Dear Betsy DeVos, Class Size Matters

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Our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has done it again ladies and gentlemen. In a budget proposal that would cut federal education spending, she claims that:

“Students may be better served being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high quality and outstanding results.”

I’m just gonna leave that right there and let it marinate for a second. 

Okay, now that it’s had some time to simmer…when defending this outrageous comment, Betsy DeVos went on to say that some students may learn better in larger settings because they have more students to collaborate with in the classroom. She tried it!

I could easily find studies that corroborate the fact that smaller class sizes positively affect students. Or, I could visit just about any school in America and ask the teachers and students if they would prefer small or large class sizes to meet the learning needs of students. I’d bet money (and if you know me, that’s saying a lot because I’m quite frugal) that the resounding answer would be in favor of smaller class sizes.

This upsets me so much that I don’t even know where to start. As a teacher for nearly a decade, my class size ranged from 18 to 25 students. That year where I had 18 was beyond amazing; fewer small groups, more one-on-one conferencing…every teacher’s dream. On average, I’d say I was right around 22 students. And let me tell you Betsy, those extra bodies make a difference.

Smaller class sizes allow teachers to differentiate instruction. Even the most skilled teacher would find it difficult to meet the needs of all students in a larger class size. Indulge me for a second as I give Betsy a quick lesson on Lev Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development. In a nutshell, ZPD refers to the sweet spot when a learner can almost complete a task independently but still requires some guidance from a teacher or collaboration with a peer who has mastered the specific task.

As I typed that, I could hear Kanye saying, “Don’t let me into my zone. I’m definitely in my zone. Zone, zone, zone, zone, zone.” Well, Betsy, it will be more difficult for teachers to meet students in their respective zones when educators are trying to meet the needs of even more students. 

Now, Betsy may try to use ZPD to justify her stance by focusing on collaboration with peers. Contrary to what she may think, larger class size does not necessarily beget more collaboration. Students can collaborate without adding more students to the mix. With a larger class size, teachers will have to be even more intentional about organizing heterogeneous groups, and they will have to be on top of classroom management and leadership, all while taking into account the various learning needs, styles, and personalities of more students. Geez, just thinking about that gives me a headache, which brings me to my next point.

Does our Secretary of Education not realize that the teacher burnout struggle is real? If she truly understood the severity of the struggle, I find it hard to believe that reducing the number of teachers and increasing class size would be the solution. With larger class sizes, the burden placed on teachers would be even heavier. Differentiating instruction, providing quality feedback, maintaining relationships…how can a teacher accomplish all of this without burning out? Betsy is sitting here talking about hiring fewer teachers, it’s difficult to retain the teachers we already have!

Now she did touch on one thing that needs more attention…better compensation for teachers. Though, I repeat, I strongly disagree with her proposal to make it happen. In terms of compensation, how about we just give teachers what they deserve in the first place?! Pay teachers what they deserve, give them the support they need, and maybe, just maybe the state of education will improve. Invest in education, it’s not rocket science.

So Betsy, in case you didn’t know…size matters and when it comes to educating our children, a larger class size isn’t better. In fact, students and teachers deserve smaller class sizes where the student to teacher ratio is more manageable resulting in stronger relationships, differentiated instruction, and more powerful interactions throughout the day, all reducing the likelihood of teacher burnout. Betsy DeVos continues to make it abundantly clear that she is not the right person for this job. Fewer teachers plus larger class sizes was not, is not, will never be the answer! My Teacher Said.jpg

~ Marissa

Separate and Unequal (Black-ish Spoiler Alert)

I’m new to the “Black-ish” bandwagon.  So far, I appreciate how the show utilizes humor to discuss real issues.  Like the episode that tackles Columbus Day, which in my opinion, could be used in a cultural competency course.  Most recently, the episode titled, “Public Fool,” which addresses private versus public schools and the dilemma that many families face.

Before I proceed, let me say, “spoiler alert.”  In this episode, Junior gets expelled from his private school.  After failed attempts at gaining access to another private school, Pops says, “You should send Junior to the local public school.  What’s the point of spending all this money to live in this damn neighborhood if you’re gonna turn your nose up at the school that’s right down the street?”  The fictional Johnsons are a wealthy family, led by a mother who is an anesthesiologist, and a father who is an advertising executive.  They can afford to live in an area with quality public schools.

Sadly, this predicament is not a fictional one.  It reminds me of a conversation I had with a parent who said it cost a pretty penny to send her child to a local school.  I agreed, then did a double take because I remembered her child attended a public school.  The parent then replied, “I was talking about the mortgage to live near a quality public school.”

Even 63 years after Brown v. Board, all public schools are not created equally.  As Dre put it, “Black folks got hit with the okey doke,” which Urban Dictionary defines as a scam, an untruth, fraud.   In some areas, public schools look more like private schools.  In other areas…well, let’s just say public schools look nothing like private schools or public schools in more affluent neighborhoods.  The okey doke, indeed.

As an educator who spent my teaching career in Title I schools, this is a topic that is near to me.  Most recently, I taught at a 40-40 school in the nation’s capital, which means that according to district accountability measures, we were one of the forty lowest-performing schools in the DC Public School system.  My favorite section of my classroom was a little corner with a poster that reads, “No matter who you are…or where you’re from…your future is up to you.” I coupled the sign with a Stanford banner, to remind my students that one’s zip code does not determine his or her future.  I’d like to believe this sentiment is true, but it can be hard when there are so many obstacles.  Nonetheless, I continue to believe that it is important to encourage young people to believe and dream beyond their circumstances …beyond their present comprehension.

During a recent visit to my former students as I prepare to move to California, one student that I taught two years ago asked to come with me so she can go to Stanford.  Of course I know how much positive impact our school has on our students and their families, but at times it just didn’t feel like enough.

As I watch this episode of “Black-ish” and type this, I feel guilty that I’m taking a break from the classroom because I feel like my students need me.  Unfortunately, the state of education that results from being separate and unequal is the reason why I felt the need to take a break.  Lack of resources, lack of support, growing demands, lack of time, the emphasis on mastery without celebrating growth.  The list goes on…and on, and on.  These circumstances impact our work as teachers, which then affect our students.

In the end, Junior is a fan of the public school.  For the first time in his educational career, he’s not one of the only Black students, he has Black teachers, and a vending machine with soda (insert side eye).  While this episode was intended to make light of a situation, it sheds light on the state of education.  I believe public schools have potential that has yet to be realized.  Maybe it can be attributed to institutional racism, or maybe it’s merely a matter of not knowing where to start.  Either way, something needs to be done.   

All this to say that we are still separate, still not equal.  But at this point, would equality be enough? That’s gonna be a hard no for me.  We need equity.  

~ Marissa

Hanging Up My Sweater: Why I’m Taking A Break from the Classroom

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Today, as I’ve done for nearly a decade, I’m up around 4:45 and I turn on the TV to catch part of a Law & Order SVU episode.  Then, to have something a bit lighter, I watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother.  Finally, I turn to the news to get an idea of the weather for the day.  It’s starting out cool, which sounds like the perfect excuse to put on a dress coupled with my favorite teaching sweater.  For some reason, I’m all about a good teaching sweater.  After donning my sweater, I hop in my car and prepare to teach the future.  Today, this preparation includes listening to some mellow music, though other days I opt for something a bit more hype.

Going into the profession, I saw myself sitting criss-cross applesauce until retiring, or until I was no longer able to get up and down easily and had to sit in a chair on the carpet.  Either way, I planned to be in the classroom for the long haul.  Regretfully, after nearly a decade of ups and downs that will no longer be the case.

Throughout the current school year, I have gone back and forth about whether I would return to the classroom next year.  Even after the doctor ordered me to take time off from work for a few days due to stress that had manifested itself in a physical way, I was still debating.  I wanted to be there for my current and future students, but I also needed to be there for myself.  Finally, in April I declared my intent not to return.  I’d probably still be debating today (the last day of school) but we must declare our intent in April or incur a fine if we leave.

During the time where I was trying to figure out my future in the classroom, I created numerous pro-con lists, talked to friends and family who’d heard my teaching stories, and talked to a handful of colleagues that I trusted.  Some days, I felt relieved at the thought of the quality of life that I would gain by not returning.  Other days, I felt guilty at the thought of abandoning my kids – those I’d taught in past years and who visit me most mornings before going to class, and those I have yet to meet.  Yesterday, I told one of my students from last year that I wouldn’t be returning next year, she hugged me tight and said, “No, you can’t leave me.”  I felt (and still feel) like I needed to be there for my past, current, and future students, and by not being there, I’m letting them down.

I recently read an article that highlighted the problem of teachers leaving mid-year.  I became so upset reading the article and the insinuation that only ineffective teachers leave, or that when teachers leave, they’re not thinking about the students.  The misconception portrayed by the article has become my obsession.  It may be easier to believe that teachers leave because they themselves are ineffective.  It gives us a target towards which to point a finger of blame whenever something goes amiss in the classroom.  The reality, though, is that sometimes good teachers, dedicated teachers, simply cannot take it anymore.  My kids count for about 10 reasons to stay for every con that I wrote on my list.  At the end of the day, though, the cons won.

A major con was getting over the system that has become education in America.  As a teacher, there are so many things that are beyond my control.  Lack of physical resources, deliverables, professional development that’s not differentiated (which is ironic since teachers are expected to differentiate our lessons), lack of time to address social-emotional needs, just to name a few.  There’s only so much I can do since I feel that I have very little control.  Of all the things that are beyond my control, I’ve found it most difficult to meet my students’ needs while meeting district requirements.

I constantly struggle between doing what is developmentally appropriate for my students and keeping my job.  When I moved to kindergarten, I was so excited about the dramatic play materials I planned to buy.  I remember asking a colleague who’d been teaching kindergarten for nearly 30 years for recommendations and she regretfully informed me that dramatic play has disappeared from kindergarten.

When I tell people that I teach kindergarten, one of their first responses is, “Aww, how cute.” Yes, my kids are super cute, however, the art of teaching kindergarten isn’t as “cute” as one may think.  Dramatic play has been replaced by close reading, guided reading, guided math, tracking data, identifying sight words, number sentences, articulating strategies to solve word problems, accountable talk, and weekly assessments.  Anything else is not considered time-on-task or teaching with a sense of urgency.  They don’t have time to just be cute kids, particularly when I know (and am constantly reminded of) what’s at stake with their education.  Kindergarten looks more like first grade.

When I break out something exciting like blocks (which I often reserve for Fun Friday), I make sure I have an exit ticket and pray an evaluator doesn’t walk in the room.  Though it may not look like it, they’re learning through play, which is an authentic form of learning.  They’re building, problem-solving, sharing, talking – this is learning!  But like I said, due to the fear of getting a low evaluation score (which is tied to both my pay and keeping my job), activities like blocks and puzzles are reserved for Fun Friday.

All of that to say, I’m taking a break from a system where I feel like I’m contributing to the problem instead of the solution.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids are learning.  I’ve taught them to read, write, solve math problems, and to be good people, all while building genuine relationships with my students.  Unfortunately, this teaching and learning is not taking place in an ideal environment.  It’s an environment where I’m constantly afraid of who may walk into my classroom and what they’ll say or think upon leaving.

Teachers are often evaluated on rather minimal evidence of our practice.  Maybe on a 30-minute classroom observation or test scores as evidence of students’ mastery of skills and standards at the end of the year.  Some people who are charged with evaluating teachers or determining mandates have unrealistic expectations of what teaching and learning look like, sound like, and feel like.  I maintain high expectations and strive for mastery, but these expectations can take a toll on teachers.  This is especially the case in an environment where the primary focus is a specific level of mastery instead of growth.

For me, this step away from the classroom is also about self-care and preservation, which is a topic that is often overlooked when discussing teacher retention.  While advocating for my students, I find that I am also advocating for myself and my own educational philosophy.  So many times, I’ve fought to have my students’ growth recognized, which (on occasion) had a modest impact on my evaluation scores.  The constant fighting can be draining.  I’m stressed, and more importantly, the kids are stressed.  The thought of a kindergarten student being stressed and knowing that they have at least 12 years of school remaining breaks my heart.  In such a stressful environment, teaching isn’t sustainable.  I’ve realized that there’s no way I can be there for my students if I’m not first taken care of…it’s just not possible.

Usually, I play “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince to celebrate my final day of school as I’m cleaning up my classroom before leaving for the summer break.  I haven’t decided if I’ll play it today because I imagine I’ll be in a somber mood as I’m packing up my belongings for the never-ending summer.  I will try to be a little happy as I embark on a new journey.  I have always been, and am confident I will remain, passionate about helping young people.  I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do just that through my part-time work, which is also in the field of education.  In the meantime, I plan to kick off my mini-sabbatical with some travel, which is made possible by my frugal tendencies.  It’s scary, overwhelming, and exciting at the same time.  Feel free to follow me as I embark on a new journey.  I hope that this journey will rejuvenate me and that I will make my way back to the classroom at some point.

For now, I will put on my favorite teaching sweater and enjoy my last day in the classroom.  I will reflect on my teaching experience, which was filled with many lessons that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person.  It has been as much a pleasure to learn from my students as it has been to teach them.  I can only hope that the lessons I have imparted on them have a lasting impact on their academic careers, and equally important, their character.


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Hidden Figures – Through A Teacher’s Eyes

 

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I saw Hidden Figures for a second time on Saturday.  Seeing this movie as Marissa and as Ms. M were two very different experiences.  During the former viewing, my friend and I laughed, cried, whispered “Yass” coupled with snaps when one character’s future husband said the day they met, he called his mother and asked for her ring.  Seeing it as Ms. M was extremely different.  I found myself explaining vocabulary, asking them to make predictions, feeling proud when they asked questions. The people in the row behind us were probably annoyed…guess there were some similarities to the time I saw it with my friend.

When I saw the movie as Marissa, there were scenes where I experienced anger to the point I was in tears.  As Ms. M, I had to hide some of my reactions because I did not want to shape my students’ opinions.  Kids really do pick up on everything.  At one point, I laughed and one of my kids started laughing.  When I asked what she found funny, she responded, “I don’t know, but you’re laughing.”  All that to say, kids pay close attention to adults and we shape their views, even without realizing.

When I watched the movie with my students, I let their questions guide our discussion.  Yes, we were having mini-discussions during the movie, but we were using level one voices.  Some questions were simple, like what does female mean.  This made me realize I should have front-loaded some vocabulary.  Other questions were a bit more difficult to answer, like what is segregation?  As I briefly explained that one, I started thinking about Brown v. Board and realized that I could probably use my students’ experiences in the school to explain that one.  I didn’t go there, though I could talk for hours about separate but equal aka separate and unequal…but we’ll discuss that in a future post.  We also talked about why they put the colored label on the coffee pot, the significance of knocking down the colored sign for the restrooms, sitting in the back of the bus.

If I had more time, and the ability to pause and rewind, we’d really chat.  We could talk in detail about women in the workplace, segregation, the importance of education, colorism.  That last one may sound a bit random, but it was inspired by a brief conversation between two of my girls after the movie.  I overheard one say she would go to either bathroom because she’s light skin.  Before I could chime in, they were back to skipping on the sidewalk.  I think color in the classroom (and beyond) deserves its own post.

My kids are five, so I know a lot of the content in the movie went over their heads, partially because the movie was kind of long and their attention was fading.  Still, there were some things they got.  In the opening scene, one of them said, “Look, it’s a trapezoid.”  I couldn’t even get upset at the fact that she wasn’t using a level one voice because the teacher in me was so happy that something from our geometry unit stuck.  There was also the moment when one student whispered to another, “Watch, I bet she’s going to the bathroom.”  In my mind I’m like, yes, a prediction!  The moment when one student angrily stated, “He slammed the door in her face.”  Or the scene where Katherine Johnson returned from the bathroom, drenched, and one of my kids asked if she’ll still work there.

I can’t be 100% sure what they understood in the movie, what will stick with them a year from now, a day from now, or even what stuck once we walked out the theater.  The only thing I’m certain of is this, the discussions we had, their excitement…it was worth being Ms. M for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.

~ Marissa’s Teachable Moments

 

 

 

Teach the Vote

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A few weeks ago, we read a book that mentioned a president.  Something made me ask my kids the name of our president.  The responses ranged from “Washington, D.C.” to “Dr. King.”  After about ten guesses, one student finally said, “Barack Obama.”  While my students may be too young to vote, they’re not too young to be affected by the impending election.

As adults, we’re in unique positions where kids are watching our every move.  Seriously, I forget how closely they’re watching until I overhear my students playing teacher; my kids even have my mannerisms down.  Since children are impressionable, I feel the need to express the importance of fulfilling my civic duty without compelling my students to adopt my beliefs.  Instead, I think it’s important that we expose them to as much useful and neutral information as possible.  I’m especially moved to do that this year when we have a candidate who spouts lines like, “Our inner cities are a disaster…they have no education, they have no jobs.”  So, here are a few tried and tested ways to talk to your students about voting.

The Sticker

I plan to wear my, “I Voted” sticker on my face tomorrow.  My kids are infatuated with stickers; I don’t understand it, but I plan to use it to my advantage.  I know my kids will be drawn to the sticker, which will lead to tons of questions.

Talk About It

It’s okay to talk to children about the election.  In fact, I tell them that I like to make informed decisions so talking about it will help them be informed.  Talking about it will look different for parents and teachers.  As a teacher, I am very careful not to push my beliefs on my students.  Still, provide information, answer questions, and encourage them to talk with their parents.

Rock the Vote

Lead by example.  Take your kids to the poll.  During the primary election, I ran into a student from my first year of teaching at my polling place.  It was great to see her there, watching her mother cast a vote.  Children often follow our lead, so why not set an example of casting a vote.  I still remember going to the polling place with my mom as a kid; it’s something that sticks with you.

Rock the Vote, Again

Tomorrow I’ll be reading Duck for President, which has proven to be a hit for eight years running.  My students will then vote on measures like, extra recess, pizza toppings since we recently earned a pizza party – you know, important stuff.

Another good read if time permits, Grace for President.  Then you can have your kids cast a vote for the candidate (Grace or Duck) of their choice. If you choose to read this book alone, it can be used to discuss the significance of “A girl president,” as Grace calls it in the book.

Okay, that’s all I have for now.  Even though we gained an hour, daylight savings time is not my friend right now.  Plus, I still need to get ready for my job, which just so happens to entail educating “The African Americans” and “The Latinos” in an inner city.  Note: Please read “the” with extreme sarcasm.

So, whether you’re #WithHer or looking to get #Trumped, happy voting,

Marissa’s Teachable Moments