Friday, April 22, 2011

The Geranium on the Windowsill...

Lately I have been haunted by the words of a poem I barely remember from my early college days as an elementary education student. "The geranium on the windowsill just died and teacher you went right on..." At the time I don't really think I fully understood what those words meant. But today they keep coming back to me, a refrain that whispers to my soul without warning. I don't recall the rest of the poem and in fact, until this morning, wrongly attributed it to the Shel Silverstein book Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The words come from a collection of poems by the same title published in 1971 by teacher/author Albert Cullum. It was reprinted in 2000 and is currently out of print. While unsuccessfully searching for the words to that particular poem, I learned this about Mr. Cullum: He was an elementary teacher in the 40s, 50s and 60s who objected to teaching through the popular Dick and Jane series. Instead he used Shakespeare and other great literature to motivate his students. Mr. Cullum believed that play and learning could be combined in the classroom. His effectiveness at mastering this is evident in the documentary produced about him in 2004, A Touch of Greatness. While watching you can't help but wistfully wonder what the world would be like if we all had a Mr. Cullum in our educational past.

As an undergrad at Michigan State in the early 80s and a graduate student in Early Childhood education at Wayne State in the mid 90s, I studied developmental psychology like everyone else. I memorized Piaget and Vygotsky's stages of cognitive development, Erikson and psychosocial development, behavioral psychology by Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. I also studied systems for educating the young child ala Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (Waldorff schools) versus traditional public school. As a teacher I chose what I felt was best from each and concentrated my instruction on what worked for the particlar group of children I faced.

Nothing taught me more about early childhood education than submitting to the National Board process in 2002. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) has established a set of teaching standards that one must exemplify in order to hold the status of National Board Certified Teacher. Through a series of portfolio submissions that included not only student samples and collected documents but also videotaped lessons, I had to describe, analyze and reflect on my teaching practice in comparison to those standards. I am proud to say that my entries achieved me the designation of "accomplished teacher" and I wear my National Board status with pride. It has also inspired me to encourage others in the teaching profession to go through the process and learn what they can about their own practice.

Here I sit, eight years later, faced with the task of renewing my certification. It should be a simple task, at least no more difficult than the original. And yet it is so much more difficult in so many ways. Eight years ago I was able to use the curriculum handed to me by my district, teach it the way any good teacher does - twisting here, padding there, and stretching it a little in this or that direction. Collect the evidence; reflect on what happened, why it happened and how I would make any changes in the future and viola! Don't get me wrong, this was a very agonizing accomplishment. I spent immeasurable hours looking at my lessons from every angle imaginable, researching best practices and scrutinizing every word I wrote. Then there were decisions to make - which pieces of evidence best reflected the learning outcomes of the lessons and demonstrated my knowledge of the standards, which videotape segment showed the true essence of what my class is about. Be sure to get as much in those 15 minutes as possible. But the elements were already there for me. All I had to do was the work.

Fast forward eight years. Our curriculum has changed. We are using scripted programs for nearly every subject. Pacing charts tell us when and what to teach on any given day so that classrooms across the district are doing the same thing at approximately the same time, at least in theory. We must find time to give K - 6 students individual reading screenings 3 times a year for benchmarks and at least once every one or two weeks in between for progress monitoring. Quarterly benchmarks in reading and math (yes, the dreaded fill-in-the-bubble) for grades
1 - 12 as well as MEAP for grades 3 - 11 round off the onslaught of district-wide testing.

But it doesn't stop there. Our district has also bought into different computer based assessment programs, 2 for reading and one for math at the elementary level. We are constantly being reminded that the "powers" downtown are monitoring our use of the computer programs to determine how often we are assigning tutorials and assessments and what pass rate our students are achieving. This is in the interest of promoting increased student achievement. While true, there is also the unstated realization that the results will be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Conspicuously absent from all the data collection are uncontrollable factors such as student attendance, homelessness, poverty and language deficits.

The geranium has not only wilted but the leaves are crisp and falling to the counter below. There is no time to stop, examine the plant, make shared decisions about how to save this plant or decide whether to plant new seedlings to nurture.

Here I sit reflecting on my teaching practice as it is today, comparing it to those noble standards accomplished teachers must live up to. I feel like a fraud. Strip the letters NBCT from behind my name. I know the standards like the back of my hand. I believe in those standards; I want nothing less for my students. And yet, I sit and ponder "creating" evidence as opposed to "collecting." I contemplate introducing lessons for the sake of videotapes and documentation rather than using what comes from the natural events of our classroom. I am frenzied by the attempt to be two teachers rolled into one: the one who knows her students and does what's best for them, and the one who fulfills all the district mandates. Unfortunately there aren't enough hours in our already extended school day. So I do a little bit here, a little bit there. Make sure the assessments are current. Skip a lesson or unit if needed. Keep extensive records of those uncontrollable factors so when it comes time to defend myself I have the exalted DATA.

Yes, Mr. Cullum, the geranium on my windowsill has died, but there is no time to stop. I am already three weeks behind my pacing schedule. And the walls have eyes.

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