustration with the direction of teaching and education, and eagerly discussed possible solutions. These are the kind of voices we need at the policy making level.

September 14th, 2012

6 Things Teachers Want Parents to Know (but may not tell them) As School Starts

It’s that busy time of year in the Northeast when teachers are in countless meetings, trainings, and in-sevice days, and in between setting up and cleaning their classrooms to get ready for students. In my own classroom, the nametags are on the hooks, the mailboxes and cubbies are labeled, and a hand-written welcome note, a bookmark, and a new pencil sits on each child’s desk.

 

As a teacher and a parent, I get a bird’s eye view of how teachers and parents can team up to provide the best education possible for a child. Here are a few things I think most teachers would want parents to know as the school year begins.

 

1. Share what you know! You are your child’s first and best teacher. You know what excites, frustrates, and inspires your child. Fill out any surveys sent home, and send in insights about your child via email or notes, or even a quick hallway chat. Teachers want to learn quickly how to best reach and teach your child.

 

2.  We are on the same team in the best interest of the child. I know it seems obvious, but starting conversations from the perspective of how we can best work together can be very powerful and productive. Amazing things can happen when parents and teachers team up. I’ve seen children make tremendous progress, gain confidence, and take on new challenges when teachers and parents communicate frequently and team up to support each other. Sometimes, we may have different perspectives and opinions, but teachers (like parents) want what is best for the child both emotionally and academically, and will work tirelessly for it.

Read the rest of this post at Fox News opinion