“I took a chance.”

Well, my class has finished the fifth grade math state test.  Huzzah!

Instead of actually learning anything for the past two days, the kids had the pleasure of taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Achievement System.  Also known as MCAS.  Also known among the kids as the Massachusetts Child Abuse System.  Also known, on my morning message board as “Maybe Chinchillas Are Slimy”.  Who knows?

Having spent the past three weeks cramming and drilling for this thing, there was quite a sense of excitement yesterday and today as the kids arrived at school.  I put on a fabulous (if outdated) playlist of inspirational songs, and the kids got themselves all psyched up and ready to go.

And here are some of the events that really, truly, I-swear-to-God-I-am-not-making-these-up honestly happened in my room.

1. A child who was out sick yesterday and missed “Session One of the MCAS fifth grade math test” came in this morning.  I greeted her with a big smile and the obvious question, “Are you feeling better?”

Her answer? “Not really.”  A shrug, a smile and she sat down to take the test.  And she got up and got a drink. And she got up again, holding a tissue to her mouth.   I went to her, of course, and asked her what was wrong.

“My tooth is coming out.”, she said calmly, and went back to her desk to work on her math calculations while wiggling her tooth.  Ten minutes later, she came to me with her tooth in her hand, her cheek streaked with blood, and fear in her eyes. “I got blood on my answer booklet!”, she whispered desperately. “Do you think they will make my answers invalid?”  I reassured her and told her that her answers would most certainly be counted. She had been working so hard!

What I thought, in my head, was, “Honey, if they fail you on this test, you have the perfect answer!  It wasn’t me, it was my blood on the test!”

2.  Four different students came up to my desk to ask the meaning of a word on the test.  The word was “integer”.  It means “number”.  It didn’t appear in any of the chapters of our math book this year.  The kids all knew how to solve the math problem, they just didn’t know the word “integer”.  I bit my tongue, swallowed hard and said (four times), “I’m sorry, honey. I can’t tell you that.”

3. I looked up to see one of my most struggling, learning disabled kids whispering to a classmate, five minutes after the testing had begun.  I was so shocked when I saw them that I called the culprit up to my desk in my loudest public inquiry voice.  Now, you should know that I never, ever, ever shame or embarrass a kid in front of his peers. Never, never, never!!! Until the pressures of this stupid, mindless, idiotic test forced me to lose my mind at the thought of cheating.

“What are you DOING?”, I hissed at this little boy. “What did I JUST say about talking during the test?!?”

He hung his head, and whispered, “I took a chance.”

My blood pressure rose, “You did WHAT? You knew that talking during the test was wrong and you did it anyway?”  I was absolutely aghast.

“Yes”, he said simply.  He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“What in the world were you talking about?”, I demanded.

And so he told me.

“I saw that he was putting his answers in the wrong place. I know he isn’t from Massachusetts, so I thought he didn’t know what to do.” He raised his tear filled eyes to mine.  “I couldn’t let him get them all wrong.”

We stood for a moment, face to face.  My little student was resolute, nervous, red faced, but determined.  I was filled with guilt and shame and a sense of awe.   I took in a breath.

“So…”, I began slowly, making sure that everyone in the class could hear me, “You knew that it was against the rules to talk, but you took a chance of being caught, of getting in trouble, so that your friend would not fail?”

He shrugged, then nodded his head, never looking directly at me.

I thought my heart would break.

I put a hand on his shoulder, urging him to look me in the eye.

“Honey”, I said, through the lump in my throat, “You are a hero. You risked getting punished so that you could do the right thing. I am incredibly proud of you.”

He smiled and went back to his desk to finish the test.


And I am left with a whole pile of questions.

Why on earth would we design a system that makes it wrong to help a friend?

Why in the world would we create a testing system that is so complicated that kids might put their answers on the wrong page?

What are we really testing when we refuse to define the words on the test?

What are we doing to our teachers when we make them so nervous about “cheating” that they feel compelled to publicly embarrass a student this way?

I don’t have the answers, but I certainly have the questions.

So….we’re gonna test ya…..


I have sunk to a new low as a teacher.

I should hang up my recess bell and just retire.  Truly.  I have gone where no self respecting child centered educator should ever go.

Before I begin to beat my breast and cry “Mea Culpa!”, let me explain.

This was a really bad winter. As we say in the Boston area, it was “wicked awful”.  It snowed constantly.  Really!  We missed SIX DAYS of school because of the crappy weather.  This is nearly unheard of, but it happened this year.

I find it very difficult to teach children when we are all at home, huddled by our respective fires, and I am not there to actually do the teaching.

It was also a very, very bad year for the flu and strep throat.  I have kids who have missed more than 15 days of school!  I find it really hard to drill math skills into kids who are home with a fever.

Oh, and the brainiacs who make the decisions about education reform are also in the middle of shifting us from teaching the “Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks” to the much heralded “Common Core Curriculum Standards”.  Out with the old, in with the new.  And there are some really serious changes to what we are teaching, believe me.

Here is the difficulty: they haven’t been able to tell us which set of standards will be tested this year.

Ahahaha!!  So, just to get this straight, we are about to administer standardized tests to kids who have missed a week of school due to weather, and more due to illness. They are going to be tested on a bunch of math information and skills that they may or may not have ever seen in their entire 11 years of life.

Are you laughing yet?  Me either.  Because the education reformers also plan to hold me accountable for the scores of my students.

Even the ones who went on vacation for three weeks this month. Yep. I have to get them up to speed on everything that might (or might not!) be tested this year, even if they have spent the past month sick/snowed in/on vacation in the Carribean.

In recognition of the fact that the combined pressures of weather, vacation, and illness have put us way, way behind in covering what may (or may not) be the fifth grade curriculum, we are now finding ourselves desperate to cram math facts into the heads of our poor little students.

My class has spent nearly 3 of our 6 hours together every day this week trying to review the math material, learn new math material and practice the “skills” needed in test taking.

We are bored, we are frustrated, we are feeling overwhelmed and more than a little stupid. We’d like to take those “education reform” people and shake them by the neck until their eyeballs pop out and roll across our classroom floor.

But we persevere.

My poor fifth grade students have just experienced what I thought was a fairly well constructed, if fast paced, unit on multiplying and dividing fractions.  Never mind the fact that NO ADULT on the face of the earth would ever be required to manually multiply or divide any mixed numbers (why do you think God invented calculators, anyway?).  Our kids have to learn  how to carry out these algorithms, and they practiced them over and over again until they begged for mercy.

I thought that they understood the lessons. I did!

Right up until today. When I gave them the Unit test.

I sat down to score the tests, and found that more than half of the kids couldn’t really remember when to find common denominators (when you add? or when you multiply?) They forgot to simplify.  They forgot how to convert mixed numbers into improper fractions.

I know, right?!  You could probably do this in your sleep!

Or not.

Anyway, I had taught it, and they were damned well supposed to “get it”!!!!

Only they didn’t.

And here is where I have failed as a teacher. Here is where I descended into the lowest of educational lows.

I scored those tests, and I got really, REALLY mad at my kids. I was snippy, I was short, I was wicked crabby.

I know, in my heart, that you simply cannot “speed teach” the idea of fractions. I know this!!!

I know that, no matter what the math book says, kids need some time to play with and experiment with fractions.  I understand that people need time to process and to make sense of what they are learning.

And yet.

In the face of the stupid, irrelevant, pointless, totally-lacking-in-validity or reliability standardized state tests, I panicked and pushed and tried to force feed these children.  And when they failed to metabolize all of the nonsense, I reacted with anger and frustration.

Is this really the best we can do as educators? Is this really the best way to create those “Twenty first century thinkers”?

I am feeling truly ashamed of myself tonight.

Watch this video, and see what you think.


Meeting Mitt.

I know that this is not supposed to be a political blog, but my story is really about the ways in which my life as a mother, a teacher, and a progressive political thinker all came together one cold December afternoon.  My story is about my own personal, up-close encounter with the man who would be President.

This is the story of me and Mitt.

It was back in December of 2003.  I had been serving for three years on the School Committee in our small, rural town.  As a mother and a teacher, I thought that I could bring some experience and insight into School Committee Policy.

I won’t try to write about the whole four year School Committee experience, because the task of processing all that happened should really fall to a well trained and very patient psychologist.  Let me just say that by the end of my time on the Committee I was depressed, angry, demoralized and just plain worn down.  It was four years of trying to hold back a tidal wave with a fly swatter.  We got swamped.

One of the worst experiences was when the state of Massachusetts used the No-Child-Left-Behind law to label us as the very first “Underperforming District”.  Our tiny little town was suddenly dragged into the spotlight of education reform and the fingers of every education official from Boston to Washington seemed to be pointing straight at us.

Now, we didn’t really need the state to point out that we were a struggling district: as a School Committee member, I had participated in many, many discussions with local and state officials asking for more help. We needed more staff, updated books and materials, more training.  We knew that.

What we got wasn’t the help that we so desperately sought.  What we got was a big old whopping public humiliation in the form of the “Underperforming” label and a visit from the Governor of Massachusetts; none other than Mitt “I didn’t even know Massachusetts went this far west” Romney.  He came to speak to the students and parents and staff of the Winchendon Public Schools. We assumed that he came to offer support and encouragement. We were wrong. He came for the photo op.

The reason for this post is simple: as I watch Mr. Romney awkwardly and almost desperately trying to appear warm, compassionate and caring with the commoners, I can’t help but remember his visit to our small town.  Way back in December of 2003, Governor Romney showed his true, patrician, elitist self in his complete misunderstanding of how every person in that packed gymnasium was feeling.

Mitt Romney stood before 800 students and lectured them about not smoking or using drugs.  They had come to hear him explain how the state’s labeling of their school was going to improve their educations and their chances at college.  They had come hoping to hear some words of encouragement.

What they got was an hour of being chastised and put down.  Some of the more memorable parts of that speech come back to me all too clearly.  There was the moment when he told the students to “Concentrate on academics, not sports.  None of you are going to get to the Olympics.”  Not exactly a “Reach for your dreams” comment.  Then there was the moment when he warned them not to “ruin your lives and end your chances for success” by getting pregnant.  Gee thanks for encouraging our teen parents and telling them you’ll help them to finish their educations! (Bristol Palin wasn’t in the news yet, so I guess he thought it was OK to look down his nose at all those “fallen” young women.)

The highlight came, though, when the Governor finished touting the benefits of standardized testing and one of the high school seniors stepped forward with her multiply handicapped friend, gently holding his hand and leading him to the podium.  The young lady eloquently and sweetly introduced the student to the governor. She asked Mitt if he really thought it was fair to deny a diploma to students like her friend just because he would not be able to pass the state’s rigid standardized test. “What are these kids going to do? Where are these kids going to go to school?”, she asked.  In an uncanny preview of recent interactions, the governor responded awkwardly, hesitantly shaking the boy’s hand and then trotting out tired old platitudes about how testing kids would show the “old men” who run education what they needed to do to make it better.

In other words, he completely failed to understand or answer the question.  He failed to recognize the pain and frustration of the kids in the room, or to understand their fear of the future. How were they going to get into good colleges, they kept asking him, if they were graduates of the “Underperforming” district?  Was he planning to help them?

His answer: Don’t try to reach for your dreams as athletes. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t have sex.  In other words, “You are all failures.  And its your fault.”  Sound familiar?

After lecturing the students, the Governor deigned to have a meeting with about 30 parents, teachers and town officials.  He offered no help, no encouragement, no ideas.  He just told us to take this “opportunity” to make changes.  When a veteran kindergarten teacher began to speak about our desperate need to fund full-day kindergarten, the governor, to our horror and shock, rudely shushed the man and went on to tell us that we had to “make a plan”.  He not only didn’t understand us, he wouldn’t even listen to us.

I remember feeling angry, and very sad. I remember feeling confused, and after two hours in the Great Presence, I remember wondering what the hell the purpose of the whole event had been.

I knew one thing for sure, though; it hadn’t been planned to benefit our struggling community in any way.  It wasn’t for our benefit that the governor had taken the time to venture out to mingle with the riffraff.

Many thanks to the inestimable Julie Holly, who was present at both meetings, and whose memory of the day lead to this post.  You are a warrior woman, my friend!

If you want to read about the events of the day as recorded by an actual journalist, click right here.

Past my prime

So I’m thinking a lot about Michael Jordan.

He was the best at his job once upon a time. No one could touch him. He was grace, strength, agility, brains and beauty, all in one big, smiling, championship-winning man.  He was the epitome of basketball perfection.

But then he got kind of tired.  His knees lost some of their spring, his hands lost some of their quickness. His aggressive desire to win dropped back just a bit.   He was done. He retired.

I can so understand that.

We get to a point in our professional lives where we know we are not doing our best. We know that our skills and our finesse and our effortlessly winning ways are beginning to fade into that good night.  We begin to recognize that younger, quicker, sharper shooters are right on our heels, waiting to break our records.  We get a little intimidated, and we back away.

I’m kind of at that point.

I am the once popular, once admired, once successful fifth grade teacher.  I was amazing….once.

But my style of teaching goes back to a time that was way before the attack of the standardized tests.  Try as I might, I can’t quite grasp the concept of frequent, repetitive testing.  I don’t quite have the mental agility to test, teach, retest, teach again, retest and give a score.   I’m sort of stuck in the ancient and outdated world of “Learning how to think.”  I can’t keep up.

I know that there are fresh young faces out there who are gently awaiting my retirement.

Just like Michael Jordan, I am aware of the fact that I am no longer the one who will sell the most shoes.  I realize that I am the object of fond bemusement, as my young colleagues listen to me recalling older days.

But, see……..

These people don’t remember the time when our school was known all around the state for its innovative and creative curriculum.  I do!!  They don’t remember what it was like in the days when our entire staff stood up and protested against the introduction of state wide testing: I was one of those teachers!  They teach in a school building that they take for granted: I remember when we were housed in a building with no hot water, crumbling ceiling tiles and hugely overcrowded classrooms.  I remember holding meetings with town government leaders to show them how desperately we needed a new home. I was there!!!

But what I remember doesn’t matter.  What I did back then has no weight now. None of that has any relevance today.

Michael Jordan remembered Wilt Chamberlain; his successors didn’t. He remembered his rookie year.  Who cared?

Michael held on for too long. He tried to come back after his day was done.  We all watched with a mixture of admiration and pity.

The question for me now is this: how do I find that delicate point? How do I let go and move away when I am still at least somewhat successful, and before I become an object of disdain?

Michael?  Got any advice?

Publicize? Or not?


Taking a big old risk here.  I have a question for anyone out there who happens to have logged on (Patty, I know you are there!  Mom, you are, too! Auntie T, you are my best inspiration!)   I started this blog as therapy last September. I wrote my deepest pain and thorniest issues and every week more people seemed to be reading it. I was surprised and scared and thrilled. I mean, I’ll be honest, since the age of about 10, I thought that one day I would be a writer.  People I didn’t even KNOW were reading my words!  Yikes and yikes again!!

Then, after hitting a peak in April, my readers have fallen off sharply.  I am left with several questions, and I am asking you to answer them (please???? even if you are my friend or relation?)

1) Why do I care? Why am I reading the site stats anyway? If this is supposed to be therapy, does it matter if anyone reads it other than me?

2) Am I just plain whining at this point?  I mean, even I am confused by my mix of “where are my kids?” and “why are my kids all here all the time?”  Did I get wicked boring? (fishing…)

3) Since it is obvious that I DO, in fact, care……should I take some steps to get my blog “out there”?  Like, for example, should I turn on the “publicize” feature, which means that FB will announce each new blog? (cringe…….)

I feel embarrassed, sweaty, red faced and ridiculous when I envision my friends and relations thinking, “Oh, jeez, time to block her……”   I don’t want  people to read because they are feeling guilty (“I knew her in High School. I should just click on it….”).  But I really, really liked having those comments from people I didn’t know!  I got some from Europe!  And New Zealand!  Who WERE those people? And why did they read my little blog?

So….if you are one of the few folks left who is clicking on this blog….what do you advise?  Publicize, or just keep utilizing this wonderfully low cost therapy?  Enjoy the anonymity, or go for the public voice?     I am putting myself in your hands!  What do you say?

And I think you can log on without using your real name, if what you want to say is, “Seriously.  Stop it.”



You know how a piece of pottery can look solid and strong, and yet be covered in tiny cracks all over its surface?  When you first look at it, sitting on the mantle, it looks sturdy and solid.  You think that it can hold your fresh picked tulips without a problem.

But as you reach to take it down, to fill it with cool water and beautiful blossoms, your ring hits it.  Just a tiny tap, one you barely feel, and the vase shatters into a million little pieces at your feet.

All day yesterday, I was that vase.  Sturdy and secure at first glance, but ready to shatter nonetheless.

Perhaps it had something to do with the week of constant rain and fog.  Few things are more demoralizing than a cold, wet May.   Maybe it was the after-effects of administering all those damn standardized tests to those poor kids, or the panic in the school when one answer sheet was thought to have been misplaced for a few minutes.

It might be the sadness that I feel about the upcoming retirement of my long time friend and constant work ally.  Or my awareness that this school year is waning, and soon I’ll have to say good bye to these children that I have come to love so much.

Maybe it was the poor night’s sleep, the endless pile of paperwork on my desk, the steady stream of requests to do just one more thing before going home, the failure of key technology when I needed it to teach a lesson, or the headache that just wouldn’t loosen its grip.

I don’t know.

All I can tell you is that all day long I was that deceptively solid piece of pottery, fearing the one little tap that would send me smashing into a cascade of sparkling shards.

I held on tight, with both fists, to my dwindling self control until at last the day was over.

When I got home, Paul asked me how I was feeling.  For a minute I couldn’t find the right word.  Frustrated? Sad? Tired? All of the above, and more.

“Fragile”, I finally answered, heading straight to bed.


It is TEST day.

I have time to write this entry because I have been sitting for an hour and a half  in a completely silent classroom, where 24 fifth graders are toiling painfully to complete “Session One of the ELA Reading Comprehension Test”.

Although I have tried very, very hard to present the testing in a casual, stress-free way, the tension in the room is palpable.

Maybe because I had to tell them that they are not allowed to leave the room except to go to the bathroom, due to test security demands. Maybe because I had to read the directions about “the use of cell phones or other electronic devices is strictly prohibited.”  Maybe because they hear the news, see the pepers, listen to adult discussions. Maybe because no matter how much I tell them “just do your best”, they live in fear that their “best” isn’t quite good enough.

I look out at the room.  Two children have already been fighting tears.  One is new to the state, and hasn’t taken this particular test before. He wasn’t sure where to put the answers on the first few items.  One is a struggling reader with attention issues.  She has asked me to clarify things for her three times, but I am not allowed to help her.

Those are the worst words that I say all year, and I will say them over and over again during these testing days.  “I’m sorry.  I can’t help you, honey.”

I see flushed faces, and shaking hands.  I hear feet tapping, fingers drumming and pencils being chewed.  I can almost feel the racing hearts.

They are ten and eleven years old.  They are not built to sit still and concentrate for an hour and a half. They are not meant to bear the reputation of the school or the district on their small shoulders.