Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dear Allentown School Board: Art Adds Real Value to Curriculum

Elementary Art Lesson: Tar Beach Cityscape

Here is an example of an art lesson that is interdisciplinary (reinforces concepts children learn in math, history, science, reading), and adds so much more because there are countless benefits that are specific to the arts. This is how professional certified art teachers add value to the school curriculum. This is how certified art teachers teach across the curriculum so students can make connections to other subject areas, and to their own lives. This lesson engages and motivates children, it is ACADEMIC, and also fun. Sequential art classes, along with music, physical education, and library, have been nearly eliminated from the Allentown School District curriculum.

The education reformers and politicians who are mandating more "rigorous" (awful word) standards, common core (college and career ready) alignment, more testing, scripted lessons, and uniformity do not understand how children learn. The business men and billionaires who influence education policy are not teachers. Bill Gates has no teaching credentials. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has no teaching credentials. There is no evidence that common core standards, increased testing, and corporate reforms improve learning. School board directors who approve cuts to arts programs should be made aware of the real connections between art and learning. I guess I need to spell it out, since so many people just don't get it and continue to view the arts as a frill.

This lesson can be adapted to any age. I've taught it to students ages 4-15. This lesson is inspired by the book Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold. She is an artist and a writer. She writes about her own life experiences. She grew up in New York City. Allentown kids can relate to NYC, because some of them were born there, or have relatives who live there.

This lesson connects with literature, careers, architecture, culture, science, history, mathematics, elements of design, art history, geography, vocabulary, and community. I ask the children, "can you name a skyscraper right here in Allentown?"
Connecting to community is important, but with a scripted and standardized curriculum there is little opportunity to talk about The Allentown Fair, Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage, or anything else that makes our community unique.

Here is a breakdown of concepts learned:

Math: The difference between 2-d and 3-d, shapes-rectangles, etc., forms, angles
Geography: NYC, George Washington Bridge, Hudson River
Architecture: skyscraper, factory, apartment building, etc.
Science: night time, phases of the moon, stars, clouds
Literature: The book Tar Beach is part of the lesson
Art History: Faith Ringgold
History: story takes place in 1940's, what life was like back then
Elements of design- overlapping, perspective, color, line, shape, emphasis, shading
Careers: artist, writer, illustrator, construction worker
Community and Culture: family, neighbors, PPL, city life, Allentown
Vocabulary: cityscape, 2 dimensional, 3 dimensional, black tar, foreground, background

And don't forget: art appreciation, critical thinking and problem solving skills, fine motor skills, social skills (sharing, working together, discovering common interests, appreciation for diversity), self-awareness, imagination and creativity, joy, sense of accomplishment.

I teach the drawing part step by step, starting with basic shapes and lines, so each student can be successful. I tell them if they can draw simple shapes and lines, then they can draw anything. Many children have low self esteem, and because of teacher cuts, very little instruction in drawing.

So, is art just an educational frill? Art IS a core subject area, as mandated by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is the kind of high quality education we are losing in Allentown, because of budget cuts, misguided reforms, mismanagement of funds, and short sighted decisions by our school board. All school board directors voted to approve cuts to the arts and teacher layoffs. Not one director stood on principle. They even approved hiring more administrators, who will be paid more than double the salary of a teacher.

How can we celebrate a $15.4 million dollar expansion to our art museum while our children are being denied experiences in the arts and equal opportunities to discover their talents at school? How can we celebrate the arts in Allentown while our school budgets are slashed, school buildings crumble, and class size explodes? It is clear that our children are not a priority. Our arts community (artists, patrons, business leaders, board members, institutions, commissions, and councils) should be ashamed. But instead, they celebrate with wine and cheese. I am not celebrating. There should be equality in arts education. Our children in Allentown should enjoy the same well rounded, arts enriched public education that the Parkland SD kids enjoy. The arts should not be reserved for the wealthy. Our political leaders, business leaders, and arts community have all failed.

pictured: 5th grade student work using crayons and oil pastels on blue construction paper.

(This post was updated on 10/28/11)

UPDATE 3/8/13-  There are now plans proposed to eliminate all related arts specialists in the ASD elementary schools, with the exception of 4 music teachers, 50% reduction in related arts at the middle schools, and reduction of arts at the high schools. 144 total lay offs planned, on top of loss of over 210 positions 2 years ago. This is a crime and injustice. Speak up! Our children are being denied equal opportunities in the arts and robbed of a quality education. Narrowing of curricula to focus only on standardized tests, does not prepare students for college or life! New career focused charter schools are just job training, and these fads are short sighted and misguided. Skills learned in art class prepare students for any job, and beyond.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scripted Lessons: We Must Standardize and Align!

One of the reasons why I write this blog is to inform people about what's really going on in our public schools. I am a former Allentown School District art teacher. I held a contracted teaching position for seven years, but I left my job in 2001 to be a stay at home mom. I am currently teaching art classes part time at a private art school, and subbing day to day in area public schools. There are no full time jobs for public school art teachers right now, so my chances of securing a job look kinda grim. Many art teachers have been laid off due to budget cuts. Because I want to teach (that's what I know how to do and it's an important job), I have no choice but to sub. I like urban kids, and I have experience working with the neediest of kids. I believe these kids deserve a high quality art education, just like the private school kids. My certification is in art, but I have been subbing for mostly elementary ed classrooms, learning support, ESOL, autistic, life skills, special ed, and kindergarten. It is challenging, but it has been eye-opening because I get to see what's going on across the district. What frightens me the most is the standardized and scripted curriculum that teachers now must follow. It's Orwellian and creepy.

When I left teaching in 2001, when NCLB started, teachers were still able to be creative and they had the freedom to design their own lessons. I have a lot of experience working with classroom teachers on interdisciplinary lessons-- adding value and meaning to learning by teaching across the curriculum and making connections to all subjects studied. And I have experience writing developmentally appropriate lessons. But things are much different now. Teachers must follow scripted lesson plans from manuals. These lessons are "aligned" (our Zuperintendent's favorite word) with standards mandated by bureaucrats. The standards are aligned to the PSSA test. No matter how the administrators frame it for maximum turd polishing effect, it's still teaching to the test. The current standards movement focuses on uniformity instead of quality in order to ensure teaching consistency across each grade level. I really can't stand the prepackaged reading program. It's insulting to teachers and students. It's boring, mediocre, and does not connect to the urban child's life. The administrators want to micro-manage every aspect of education, as if a learning environment is a business.

Speaking of micro-management, the scripted teacher's manual directs the teacher step by step on what to say to students, when to say it, where to point, how to teach, as if teachers are morons who can't make decisions. I get a headache just looking at the pages and trying to follow the over-complicated script, when I should be focusing on looking at the kids. And those kids are usually distracted by runny noses, hunger, belts or shoelaces that need to be done, clothing that is too hot, other students, headaches and toothaches, questions, comments about stuff they like, playing with little pieces of tape or posted notes or pencils or markers or whiteboards or anything they can grab to keep themselves entertained. They seem to always need to sharpen pencils, get a drink, get a tissue, use the bathroom, or go to the nurse as an escape. They are fidgety, unfocused, disinterested, and bored. And I think I would be too if I were a kid. We had playtime, pretend time, dress up, show and tell, and drama when I was in kindergarten. Now kids must learn how to read, write, and take tests at age five, even if they are not developmentally ready.

Most kids are curious, sweet, and they want to learn, but the scripted lessons do not seem appropriate for all kids. And I'm not a robot, I'm a teacher. I know what to say to my students because I interact with children on a daily basis, and because I am an educated, trained, and seasoned professional. In addition to the boring lessons, there are piles and piles of scripted worksheets for students to complete. There was a time when teachers made their own worksheets. The scripted lessons include monosyllabic stories like "arf the shark" that are really dumb and boring (a shark that barks like a dog). Why not ask the kids to come up with their own characters using similar sounding words? Or to put on a play (young children love to pretend). Almost forgot, experimentation is verboten. Ditto fun. Ditto creativity. Experimentation cannot be neatly "aligned" or measured to create data that makes the bureaucrats look good on paper. And forget about those "teachable moments." With timed and scripted lessons, there is no time for impromptu conversation or questions that may be out of sync.

Scripted instruction, standards aligned systems, value added assessments, increased testing, rigor (what does this mean?), concentric circles, teacher accountability, focus on college readiness, and other education "reform" mumbo jumbo will not improve learning. If the bogus state test scores improve, it will be the result of endless hours of scripted instruction, drilling, pre-testing, and teaching to the test. This is not an indicator of real learning. Where is the value in regurgitating meaningless facts on a bubble test? But higher test scores make the bureaucrats look like their methods are working. Scary stuff.

The scripted and standardized method of teaching contradicts everything I learned about teaching and meeting the needs of all students. It goes against my principles and values. As a sub, I must follow the script (I try to make it fun) but I believe it is wrong to impose these lousy conditions on children as young as five years old. And it's wrong to impose these dreadful work conditions on talented and effective teachers. What about personal teaching style? How you teach is just as important as what you teach. Urban students need to be able to make connections to their lives and the real world where things are not always so "aligned." Shit happens. Children are not data points. Each child is unique, with a unique learning style. They need to be allowed to be children. In my next post I will present an example of teaching across the curriculum through art. An art lesson is a lesson in life. And it's what kids need in order to find meaning in their own lives, and when that happens, that's when they'll want to stay in school and graduate.

Speaking of "alignment," it really bugs me to read news that our clueless Zchool board has uniformly approved the hiring of another over paid administrator. This is happening while 249 teaching positions are being eliminated. Joyce Marin, the former Allentown Community and Economic Development Director who resigned and moved to Spain has apparently returned, and there was a position created just for her. Joyce has an MBA in Finance, not Education. But she will be in charge of "aligning" after school arts activities, and other enrichment programs for ASD students. That's right, we must be all "aligned" with school and community! We must keep it all symmetrical, because that's how a business is run! So, as highly qualified arts educators who have formed bonds with ASD students lose their jobs, Ms. Marin will be starting her new job coordinating after school art programs for kids, at more than double the salary of a teacher. Joyce may be effective in her work with community groups, but education is a specialized field. Someone with a background in education and specifically working with urban kids should have gotten that position. But wait, is the position even needed? Teachers know how to run after school programs. This aligned corporatization of public education will fail, at the expense of our children. Our elected leaders are clueless. And funding for education should be the last thing to be cut from any state's budget.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culture Ignorance & Education Reform

"Art is another thing that is not needed in schools. Parents can color, draw, and make things with their kids at home. Kids also run around and play enough after school, they don't need to do it in school in gym. School is for learning." Josie1 (Source: Morning Call online comment forum)

Really? I guess Josie isn't aware of extensive research that shows the arts help increase test scores in the core subjects, or that the arts teach critical thinking skills, or that subjects like Math, Social Studies, and Science, can be taught through art to make learning more meaningful to students. And I could go on and on about the educational value of the arts. But why do I have to? Wow. Are people really so ignorant that they cannot see a connection between art and learning? What's really frightening is that Josie will pass on her stupidity to her children. And chances are her kids will never get the opportunity to learn about Leonardo DaVinci, or Picasso, or any other artist since art has probably been cut from
the curriculum at their school. So, the cycle of stupid continues. This kind of culture ignorance coupled with the current corporate ed reform movement, ( which focuses on standardized testing while narrowing curricula), go together like peanut butter and jelly. A standards aligned sandwich (SAS). The policy makers are counting on people like Josie because an uneducated citizenry is less likely to question authority and more likely to conform.

Does the average American see any value in public education other than it being essential to securing a job? Is making money the only goal? The current test driven education policy, mandated by politicians, will only prepare students for minimum wage or low paying service jobs. Why should the arts and higher order thinking be reserved only for those children who can afford to attend private school?

Chris Hedges has written a must read piece about the current state of education :

He makes the case that we are a nation that is destroying its systems of education and demonizing teachers.
He writes:

"Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out.

I completely agree with him, but I think there is something else that is part of the whole picture- our current American values have had an impact on student learning. These fine values include computer and social media addictions, self absorption, impact of 24 hr. fake news, elevation of mediocrity, reality T.V., lack of empathy, celebrity obsession and worship, extreme consumerism, extreme income disparity, greed, lying and cheating, no interest in history or community, and general meanness. The dumbing down of America compliments the cold corporate takeover of our education system. The minions of Josies are ready and willing to obey.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Allentown Needs a Pathway Out of Child Poverty

The problem of child poverty in Allentown must be fixed before students can even begin to think about learning or attending college. In 2009 the number of children below poverty level in Allentown was 43.8% and climbing. The state average is 16.8%. CBS's 60 Minutes recently reported that the national child poverty rate is now 25%, which is shameful, but in Allentown there are nearly twice as many hungry and needy children than the national average. Over 85% of ASD students are low income and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. And because that number is so high, lunch and breakfast are now free to all students.

Plans to overhaul the entire school program in order to focus on a "core curriculum" will not improve student learning outcomes because such plans do not address fixing poverty first. In fact, Dr. Z's "Pathways to Success" which has the approval of a clueless school board will actually harm ASD students who need more authentic learning experiences, more arts programs, not more teaching to the test. Z's standards are aligned to the PSSA test, not to the needs of the ASD children. Z's an experienced policy maker, and he wrote the testing and assessment programs/standards for the state. The Allentown teachers know their students. These teachers are trained professionals. They should have a say in matters of curriculum development.

The district has focused too much on college readiness (Allentown Promise, Collegiate High, dual enrollment classes) when they should be focusing on meeting the immediate needs of the young students through early childhood and elementary school programs. By re-assigning well respected principals and laying off effective early childhood and elementary teachers, the district is breaking important bonds formed between educators, students, and community. This promises to have disastrous results.

Have Allentown's leaders actually looked into the eyes of the ASD children and assessed the baggage these kids bring to school with them everyday? Where's the data on that? Have our leaders examined the dirty clothing, the skin rashes, the lice, even the roaches, that the kids bring to school? Has Dr. Z analyzed the odor of feces or urine on children who have not been bathed? Has he quantified how many children are misbehaving just to get negative attention, or how many children steal from the teacher's desk when her back is turned? Has Dr. Z developed a pathway for the five year old child who complains of a belly ache at 11am because he is starving? What's his vision for the fidgety kid who falls out of his seat because he is denied recess and must sit for most of the school day? What assessment model is used to evaluate the parents who never check their child's homework folder or attend parent/teacher conferences? Some kids feel embarrassed and have very low self esteem and they often cry. Some don't know how to share or say nice things. Some are so angry they overturn desks and throw chairs (like in my classroom yesterday). Some need constant approval. Some are chronically absent and perform way below grade level. Some 5th graders are exhausted from having to take care of younger siblings while mom works 2 jobs. How are we dealing with the gang problem in middle and high schools? And these kids are expected to focus on learning.

We must put an end to the experimental corporate-ed reform mumbo jumbo, the test and data driven policies, the unrealistic visions and metaphors, and start focusing on reaching the neediest children, instead of punishing them. Teachers don't need more "value added" testing to measure growth of their students, they have always done formative assessments of students on a daily basis. Just ask the person in front of the class how the kids are doing (and it won't cost any money, Dr. Z). Teachers are professionals and they know their students. Too much money is wasted on gimmicks like the PSSA pep rally, hiring outside consultants, data collecting, and testing.

In our great USA, teachers are being demonized as "greedy" for making 50k a year, while the Wall Street robber barons who caused a global economic crisis continue to get their mega-million dollar bonuses and no jail time. These CEOs aren't punished, there's no reform and no regulations, and yet teachers across the country are losing their jobs, and the child poverty rate climbs. God help us if public education becomes a private for-profit enterprise. It looks like we are headed in that direction, thanks to politicians. Liars, cheaters, greedy power mongers, foundations, and hedge fund managers are calling the shots and determining the future for our children. Wall Street owns our federal government and now the corruption is trickling down to the states and local school districts. The financial crisis has resulted in high child poverty, and the corporations/policy makers who caused the problem are refusing to take responsibility. They just ignore poverty, and look for those "super" teachers. Well there are a lot of super teachers in Allentown who will be losing their jobs. (See the 60 Minutes piece which destroys the myth of the "super teacher." A NYC charter school paid their teachers more than twice the salary of the average teacher, and these teachers worked 80 and 90 hours per week, and the students did not even do as well as their public school counterparts on the standardized state test. Charter school's $125K experiment)

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University:

Other industrialized nations have lower poverty rates because they seek to prevent hardship by providing assistance to all families. These supports include “child allowances” (typically cash supplements), child care assistance, health coverage, paid family leave, and other supports that help offset the cost of raising children.

But the U.S. takes a different policy approach. Our nation does little to assist low-income working families unless they hit rock bottom. And then, such families are eligible only for means-tested benefits that tend to be highly stigmatized; most families who need help receive little or none. (One notable exception is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.)

At the same time, middle- and especially upper-income families receive numerous government benefits that help them maintain and improve their standard of living — benefits that are largely unavailable to lower-income families. These include tax-subsidized benefits provided by employers (such as health insurance and retirement accounts), tax breaks for home owners (such as deductions for mortgage interest and tax exclusions for profits from home sales), and other tax preferences that privilege assets over income. Although most people don’t think of these tax breaks as government “benefits,” they cost the federal treasury nearly three times as much as benefits that go to low- to moderate-income families. In addition, middle- and upper-income families reap the majority of benefits from the child tax credit and the child care and dependent tax credit because neither is fully refundable.

In short, high rates of child poverty and income inequality in the U.S. can be reduced, but effective, widespread, and long-lasting change will require shifts in both national policy and the economy.

Our political leaders are not doing enough to help poor children. Here are some ways to fix child poverty:

-Early childhood education programs are so important because children who start school at an early age are more likely to stay in school. This improves the graduation rate, decreases crime rate, teaches important social skills that children need before 1st grade. So, mandatory pre-school, full day kindergarten are essential. Corbett plans to cut those programs. To cut programs for the neediest of children is immoral. Everyone in society benefits from government programs for children.

- Older students and at-risk youth need more after school programs. Since the arts and phys ed are drastically being cut from the public school day, kids need to discover their talents. They need exposure to the arts in order to find meaning and value in their lives. The arts helps them improve academically. PTAs, community groups, churches, businesses, will have to do much more to make up for the cuts to programs for kids.

-Instead of bailing out banks, our government should bail out families who are working but still struggling. This will stimulate the economy, and decrease child poverty rate. No child should go to bed hungry.

Friday, April 1, 2011

ASD School Board Approves Major Cuts to the Arts

It is a sad day for education in Allentown. The school board has unanimously approved Dr. Zahorchak's curriculum overhaul he calls "Pathways to Success." The program will eliminate 247 teaching and support staff positions. Many of these positions are specialists- art, music, physical education, and library teachers. 9 out of 13 elementary art teachers will lose their jobs. At the elementary level, students will only have art once a week, for one nine week cycle, for the entire school year. Same with phys. ed, library, and music. Looks like instrumental music may be eliminated. The classroom teachers will be expected to teach the specialist subject areas. This is wrong because most classroom teachers are not certified in those areas. (Hence the title "specialist").

I have very strong feelings about these dreadful changes, and about the fact that not one school board member stood on principle to vote against this immoral program that will harm Allentown's children. These underprivileged city kids deserve the same well rounded education as suburban kids. Dr. Z is not providing pathways, instead he's putting up roadblocks to success, because he is depriving these kids of the opportunity to discover their talents.

It is illegal to furlough teachers for economic reasons (Corbett is proposing a bill to change that) but it is legal to lay off teachers because of curriculum changes. I think this is how Dr. Z is justifying this massive and mean spirited removal of teachers. His plan seems rushed through, and not well thought out. Where is the evidence that all these changes will work?

It has been reported that 700 people attended last night's school board meeting. Students, teachers, and parents spoke passionately about the importance of the arts and physical education, and the bonds that have been formed between teachers and students. Those bonds will be broken when the teachers are gone. These are needy children, and they need their teachers. The school board members were not influenced by the audience, and seemed to have made up their minds ahead of time. What a sham. One school board member, Holly Edinger, was even joking about her experiences in gym class, and making light of the changes. She came off as a buffoon who obviously understands very little about education. These board members do not seem concerned about the children. Bob Smith did speak out to keep some art, music, and phys ed teachers, but then he ultimately voted for the plan. Was he just grandstanding for the crowd? And Julie Ambrose, whose son plays cello at Muhlenberg Elementary and participated in All City Orchestra with my son, said that this plan to cut specialists might be a good thing, since now it may free up classroom teachers to be more creative. I thought she would stand up for the music program she supports at school as a parent. If you were a real advocate for the arts, you would NOT have voted for a plan that eliminates the arts. What phonies. Maybe since they all voted to hire this overpaid snake oil salesman Dr. Z they don't want to look like they made the wrong choice, so they all approved his lousy plan, at the expense of the kids and teachers. I say vote them all out.

When Dr. Z spoke about his program I could not make sense of a word he was saying. But he does seem fond of the word "alignment" and other useless corporate ed reform jargon. To me he sounds like a master of BS, not an educator. Allentown residents believe that there needs to be change in the ASD, but the "Pathways to Success" program does not include the kind of change that will help inner city kids learn. These kids need MORE art, music, and phys ed. They can learn the basics better through the arts, and be more excited about school, more engaged. The arts help improve test scores and learning. The arts improve critical thinking skills. Why do we have to keep advocating for the arts? Phys. ed teaches important social skills, leadership, teamwork, and builds character. Health is an important subject for kids. The benefits of the arts, phys. ed and library are enormous, and there is a ton of research to prove it. Where is the evidence that Dr. Z's plan of narrowing the curriculum will improve graduation rates?

Shame on school board members. They are leading Allentown down a pathway to doom. This is a sad day because the leaders in our community are not putting children first. They should listen to the teachers who spend time with these needy kids every day. If I were on that school board I would have spoken out against this plan that will harm our children. The mayor and city council approved the hiring of Dr. Z. And now, city councilor Ray O'Connell, a former ASD principal and administrator has been hired as a consultant to oversee the staff lay offs. How crony cozy is this?
And he will be paid 18K to do a job that some overpaid ASD administrator could do. That money could be spent on programs for the kids, or to hire a paraprofessional for an entire year. What an insane waste of money, just like the PSSA Pep Rally and other expensive gimmicks. The administration has mismanaged funds and now the teachers must pay, and the neediest children must suffer. The meanness of it all has made me sick to my stomach.