Archives for category: The battle for public education

We’ve had our last day of “professional development” for the nonce and that’s  good thing.  You can only take so much.  It took a little while and some kind companionship (a.k.a. complaining with colleagues) to correct  course.

What happens sometimes is that we are given an article to read that touts some new method for engaging students and fostering learning.  New methods are great and engaged students who learn is what it’s all about, so you’d think that would be helpful.  The problem is that the method is overhyped.  Always.  It’s not just an answer, it’s the answer, the be-all, end-all, slam-dunk, fool-proof, can’t-miss solution to every problem any teacher ever had.  A classroom library of wonderful books will mean that literally Not One Student will fail to learn to love reading!  Postcards of fine art (Matisse, Kahlo, Klimt) will mean that every single, solitary, disengaged, angry kid will suddenly fall in love with creative expression and analyze poetry like Ph.D!  And I mean all of them:  Jose, Marisol, Eduardo, Spike, Dylan, Natasha, Olivia, and Sven.  The postcards will transform your classroom into a thrumming hive of learning and never again will you know the doldrums.  Your students will all win Pulitzers and thank you.

It stems from a fervent wish that teaching were a science rather than an art.  A lot of bad thinking about education stems from this wish.  Standards imply that if teachers just knew what to teach, they could succeed with every kid.  Merit pay rests on the assumption that if teachers were more motivated (by money) they would succeed with every kid.  There has to be some foolproof, can’t-miss, slam-dunk way that we could make all those interchangeable non-entities called teachers do stuff that would guarantee success with every kid.

But teaching is not a science.  Parenting isn’t either, and every attempt (Dr. Spock, are you listening?) to treat it as a science ignored the essential role of loving, creative, good-humored parents.  Parents are unique.  Kids are unique.  Families are unique.  Parenting comes out of the deepest values of the mum and dad as they love their ever-changing and one-of-a-kind kid.  Sometimes that works out great.  Sometimes kids don’t get what they need or parents can’t figure out how to help their kid.  But standardizing it is the opposite of the answer.  You wouldn’t get better parenting if you offered parents bonuses for meeting some criteria or other.

By now I hope we know that if someone says to a parent with a kid with a problem, “Oh, that’s easy.  All you do is.  .  . ” they should walk away.  When someone talks like that, all it means is that their kid didn’t have the problem your kid does.  Lucky them.  Or they found a solution that worked, for a while, with that particular kid.  Again, lucky them.  You can try their idea, but you go into it with wisdom, prepared to abandon the method of it antagonizes your kid.  There are very few universals.

And so it is with teaching.  I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, lots of methods I can trot out when they seem promising, but any lesson might work with some of the kids but never all.  Or might work, mostly, with one class and fail totally with another.  What remains is my love, my excitement about learning, my faith in them as smart people who can get excited about learning, too.  Just as you only ever learn to be a parent to the kids you actually have, so you only ever learn to teach the students you’ve actually had.  Each class poses new challenges and while some of what you’ve learned may work, you’re also probably going to have to figure out all new ways to reach them.

Teachers aren’t cogs or widgets (nor are students).  Our passion, ingenuity, and love are what make the thing work.  The methods don’t mean any more than whether a family likes to read Dr. Seuss or Beatrix Potter to their kids.  It depends.

Sorry, Powers That Be.  You’re never going to help teachers do a better job until you recognize our individuality, our own creativity, our passionate motivation, and our un-bribe-able love as the heart of it all.

But yeah, it is nice to show them some Matisse.

Image result for matisse dancers


Today the New York Times had an article by Julie Bosman about an attempt in Kansas to relabel what most people call public schools as “government” schools.  So, having poisoned the word “government”, making it synonymous with authoritarian oppression, the far right now wants us to see our own schools, locally operated and governed by our neighbors, as factories of indoctrination.

Here is the article:

Public schools? To Kansas conservatives, they’re “government schools”

I wrote a response and, as usual, come up frustrated because there isn’t a forum for people who care abut education to hear from teachers.  Where do we post this stuff?  Where someone might see it, I mean?  I emailed it to the reporter and I hope she responds.

But this is the problem with blogging about education.  I’m telling myself all the things I know I think: kind of frustrating.  It’s like a message in a bottle.  I suppose, though, that it’s better than not even hoping that anybody will ever care.

So here is what I wrote in response:


A rose by any other name.

So you want to start calling the school I work in a “government school,” and at the same time express miffed surprise that I would mind that. After you’ve gone and said that “government” is a vile cancer on our freedom and you want to sell off federal lands to the highest bidder, amass great arsenals in your family rooms in case the “government” invades your town, and send your own kids to an unregulated charter school that may or may not teach science and is happy to suck public funds while seeing no need to account for any of its spending.


I prefer the term “community school.” Public schools in this country are run by local, elected citizens and foster the children of those who live in the community. They are “government” schools only to the degree that legislators who know nothing about education hand down ill-conceived notions. Yes, they are funded by taxes, like “government” police forces, or “government” fire departments, or the “government” post office. Why aren’t you out there having a fuss about “government” roads?

Public schools are, in fact, cornerstones of democracy, in conception, in execution, and in result. Our community schools are the chief means by which we ensure that all our children are prepared for the serious work of adulthood: making a living, raising a family, and participating in civic life.

And you see this as a threat to freedom?

I think we’ve got some issues with words. You say you can’t understand why, if we liberals like government so much, we would mind your designating our life’s work by a word you clearly detest. That’s like saying that if gay people are truly okay with their orientation, why would they mind if you call them any of the many, many hateful things you’ve called them? It’s not the word so much as the hatred.

So you go on and claim words to yourself, and invest them with a lot of emotion, and then claim the high ground when you offend.

I’m going to take “freedom” back from you. You use it as an excuse for selfishness. When you say freedom, what you mean is the right to have it all your way, to refuse to pay for the common good, to look after anyone’s children but your own. Your freedom is mean and spiteful, childishly selfish.

Our freedom is generous and open. It invites all to the table: all the kids, from the most challenged to the most brilliant, of any color of skin, from any family, of any belief, and we try to lead each one of those kids to curiosity and inquiry and the fulfillment of their highest potential. Community schools offer freedom from isolation, freedom from want, freedom from ignorance and blighted opportunity.

Community schools: owner-operated engines of freedom since 1821.


It is a beautiful, varied, "standards"-defying world. Photo credit:  Jason Kinnan.

It is a beautiful, varied, “standards”-defying world.
Photo credit: Jason Kinnan.

I keep meeting with smart people who believe they see benefit in establishing “standards” for what kids must learn in school.  I feel like Dave Barry’s wife, of whom he remarked about her experience in childbirth, “Would you believe, she almost completely lost her sense of humor!” So that I can quit sounding so peevish at dinner parties, here is my platform on “standards:”

  1. Kids learn at different rates, so what is a good target for one kid at a given age is inappropriate for another kid at the same age.
  2. “Standards” place intolerable pressure on kids who cannot meet them and render invisible kids who already surpass them. “Standards” inevitably aim toward the big middle. If we adopt them, we are no longer taking an interest in our best and brightest, who can already pass all the stupid, reductive bubble tests. This is no way to “compete in a global economy.”
  3. We should not be trying to standardize kids, anyway. What we want is creativity, resourcefulness, and diversity of thought and ability.
  4. Even if the standards could be made flexible enough to suit all kids (ha!), what’s the point of codifying what they need to know today when we don’t even know what problems we will face tomorrow? “Standards” are inherently ponderous and slow on their feet, unable to keep up with the rate of change.
  5. We’re never going to agree on them anyway. Either everyone already knows it, like the fact that all kids should know how to read, or people can’t agree on it. When should we teach symbolism? Comprehensive sexuality education? Global warming? The proper place to fight these battles is in communities, where there is some hope that wisdom can in time prevail, as opposed to Washington, where if you’re for it, the other side has to be against it just because.
  6. They are very, very expensive. All time and money devoted to testing is time and money away from kids learning things—billions of dollars and countless hours. Why create a sinkhole for money and expertise when both are in short supply?
  7. “Standards” presume that teachers don’t know what to teach, but they do. They always have. We don’t have a problem with teachers not knowing what kids can and should learn—we have a problem with poverty traumatizing kids to the degree that they are unable to learn it. That’s the bulls-eye of the problem and it cannot be solved with “standards.”
  8. By allowing “standards” to be foisted upon us, we allow the presumption (#6 above) to stand. We devote enormous time and money (#5) to identify all those putative horrid failing teachers rather than asking them what they need to do the job better.

Standards are worse than useless. They are actively hostile to teachers and their work.

Instead of bogus, artificially imposed, conformist benchmarks, we need to cultivate the best and highest in every single person.

Each person, highest potential. EP, HP.

Each person, highest potential.

Each person, highest potential.


Now I'll go back to my trashcan and try to cheer up.

Now I’ll go back to my trashcan and regain my usual cheery disposition.

Teachers need and ask for more time, which is one reason why we rejoice when we have a snow day. Yes, there’s some extra sleep in it for us, but what it really means is that we have a few extra hours in which to get the grading and prep done. There is more of this than layfolk may believe.

A former student of mine is now a teacher in my building. She is having to force herself to take off one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday. I would estimate that she spends two or three times as much time planning and grading as she does in front of her students, which is 4 and a half hours per day. In addition to the 90 minutes of plan time she has per day, she puts in 3+ hours after school and 6+ hours each weekend day. At this rate, she will burn out.

I’ve been doing this for a long while and the longer I teach, the more efficient my use of time. It used to take me a half hour to grade each paper, back when I was unclear on what the kids were likely to master or find challenging and when it was harder for me to put what I wanted to tell them into words. Now it takes me about 10 minutes for a good paper and 15 or 20 for a bad one. So let’s say I have 25 kids per class. Each time I collect papers, that means

25 x 15 (average amount of time per paper) = 6 ¼ hours x 3 classes = 18 ¾ hours

That’s in addition to my contracted hours, plus meetings (faculty and department), clubs and activities, extra help for kids after school, and all the rest.

And that’s just the papers. There is also all the other work that needs to be graded (quizzes, classwork, projects, etc.). And that’s not even glancing at the time I need to prepare lessons—and no, I don’t recycle them from year to year. It’s far more effective to make up lessons with these particular kids in mind.

And don’t forget college recommendations. And helping them with their college essays. And reading their poetry and short stories, which they’d like to share out of pure exuberance at loving to write.

Does this strike you as a complaint? It isn’t. I love my work and see the grading and preparing as an integral part of it. It’s a fact that, no matter how long you do it or how efficient you get, teaching is a labor-intensive art, requiring enormous skill and oodles of time out of the classroom.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

Time in the classroom is only the tip.

TIME is what we could give teachers that would help to make them more effective. Not money. Merit pay is a stupid idea that works absolutely nowhere—and it’s been tried many times and in many places. Merit pay posits that money is the main motivation for all people and that teachers aren’t trying as hard as they would if you dangled a bonus in front of them. Both assumptions are wrong.

No, what we need is time: days in the building, built in days for which we could plan, when we could collaborate, plan units together, meet with kids, catch up on grading, college recs, etc. We ask and ask and ask, but generally, it seems that to mollify crankypants columnists and their ilk, administrators feel constrained to fill what little time there is with more responsibilities.

There should be designated days, built in to the calendar at regular intervals, for teacher collaboration and planning, for assessment, and for meeting with kids who need extra help. The suggestion that we use snow days, which happen rarely if at all, for that crucial work shows how little it is actually valued.

Not England, but corporate interests.  Not nations, but public school districts.

Not England, but corporate interests. Not nations, but public school districts.

This will be a long post.

The Common Core State Standards promise to revolutionize education and their arguments are crafted so as to appear plausible.  They appeal to a kind of knee-jerk instinct that something is terribly wrong with our public schools (false) and that a simple clarification of what we ought to be teaching will fix them (because complicated systems always have simple solutions?).

To get a sense of the depth of nonsense, you really have to see what it’s all about. I transcribed the video from their website, which appears to have been replaced with a dialectic between “Eddie”, who wants to invent a time machine, and an unnamed woman who wants him to be prepared for the future.  The video I transcribed had that kind of drawing hand animation, someone with a marker and a whiteboard making Ken Robinson-esque line drawings as the voice-over informs you.

My transcript and commentary:

 Like it or not, life is full of measuring sticks. How smart we are, how fast we are, how well we can, you know, compete.

Wait, what? Life is absolutely not full of measuring sticks unless someone imposes them. We grow as tall as we’re going to get whether anyone measures us or not. And whether we’re competing or not, and whether we’re winning or not, we all have to make a living and get along. A much better point is that no matter what you try to do, someone comes at you with a measuring stick and tries to derange you—and when they do, you’d better ask on what authority they claim to know how you ought to measure up.

 But up until now it’s been pretty hard to tell how well kids are competing in school, and how well they’re going to do when they get out of school.

So no attempt to hearken to the good old days, which is interesting in itself—this group doesn’t even pretend to believe that any of our schools has ever done a good job. But I’d like someone to explain how stacking kids up against any measuring stick now is going to tell you jack about how well they’re going to do when they get out of school. In fact, Bill Gates, one of the agents of Common Core, never had much truck with formal schooling for himself, and look how he turned out by his own standards. I’d love to know what the PARCC would have foretold for him.

 We like to think our education system does that,

No, we don’t. It’s worse than useless to inform kids they’ve already failed at life—or that they’re superior to their peers.

 but when it comes to learning what they really need to be successful after graduation, is a girl in your neighborhood being taught as much as her friend over in the next one? Is a graduating senior in, say, St. Louis, as prepared to get a job as a graduate in Shanghai?

Who cares?! For one thing, no one will ever be able to discern what anyone will need to be successful after graduation, for the world and its needs change. A better way is to foster the best in each kid, which will inevitably and gloriously vary from kid to kid. And what the heck about competing with a Shanghai grad for a job? What job? Does the kid want that job? Is it available to her in Dubuque? Whoever wrote this drivel seems to believe that

  1. all kids are the same
  2. all jobs are the same and equally available to all kids.


Well it turns out the answer to both these questions is NO. Because for years states have been setting different standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level.

How shocking is that! One thing we absolutely must not have is diversity! Down with creativity, local decision-making, local economies, local cultures.

Also note the confusion with “setting standards” and getting kids to meet them. How about if we say all kids must be geniuses when they graduate from high school. Now that’s a nice, high standard, and what a great thing it would be if we could meet it! But we can’t. We never will and that’s not defeatism. This whole standards thing is a massive confusion between wishes and reality, as if wishing would make it all come true.

 That’s making it too hard to know if our kids are doing well enough over all—and if they can really compete for a job someday.


Which kids? Which jobs? What economy?!

Note: if you were to have devised “standards” in 1995, you would have missed the little thing called “the internet”—and all your devious planning for what kids must know to be successful would have been wasted effort. So why are we so sure that we know what’s around the corner?

Furthermore, note how they don’t even try to tip their hat to the fact that school is about more than jobs. What about stuff kids might want to know to make informed decisions as citizens? What about art, music, and literature: all disciplines that grace our lives whether we make any money from them or not? How did school become synonymous with vocational training rather than education?

 What we really need are clear goals. That’s where the Common Core State Standards come in. They’re like a total sea change in education: consistent, strong , clear benchmarks for English/Language arts and math.

Because teachers don’t already know what to teach? A total sea change?! You mean nobody has had clue 1 about what to do with their classes up til now?


Here’s how it works. You can think of kindergarten through 12th grade like a giant staircase. Each step is a skill your child needs to learn before stepping up to the next one. But right now, too many kids are not confident with, like, 2+2 before they have to move on to 2×2 . We need more focus on the skills that help them move up the stairs or they can slip up and fall behind.

Do these people know anything about kids, intellectual development, or teaching? In some disciplines there are foundational skills that must be mastered before you can go on, but learning tends to resist being restricted to 2 dimensions. Kids learn differently, at different rates and times. It is absurd and dangerous to insist they’re all going to learn the same things at the same ages. They won’t. But you sure can traumatize them into thinking they should which does nothing but harm.

 And there’s another problem. What if everyone’s stairs were made of different heights?   Well here we go again. They are. So. A boy in Seattle who’s rocking an A in English literature could be getting a C on his Chicago friend’s staircase. Oops. We need to create consistent steps in education, too. So first each standard creates a landing on the staircase , a stop along the way as your child heads to high school graduation. Each stop is a chance for every parent and teacher to focus on the skills their students are supposed to know at that step no matter the zip code, language, or race, and more importantly, each standard makes sure all students are learning what they need to know to get to graduation and beyond. Because something like counting to a hundred leads to understanding dollars and cents which eventually leads to understanding how to balance a budget.

Note the attempt to clothe conformity and obedience to authority as liberation from discrimination.

Some kids understand dollars and cents before they can count to a hundred and others understand all that and still can’t balance a budget: just ask any number of larcenous charter school administrators.

We DON’T know what they will need to know in their lives. We never have.

We DON’T know how to present information and concepts so all kids will learn them. We never have.

We CAN’T and mustn’t standardize kids. We never have and we never will and that’s a good thing.

 Secondly, the standards are consistent from school to school and they match up against international standards too . Now we know how we’re doing compared to just about everyone.

Why is this desirable? Why the mania for comparison and competition? We are not all the same and we are not all destined for the same work. Shouldn’t we foster diversity of talents and skills instead, so that no matter what the future brings, we’ve got someone who can help us find a way to meet it?

 So even though local communities will still design their own curriculum, with the same rules, everybody can compete on the same kind of staircase. But standards aren’t learning.

They got that right. Standards aren’t learning: they’re opposed to that kind of free, open inquiry.  But also note the anxiety about having overstepped federal authority and removed local control from districts, which in fact Common Core does do.  We can all design our own curriculum, but it sure better lead to the right scores on their tests– which is the hidden engine by which all this will be bludgeoned onto us.

 That’s why we need teachers, parents, and students to help make that happen. By working together to help kids meet these standards.

I don’t want them to meet these arbitrary and absurd standards. I want each kid to reach his or her highest potential.

If a kid is way below the “standard,” you have to work with him where he is. If a kid is way above the “standard,” you still have to help her move forward. “Standards” are arbitrary constructs, but all kids need to learn.

 The world’s getting more and more competitive every day. But now, when our kids get to the top of our staircase, they can have way more options of where their life goes from there.

How is that possible, when you have so confined the curriculum and the kids to something you determined in a windowless room ahead of time, heedless of what the world would need by the time the kids graduated? Standards actively close down options.

 Clear goals, confident, well-prepared students. That’s the Common Core State Standards.


Gee, thanks. A colossal waste of money and student talent, creativity, resourcefulness, and inquiry. It’s intellectual colonialism by those think THEY know better. THEY are here to impose THEIR superiority on all. THEY will ridicule everything we have done up until now. THEY have airtight logic (by THEIR own standards) with which we cannot argue, for THEY have already dismissed everything we have to say without the formality of listening to it. THEY have the money, the will, the resources to shove THEIR goals down our throats. And THEY will ask us to thank THEM for the destruction that will ensue.

That’s the Common Core State Standards.



Back in the fall, someone I know had a piece published in the NYTimes magazine featuring Eva Moskowitz, the head of Success Academies Charter Schools.  I wrote him a letter, received a response, and this is what I replied to that.  It sums up my feelings about what will work with kids who are failing to thrive academically.

I’ve been putting off writing you back to consider carefully what matters to be said. Probably not much. As you say, you’ve arrived at your conclusions and you aren’t engaging with me to the degree of answering the points I raised. I appreciate your kind words very much. I dislike this adversarial conversation. I still find it difficult to believe that you disagree with me.

The one part where we agree completely is that something must be done about kids with blighted hopes and futures. It seems obvious to me that that something is smaller classes, caring teachers, and plenty of arts and fascinating digressions. The education you chose for your kids is a pattern for all kids. I cannot understand how focusing on test scores and intense discipline is going to help anybody. Stress and pressure do not enhance learning, they impede it.

As for seeing Eva Moskowitz as a lightning rod. . . Public schools are under assault and have no means to defend themselves. Someone who throws rocks through your windows and makes money doing it is not what I’d call a lightning rod.

So that’s another thing that troubles me. Your piece was very far from objective, yet somehow you have the privilege of getting your opinions published. The voice consistently absent from these discussions is career teachers’. Our public education system is for the most part splendid—we do beautiful work except in areas of concentrated poverty. We would do even better if anyone would listen to what teachers know kids and schools need. But instead, some well-intended, impatient people and others who seek profit and some kind of libertarian extinguishing of all government institutions sweep in and declare themselves experts and ignore everything those of us who actually do the job have learned. I hope you read the New Yorker piece about Zuckerberg’s attempt to save Newark’s schools.

I’m sorry, but I am grieved by where you have landed in this debate and I believe you will regret your support for this woman and those groups. In teaching and learning, as in parenting and raising children, there are no shortcuts. We know exactly what works for kids and it’s consistent worldwide and throughout history. Safe, loving, rich environments foster intellectually curious, confident, able kids. You just can’t browbeat someone into being educated. Kids with the least need the most. If Success Academies are achieving, it’s because they are spending more and providing a richer environment with higher teacher:student ratios. It is then utterly unjust to blame the co-habiting public school for not having hedge fund benefactors.

It’s fine with me if you want to let our discussion drop here. I hate the saying “agree to disagree” because we don’t in fact agree, not probably even on disagreeing. Nevertheless, I think we’ve probably said as much to one another as is fruitful and, I hope, respectful and painless. I know I will be glad to shake your hand next time I see you.

I’m still learning how to write letters like this.  I can get cranky and start to yell, as it were.  That does nothing to open anyone’s mind.  Yet how to stay open when you’re dealing with someone who has it all wrong, as you believe?  Not easy.


It probably doesn't do any good, but it's better than a metaphorical asp.

It probably doesn’t do any good, but it’s better than a metaphorical asp.



Yesterday some fellow teachers and I traveled to Lehigh University to see the indomitable Diane Ravitch.  It had been conceived as a debate between her and Michelle Rhee, but Michelle, having agreed to the date, punted when unable to comply with the conditions she herself imposed.

Diane called protecting public schools “the civil rights issue of our time.”  She named eight steps to that imperative:

1.  Prenatal care for all expectant mothers.  We are 134th of 180 nations in the number of our mothers who receive prenatal care, on par with Somalia.

2.  Early childhood education, starting at age 3.  This has been shown to have profound and long-lasting effects on kids’ ability to learn.  We rank 24th out of 45 nations in our availability of early childhood education.

3.  Reduce class sizes to 20 or fewer students, especially for younger children and especially for poorer or disabled children.

4.  Provide a full, rich, well-rounded curriculum for all kids.  Put the arts first, not last.  Learning to play a musical instrument ought to be an encouraged option for all kids:  it teaches discipline, perseverance, and harmony with others.

5.  Raise the standards for preparation for teachers.  Nobody should get to be a principal without ten years of teaching experience.  Teaching is not for resume builders.

6.  Allow teachers to teach more and test less.  What tests there must be should be written and graded by teachers, so they can have information about how well the kids are learning what they’ve taught.

7.  Adequately fund all schools so they can have librarians, nurses, guidance counselors and all the other necessary staff that makes a school into a community that can serve the needs of kids.

8.  Ban for-profit charters.

The saddest part was when she pointed out that finding common ground with those who advocate vouchers, charters, and what they call “choice” is impossible until we can agree on the facts.

  • our public schools are not failing.  Our scores are up (not that this is such an accurate measure of our achievement), our graduation rates are up, more kids are going to college than ever before.
  • merit pay is a “zombie” idea:  it never works and never dies.
  • we impose many restrictions, laws, and requirements on public schools because we say they are necessary and important, but we allow charters to operate free of those restrictions.  There is a double standard.
  • kids are not widgets.
  • teachers are not the reason kids are poor.
  • tenure does not mean lifetime security for bad teachers:  districts with tenure outperform those without it.
  • standardized testing encourages conformity and discourages creativity, resourcefulness, initiative, and the love of learning.
  • nobody has a quick-fix, easy answer.  If they did, we’d be doing it by now.
  • nobody should be getting rich off of taxpayer dollars.

“Reformers” often care deeply about kids’ lives.  They then turn on the very people who have been working to help those kids and blame them, thinking that they, who have very little experience in schools, will be able to find The Answer.  It’s understandable, but naive, arrogant, and insulting– and a distraction from the hard work that will actually make a difference.

Thank you to Diane for all her hard work and clear insight.

So strap your bones right to the seat Come on in and don't be shy — Just to make your day complete You might get baked into a pie

So strap your bones right to the seat
Come on in and don’t be shy —
Just to make your day complete
You might get baked into a pie

Somehow I missed this entirely—my kids were too old and I wasn’t watching kids’ TV in these years. Lily Tomlin was Miss Frizzle! To me she will always be Edith Ann and Ernestine.

And that's the truthhhh.

And that’s the truthhhh.

But as I talked along in class on Friday about how my new class has my number (one kid said something like, “This isn’t really about English at all. You are not doing the hard sell on poems and stories and all that. This is about making us better people- and I like it.” They are so onto me), period 4 totted up my role models: Mary Poppins, Maria Von Trapp, and Miss Frizzle—but I’d never heard of her. So I pulled up an episode on YouTube and there they were, transformed into bees, with their proboscises (probosces?) sipping nectar and turning it into honey and solving their problems and there was Miss F. cracking wise with one awful pun after another.

So yeah, The Magic School Bus is IT. That is what we teachers are all trying to do. Or jumping into chalk drawings in the sidewalk

Prepare to jump.

Prepare to jump.

or dancing around Salzburg singing in harmony.

Now that's a classroom.

Now that’s a classroom.

But these days I observe that lawmakers appear to be driving the Magic Schoolbus off the cliff of test scores. How can we turn it around so we’re back doing what we ought to be doing: leading daring expeditions into the unknown?

You said it, Frizzle.

You said it, Frizzle.


We are at the time of year, heading into first semester exams, that teachers are asking themselves what on earth, of all the multitudes of gems we’ve showered upon our students, they will take away.


WARNING: do not ask them this question.


They may well not know. They might shrug their shoulders and cast their minds back to try to find something to make you feel better. Or they might lash out and catalogue your iniquities (all of them committed in innocence). Neither they nor their teachers can yet know what has been taught, what has been learned. Whatever we test at this point may or may not stick. Many things we’ve tried to tell them may still be seeping down into their sinews and veins.

It’s a little like asking a garden, what did I plant?


Oh, it's planted.

Oh, it’s planted.

Nothing shows yet. Even if something has begun to grow, it doesn’t look like much.

Watch this space!

Watch this space!


I couldn’t have told you what my best and most influential teachers had taught me as their courses ended. I couldn’t have known.

There is a line of mature oaks outside my classroom window. I continue to be grateful for those who planted them. They’re taller than the second story roof. They began as green loops in the soil. What did the passersby think of them when they were a quarter of an inch tall? Not much.

All we can do is throw out handfuls of good seeds and prepare the ground as well as we’re able. It’s up to the kids to do the rest.  After all, it’s human nature to learn (and also human nature to be impatient and fussy and feel it’s not getting what it wants).

You have to wait.

You have to wait.

Another thing I learned again yesterday is that linear learning is a myth. Chris told me that many of his students have asked for a way to learn the theory of music step by step—a linear unfolding of the concepts that underlie music. But there can never be a step by step route to this understanding, for it’s an interlocking system. We don’t learn step by step: we learn by crystallization or puzzling. Something falls into place and makes sense to us, and then that fact or concept will attract other related ideas, like when we were kids and made rock candy and the sugar crystals formed on the string.

You have to be patient.

You have to be patient.

Or it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, where you get the edges roughed in and something in the middle starts to grow. How foolish to try to do the puzzle by starting at the bottom row and work left to right, one piece at a time!

Haphazard is the only way.

Haphazard is the only way.


Another bit from Alan Watts (from The Book:  On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are):


Apart from such human artifacts as buildings and roads (especially Roman and American roads), our universe, including ourselves, is thoroughly wiggly. Its features are wiggly in both shape and conduct. Clouds, mountains, plants, rivers, animals, coastlines—all wiggle. They wiggle so much and in so many different ways that no one can really make out where one wiggle begins and another ends, whether in space or in tie. Some French classicist of the eighteenth century complained that the Creator had seriously fallen down on the job by failing to arrange the stars with any elegant symmetry, for they seem to be sprayed through space like the droplets from a breaking wave. Is all this one thing wiggling in many different ways, or many things wiggling on their own? Are there “things” that wiggle or are the wigglings the same as the things? It depends upon how you figure it.

Millenia ago, some genius discovered that such wiggles as fish and rabbits could be caught in nets. Much later, some other genius thought of catching the world in a net. By itself, the world goes something like this:





But now look at this wiggle through a net:


The wiggle is in jail.

The wiggle is in jail.

The net has “cut” the big wiggle into little wiggles, all contained in squares of the same size. Order has been imposed on chaos. We can now say that the wiggle goes so many squares to the left, so many to the right, so many up, or so many down, and at last we have its number. Centuries later, the same image of the net was imposed upon the world as the lines of both celestial and terrestrial latitude and longitude, as graph paper for potting mathematical wiggles, as pigeonholes for filing, and as the ground plan for cities. The net has thus become one of the presiding images of human thought. But it is always an image, and just as no one can use the equator to tie up a package, the real wiggly world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.


This reminds me of “Whoso List to Hunt” by Sir Thomas Wyatt, said to be composed for Anne Boleyn:


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

But as for me, hélas, I may no more.

The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,

I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind

Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore

Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,

Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I may spend his time in vain.

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written, her fair neck round about:

Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.


A deer, a woman, the wind, true understanding: hard to capture with any net, particularly imaginary ones.

Yet this is precisely what standardized tests aim to do and to enforce. They are imaginary nets, grids and graphs for the wide world.

Anyway, I’m going to go on jigsaw puzzling and growing rock candy comprehension. We beginners always wish it wouldn’t take so long, but that’s the way it works.


100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

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