Free, Equal Access to Excellence in Public Education

I’m not sure how I missed it, but I’m very glad I caught Will Richardson’s post from early November. Will writes a letter to his two children about a future college education and in it he says,

For most of your young lives, you’ve heard your mom and I occasionally talk about your futures by saying that someday you’ll travel off to college and get this thing called a degree that will show everyone that you are an expert in something and that will lead you to getting a good job that will make you happy and make you able to raise a family of your own someday. At least, that’s what your mom and I have in our heads when we talk about it. But, and I haven’t told your mom this yet, I’ve changed my mind. I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.

One of the reasons I love to read Will’s posts, is that he is constantly and deliberately challenging my thinking about education and about learning. That’s very good for me and works well, because I truly want to have the best school we can have for all kids.  A huge part of that means I have to think about how we do business now and consider how it’s working and how it’s not. Also, how can we do it better?

The comments that ensued in response to Will’s post are interesting. Dean Shareski comments,

I keep telling everyone that in 3 years many of our students will choose not to attend high school. They’ll instead find a way to “play school”, get their diploma and pursue other interests. My question lately to teachers/administrators is “What will your school offer students that will make the choose to come?”
What you are describing to your kids is they have a choice about how they’ll learn. As Karl said previously, they won’t have to wait till college to make this decision.

I think about the changing landscape of education, as Dean does, and I realize we have to really think about re-inventing ourselves. But my passion lies in re-inventing public schools for all children. I can’t possibly support the idea that was threaded through some of the comments Will received that challenged him to consider an alternative to public education for his children now. While I understand and support the families who consider this option, there are far more children who don’t have this option. For whom public school has to be the best option, not their only option.

Let’s please keep this conversation focused on change for all children. For many children in this country, public educators have to be their strongest advocate because they haven’t got anyone else.

Court Consequences

How did we reach the point where a student smoking marijuana in school is merely an appearance ticket in family court? We have the strictest of school consequences, a Superintendent’s Hearing, and the NYS Troopers do all the right things with us–only to result in a barely felt slap on the wrist.

Yeah, that’ll keep my kids off drugs. We only have about four or five of these incidents per year (that we catch and we’re diligent in our efforts), but any school who believes they don’t have a drug problem better wake up. We need stricter penalties in our court rooms–school intervention isn’t getting it done alone.

G-Town Wrestlers Rock

For the last ten hours of this beautiful Saturday, I sat in the gym at Iroquois High School for a wrestling tournament and it was worth every minute of it. Wrestling is, by far, my favorite school sport. Granted, I went to school in Pennsylvania where every boy worth his salt at that time wrestled and carried a can of snuff in his back pocket, so it’s sort of ingrained in my subconscious. Our neighbor, Wayne German, was the wrestling coach at Plum High School and he used to drag me along to the meets. Anyone ever coached by Mr. German knows what the meaning of “heart” is.

There were a ton of wrestlers today and only a handful of parents (not too many want to sit there for 10 hours), but what a terrific day for sportsmanship. Wrestling is an interesting sport because a kid can win individually, even if the team loses. Still, I watched kid after kid run from one mat to the next to watch his teammate’s match. They’re polite and easy to be around. They look out for each other. Real athletes pushing it to the max. Heck, a kid can lose, show a ton of heart and still come off the mat feeling good about himself because he fought hard and gave it 100% until the end.

The moment worth the price of admission came when one of our rookies got his first pin. The grin on the kid’s face when he came up from the mat and the reaction of his teammates were fantastic–brought tears to my eyes. The coach ran himself ragged running from bout to bout, but he never stopped coaching and supporting every kid.

Yeah it was a great way to spend a Saturday, in a smelly gym filled with adolescent boys all treating each other with respect. Win or lose, those kids were as good as it gets today.

Acceptance & Tolerance/GSA?

At the beginning of this year, three students met with me about starting a group for gay students. We talked a lot about what they wanted out of the group, what they thought the purpose of the group would be, and what they needed from us. They weren’t really clear on all of those questions and neither was I. So we moved forward with a caring counselor as the volunteer adult in the room, the three kids met after school with her, and we called it the “Acceptance and Tolerance” group. Kids had to get permission to stay after school and Jen facilitated.

Next, we hosted “Rachel’s Challenge”, an assembly program which talks about treating everyone with kindness and compassion. The next week’s “Acceptance and Tolerance” group met and 46 students showed up.  46 out of 500! The students talked about being the GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance, and about why each person was there. Most were straight kids who wanted to show support for their friends.

Now I have even more questions. Is it the role of the school to run a club that’s basically about sexuality or is this beyond our school’s purpose? Or is the purpose of the club really something else? Is it really about acceptance and tolerance and treating everyone fairly, with respect? Does it limit the group if it’s focused on the differences we have sexually? Wouldn’t it be more inclusive if it was about diversity and included all of the ways we differ, but more important, all of the ways we’re the same? I need to attend the next meeting, so I can ask the students those questions.

Is it a case of an open forum, with the students meeting on their own and using the building the same way other organizations would ask to use our building? What do they really hope to accomplish as a “club”? How do I support all students within our academic setting, and by support I mean protect, listen to, understand, and create an environment that’s so safe and caring that every child can achieve to his fullest? And again, what do they hope to accomplish–what will they actually do as a school group?

How do I say “yes, we hear you”, but now can we get back to the issues of your homework, attendance, class performance? How do I say, “yes, I accept all of you, now get to work”?

And the personal question I keep coming back to, the Kim question that’s unrelated to the professional person, wonders why anyone would want to be defined by this one part of who they are? I try so hard to see people for ALL that they are, not judging them for one piece, that it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would want to be DEFINED by one thing. I want to say, yes, you’re gay, so what? You’re a lot of things and I see them all. I support you simply because you are ours, a G-Town student.

Pass It On

Our Building Improvement Team is made up of teachers, support staff, parents, community members, students, and me. We have a generosity drive each year, where our students and staff raise money to help make the holidays better for a few area families.

I received the coolest phone call ever from one of our families from last December. Seems they went shopping, bought about five bags of toys, and want us to distribute them to a needy family this year. As it turns out, they’re having a much better year this holiday season and they want to give back. That’s the best example of generosity I could possibly hope for—not a phone call asking if we can help them out again–but one that says “it’s our turn to help someone else”.

Spit It Out or Think and Defend?

We have a recurring theme here in G-Town surrounding our students and academic achievement. As our teachers analyze data and discuss new literacy strategies, I keep hearing the same thing. Our students don’t want to think.

It seems that they really prefer assignments that are specifically spelled out and require only regurgitation of facts. When we ask them to really think about something, to investigate, to reflect, and to respond, they are reluctant. Our kids continually ask the teacher for the answer or for reassurance that they’re on the right track, that the answer is what the teacher is looking for.

Our graduates struggle with this same analysis and reflection, this same critical thought, when they hit college. It leaves me wondering how we got to this point. I graduated from high school 26 years ago and I have strong recall of numerous projects and position papers/speeches, including one from sixth grade. I felt well prepared to analyze and to think critically, it’s obviously a way of thinking on which I rely in my current profession.

So when did we stop asking students to really think and learn? Did our focus on the students at the bottom cause this shift? Did we start spoon feeding students and continue to the point where we are now? I’m curious how this shift occurred and certain that it’s time to make a change.

Student Member on the Board

G-Town Board of Education gave the oath of office to it’s first student board member, Jeremiah Davis, last night. How cool is it that we have a superintendent and a school board who value what our students think so much that they’ve adopted policy to include a representative on the Board?

What’s Most Important?

My dear friend, Tina, lost her father this week and I attended the funeral today. The funeral was held about a mile from school and I was gone for about an hour and a half. I worried on the way over about being gone from school, if they would need me for something, if someone would criticize my attendance at the funeral. I rationalized all of this by thinking of all of the extra time I put in.

How dumb this was and what a waste of time and energy. By tomorrow, no one will even remember that I was gone, nor do they probably care. And my friend Tina will remember forever that I was there today, at her dad’s funeral, for her. That’s so much more important.

Somehow I’ve got to realize that my best is good enough. That I have to make the best decision I can, to do the right thing, and that work isn’t always my first priority. That the people we care about matter more than work. That we can balance it all, it just tips one way or the other from time to time. I’m learning, maybe I’ll get it right by the time I retire.

It’s Nice to Be Noticed

So I get this phone call this morning from my old friend and college roommate, Lisa. This is unprecedented for two reasons. One, we only call a couple of times per year and two, it was at work, during the workday. The purpose of her call? She wanted to be sure that I’m okay, that nothing tragic has happened, that all is well with our family. Why? Because I haven’t posted to my blog in a week!

As a relatively new blogger, blogging since July, this is the longest I’ve actually gone without a post. I also received an email from a parent with a similar inquiry this morning. While it’s nice to see that anyone noticed, it also drives home how much of a connection blogging can be professionally and personally. It’s just that, a connection that readers come to depend on, a way to stay connected to what’s happening in G-Town.

It was a typically busy week at G-Town with evaluations and meetings and Rachel’s Challenge assemblies on Friday. When I reflect on my absence, it’s actually not because it was any busier last week than other week.

Quite honestly, my husband and I have been remodeling our main living space since the end of October and last week brought the push to finish applying stain and poly-acrylic to the wood for the ceilings, painting the entire room, washing windows and carpets. Instead of the usual G-Town thoughts swimming through my head that result in a blog post, I had paint colors and wood swirling around in there. In other words, life got in the way. I was drop dead tired every night from remodeling and didn’t have the energy to read or write anything.

Which makes me realize I can’t really separate this blogging from my personal life, keeping it primarily G-Town centered. Do we owe our readership an explanation when we’re gone from the blog for a short time? I think so, as we develop those on-line relationships, it seems appropriate to also mention the personal occasionally. If we’re lucky, professional life and personal life can spill over into one another and it’s probably totally okay to share that here.

G-Town’s clicking along and I’ll make sure the readers of G-Town Talks know what’s what around here, even when my head shifts elsewhere. (Which probably isn’t a bad thing from time to time.)

My English 12 Blog Assignment

Mr. Goss, our English 12 teacher, posted an assignment on his class blog that asked each student in the class to read classmates’ posts, find a topic about which they’re interested, quote them, and write about it. Sounds like he’s teaching them how to read, reflect, and respond. Thought I’d help out by participating in the assignment here.

Meg writes, “So our next assignment was to read a letter from a Marine who’s over in Iraq. I feel so bad for this man and what he has to go through each and every day. I’ve read some war books before and I felt sorry for that person or persons but not as much as I do for this guy. I’m not sure why but maybe it’s because this war is going on right now and now that I’m older I can feel for the person more. The way he writes makes me never want to ever go to war and it makes me wonder how anyone can bear it because I know I would absolutely hate it and probably would go crazy. I wonder how this guy will be able to function in society when or if he comes home.”

I also wonder how the men and women serving in a war (that I find extremely difficult to believe in and to support) will function when they come home. Someone close to me served for many years and I realize how difficult it was for him to receive recognition and support from the branch he served. After seventeen years of service, the military found it difficult to assume responsibility for any post-traumatic stuff he was dealing with–as if it could possibly be from anything else after 17 years of service. Our young men and women, who don’t know the system or are too young to fight for their rights, deserve treatment and care when they return, not just a presidential pat on the back (if even).

Several years ago, my husband and I went to see Saving Private Ryan. I found it excrutiating to watch because I was teaching young men and women who in a different day would have been involved in that war instead of celebrating their latest basketball victory.

Every statistic and soldier mentioned in the news, so briefly and without enough pause, is someone’s student, son, sister, friend, grandchild, spouse, or parent. Our decision makers MUST NOT take those lives for granted, or de-humanize them. Those men and women are working hard, every day, to do their best–we must do the same for them.

Thanks for adding your honest thoughts for our consideration, Meg!