Monday, July 6, 2015

Who Do Teachers Work For?

If there are a lot of Dolores Umbridges in the educational world, people who do exactly what their bosses say in order to get ahead professionally, this raises the question: who or what, exactly, should educators be working for? 

I have many supervisors: 3 assistant principals and a principal, one of whom will be my evaluator each year. As a district employee I am also supervised by a district Language Arts office, district curriculum people above that office, an area superintendent, right up to our new superintendent. I am also supposed to follow edicts given by the state, which controls my certification. I suppose if I followed the money trail high enough, I am even under the auspices of the Federal Department of Education. 

As if this wasn't confusing enough, many of the edicts and suggestions I see filtering down contradict each other and change over time. 

Just Read! Florida tells me to promote reading for fun and pleasure. Florida state tests promote reading with skill and drill activities to "raise student achievement" on standardized tests that clog up our media center and make it impossible for many of our students to check out books for weeks on end. Just read indeed. We are told to help nurture creativity in our students while being told to stifle our own. We are told to use students' personal interests and life stories to engage them, but we are also told to follow standards written by a man who doesn't value students' stories and wants them to read without making personal connections and write about other people's writing. 

We're told to make students pass the FCAT writing, but the passing score keeps shifting, even though not a word of the rubric has changed. Then we're told that the FCAT writing was actually kind of useless and that what matters now is "writing to text" (writing about what you read).

If I were new to the profession and hadn't developed my own criteria for what's worth doing and what isn't, I would either quit or get terrible headaches each day from all the cognitive dissonance. 

Who should educators work for? 

Maybe we should work for our students. This is, of course, somewhat problematic, because we ask them to work for us. 

Some teachers say they don't teach subjects, they teach students. Obviously we should be there for our students. Who else are we really there for? But what exactly does it mean to teach students, not subjects? Some teachers I've talked to see it as their duty to teach students that the world is going to screw you over, and you better get used to it. On the other hand, I've seen teachers so anxious to put students at the center of the everything, education becomes all about the student--a kind of narcissistic exercise in self-discovery. 

So much of what we do in education, and what is done to education, is a desperate attempt to give us a clear focus. Put students first. Put what is measurable first. Put standards first. Put certain classroom practices first. Put following the edicts of this person or that committee first. 

But tests come and go. Standards come and go. Administrators and school boards come and go. In the end, students come and go. We like to think that whatever is happening now is the be all and end all. But whatever seems to be the Big Thing in education eventually fades. Or, worse, if it doesn't fade, it becomes so ensconced in its place of influence that it distorts everything around it. 

I wish I could claim this insight as my own, but I owe a great debt to Parker J. Palmer for his insight and wisdom in his book The Courage To Teach. He says, on a page I have dog-eared and refer to often, that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." 

We should be working for the community of truth. That may sound esoteric and impractical, but I assure you it is not. 

Truth is a complicated, elusive, and slippery word. We all know it matters, perhaps more than anything. That is what makes it valuable. We all know it can be paradoxical, context-specific, and hard to pin down. That's what makes the educational enterprise so thrilling. 

Some might dismiss Palmer's definition of teaching as flowery or soft. It is anything but. In fact, what is lacking in so much of education reform and educational practice these days, is any real thinking about the truth.

To be part of a "community of truth" is to debate, to question, to grapple with ambiguity and paradox, to really think about things at a deep level. It's a very different thing than a "professional learning community," where we are often handed "best practices" and told to talk about how best to implement them. If our schools were communities of truth, we would be questioning our own practices as teachers, and even questioning whether a focus on "practices" and "strategies" is really wise. We would be questioning the fundamental nature of how education works and what it means to know our subject areas, and discussing how best to reach the students in front of us. 

If we all considered ourselves part of one vast "community of truth," it doesn't mean we would agree. The community of truth is not a place to always agree on the truth, but a place where we agree to keep searching for it, a place where ideas that seem untrue are brought to light and questioned. Truth looks different in different disciplines. The truth of a poem is different than the truth of a Geometry proof or a scientific experiment. 

We wouldn't limit our students to certain ways of looking for truth. We wouldn't tell them "stay in the four corners of the text" every time they read. We would give them different ways of thinking about what they read, and let them decide the best way to approach a given text. A community of truth creates flexible, not rigid, thinkers. 

If we worked for the community of truth, we would encourage teachers and students to question. We wouldn't accept everything that was handed down from above us on authority and follow orders blindly. The people influencing education wouldn't find it so easy to engage in propaganda, which I recently heard defined as communication designed to have just one outcome. How long have we been hearing that getting rid of bad teachers, testing more and more, and standardizing curriculum will make schools better? These ideas have no space in the community of truth, because all of them fall apart under scrutiny. 

Many of the edicts that filter down to the classroom arrive there because somebody bought something--a program, a piece of technology, a textbook--and feels the need to see it used. Much of what gets recommended in education is really pushed on teachers so that someone else can make money. When truth is our goal, we question profits as an educational goal.

So who should teachers work for? We should work for the community of truth. Doing so gives ourselves and our students something outside ourselves to focus on, something bigger than testing, bigger than standards, bigger than school itself. It gives us the highest aspirations possible, and at its best, protects us from the corruptions of lesser goals. We don't work for money, evaluation ratings, merit pay, promotions, or pats on the head. We work for the truth, no matter our subject, no matter our grade level, no matter where in the world we teach.

At my best, with no disrespect intended to any of my supervisors, I work to create a space where the community of truth may be practiced. It is what everyone in education should strive for. Anything less is an affront to the idea of education itself. 

I'm not doing Palmer's concept justice. If you haven't read it already, go buy The Courage To Teach and read it while there's still some summer left. If you've read it, re-read it. It makes me remember why I'm in the classroom in the first place. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dolores Umbridge Syndrome

I've been an ardent Harry Potter fan for many years, and my children's reading lives  as far as chapter books began with me reading Harry aloud to them from the ages of 4 or 5 until they finally told me they could read on their own half way through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A very sad day in my household, at least for Dad. 

My wife, however, was not entirely unhappy when I stopped reading aloud, at least as far as book 5 is concerned. When I read aloud, I read with character voices, and my Delores Umbridge voice gave her the willies. 

Delores Umbridge. Stephen King said of her that she was "the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter."   

I tend to mull over and ponder the books I love, and the Harry Potter books are no exception. As a cartoonist who has frequently parodied and satirized education reform, I can only sit back and envy the brilliance of the scene is which Umbridge begins her Defense Against the Dark Arts class by announcing "Wands away!" and telling her students that they will not be doing any practical magic, but will instead be using a Ministry of Magic standardized curriculum. At the time, teachers in my district were being asked to use the College Board's Springboard English/Language Arts curriculum with fidelity, and the scene resonated with me on many, many levels. 

By the time I reached book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however, something began to bother me about Delores Umbridge. In book 5 she was officious,  and capable of both torture and banning Harry from Quidditch for life, but I thought she still thought of herself as being on the "good side." By book 7, though, she is working at the Ministry of Magic, which is now under the control of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Has she changed sides? Is she unaware of who she is working for? What gives?

It was my son who pointed out the explanation: Delores Umbridge is a career opportunist. She doesn't really stand for anything except her own power and her own promotion. She will work for whoever is in charge and do her best to make sure she rises in the ranks. If the Ministry of Magic is in charge and they want her to turn Hogwarts into a totalitarian state, she'll do that. If torturing a student with a magic pen will promote her ends, she'll do that. If suppressing the truth will make her look good, she'll do that, too. If oppressing non-pure-blood wizards is what the new leadership wants, she'll do that. If using a dead wizard's magical eye as a surveillance device will further her power to intimidate, she'll do that. If working for a dark wizard will get her promoted to Undersecretary, she'll do that. 

The Harry Potter books are about many things, and one of the things they are about is standing for something, no matter the cost. Harry and his various friends and mentors and even an arch enemy take risks to stand on the side of right. They break rules. They resist. They speak out. They go underground and work against the forces of evil in hiding. Many of the characters die standing up for what is right. 

Delores Umbridge, on the other hand, stands for nothing but her own ambition, self-promotion, and power. 

Which leads me to the other way in which her character reflects real life. There are many Delores Umbridges in our school systems right now. They don't care who is in charge, or what they are asked to do, they will do what is best for their careers, not what is best for students.

Want them to help institute the education reforms that are killing our schools? They'll do that. Want them to reinforce the use of standardized curriculum? They'll do that. Want them to push the idea that teaching to the test is really teaching? They'll do that. Want them to make teachers stand in the data room and discuss students as if they were data points? They'll do that. Want them to comply to anything the state says? They'll do that. Want them to never question, never think, never take risks to do what's right for students? They'll do that. Want them to make students put their real reading away so they can practice their multiple choice skills on clickers? They'll do that. Wands away! 

Some of the Delores Umbridges are teachers, some are administrators. Some work at the district level. Some work at the state and national level. Many delude themselves into thinking their really doing what they do "for the students." Some never even reflect on why they do what they do. Some of them know exactly what they're doing. 

Some of us are resisting though. We question. We go out on a limb to do what's right for students. We want to teach real magic, not the ministry-approved non-practical curriculum. We are branded bad teachers, trouble-makers, the reason we need (or had) to get rid of tenure. We break the rules. We speak out. We stand for what is right. 

These days the "good employees" are the Delores Umbridges of the world. 

The rest of us... well, we're Dumbledore's Army. 

Welcome to the D.A. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Education Reform: The End and the Means

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you think the education reformers' goals are good ones. Let's just pretend, for the moment, that closing down the public schools and replacing them with for-profit, privately run, government funded entities, is a good idea. 

Even if the end is right, does it justify the means? 

Because here's what the reformers did not do: they did not announce their intentions openly from the start. Their stated aim was improve the public schools. 

But if the reformers' real goals involve ultimately removing public schools as the primary mode of education in the United States and replacing it with a completely different, privatized model, they sure didn't say so. They didn't announce their plans from the get-go because they knew people would not react well. Surveys show that most parents are happy with their local public schools. They don't see the need to replace them. Indeed, most parents don't see that big a need for "school choice." 

So here is what the reformers did: they created the myth that public schools everywhere are failing, churning out either dropouts or stupid graduates. They created the public perception that public school teachers are (in no particular order) a combination of lazy, stupid, and incompetent. They pushed for "accountability" that would root out the bad teachers, and claimed that rooting out bad teachers would solve all our educational problems. 

This accountability involved standardized testing, the rating of schools  and teachers based on test scores,  and the possibility of closing "failing" schools and handing them over to private vendors. It also involved, from the start, voucher programs to let students at failing schools go to private schools. This move was predicated on the idea that private schools are always better, even if they aren't subject to the same standardized tests and accountability measures as public schools. No Child Left Behind made this agenda national. Race to the Top made it worse. 

I think many reformers really thought, and still think, they are helping public schools by forcing them to participate in their own destruction and create their own competitionBut certainly not all of them. 

For many of them, the goal has always been to destroy public education. And their supposed attempts to improve the schools were a brilliant and ironic way of destroying them in full view of the public, with public approval. 

The question is, again, does the end justify the means? 

Here is what the "means," have done to schools. 

For the past decade or more students have been subjected to schools that are really test preparation factories. In elementary school, history, science, recess, and the arts have been nudged out of schools to make way for test prep in reading, math, and sometimes writing. Instruction has become limited to teaching students to answer test-questions, which has warped the actual content being taught. I have written frequently about the effect test-prep has had and continues to have on writing instruction. And more and more time is being devoted not just to test-prep, but to testing itself. I recently wrote in this space about the weeks of time our school was forced to devote to cycling our students through computer tests in writing, reading, and math, and the disruption it caused campus-wide for not days but weeks

The very things that would help our students succeed are the things being taken away. 

Free play has been researched and found to improve creative thinking, self control, and the ability to learn new things. So we take away recess to improve test scores. 

Background knowledge is one of the chief things students need to read well, so what do we do? We take away elementary science and history, the very places where students get the background knowledge to read well later. With the introduction of the Common Core Standards, we are told not to use background knowledge at all, but to focus on the text alone, in what some authors have called Zombie New Criticism. I once sat through a Common Core workshop where we spent over an hour attempting to interpret The Gettysburg Address without using any of our knowledge about The Civil War, the battle itself, or Lincoln. It was not edifying. 

This testing culture leads, ironically, to a lack of real thinking about instruction. It leads teachers and students alike to not really think about their subjects in a deep and meaningful way, but to be compliant, to assume the rubrics and curriculum maps and textbooks and test prep materials will tell them all they need to know. It leads to a culture like the one I illustrated here, where the human mind is like a bucket, and knowledge is dumped out onto a test and forgotten. 

The testing culture has not only hurt instruction and learning, it has turned students into data points. At one point my wife, also a teacher, advocated for a brilliant, straight-A English student who was leaving our middle school to go to the high school. She wrote well and read well and thought well, but didn't test well. When my wife tried to get her into honors English at the high school, she was informed that the student's test scores were too low for that placement, and that as a school, they were "beholden to the state" to make placements based on test scores. I have heard teachers refer to students by their test scores. "He's a 5." "She's a 2." "I don't want those 1's in my class." 

The education reformers attempts to improve teaching and teachers have brought teacher morale to an all-time low. Career teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Teachers are being evaluated by ever-fluctuating test scores, being rated 'basic" or "unsatisfactory" on an arbitrary rubric, being micromanaged and told exactly what and how to teach instead of being encouraged, or even allowed, to be creative. Teachers are having health problems, depression, and stress. I have been there. 

Some would argue that teacher stress is an adult concern, and that we need to think about the students first. But the way we treat teachers is the way we treat students. Who do you want in front of your class-- a passionate, intelligent, creative, responsive teacher, or a teacher whose passion, intelligence, creativity and responsiveness have been turned off in favor of every teacher following the same workbook program or script? We have not only disenfranchised teachers, we have redefined teaching in negative and destructive ways. Enrollments in education colleges are down. Young people have heard: teaching is an awful job choice now. 

A teacher's role is more than just "curriculum dispensing" or being a "Quantifiable Learning Gains Facilitator." A teacher should be a role model for passionate engagement in a subject or subjects, a role model for life-long learning and reading, a role model for creativity on the job. When we take away a teachers passion and creativity, we take away what makes them a teacher. And we have been systematically killing off passion and creativity in our teachers. 

Education reformers' approaches have not improved education, and have in fact, come close to ruining our public schools. But the end justifies the  means, right? Once we have our glorious free-market educational utopia, it will all be worth it, right? 

Only if you think propaganda and subterfuge are legitimate ways to enact change. Jeb Bush, who instituted the education reforms in Florida that have made schools into test factories, had the gall to write a editorial piece about the virtues of virtual schools for the Orlando Sentinel a few years back, suggesting that virtual schools were a good way to escape those awful, test-driven public schools. He designed those public schools to be test-driven--he forced them to be test-driven. But then he claimed that being test driven makes public schools awful, so we should fund private alternatives. 

Even if you think free-market schools are the solution, do you really think lying to the public about your real goals and undermining public schools while pretending to help them are above-board methods for achieving your goals?  Do you really think that the ruined educations of a generation of students, the ruined careers of hundreds of thousands of devoted teachers, and the factorization of thousands of schools is just a little collateral damage? 

I don't. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Only Real Issue in Public Schools: Keeping Them Alive

Over-testing. Test validity. Test reliability. Testing narrowing the curriculum. Value Added Measures for rating teachers. School grades. The killing of arts programs. Standards and national standards. No Child Left Behind. Race To the Top. Scripted curriculum. Teacher demoralization. Drop out rates and graduation rates. STEM and STEAM. Reading Wars. Tenure. Teacher pay, teacher turn-over, and teacher retention.

The list of issues surrounding public education goes on and on and on. And we debate all these issues over and over online and at school board meetings. But all of these little issues are, to a certain extent, a smoke screen distracting us from what has become the real issue. The only issue. 

Near the beginning of my teaching career, nearly twenty years ago, back when Florida was just beginning its education reform policies under then governor, now presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, I was at a district workshop at the beginning of the school year. The workshop leaders spent considerable time explaining how the new FCAT testing would work, how schools would be graded, and how students in low performing schools would be able to get vouchers to go to private schools. 

An older teacher approached some of us at the front of the school auditorium, where we were talking during a break. As we talked about the merits and problems of this new system, she said something I will never forget for its prescience. "You know what this is really all about, don't you? Give it some time, but within 20 years they will be trying to shut down the public schools." 

Though I didn't say it to her, I thought she was being paranoid. I now realize she was absolutely right. 

It is easy to get lost in a shuffle of competing issues in education. There are so many things wrong. I know--I think about them and write about them and draw cartoons about them nearly every day. But what I've come to realize is that what is at stake is the future of public education. 

The privatizers and those who support their agenda use terms like public school monopoly and government schools. They talk about school choice and market-based reforms as if they are the silver bullets that will create an educational utopia where every child will have a cornucopia of excellent school choices. They talk as if they are altruistic, children-first saviors of our nation's educational future. 

Here's what school choice really means: the one product you won't be able to chose is an excellent public school education at a local school with career teachers who are motivated by their love of teaching and kids, with a rich curriculum of core subjects and the arts that invests in children's minds, not just in test scores.

Everything that was supposed to improve public schools over the last twenty years was actually designed to ruin them, to make families want to look for alternatives.

By using vouchers, which allow parents to take their child to any school, religious or otherwise, using public funds, by promoting parent trigger laws, which encourage parents to hand their public schools over to private, for-profit companies, by encouraging charter schools and private virtual schools, by funding political campaigns that will put pro-privatization candidates on local school boards (which has happened in my own district), anti-public school forces have been chipping away at public schools bit by bit. And private companies are reaping the rewards, making billions of dollars by running these for-profit schools, by creating standardized tests and the textbooks and standardized test-prep materials that go with them. 

It is the commodification of education, education as a product, education as just another thing to buy.

Two questions need to be answered. 

1. Are our public schools really failing?
2. Should we replace public schools with for-profit schools in the name of school choice?

Our schools are not failing. Are they perfect? No. They vary in quality from state to state, district to district, and within districts. The one constant, though, is that the higher a poverty rate at a school, the harder it is to educate the students. Standardized test scores are more a barometer of poverty and wealth than of educational quality. In middle class and wealthy districts, our students generally out-perform other nations. 

Should we replace our public schools with for-profit, free market schools? If you are ideologically of the opinion that free market solutions are always best, then you will say yes based on your ideology. 

Ideology aside, though, charter schools do not, on the whole, perform any better than their public school counterparts on test scores (though I hate using test scores as evidence). Some charters are excellent (I have a friend who teaches at an excellent school for the arts), but charter schools also have a record of financial scandals, mid-year closures, and profiteering that makes them more a gamble than a sure bet. In other words, the quality of private schools and charter schools varies just as much, if not more, than the quality of public schools. 

Public schools serve the community they are in. They give students from different walks of life, different religions, different races, a chance to learn, and live, and work and play together. At their best they are a microcosm of American society at its best. Public schools take any student, without applications, without lotteries, without question. Public schools are democratically controlled and are open to public input, public scrutiny, and public oversight. Public schools cannot solve all of societies problems, but they can make a difference nonetheless. 

If you want to maintain public schools, have an say in how they run through a local school board, and not have to go shopping around for the best educational "product," it is time to speak up in favor of public schools. When you give up on public schools, you give up the right to have a say in the schools. 

Public education and public school teachers are up against billionaire reformers who know nothing about education, but plenty about making money and using politics to help them make more of it. There are other issues in education, but they all come back to this one, big issue. They want to shut down public education. The scary thing is, I think most parents seem to be unaware that it is happening. Many teachers, I think, are just waking up to what is happening. 

Our own children are out of public school now. My son is in college and our daughter just graduated and is getting ready to start college. The only things that made us unhappy with their schooling the past 15 years is the ways in which "education reform" messed up the system and made their schooling all about the scores, all about grades, all about jumping through hoops. What we loved about their schooling was the fact that they had many, many outstanding, caring, creative teachers who helped them to grow academically and personally and invested in them as whole people. They looked at our students, at all students, and saw human potential.

Not that I'm ready to contemplate grandparent-hood just yet, but my fear is that by the time I have grandchildren, things will be different. I fear that there will be many school choices, but public schools won't be one of them. I fear that the schools they attend will be run by people who look at the students in their care and see, not human potential, but potential profits. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Ya Got Trouble": Education Reform as a Con Game

As I have mentioned in this space previously, this spring I finally fulfilled a long-held wish as an actor and played Harold Hill in The Music Man. 

The supposedly old-fashioned, supposedly corny play holds many levels of meaning for me, but as I became more and more familiar with the script, I realized that the con game Harold Hill almost pulls over on the people of River City, Iowa, is a con that is still in use today. 

If you are, by some chance, unfamiliar with The Music Man, here's the basic plot. A man named Greg, who now goes by the name Harold Hill, travels through middle America circa 1912. In each town he goes to, he creates some kind of trouble--a manufactured crisis that is putting the city's youth at risk of corruption. In River City the trouble is a pool table newly arrived in town. Once the town is convinced that there is trouble-- "right here in River City/Trouble with a capital T/And that rhymes with P/And that stands for pool!" Harold then presents the solution to their trouble: a boys band that will keep kids off the street and give them something constructive to do. 

Harold sells the people of River City instruments, uniforms, and instruction books (for something called the Think Method, where you "don't bother with notes"), and then leaves town with all the money. 

So how is Harold's little plot like education reform? My comic strip alter-ego Mr. Fitz, who also played Harold, explains...

The public schools, despite reports to the contrary, have never really been "failing." To hear some people talk, every single public school is a dropout factory and we are lagging behind every other industrialized nation in terms of test scores. If you want an in-depth look at how this "Trouble" is really a scam, read Diane Ravitch's excellent book Reign of Error. As Mark Twain said, "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics."

The schools-are-failing myth led to the Test System, a bit of flimflam every bit as lame as Harold's Think System. Our schools, over the past decade or more, have become test score factories as schools, principals, and teachers have been pushed to achieve higher and higher scores. Under No Child Left Behind, the supposed goal was 100% proficiency for all our students (every student in America!) by 2014. Of course, every state had different definitions of proficiency--another bit of trouble-- which led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards and their attendant tests. 

Reformers keep creating trouble, and each solution they create makes them more money and gives them more power over the public school system. Your local school is too focused on test prep? Well, with school choice, you can take your money to a charter school that doesn't suffer under all those terrible mandates that the public schools do! 

The ultimate goal of this scam, I have come to realize, is the dismantling of our public school system so reformers can replace it with their own, profit-driven schools. More on that later.

But here's where Harold Hill's plot and the reformers' plot diverge. Harold's scam somehow actually made River City a better, more creative, friendlier, happier place. The whole story hinges on this point. Harold's scam comes true, and all is well. Harold himself is transformed as well, into an honest man who will stay in town and lead the band for real.

The reformers' scam has not made our schools into better, more creative, friendlier, happier places. Education reform has made schools into places of test prep, conformity, and drudgery... except in those places where teachers have resisted. I've been resisting every step of the way.

But that was part of their plan. Make the public schools miserable enough, and people will clamor for something else. 

Trouble indeed. 

Production photos by Nadia Schult

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Testing Vs. Teaching Episode 7: The rest of the Year

It had been my plan to keep a running blog post about the way this spring's testing affected my teaching. The best laid plans...

What happened in practice was that after spring break, my teaching was affected by testing, but my blogging was affected by my teaching being thrown off, and my the fact that I was playing Harold Hill in a local production of The Music Man. By the time the play was over, the end of the school year was hurtling toward me like a Mac truck, and I never quite got back online to complete my tale of testing woe. 

So here I am, two weeks into summer, and I finally have some breathing space. 

So how did testing go for the remainder of the year? 

When last I blogged about the testing, my students and I had survived a system crash during the Florida Standards Assessment writing test. After that test was over, we resumed our normal teaching schedule until spring break and for about two weeks after spring break. 

And then my school engaged in a very interesting experiment. 

When testing was all done with bubble sheets and number 2 pencils, everyone in the school tested a particular test (say FCAT Math) at once, and we were done except for makeups. But now the tests are on computers, and this creates some problems. Our computer labs, all four of them, are too outdated to handle the online testing programs, so our school system bought carts of laptops specifically for the purpose of testing. However, there are not enough laptops for each student to have one. Also, moving the computers to different teachers' rooms would prove problematic, and difficult when they were on the second floor of our main buildings. 

So here was our schools admittedly ingenious solution. 

1. Limit testing to just four rooms and the media. There would be Testing Zone Black, Testing Zone Red, Testing Zone Purple, Testing Zone Blue, and Testing Zone Green. 

2. Limit testing to just four teachers. Four teachers whose schedules were somewhat flexible because they were co-teachers or consultation teachers would do all the testing for the entire campus. They would sort of be like The Giver, taking on the pain of administering tests for the entire Community. 

3. Divide students into alphabetical groups for testing and rotate them in and out of these testing rooms: one group in the morning, one in the afternoon. 

There were, of course, several problems with this plan. One is that the teachers whose rooms were being occupied as Testing Zones would need to be ousted and moved somewhere else. 

So I, along with three other Language Arts teachers, got to move to portables for the weeks surrounding testing. 

In addition to the FSA Reading and the FSA Math, there would also be end-of-course exams. Also, at the very start of this new round of testing, we would be administering the only hold-over from our old state test, the FCAT--the FCAT Science. 

So here is a rough version of our testing schedule for the FSA and FCAT Science:

Grade 8 FCAT Science (in the morning)
Grade 6 FSA Reading part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 6 FSA Reading part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 7 FSA Reading part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 7 FSA Reading part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 8 FSA Reading part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)

Grade 8 FSA Reading part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 6 FSA Math part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 6 FSA Math part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 7 FSA Math part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 7 FSA Math part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)

Grade 8 FSA Math part 1 (morning group, afternoon group)
Grade 8 FSA Math part 2 (morning group, afternoon group)

This schedule was followed by makeup days for students who missed sections. The advantage of this schedule is that, for the most part, we were able to keep our regular schedule for classes instead of holding non-tested students in "holding tanks." This was good. However, on a particular grade-level's testing day, you could never tell who you would have. On the sixth grade testing days, I might have ten 6th grade students in  a class, but I might only have two students. This made planning difficult. I made the best of it--students got additional reading workshop time to read their own books. 

Math testing days became even more confusing, because students taking advanced Math, like Algebra I or II, don't have to take the FSA Math. Their end-of-course exam serves as their only test. This made who would be in class even more un-predictable. 

I moved my basic supplies out to the portable the Friday afternoon prior to the start of testing. On Monday morning, I picked up my old-fashioned number-two pencils, my old-fashioned testing books, and headed out to the portable to administer the FCAT Science to my first period 8th graders. The FCAT Science is two 80-minute sessions given in the same day-- a whopping 160 minutes of testing. 

If that weren't bad enough, it quickly became evident as I set up the portable to test that the air conditioning wasn't working. I alerted administration, who fixed the problem--sort of. As the first 80 minute session stretched on, it became clear that the air was blowing, but it wasn't really getting any cooler. 

At the end of session 1, I alerted administration that the portable had become unbearable, and they gave me an option--move to portable 19.  I packed up all the testing materials and we moved from Portable 10 to Portable 19. 

Portable 10 had been hot, but hospitable. It was being used regularly as an ESE classroom a couple periods a day (those teachers had been ousted by my presence, but that's another level of complication). Portable 19 hadn't been used for a couple of years, so while the A/C worked, we walked into our new testing zone and found it to be... musty. Very musty. It also had a certain abandoned slum vibe, including dead bugs here and there. But it was cooler. We stuck with the lesser of two evils. 

I battled the A/C in portable 10 on and off for the rest of my stay, bringing in an oscillating fan to help ward off the heat. I managed to keep on teaching, but it was odd. After the main FSA testing was done, I had three days back in my room, and then three more days back out in the portable during end-of-course exams for 7th grade civics and math courses. One day the system crashed again, so all my students came back to class and I had to pull a lesson plan out of my hat. 

From what I heard, the teachers who were assigned to do the testing had it worse than I did. They basically read the script each day, monitored the students on their computers, and then did it again in the afternoon. For two and a half weeks. Welcome to my nightmare.

Three weeks and a few days might not sound like much in the big scheme of a school year, but while you are in the midst of it, it seems to take for ever. Keep in mind as well that one of our testing zones was our media center, so during testing our school essentially had no media center. No book check out, no using the computers for school work (even if you could get into the lab, every mouse had been taken and used on testing laptops).

We have made the whole point of school to get students ready for testing, and then to test them, and if testing completely disrupts the educational process for weeks, so be it. 

Something has got to change.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why I Keep Cartooning

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2000: the very first strip.

Tomorrow marks 15 years since my little comic strip about teaching, Mr. Fitz, began running in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. It's hard to calculate exactly how many strips I've drawn since I have occasionally had to put re-runs in the paper, and at one point (I don't even recall when) I switched from being in the newspaper 5 times a week to 6 times a week, but I think it's reasonable to say that I've probably drawn more than 4,000 Mr. Fitz comic strips. This anniversary, like the strip itself, undoubtedly means more to me than it does to anyone else. But nonetheless, I'd like to ruminate on why I have drawn and continue to draw the strip for this long. 

Ever since I was about six years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. As I have related elsewhere, I learned to read so I could read the funnies. I grew up on Peanuts and The Wizard of Id, and when I was in high school and college, and as a young adult I had the privilege of reading Bloom County, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes first-run on the printed page. I dreamed I'd get syndicated, make lots of money, and sit around drawing cartoons all day.

Life had other plans. 

I tried a drawing a couple of other strips that ran in my hometown and college newspapers, but the syndicates weren't interested. I think maybe I didn't really have enough to say--there was no personal voice to the strip, or not enough of it. 

I ended up in teaching, and about 7 years into the profession wound up having a chance to run a comic strip in one local newspaper. I proposed a strip about teaching. I would say the rest is history, but I suspect I won't end up in any history books. In the end, the rest isn't history-- the rest is learning. I have learned a lot over the last 15 years. 

I have learned that practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes for growth. I think the writing itself was fairly sharp from the outset, but the actual visual quality of the strip--the lettering and drawing--was very uneven. Fifteen years of fine-tuning have developed my talents, and I think my drawing is a lot better now than it was. I may look back on what I do now and think it looks amateurish too, but it's still better than when I started. When I tell my students that you have to practice something a lot before you get good at it, all I need to do is show them a year-2000 strip compared to a 2015 strip to prove my point. 

I learned that sometimes, to paraphrase John Dewey, having to say something and having something to say actually go hand in hand. My great editor at Scholastic, Gloria Pipkin, once asked me if I ever suspected, back when I started the strip, that it would become so political. I had to say no. I just knew I wanted to write about the joys and frustrations of teaching in a way a general audience could enj. One frustration began to stand out among the rest--our country's obsession with standardized testing. It so was antithetical to everything I stood for as a teacher, that it just started finding its way into the strip more and more. And that's the thing-- having to come up with five or six comic strips a week means I had to say something, and saying something that often eventually leads you to find you have an awful lot to say. Over the past 15 years, I have touched not only on testing, but on student motivation, reading, writing, proofreading, scripted curricula, student "baggage," student motivation, and teacher depression, to name just a few. I have learned about my own attitudes toward teaching by drawing the strip, and I truly think it has made me a better, more thoughtful teacher. 

I've learned that you can educate people in a variety of ways, even through a newspaper comic. I've had quite a few people outside education tell me they understand what's happening in schools and in the teaching profession better because of Mr. Fitz's misadventures. 

I've learned that when you create something, you never know where your creation will lead you. The comic strip has led me, directly or indirectly, a variety of experiences: being my district's teacher of the year 11 years ago; being in contact with teachers as far away as New Zealand; receiving emails from Ray Bradbury and Lois Lowry, who both appreciated me referencing their books in the strip; having a cartoon on the cover of the magazine Voices from the Middle; being featured on The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" blog by Valerie Strauss, and writing two books for Scholastic Professional books for teachers, each containing about 100 cartoons.

I also learned that speaking up about things can either get you in trouble, or get you ignored. About halfway into the strip's run, a series in the strip got me in a little hot water, and combined with what was happening in teaching at the time, I actually went through a period of depression. I almost ended the strip. It took a long time, but I finally realized that the adage "Depression is just anger without enthusiasm" was very true in my case. I realized that I was actually very, very angry about what was happening to schools. I no longer worry about getting in trouble. Bring it on. People ask me if I ever get in any trouble for the strip, for being so pointed in it. I have to say, these days, no. And I'm actually kind of bummed about that. Drawing the strip has taken me up the ladder in the stages of moral development, from "I don't want to get in trouble" to "I follow a higher code."

I have learned that speaking up is worth it, even if you don't ever sign the "standard rich and famous" contract, as Orson Wells puts it  in The Muppet Movie. It's worth it if you get to have a positive affect on even a few people. I have had people write to me to about how the strip gets them through the day, helps them keep their sense of humor, helps them keep their sanity. I've see the strips posted in workrooms and bathrooms (such an honor!) around my district. I've been told by teachers how they've used the strips or my books in class. Perhaps most rewarding of all was when my series about Mr. Fitz's bout with depression (I think perhaps my favorite of all story-lines I've done) appeared on The Answer Sheet. The comments made me realize I'd tapped into something very real, and very deep, and that I had perhaps helped some teachers out there realize they were not alone. 

I learned that being good (and I do think I write a good strip, or I wouldn't be doing it) doesn't always mean being successful in the way the world values success. The syndicates have turned me down 4 or 5 times. I'm not generic enough, I guess, for an international market. (So why am I read in New Zealand?)

I am as capable in my darker moments of self pity as anyone. Sometimes I think, "Wow-- you haven't had a real, substantial raise as a teacher in a while. You hardly make anything off the comic strip. Everything you do is undervalued. Why are you even doing any of it?" Well, perhaps I'm capable of self-delusion as well as self-pity, but in my better moments, I realize that I really am counter-cultural: I do the things I do for their intrinsic value. I make enough to sort of scrape by, even if I'm not rich. I have appealed to people to become a Patron for Mr. Fitz on the Patreon Website, and I'm making a bit more on the strip than I used to (I'm up to $55 a month-- it helps pay for frames and pens!). Feel free to contribute. But please don't tell me, as one person did, that all I do is ask for money now. 

I guess I have decided to teach (see my last blog) till I retire in seven years, or they throw me out for being my un-standardized self. How long will I do the strip? Good question. My wife has put up with my nearly constant drawing for 15 years now, and is endlessly supportive. (Thanks, Andrea!) When I started the strip, my kids were in Kindergarten and Preschool; now they are in college and approaching high school graduation. I have drawn my way through their childhoods, which has had both its benefits and its drawbacks. But overall, I think it has enriched our lives, since the strip has also chronicled parts of our family life in a unique way. 

Jeff Bowen, I guy who went to my alma mater, Stetson University, appeared in a staged reading of a musical, Stargazers, that I co-wrote with my friend, Brett Templeton. He went on to co-write and star in a musical, title of show, that went to Broadway. Near they end of the musical, they sing a song about being happy if their play is "Nine People's Favorite Thing." In the end, I'm pretty happy if I'm nine people's favorite thing. You know, everything's a paradox: I do it for love, but let's be honest, if even 1/4 of my 4,233 fans on Facebook pledged a dollar a month--I'd probably keep drawing till I dropped. 

What I'd love to be able to do, in the end, is get back to where the strip started: writing and drawing about real teaching and learning. Sure, Big Education Reform has given me a boatload of material over the years, but my fondest dream is to finish the strip with our public schools in better shape than ever. I'd like to see us really investing in kids rather than focusing on endless rounds of useless assessments. I'd like to finish the strip by writing and drawing about the humdrum humor of everyday classroom silliness because the endless assault on our public schools is finally over. 

So who knows where this journey will end? I'm still learning, I still have things to say, the strip still serves as a form of therapy for me, and for my readers, and I'm producing it more efficiently than ever now that I type the lettering rather than drawing it by hand... So will I hit twenty years? Who knows. But I'll miss it when I stop.

In the meantime, I just went to Quality Quick Print and got copies made. 200 more empty frames just waiting to be filled.... As it says in another show, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George: "White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities."

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2015.