“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  I put on a fabulous (if outdated) playlist of inspirational songs, and the kids got themselves all psyched up and ready to go.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.



As a teacher, I am constantly thinking about and channeling memories of my own children, grown though they may be. At least ten times every day, one of my students reminds me in some way of one of my kids, and I am swept back into my past.

And every time that I spend time now with my all-grown-up kids, I find myself thinking about my students.

My worlds often coexist inside my mind.

Today, though, I had the very great pleasure of having my two loves overlap.

It was kind of a long day, with a full morning of state tests taking up the largest part of the day. I had kids in tears, kids asking for the nurse, kids with strep who came because it was the big test day, and kids who blew their noses fifty times in an hour and then shoved all the soggy, packed tissues into a tupperware on their desks.  It was a LONG morning.

After lunch, I read to everyone, and then gave them all cameras and iPods so they could take pictures for a book project that we are just about to begin.

With a half hour left in the day, I got a call from the school office.

“Karen, you have a visitor. Can I send him up?”

It was my son, Tim; my baby boy.  I knew that he was coming from college today to meet my husband for a hockey tournament.  I knew that there was a chance that he’d decide to meet his Dad at my school, in its central location. I knew that there was a chance he’d arrive before the end of the school day.

So all day today, as I corrected and filed and proctored and encouraged and monitored everyone, my mind kept rushing to the thought “Tim is coming!”


Its hard to describe the lifting, soaring emotion that goes with the thought of seeing and hugging one of my babies.  It fills the whole mundane, prosaic day with a sense of magic and joy.

Its as if someone is lighting a candle in my heart.

So the office called, and my tired, stressed out students began to giggle and buzz and chatter.  You see, they hear about my boys every day, but they have never met either one of them.  They were all excited to think of Tim’s arrival in their classroom.

Before he got there, the kids and I made a plan.  “OK”, I urged them, “you all need to look bored and tired and totally down. If you can squeeze out a tear of misery, that would be great!”  As Tim came down the hall, the kids all slumped into their seats, heads in their hands, frowns firmly in place.    I launched into my mean old woman role.

“So….I expect you all to do that math homework this weekend!  NOBODY can have any fun!”, I barked. “And you all need to hand in your…um…15 page report on…..um…the, ah…the age of the universe!” I finally took a breath and pretended to be surprised to see Tim at the door.

He was grinning, the students were giggling, and I was smiling from ear to ear.

For the next half hour, I had the surreal pleasure of watching my son, in his adult role, interacting with my fifth grade students.  I noticed the kids who suddenly became giddy, the ones who had a hundred questions for Tim, and the ones who developed an immediate crush.

I saw Tim reacting to them, and I saw him watching me in my place of comfort and security.  And my worlds collided and overlapped for that short time, and I was overwhelmed by the power of the moment.

I love my boy so much.   My students let me relive and remember just how much I do love him and his siblings. And my love for my own children is what lets me be patient and loving with my students.

What a funny, emotional, powerful half hour I had today!

Now I just hope I can coax Matt into my classroom!

One step forward

Teaching is so much like parenting. Some days everything just flows along like a beautiful river, and I end the day feeling successful and confident.  Some days I know what I am doing and I am sure that my efforts are paying off.

But sometimes life just gets in the way of my best intentions.  The weather turns hot in March, and no one can concentrate. The computer decides to freeze and I have to try to reboot, restart and reorganize while keeping 25 eleven year olds from getting crazy. Some days I go home wondering what on earth I am doing here.

Sometimes I have days like the one I had on Wednesday.  I got to school at 7 AM, needing an hour to get ready for state testing and to set up the classroom of a colleague who was unexpectedly at home with a sick child.  At 7:05 another colleague came into my room to discuss a child needing support services, and we talked until 7:30, when yet another came in to ask some questions about the testing.  The students arrived, the testing began, and dragged on until lunch. I had a meeting during my lunch “break”, and when I went to get the students from recess, I was met by three adults who were up in arms about the terrible behavior of many of my students.

My heart sank, and I just wanted to lie down and cry.  You see, I pride myself on the social interactions of my students. Fifth grade is a very tender time in the lives of children; they are just beginning to understand the impact that they have on those around them. They are just beginning to spread their wings and try out their personalities. They are on the cusp of figuring out where they fit in the greater community around them. We work on these issues every single day in our classroom. Every single day.

Fifth graders can be sweet, kind, caring, cruel, insensitive, selfish, loving, funny, warm, demanding and exasperating.  They are human!

On Wednesday, it seems,  they discovered the power of mob mentality.  One boy made a joke, which their vulnerable classmate misunderstood.  The joke was then passed around and repeated; with each repetition, the target reacted more strongly, until he suddenly lashed out and hit.  Adults were alerted, the group was rounded up and soundly reprimanded.

Then they were sent to me, the one in charge.

I sat them down, minus the target,  who was at a separate lesson with one of the special education staff.  As I looked around the circle of faces, my heart really ached.  Like a Mom, I took in each familiar feature and felt a surge of conflicting emotions; love, sadness, worry, resignation and a big pile of anger.  I am SO tired of dealing with the social lives of children! I am SO tired of repeating over and over and over again that we are a community, and that we must all feel valued in that community.   I am out of ideas, out of gas, out of energy, out of patience.

More than anything, I wanted to look out at all of them and just say, “What the HELL?”  But, like a Mom, I held myself in check. Instead I asked, “Do you know what it means to be vulnerable?”  I asked them what they knew about feeling different, feeling alone, feeling unsure.  I described what I had been told about the recess events, and asked them to think about how if felt to be on the receiving end of that “joke”.  Then I said more than I meant to say, and my voice shook with the emotion I was feeling.

“I can’t make you be a good person.” I told them.  “Your parents can’t do that. No one can do that for you.  You are the only one who can decide who you want to be. You will face a thousand choices a day, and every time, you have to ask yourself, ‘How do I want the world to see me?'”  I looked slowly from one face to the next.  Eyes were averted, tears were evident, hands were held over mouths.  I waited in silence, letting the lesson sink in.  I wasn’t sure what to do, how to react.  I hadn’t been out there, I hadn’t seen what had happened.  The adults who did see and hear the teasing had different descriptions of the events. I wasn’t sure about where to place blame. I wasn’t sure of what the consequences should be.

I decided that if I was going to stick to my theme of personal responsibility, I would put these decisions in the kids’ own hands. I wanted them to look at the truth, to accept responsibility, to take ownership of the hurt feelings that they had caused.

So I gave them all my “business card” (when teachers get their mandatory pictures taken in the fall, the photo company gives us 200 complimentary cards.  Why on earth would we need them?).  Each student now had a way to email me.  I told them to think carefully about what had happened, and if they felt that they should have a consequence, they should tell me privately, either by email or in my “mailbox” in the classroom.   I wasn’t sure what would happen, and I worried that there would be no punishment for the bad choices that had been made.

Today is Friday. It is 75 degrees with a perfect blue sky.  The trees are budding and the playground is filled with laughing children.  I sit here typing this post, while nine fifth graders read silently at their desks.  They made the choice to own up to what they had done and to try to make amends.

Like a parent, sometimes a teacher can be surprised to find that her lessons really are being learned!

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.