19 Year Old College Student From New Jersey Gets It, So Why Can’t Markell and Rodel?

Last night I had the extreme pleasure of reading a newer blog called The Educational Activist: From Student To Teacher.  I saw a ton of people talking about it on Twitter, so I checked it out.  I was speechless because it was so awesome!  I quickly read her other articles, and I was struck by her simple brilliance on the state of education in New Jersey and America.  We don’t hear from young college students like her too much.  We do hear about the Teach For America people who think they are the best thing to hit education since the black board.

Mel Katz is my new hero!  We have a lot in common.  We search for the truth and attend board meetings and make public comment and we say things that will piss people off.  But we also know if we didn’t say these things we wouldn’t be true to ourselves.  Her Hespe is my Mark Murphy, Governor Markell and Rodel.

I’ve wondered for a while now why more parents aren’t speaking out against Common Core.  I’ve started to realize they may not have a reason to.  Until something bad happens with your child, why would anyone question education?  I have a sinking feeling many parents will cross this Rubicon next Spring when the Smarter Balanced Assessment and PARCC tests roll out in the Common Core states.

In the meantime, please read Mel Katz’ article.  She gave me her permission to copy it in its entirety, but please go to her blog and check out her other articles.  She is something special, and I have no doubt she will be an excellent teacher!  To me, Mel Katz is an inspiration and she has actually renewed my hope for the future.  We just have to get rid of all these ed reform idiots first!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Dear Commissioner Hespe: This is Personal.

Dear Commissioner David Hespe and the New Jersey Department of Education:

I am really at a loss of words for where to begin on this latest memo – and trust me, I’m never at a loss for words when it comes to discussing education. So I figure, let me start by telling you a little bit about myself and my schooling experience.

[For more factual based arguments regarding the newest Department of Education memo, see the incredible Ani McHugh here, and parent Sarah Blaine here.]

I always loved school. But more than that, I always loved learning, which in many cases is lost in school due to the current test-and-punish tactics. I would spend my free time playing teacher and school (and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m enrolled in the 5-year Masters Urban Education program at The College of New Jersey). I would spend my time doing long division problems at my Grandparent’s kitchen table because I loved the feeling of successfully finishing a math problem – I also just loved math, which I was two years ahead in all the way through the beginnings of high school. I would spend my free time writing stories, plays, creative pieces, poetry, and anything else that the pencil would draft because I simply loved the feeling of being creative. I loved science because my Father and Grandfather, both scientists, would come into school and do experiments with my class and sometimes the entire grade level. I loved art and social studies and music (the clarinet managed to last two years in my hands!). I loved learning and to me, school was the place that happened. How naive I was.

This was all until I reached high school, where I could not handle the pressure. I had suffered from minor school anxiety in middle school, but I did very well with the support of my parents and teachers. And despite suffering from minor school anxiety, I still enjoyed going to school. High school was a different story. On my first day of high school, I walked in, froze at the entrance, and found myself in the counselor’s office. I remember saying, “I just can’t handle the pressure.” This was the first day of school – we hadn’t even done anything yet. All I had running through my mind was, “Everything you do matters. How will I do on my SAT’s? What college am I going to? Do I have enough extracurriculars? What if I fail my final exams?” All through middle school I was reminded how scary, hard, and high-pressure/high-stakes high school was going to be, and it got to me.

Omitting the long, boring details, I ended up being diagnosed with severe school and separation anxiety. I was homeschooled for four months during my sophomore year, four years ago almost to the day: the very end of October, November, December, January, and February, and then slowly started attending one class a day until I was back in school fully around April/May. It was the absolute worst experience of my life and exposed me to the ugly side of “schooling.” I remember sitting in the counselor’s office and having a school administrator say to me, “I don’t get it. Why can’t you just go to school like everyone else?” I felt worthless, stupid, and I genuinely didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to school like everyone else. This experience destroyed my love of learning.

Math, science, English – these are all subjects I still struggle with through college. All I think when I don’t know the answer on a test is, “Why couldn’t you go to school like everyone else? You’re so stupid, you don’t know this answer. What is wrong with you?” I was damaged by the high-stakes pressure, and I will forever suffer from that.

But I made it out okay. I survived the system, and still recognize that things I went through in school don’t even compare to what students in other places go through and suffer from – the impacts of poverty, closing of neighborhood schools, underfunding, no textbooks, lack of teachers and 40 students in a class; the list is endless. I made it out okay because I had a teacher who taught me that I could be a successful learner, despite what my SAT/HSPA score or any other test score said.

Yes, a teacher saved me. Hear that? A teacher. During my junior year I met the most unconventional teacher I’ve ever had. When we first met, I remember thinking this guy is a little weird. He did something I had never really been exposed to before: he taught us through discussion – sometimes very serious and sometimes more lighthearted – debate, reflections, personal experiences, guest speakers, and focused around current events that impacted our lives that we could connect to. Little did I know at that time that he would end up teaching me the greatest lesson I have ever learned, and one I needed at this time in my life: I was enough. It didn’t matter what my test scores said, and my love of learning would trump anything that a test could ever say about me.

I will never forget the words he said to me, in part:

“…’New beginnings’ weren’t on any of the tests you were given over the past 12 years of your formal public education. But that’s ok. Why? Because I know you’ll figure it out. In the grand scheme of things, there are infinitely more activities that you should devote your time and energy to. You’re smart enough to examine multiple career paths and hard-working enough to be successful at whatever path you choose. But there’s more to life than choosing a career path. There are responsibilities that come with being ‘educated.’ Please do me a personal favor. Never stop asking the questions that make policy makers and people in authority uncomfortable. Some people make a good living doing that. If you ever decide to have children or become an educational professional, fight for what is really important: their ability to learn and their LOVE of learning. Learning doesn’t look like school, but school should look more like learning. The keepers of the ‘status-quo’ will be tough to combat, but not impossible. They fold like a cheap suit when populations become increasingly self-aware and question their leadership. Be a leader and a source of inspiration for people who are desperate for good leadership…”

These words are framed above my desk. They are what keep me going when the system tries to tell me otherwise. My teachers supported me through everything I went through, when they knew the system was crushing me from the inside. I am beyond thankful that I had people who believe in me, supported me, and guided me, despite being a part of a system that currently doesn’t support different types of learners.

Humanity and respect have been lost in the discussion. Humanity and respect for students, teachers, and parents have been lost in the discussion.

As parent and former teacher Sarah Blaine writes:

“But unless I’m fundamentally misreading this memo, Hespe appears to be encouraging districts to adopt sit and stare policies in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting their kids out.

Bring it on, Acting Commissioner Hespe. Bring it.

It appears to me that you’re taking a page from your boss’s playbook by telling those of us who disagree with you to ‘sit down and shut up.’

It appears to me, Acting Commissioner Hespe, that you’re trying to bully those of us who do not see the value in your precious PARCC tests by punishing our children.

That’s low, Acting Commissioner. Really low. And do you know what? You don’t intimidate me. All you’ve done is piss me off. And Acting Commissioner, I’ll tell you this: pissing off parents — and voters — like me is probably not the way to ensure the long-term success of your policies. You were just a faceless bureaucrat. Now I want to get you fired. You deserve no less for attempting to bully parents by punishing our children.”

You’ve pissed me off too, Commissioner, because our students deserve better: they deserve respect and to be treated as humans, not testing machines used to further the state’s unproven and untested “reforms.”

When I started this blog, I never intended it to be about me. This was a way to share my experiences, share the knowledge I have, and connect with others who can and have taught me so much about education, learning, schooling, and the “reform movement.” But this is personal. As a student and future teacher, this is an attack on me, my fellow students, fellow future (and current) teachers, and parents (hint: they’re really not the ones to piss off). This attack, I’m hoping, is going to shed light on the damage of these reforms in our schools, and push more parents to refuse the test as a way to fight for the education ALL of our children deserve: a well-rounded education that supports whatever type of learner they are, and doesn’t boil them down to one score that, in the grand scheme of life, means nothing.

As a current student and future teacher, I will not stop fighting until I know my students one day will be treated as humans, as learners, and as explorers. I will not stop fighting until there is equitable education for all – for students who can’t test well, but are brilliant artists. For students who can’t test well, but make the most beautiful music to ever grace our ears. For the students who can’t test well, but are math geniuses. For the students who can’t test well but are our future teachers, scientists, dreamers, inventors, dancers, artists, musicians, historians, or whatever their passion is.

We must move away from the test-and-punish regime in education before we destroy the love of learning for students, no matter what they love or how they learn. We owe this to them and the future of education in this country.

Please check out The Education Activist: From Student To Teacher at http://theeducationactivist.blogspot.com/