Back At It Again With the CCI Puppies

On April Fool’s Day, we welcomed home the 5th puppy we’re raising for Canine Companions for Independence. Her name is Jitter and we are absolutely, completely, head-over-heels smitten with her.

And, because of this, she may tear down the entire house.

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Annie and Ella wanted in on the puppy action right away.

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Jitter… bug…

In October 2014, I wrote about our 3rd CCI pup, Jambi, being selected as a breeder for CCI. Although I had mixed emotions at the time – sad that she wouldn’t make a difference by becoming someone’s service dog, but also elated that our wonderful girl had been chosen for such a special role – I was largely able to allay any concerns by convincing myself that, the more puppies Jambi has, the greater likelihood that one of them will become a service dog… and then Jambi will have made an even bigger difference in the world.

Jambi had her second litter this past February.
Jitter is one of her puppies.

IMG_4716CAN YOU EVEN with this face??

This dog, you guys. Jitter’s personality is out-of-this-world fantastic. She is so sweet and cuddly, so curious, so smart. She has already learned all of her 6-month commands and performs them on cue. (For the record: she’s 11 weeks old.)

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First snow.
(You’re not imagining things – she arrived with sutures in her eyes after surgery; they’re out now and she’s peachy keen.)

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Superdog! (With her green tattoo ear…)

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RIDICULOUS.

She is also REALLY NAUGHTY. Not, like, chew a hole in the wall, pee on every flat surface, bark nonstop, bite your fingers off naughty… More mischievous naughty. Sneaky naughty. Silly naughty.
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Yes, she’s lying on top of my laptop.
(Those windows that are open? Frantic error messages.)

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What has Strawberry Shortcake done to deserve this??

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IRONY.
(That’s a card for our Instagram page. We’re @WNYCCIpups. There’s lots more cuteness and naughtiness there.)

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Mmm hm. On the dishwasher.

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It is allergy season, after all…

This dog is afraid of nothing and fascinated by everything. She thinks the vacuum cleaner is a fun toy, boldly approaches large, strange objects, and even tumbled right off the end of the dock after realizing, too late, what lay ahead. I had to haul her back up by the scruff of her neck and thought maybe she’d be scarred for life… But not 15 minutes later, she was biting at the waves again.

You can see why we call her Little Miss Moxie.
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Contemplating how she wound up going for her first swim…

You can also see why she may tear down the entire house.

Sure, puppies are cute – but they’re not easy. The accidents… the not-sleeping-through-the-night… the chewing things that aren’t meant for teeth… with those razor puppy teeth. It’s like having a furry newborn. Already though, despite the work, Jitter is our favorite CCI puppy so far – bar none – because her personality is just so fabulous. The girls are smitten enough to willingly help out with her care and training…
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Cradling time.

IMG_4764Annie and Little Miss Moxie out for a stroll.

Nick is smitten.
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OH FOR CUTE.

As for me? Well, how can you not  dog who snores adorably like this?

Even Langston is warming up to her and not being jealous every minute of the day. (Now, he’s only jealous for approximately 52 minutes of every hour. PROGRESS.)
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GAH!

I can already tell (a mere three weeks in) that returning this dog to CCI for Advanced Training will terribly difficult.
But you know what? It will also be so very worth it.

Since becoming puppy raisers seven years ago, we’ve known that there are no other puppy raisers in the Rochester area. What we didn’t know is that there is a lack of puppy raisers in the entire Northeast CCI region. We know this now because, along with Jitter’s medical records and training guidelines, CCI sent us information and flyers, asking us to post the them wherever we could to possibly encourage more folks to become involved.
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The flyers are well done and I’ll definitely find a place to put them up.
They also broke my heart.

From Maine to Virginia, there are not enough puppy raisers… which means there will be fewer puppies matriculating, fewer puppies graduating, and fewer people will have their lives changed by a service or facility dog.

You guys.
This is not okay.

The good news? YOU CAN HELP.

Yes, you! All of you who live on the coastal states between Virginia and Maine (and maybe nationwide, too; I only know about the Northeast region). If you can own and care for a dog for 15-18 months, you can help.

No, really. You can.

I know – you’re saying what everyone says. “I could never give a dog up.” And, believe me, I hear that. I really do. Turning the dogs in is heartbreaking and awful. I hate it, every single time.

But you know what? It’s also amazing and inspiring and every kind of wonderful because there is the hope that you – you! – have made a direct difference to someone. There is the hope that, through these dogs, you have changed someone’s life (which, paradoxically, changes your own life).

It’s worth reminding ourselves that heartbreak isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. As one of my sheroes, Glennon Doyle Melton, says: “Heartache is a signal to you that you’ve stumbled upon something worthy of your life. Do not run, do not turn away: follow your heartbreak… Everything beautiful starts with a broken heart.”

Perhaps everything beautiful doesn’t start with a broken heart… But, at the very least, a broken heart is an extremely vulnerable place to be – which, although uncomfortable, is right where we need to be if we want to live full, wholehearted, purposeful, joyful lives. According to another of my sheroes, Dr. Brené Brown, “… vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.”

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Nothing truly good – a new job, dating, having a baby, going skydiving, dancing, moving across the country – can come without first being vulnerable, without opening ourselves to the possibility that things might not work out exactly as we seem, without some heartbreak. But in that vulnerability and heartbreak come every kind of growth and loveliness and beauty and truth.

DO NOT BE AFRAID OF HEARTBREAK, y’all.
Or, heck – be afraid. I’m so afraid of the aching heart that comes with turning these dogs in. Instead, DON’T RUN FROM HEARTBREAK.

If you do turn down the job – if you decided that you couldn’t raise a CCI puppy because you couldn’t bear the pain of returning the dog you’ve grown to love – you’d miss out on hilarious moments like this…

Yes, there are apps for dogs. Jitter loves this one – obvs.

Sure, you’ll also miss out on torn-up tissues and stepping in pee puddles wearing only your socks and watching your beloved Strawberry Shortcake doll get pantsed… But, really, these are small potatoes to a) having a puppy snoozing on your lap with their b) puppy breath and c) knowing that, every single day that dog is in your care, you have done something worthwhile and meaningful. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. you are doing good in this world, just by owning a puppy. HOW COOL IS THAT??

There are many legitimate reasons why people cannot become puppy raisers. Monetary concerns, lack of space, allergies, issues with other pets, time constraints, or even just not being dog people (I don’t understand these nutballs people, but I know they exist) — those are all totally valid reasons why puppy raising is not for you.

Avoiding heartbreak is not a valid reason.
Or, at least, not valid enough reason to refuse to give it a go. Believe me, as soon as you attend a graduation and see how elated the graduates are with their newfound best friends – the ones who were cared for by puppy raisers – you’d see how the difficulty that you experience giving the dog up pales in comparison with the difficulty these folks encounter on a daily basis. And you’d be willing to go through the heartbreak again and again and again to be a part of something so wonderful.

Even with the heartbreak, it’s worth it. Allow your heart to be broken, allow yourself to be vulnerable, so that something beautiful and magnificent can start.

Bonus points if you have children: being a CCI puppy raiser teaches your kids about being responsible pet owners, unconditional love, doing good for others, and seeing beyond themselves. They gain perspective, learn resilience, and understand that, sometimes, you have to give something up for you to reap the returns. NOT BAD, eh??

Double bonus points: seeing faces like this every day.IMG_4661Could you not just eat her up?!

If you’re interested in finding out more about CCI puppy raising – whether you live in the Northeast region or not – please let me know. We can change lives, folks. AND ALSO you get puppy kisses for 1.5 years. Won’t you join us?
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A Letter To My Daughter’s Swim Coach

Dear Coach C.,

Last night was the team banquet – as you know, because you’ve been planning it for months. You booked the location, made sure it had a cash bar (because we parents asked to celebrate with something stronger than Sprite and you were kind enough to oblige), and set up a menu that would appease carnivores, vegetarians, and children who subsist on chicken fingers and ketchup.

It’s been a month with no practices, but you were hardly idle. You were collecting team photo orders, having the photos printed and collated, creating a slideshow to recap the season, selecting the swimmers who would receive special honors, preparing your presentations to bestow those honors, and readying the individual recognitions and awards that you gave to every single kiddo – well over 100 of them – who participated on the team this year. It didn’t matter if the kid was a graduating senior, a middle-school phenom who made States in every event, or an 8 year-old novice whose strokes are largely indistinguishable from one another; they all received their moment in the spotlight, uniquely recognized and commended, because you believe that every kid counts.
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Ella, giddily joining her teammates after being given her medal.

This is no small thing.

Despite the fact that this is a competitive sport and despite the way that swimming is structured so that it is painfully obvious who has touched the wall first and who is still has a lap to go, all of your swimmers know, to their cores, that you believe they matter, that they’re important, that they’re worth it. Because you believe this so strongly, because you and the other coaches show it throughout every minute of practice and every length at every meet, the kids start believing it, too.

And this? This is everything.

I’ve seen the schedule. There are practices for 3-5 hours a day, six days a week, for the duration of the seven month competitive season. That’s 18-30 hours in the pool each week (before 5-hour meets). I understand that this is not your career, so these are 18-30 extra hours that you’re putting in on top of whatever else is on your plate… because you believe in these kids.

When you’re not physically there, you’re mentally there. I know that you review each practice with all the other coaches, telling them what you want accomplished, what each age group should work on, what goal individual swimmers are trying to reach. Even when you can’t monitor it in person, you want to make sure that the team receives consistent, tailored instruction – because you believe in these kids.

And somehow, no matter what is going on, no matter how many dozens of kids are in the pool or how few are following directions or whatever nonsense is going on, you treat every one of them with respect. You don’t scream. You don’t demean them, ever. You don’t shame. When they don’t put in their full effort, when they don’t meet expectations, when they’re just plain wrong… you tell them, for sure. You let them know you’re disappointed, frustrated, or angry. But you do so in a way that is constructive and caring, that allows them to own their mistakes and strive to improve. They hate letting you down and genuinely want to do better for you – because you believe in them.

Some would say that this approach is too “soft,” that kids need harshness and rigor. Your attendance policy (or, more specifically, lack thereof), your refusal to insist that kids reach certain times or swim X number of hours, your “you get out of it what you put into it” attitude… do not exactly follow the “rules” of competitive sports coaching. There are oh so many teams who require their participants to attend every practice, meet, or game – no matter the circumstances – lest they be benched or even kicked off (I’ve had more than one piano student miss the once-a-year culminating recital to attend a sports event because their coach demanded their presence), to forego other activities outside of The One Sport, whatever it may be.

If this is how society views kids’ sports, I can see how your approach might be deemed too lax. For every single kid on this team, though, your approach is perfect – and, quite frankly, hard to be argued with. There’s the simple fact the team does exceedingly well, competitively speaking (District champs many years running and 2nd in the State are hardly anything to be sneezed at), despite your more “relaxed” style.

(Upon reflection, perhaps they do so well competitively because of your more “relaxed” style… Worth consideration, anyway…)
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Ella (in the blue suit) on the blocks at States.

It’s much more than that, though. Yes, they win (all) their meets, but you make it clear that being the victor is not your top priority. To quote your team banquet letter: “Winning is not always about coming in first . A winner is someone who recognizes a teammate, celebrates victories and offers support if a specific goal was not achieved. A winner is someone who improves on his/her time… There is a winner in every one of us…”

Because you believe that, the kids believe it, too. If they come in dead last but drop 0.3 seconds from their time, they’ve won. If they high-five an opposing teammate at the end of a heat – no matter what place they came in – that’s a win. They know they are not just individuals, but part of a team, part of a family, and everyone within the family deserves respect and encouragement. They feel comfortable, welcomed, supported, and that they belong. In turn, they believe that they are worthy of that belonging.

Perhaps one of the truest measures of the kids’ self-confidence and sense of self-worth is how they respond when another teammate does well. Last night, the swimmers received their medals for Districts and States; the more races they swam, the more hardware they took home. This opportunity for comparison could have resulted in everything from jealousy to resentment. Instead? I saw kids being truly happy for their teammates and their accomplishments.

As the individual awards were being given, as just a handful of the hundred-plus kids walked up to the front and received their plaques, disappointment (at not being chosen) was not the preeminent mood. No – when each name was called, raucous cheers and celebrations erupted. There were fist-bumps and hugs and a million selfies.

It’s not that the team doesn’t recognize achievement and effort; this is not an “everybody gets a trophy just for showing up!” kind of place. It’s that they feel absolutely worthy just as they are, so there’s no reason for jealousy.

How you have managed to do this season after season is mind-boggling.

Our girl has always loved to swim. When she joined the team three seasons ago, she told us she “feels like herself” in the water. It has been such an incredible experience watching her bloom like a sunlit flower as part of the team. But nothing could have prepared us for this year, when she positively blossomed in technicolor.
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And she’s off!

Remember how I told you, when she learned she made the State team, that she colored her hair blue for the first time — because, for the first time in her life, she felt so comfortable and happy with herself, she felt comfortable and happy with people noticing her? How, when she awoke the following morning, she asked if it was all a dream? How she positively floated on air for the month leading up to States, despite the additional practices?

It wasn’t because of States; that was just a figurehead. It was because you believed in her enough to take her to States. In turn, she believed in herself in ways she never had before. You changed our girl, and the transformation was nothing short of magical.

“Thank you” is ridiculously insufficient.

It may seem odd that I’m posting this as a blog rather than just emailing you (I mean, I did email you, but still…). There are two reasons for this. The first is I think you’re pretty fantastic and I want everyone to know. The second is I think there are a lot of other coaches out there who are doing similarly fantastic things with their teams and players, who don’t get thanked nearly often enough, and who deserve recognition.
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Banquet – literally?!

So, to you and all the other coaches who follow your phenomenal approach: I see you. I see how you show up, no matter what. I see that you’re sacrificing time with your own children to be with mine. I see how you know each and every kid inside and out. I see how you encourage and support them, how you use constructive criticism instead of shaming. I see how you make practice fun. I see how you encourage kids to have a life outside of your sport… because you know that when they do show up to practice, they’ll really want to be there – and the effort they put in will be top-notch. I see how you put in hour upon hour with little or no acknowledgment. I see how little you get paid (do you get paid at all?!). I see how these kids are your family. I see how proud you are to be their coach. I see how proud you are of them. I see how you value and believe in every single one of them. And I see how they value and believe in themselves as a result.

Thank you, all of you, for believing in our kids.

And thanks specifically, Coach C., for helping our girl believe in herself. Every practice, every pair of goggles, every minute in the sauna-like stands has been worth it just to see her walk a little taller with her blue-streaked hair.

(Thanks, also, for the cash bar last night…)

Cheers,
Emily

 

Let’s Change The World

(An earlier version of this post was published in April of last year (scroll down to the bottom). I’ve updated it in April 2016 and am putting it out there again… because here we are, again.)

Plain and simple, I believe that the current standardized tests in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, given annually from grades 3-8, are poorly designed and age-inappropriate and, ultimately, should be entirely revamped. I’ll go one step more: I think that a lot of families have no idea what’s happening.

Lemme break it down.

1. Testing isn’t going anywhere
Tests have been around since the dawn of schooling (and probably before that; you know that cave people were totally devising hunting “challenges” for one another). Standardized testing in the United States has been around since at least WWI. Pretty much anyone who’s lived in the USA over the last 40-50 years has heard about our “failing” education system, how we don’t “measure up” to other nations, etc. – so, clearly, something had to be done. Hence, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed which, in 2002, turned into No Child Left Behind where – I’m simplifying here – in order to receive federal funds, schools needed to prove that their students were showing academic improvement. That act was met with such vitriol, this past December, the Obama administration rejiggered it into the Every Child Succeeds Act .

Whether or not American schools are, indeed, “failing” is up for intense debate, but the fact remains that standardized tests have been around forever. They offer one small snapshot into one moment of a student’s academic year. Taken alongside the numerous other evaluations that are performed throughout any given school year, they can contribute a few brushstrokes to a child’s academic progress canvas. If these tests are well-written, developmentally appropriate, and accurate, they can also provide some sort of (small) basis with which to compare schools and teachers.

I’m down with standardized testing, as a general concept. I think most parents, teachers, and families are.

2. Common Core confusion
States adopted the Core standards with a very specific goal in mind: money. Not education reform, not improving student learning, not evaluating teaching practices or helping teachers to better their approaches, but cold, hard cash. See, there was this thing called Race To The Top (RTTT) that was rolled out in 2009-2010 that essentially said (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly): Hey, governing people! Want to earn more FUNDING for your states for education? THEN COME COMPETE FOR IT!! All you have to do is prove that you’re evaluating teachers more stringently, identify and turn around failing schools, promise you won’t prohibit the formation of more charter schools, adopt some common standards, and create some nifty data systems! The faster and better you do that, the faster you can earn MORE MONEY!!! It’s like a carnival up in here!

In theory, a set of shared standards isn’t such a bad idea. I like the Common Core benchmarks, broadly speaking. I like the idea of everyone in the US learning some basic, shared content. I like the thought that, if your kids changed schools or districts or moved across the country, you could count on them not being too far behind (or ahead) because everyone’s learning the same stuff at the same time, from poverty-stricken inner cities to wealthy suburbs.

In practice, because of the whole SHOW ME THE MONEY thing, the standards were written in a bit of a hurry – and, many people assert, they were written without any educator input. No, for real: according to many experts, not one single K-12 educator or child development expert was included in the creation of these standards. So they’re a bit off-base in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate for each grade level, by which I mean that they’re asking kids to know a heckuva lot more, and to use an awful lot of more complex thinking, than they’ve done before.

Which, in itself, might not be so bad — maybe even inspiring and hopeful — if the standards had been adopted at a reasonable pace with teachers being given adequate support and training to properly teach the new material.

But because there was money on the line, and because states had to act super fast if they wanted their share, they adopted Common Core with lightning speed. There was no gradual roll-out. No trying-and-seeing to determine if this set of standards was reasonable, achievable, or appropriate. No oversight by anyone in the field of education. Buckle up!

3. Many of the tests are poorly written
Even so – even with way more complex standards written by non-education people that were put into practice before anyone had a chance to review them – things might have been okay had the accompanying tests that were meant to measure performance been good, strong, accurate evaluations. But many of them are not.

For one thing, they – like the standards – are written by non-educators. (I understand that in New York state, the tests before the Common Core-based evaluations were also written by non-educators, so this is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their authorship, the tests have been found to be riddled with errors. The test questions themselves, especially on the ELA portion of the exam, are often written at reading levels two to nine grades ahead (asking, say, third graders to read and evaluate passages that are actually appropriate for 5th- 12th graders).
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These are taken from the PARCC ELA test…

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 5.43.48 PMYes. Our eight year-olds are probably familiar with the idea of “luring” someone into “a false sense of security.”

Many of the test questions are vague or even deliberately misleading, which makes choosing the answer more of a guessing game than a true demonstration of understanding.

4. The results don’t mean anything
Given that the tests are badly written, error-filled, and are developmentally inappropriate, it seems safe to say that their results don’t really mean much. Additionally, since student results aren’t provided until the end of summer (or even into the start of the next school year), the child’s teacher can’t use the scores to adjust his or her instruction to better serve those kiddos.

Sure, in theory, a teacher could look at the results from last year’s class, see a deficiency in a particular area, and think, “Oh, I guess I didn’t do a good job teaching Main Idea. I’d better work on that with this year’s batch of students.” In fact, I would bet that the vast majority of teachers try to do exactly that. But the information that teachers are given – at least in New York – is rather limited.

Teachers aren’t allowed to see the actual questions from the test, nor to know ones were answered incorrectly – they only receive a broad overview of concepts and standards and whole-class percentages rather than individual student breakdowns. Did last year’s students really not understand Main Idea, or were the Main Idea questions vague? Were they deliberately misleading? Were they “sample” questions that are thrown out there each year just to see how kids do on them? Were they just plain incorrect or filled with typos?

Even if the data was reliable – there’s one final catch: the passing score changes from year to year and is determined… AFTER THE TESTS HAVE BEEN SCORED. I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m not. Movable passing scores!!

5. Teachers are more than just a (faulty) number
Here’s where things get really personal for me. Let’s just backtrack for a moment and pretend that the current tests are awesome. Let’s pretend that they are appropriate, accurate, and superbly written. Even if this were the case, I think we can all agree, still, that they represent merely one moment in a child’s education, several hours out of their lives. They don’t actually demonstrate all that children have learned – not even the best tests in the entire world – because most of what we call “learning” cannot be shown in a two-dimensional standardized test.

What standardized test results really show us is how well individual children tested on a particular day. And yet many states have decided that test scores do accurately demonstrate how well teachers are teaching, often counting the scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.

And let’s not forget about the rest of the teachers. Tests are given at only at certain grade levels in certain subjects – meaning that that the majority of teachers do not teach these subjects/grades. K-2 teachers? 9-12 non-Regents class teachers? Gym, music, art? Science (students are tested in science but not in every grade), social studies/history, foreign language, library, computer, home ec, graphics…? 

And yet 50% of their evaluations are also based on test results. Based on the performance of students they may never have laid eyes on IN SUBJECTS AND GRADE LEVELS THAT THEY DO NOT TEACH.

This is fair, appropriate, or okay because… why?

6. Greed is a powerful motivator
For decades now, politicians have been talking about how American education is failing. Thus, politicians find it pretty easy to gain financial backers for education reform. After all, once a school is determined to not pass muster, something must be done — new curricula, new textbooks, new resources.

One of the largest supporters of Common Core is Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into its adoption. While I believe that Bill Gates genuinely wants to help, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Microsoft and Pearson – one of the largest producers of Common Core materials – have banded together to get additional Microsoft resources into schools.

Many people have taken issue with the fact that companies such as Pearson [which authored a) the Common Core standards, b) the great majority of the current Common Core tests, c) the “modules” of instructional materials that are sold to schools to prepare students for said tests, d) and – as of 2015 – the teacher certification examinations in eighteen states] is a business company, not a company run by education or child development professionals. (I acknowledge that pre-Common Core, tests were still written by contracted, outside companies; that still doesn’t make it right.)

That would be galling enough, but even more maddening is that Pearson is positively rolling in the money it is making off of its materials. Since Common Core was adopted so quickly, school districts had to act fast to provide their teachers with adequate curricula resources. Who better to provide that than the author of the Common Core standards? Enter the Pearson instruction modules! Need additional support materials? Pearson’s got those, too!

7. Teacher demoralization
I’m just going to put it bluntly: because of all of this Common Core testing and the hoopla surrounding it, many of our teachers* feel like crap. They have been told, in no uncertain terms, that the jobs they were doing weren’t good enough. No matter how well-liked they were, how many kids graduated from their classes, how many years they’d been teaching, how many children they taught to read or how to multiply, how many hours they stayed after school, how many hungry children they fed, how many concerts they attended… it wasn’t enough. They have to change, fast. And if they don’t? Their very jobs are at stake.

All of the teachers I know – the ones for whom I sub, the ones with whom I sub, the ones with whom I went to college, the ones with whom I used to teach, the ones who teach my own children, or the ones I’ve met along the way by happenstance – have said, unequivocally, how much they love teaching. They love their students. They are fiercely proud to be educators. But it is getting hard – really hard – for many of them to continue. You hear talk of those who are seriously considering leaving the classroom because they can no longer teach; now, they have to teach these modules, teach to the test, jump through hoop after hoop. It’s exhausting and maddening.

Losing our teachers would, obviously, be a tremendous problem; that problem is compounded by the fact that there has been a steep decline in the number of new teachers being certified in recent years. Even those who do decide to enter the profession don’t stick around for long.

To be sure, teachers have often felt under-appreciated, misunderstood, and underpaid, but rarely has their ability to do their job been so strongly questioned. Never have they been so micromanaged. We are losing some of our best teachers. We aren’t getting enough new ones. This is happening right now, all across the country, and it is terrifying.

(*Obviously, I realize that I’m speaking in very broad terms here. I have not interviewed every teacher in the nation. But I am certain that the teachers with whom I have spoken – and this is a helluva lot of teachers – have expressed their dejection, sadness, and frustration.)

8. How do we get an objective measure?
Many people who acknowledge the shortcomings of these particular tests maintain that we need them because we need some objective measure of how our kids are doing in school. We need some way to compare teachers, schools, and performance, from rural West Virginia to suburban Idaho to inner-city Houston. We need to be able to determine teacher growth and student success. Kids from the most poverty-riddled communities deserve access to the same quality education as their most affluent peers.

I hear that. I absolutely believe that all children deserve a quality education; the disparity is, indeed, unfair. I also think it would be great to, say, move across the country and be able to glean, at a glance, how a school or district compares to another.

But here’s the thing: I think we’re looking for something that doesn’t exist – not because we haven’t figured out how to do it, but because it’s just not possibleMaybe education and learning aren’t things that can be measured any more than a musical performance can be measured. Maybe teacher growth and student success aren’t confined to numbers. Maybe a one-size-fits-all assessment works nicely for obtaining a driver’s license but not so well for determining whether or not fifth graders can identify subplot or if their teachers are doing their jobs. Test scores do not indicate success or failure; they are merely numbers.

9. Quite whining! How about some solutions or ideas?!
I’m not saying that we should give up. I’m saying I think we need to – dramatically – change our approach to how we evaluate education, students, and teachers. In my Magic Wand World, I’d take a (lot of) page(s) out of Finland’s book (it is well-acknowledged that Finnish students perform among best in the world at international exams) and our teachers would be as well-respected as as well paid as our doctors.

Since it’s unlikely that we’re going to adopt too many of Finland’s ideas, I suggest that we work with what we already have to reconfigure our view of success.

  • We should de-couple the current standardized tests from teacher evaluations, period.
  • We can keep the Common Core – as I said, I like those standards – but only as a portion of what each child should learn; we need to leave the rest up to individual states, districts, schools, and teachers.
  • We should give teachers several years to become familiar with the Core standards so that they can rework their lesson plans, see where there may be deficiencies, and take it from there.
  • Standardized tests aren’t going anywhere (in the USA), but we should have new, fair, developmentally appropriate tests that have been written by educators from across the K-12 spectrum.
  • Those tests’ scores should come back before the school year is over so that the students’ current teachers can use the data to inform their instruction.
  • And then those numbers should be just one of many other things that combine together to form our opinions of teacher success and student learning. Let’s factor attendance into the equation. Graduation rates. The percentage of high school graduates who go onto college. Post-graduate success. AP exams – how many are given? What are the scores? Teacher-student ratio. Teacher retention; how many are still teaching there after three years? Five? Ten? Extra-curricular activities. Class sizes. Poverty levels. Parent involvement. Principal and superintendent evaluations. Student portfolios. Additional test scores.

Education “success” cannot be measured by any one, single thing. I will happily sing you the praises of my daughters’ elementary school, which I adore, but none of those praises – from small class sizes to close relationships with other families to the devotion of the teachers to their annual Halloween parade – has anything to do with test scores.

10. Become informed… and then do something
I’m not really the “take a stand” type. More typically, I talk and think a lot. I write letters, I sign petitions, I discuss with family and friends. With this, it was different. I’d been talking, for years. I’d been signing petitions. I’d been writing letters, dozens of them, from the governor to my locally elected officials.

Finally, last year, it became clear to me: talking, thinking, letter- writing, and petition-signing weren’t working. Our legislators weren’t listening. And in the meantime, our children and teachers were suffering.

Enough was enough. And so, after much research and consideration (and after having participated the year before), our 4th grader opted out of the tests. She was extremely nervous about taking them – and we were extremely upset that her teachers were being evaluated based on student scores on poorly-designed tests – so it seemed like an appropriate solution. Turns out, many, many parents and children in New York state came to the same conclusion. As I wrote last year:

To paraphrase the incomparable Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. Parents and teachers are speaking up. We are knowing better. I hope, as our voices swell – whether our children take the tests or refuse them – that our politicians will hear us and that, some day, they will do better, too.

You know what? Our New York legislators heard us. BY GOSH, THEY HEARD US! Our voices swelled and our message was clear: This situation needs to change. And so the change has begun. Test scores are no longer being used to evaluate New York teachers (CAN I GET AN AMEN!). Students may now take as much time as they need to complete the exams. As of next year, Pearson will no longer be writing the tests or curricular materials. NEW YORK IS TRYING TO DO BETTER.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Because of the changes that have been made, my husband and I did not feel as strongly about refusing the testing this year, instead leaving the decision to our daughters (after sharing the above information with them, to the degree that they can understand it). Our oldest, again, has opted out; her younger sister is taking them. We feel very comfortable being a house divided.

No, the tests aren’t perfect (then again, what is?). With the exception of tying them to teacher evaluations, everything else remains (essentially) the same, so there remains (much) work to be done. (While I appreciate the removal of the time limit, it seems that some students are taking up to 6 hours per day to finish their tests… which is not exactly “doing better”…) Still, I acknowledge and greatly appreciate that changes are being made. It’s a step in the right direction.

Some analysts and educators argue that high-stakes tests should be banned, period. Others claim that the tests are successful. Although they’re reaching different conclusions, they’re doing so after having thoroughly done their homework (a pun!).

And that is what I encourage everyone to do: learn more, then go from there. Find out who writes the tests in your state and how teachers are asked to teach the material. Read up on others’ opinions about how valid and appropriate the tests are. Discover when the test results are returned, what information the teachers and schools receive, and how they apply that information. Learn whether or not your child’s educators are evaluated based on test scores. Inquire about what your options are.

Then, if you feel that the tests are not measuring up, ask for better. If you feel like they’re cutting muster, speak up! Maybe that looks like writing letters. Maybe it’s signing petitions. Maybe it’s attending town hall meetings. Maybe it’s talking with neighbors and teachers and administrators. Maybe it’s opting out. Maybe it’s opting in. Maybe it’s a little of everything and a lot of other things, too.

No matter how you feel about Common Core and the state tests, I think we can all agree that our nation’s children deserve awesome. Let’s work together to be thoughtful, committed citizens. Let’s help our children receive the awesome they deserve. Heck – let’s change the world.

Natural Consequences (Full Circle)

When I was about 13, the world came shattering down around me: literally.

I was my best friend, Kiki‘s, party. Whereas my middle school parties had been all-girl gatherings where we did things like wear pajamas and eat brunch or attend musicals at the local dinner theater (Guys and Dolls, holla!), Kiki’s parties involved things like hanging out and talking.

With – omg – boys.

I played my first game of Spin The Bottle at Kiki’s and was so mortified when the bottle “chose” me, I ran and hid in a closet.

Not only was I a bit out of my league at these affairs, Kiki and I also attended different schools, meaning I knew few of the parties’ guests (likewise when she attended my dinner theater fiestas), so I felt even more awkward. Thankfully, I did know Kiki’s family. Our families had lived in the same Upper East Side apartment complex when we were babies, moving to the Connecticut suburbs two years later. We were constants at holidays and birthdays and went on vacations together. John and Linda were the first adults I was allowed to address by their first names, something I found immensely fantastic.
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Me and Kiki, circa 1977-78.

Whenever I came over, there was no formality, no stiffness; just a familial enfolding, as I joined Kiki and her younger sisters on their adventures. John and Linda were very different from my own parents, often permitting us to get away with things that my folks didn’t (staying up late at sleepovers, drinking soda around the pool, not brushing my hair when I woke up in the morning… CRAZY STUFF, y’all). But that wasn’t why I liked them.

They took me in and allowed me to be part of their craziness and loved me for who I was. They were family, plain and simple.

I don’t remember much about this particular party except that, in my attempt to feel less awkward around the boys, I decided to play a game of keep-away (obviously). One boy attempted to have a conversation with me, which was waaaay outside my comfort zone, and rather than engage in discussion, I ran. And he followed. So I kept running.

We continued these shenanigans throughout the house like a one-sided game of tag. Ultimately, I wound up in the bathroom shower (?!), closing the door behind me. Because the shower walls were glass, I was hardly cleverly hidden, so the game was still afoot as the boy tried to follow me into the shower.

With my back against the tiles, I lifted my feet off the ground and propped them against the door to keep it closed, laughing and shouting and making general mayhem.

As the boy continued to shove from the outside, I pressed my feet as hard as I could – wedged perfectly between the door and the wall – to forestall his entrance. We remained like that, pushing mightily, for maybe five seconds… when, all at once, the glass just disappeared, sending me to the shower floor.

You know how in the movies when glass breaks, there’s a cracking before everything implodes? Yeah, not so much here. There was no warning; the entire door, under the stress and pressure, shattered instantaneously, crashing to the ground in a million tiny pieces.

THE ENTIRE DOOR.
We shattered THE. ENTIRE. DOOR.

Neither the boy nor I was hurt in the destruction, but the room was (to say the least) an absolute disaster. I was paralyzed. What the hell do you do when you’re at your best friend’s party and you’ve just played tag through her living room and shut yourself in the shower (of all places) and then put your feet on said shower’s door and DESTROYED THE DOOR?? WHAT DO YOU DO?

I remember feeling tiny and shattered, myself, as the horror – the embarrassment, the astonishment – became so overpowering, I could barely breathe. Sobbing, unable to move (from shame, not pain), I sat frozen, hoping to disappear or hide the evidence… but a crashing glass door isn’t exactly quiet, so the boy and I were soon surrounded by curious party-goers… who, in turn, went to get John and Linda.

Most important: were we hurt? Upon learning we were fine, they moved on to cleaning up the mess. I was dumbfounded, offering to help. But even then, they didn’t want me to do too much because they didn’t want me to cut myself.

They never yelled. They never said horrible things. They didn’t cry or lash out in frustration. In some ways, this made things even harder; maybe if they’d just let loose, I could release some of my awfulness. THESE FEELINGS ARE REALLY HARD. PLEASE LET ME UNLOAD THEM. But no. There was none of that.

I apologized – profusely. I believe the party continued. I know, when I was picked up, John and Linda talked to my parents. I know, when we left, the shower was still broken, essentially unusable. And I know, the next time I was invited over – which was soon – there was no mention of my error, save for maybe joking about using the upstairs shower if I really needed to get clean. It was kind of incredible.
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Walking like crimped Egyptians, right around the time of the Shower Incident.
(OMG I just noticed the boom box…)

Yesterday, Ella and Annie had their own Shower Incident. They were playing with friends, pairs of siblings who are over often, roughhousing and getting loud upstairs (as they do). The volume and antics escalated and I’d just said to Nick, “At what point do we tell them it’s too much?” when there was this earsplitting CRASH that shook the dining room ceiling.

Turns out, they’d been taunting one another from either side of a bedroom door when, to keep one faction out, the other had pressed against a wooden hutch, sending the upper piece – and its contents – thudding to the floor. When I arrived, the kiddos stood in shock, surveying the splintered wooden top of the shelf, the skewed books, the fractured picture frames, the demolished clay creations from summer pottery camp.

As I observed the damage myself, getting ready to lose my shiz, this odd (and completely foreign) calm washed over me.

“Is anybody hurt?”
“No.” (Thank God.)

“How did this happen?”
They explained.

“Okay. Since there’s broken glass on the floor, please get your shoes so you don’t cut yourselves. Then, I’m going to ask you guys {the friends} to head out for a bit so the girls can clean up. Afterward, maybe they can play some more.”

Everyone apologized. I thanked them and said it would be okay. As the kids were donning their shoes, one of them turned to me, saying, “I was sure you were gonna yell!”

“Nope!” I think I surprised us both.

My girls were horror-struck, devastated by the loss of their treasured possessions and the dents in the hardwood floor (shelving units are heavy, yo), but also by the terrible understanding that they had caused the loss. It was then, as I saw them accept their role in the accident, that I remembered the Shower Incident.

I wasn’t sure which was stranger: re-living that moment from my 13 year-old perspective and suddenly understanding how Ella and Annie were feeling… or looking in on my 13 year-old self, from John and Linda’s perspective, and suddenly understanding how they must have felt.

Nobody was hurt. NOBODY WAS HURT! It’s a mess, but it can be cleaned up. Some things can be replaced. Others can’t, but we’ll survive. It wasn’t intentional; sometimes, kids get ahead of themselves and these things happen. It’s okay.

I actually sensed my own heart break a little at the girls’ sadly accepting responsibility for the damage their silly roughhousing caused; maybe Linda and John had been a bit broken-hearted, too.

Despite the lost treasures and damaged floor, there was also this: Now, when I tell the kids that things are getting out of hand, they will finally understand what I mean and will (maybe) tone it down. I sure as hell never raced through Kiki’s house again (which I now understand John and Linda knew). NATURAL CONSEQUENCES, YOU GUYS. A BEAUTIFUL THING.

Is it just me, or is it strange when this parenting thing comes full circle?

I hope our girls and their friends always feel comfortable in our house and its craziness. I hope they feel loved and respected as themselves. I hope they feel safe coming to us when mistakes are made, and welcome again after things are cleaned up (literally and metaphorically). I hope I’m able to see what’s really important even when things get messy. I hope our home is inviting and fun and joy-filled and awesome.

And I hope, the next time I say, “It’s too much. Tone it down!”, they’ll listen and TONE THAT STUFF DOWN before any other natural consequences occur, for the love.

FullSizeRender-4Kiki and me, Disney World 1991, loved even after the Shower Incident.
Yes, I have a perm. #winning

(This story was shared with Ella and Annie’s enthusiastic permission.)