Anticipation…

As you may have noticed, I blog a lot about the Jeffco school board—the politics, the lack of respect for teacher and community input.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s best just to give readers insight into me, my classroom, what makes me tick as a teacher, because I think it will lend insight into teachers as a whole.

So today I’m going to tell you how ridiculously excited I am to be starting a ninth grade ACE class at Columbine High School in the fall.  First, ACE stands for Alternative Cooperative Education, and it is geared toward at-risk students.  Unlike other classes at Columbine, this one meets every day and counts for two credits, but for all other classes, they’re with the rest of the students in the school.  For around 20 years, ACE classes have existed only for juniors and seniors at Columbine.  It was designated for higher grades because we didn’t want to “label” students “too early.”  For years, I have been frustrated, because I kept thinking I could have done so much more for my students if I could have gotten to them before they dug a hole so deep in failed classes and missed credits that they gave up hope.  At last, we realize that ninth grade ACE isn’t labeling kids too early; it’s intervening in time.

As a 15-year+ veteran ACE teacher, I have been consistently challenged teaching a class filled with 16-18-year olds who generally don’t get the relevance of school and often don’t much like authority figures.  It’s been rewarding beyond measure to get to know them, learn their stories, earn their trust and respect, and more often than not, see them graduate.  A few weeks ago, I got to meet a boy who will be one of next year’s freshman ACE kids, and he was so, so young!  The reality of a class of 30 at-risk 14-year-olds hit home full force.  I was filled with a mix of anxiety and excitement I can’t begin to explain.  Oh, the challenge, and oh, the promise!

Freshmen, under any circumstances, are a very different critter than juniors.  They are more physical, more impulsive; their attention is harder to keep.  But they are easier to shape, in the long run.  For those who use drugs, I’m getting to them much sooner, before those drugs can annihilate their first two years of high school.  I can teach them to be proactive at school.  I can engage them about the pitfalls that imperil high school before they fall headfirst into them.  Oh, they’ll trip into some of them anyway, I know, but maybe fewer, and hopefully not headfirst.

How will I do this?  I’ll be having a panel of ACE seniors come do an “if I knew then what I know now” discussion.  I’m hoping (so if you’re a former student, I may be in touch) to have former ACE kids come talk about the paths they took after high school.  Recent studies have shown that drug use and addiction are directly attributable to a lack of sense of community, not to mention plain boredom, so I’ve purchased a set of cooperative board games like Pandemic and The Walking Dead, and we’ll have a game time every week to build community and teach kids that they can have fun without drugs and alcohol.  They’ll also build the collaboration and cooperation skills employers say they need graduates to have.  I’m hoping to do family nights where kids can teach their families to play.  I’d also like to do an evening conflict resolution class, teaching interested parents the skills I’m teaching their kids.

I’m choosing books I know they’ll love.  (Ask any junior ACE kid or senior contemporary lit kid—I’m pretty damned good at picking literature for kids who think they hate to read.)  We’re starting with Unwind by Neal Shusterman.  Over the summer, I’ll figure what the next book will be (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, perhaps?).  Then comes the gathering of small collections of choice reading novels: Something Wicked This Way Comes to challenge the strong readers (who needs drugs to take a trip?), Room for those who struggle but want something that feels adult.  For an English teacher, buying books to ignite a love of reading is like a parent shopping for a preschooler at Christmas.  If you’ve had that pleasure, you know it is, indeed, better to give than to receive.

Now, one thing about ACE is that being there is a privilege.  Kids, even freshmen, sign a contract to be there.  Students cannot pass the class without turning in every assignment.  Yes, you read that right.  Every assignment.  And just turning them all in isn’t enough.  Each one must meet the standards set 100%.  Like I tell the kids, no one wants a mechanic who fixes brakes correctly 60% of the time.

There are 30 kids and 2 teachers, so there’s plenty of help.  They can redo and rewrite as many times as necessary.  Juniors call their parents or guardians every six weeks to update them on their performance and to alert them to the possibility that they will be kicked out of ACE if they don’t catch up.  Freshmen will call their folks every two weeks, and they will be expected to provide an update, not only on their progress in ACE, but in their other classes, as well.  Students with F’s at each 6-week interval lose the privilege of being in the program.

Most juniors are beginning to realize how close they are to actually not graduating, and that is often sufficient motivation.  It doesn’t work that way with freshmen.  Their frontal lobe is nowhere near developed enough to grasp the future that concretely.  The challenge to me is to make ACE so awesome that kids are willing to do anything—even work—to stay.

So you can see why this is both daunting and exhilarating.  In 3 years, I will have 30 years in the system, and I can retire.  At the beginning of this year, with everything that was going on, that was my plan.  Now…retire before my first ACE freshmen graduate?  I don’t know that I can do that.  I’d like to reap a little of what I sow.  Suddenly, I’m not so sure I see the end of my career yet.

This is reform.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Family | 2 Comments

It’s Lobby Day! Callooh! Callay!

Today I participated in “CEA Lobby Day” down at the state capitol, joining an impressive group of teachers and educational support staff from all over the state to ask our elected officials to reduce the amount of state testing and increase state funding for schools.  I’m hoping that by writing about it, I can inspire some folks to talk to their elected officials about education (and any other issue about which you are passionate, but yeah, mostly education).

I hopped on the light rail, caught the 16th Street Mall shuttle to the end of the mall, and hoofed it a few blocks to the Colorado Education Association building by 8:00 a.m.  They did a good job of filling us in on the main issues currently on the table in the Senate and House, though we didn’t have to know a ton about specific bills, so if you’re intimidated at the prospect of having to know all the ins and outs, you’re off the hook.  They mainly wanted us to focus on our stories, like why we love teaching, and how over testing gets in the way. They also explained something going on in ed. funding called the “negative factor,” which is to say basically creating an $800,000,000 I.O.U. from the state coffers to schools instead of meeting the obligation the state constitution mandates for school funding.

They also talked us through the process of lobbying.  Trust me, folks, it’s not rocket science:

  1. You need a business card.  If you don’t have business cards, get a few blanks and write your name clearly on one side.  We had cards that only had the CEA logo on them, and we hand-wrote our names next to it.
  2. Figure out which senator or representative you want to talk to.  I picked Senator Tim Neville because, well, I like a challenge.
  3. On one side (the back if they aren’t blank), write Senator _____________ or Representative ______________ and what you wish to talk to him or her about.  I wrote, “School assessment and finance.”  (Hint: You have to include the title “Senator” or “Representative” before their name.)
  4. Go to the appropriate chamber on the 3rd floor, clearly marked.  People in green blazers are the sergeants-at-arms for the House; those in burgundy are for the Senate.  They can help you out.
  5. There is a sergeant-at-arms posted outside each chamber.  Hand him/her your card.  (If you did not write “Senator” or “Representative” with the legislator’s name, the sergeant-at-arms will hand the card back to you and make you write it.  Take it from me.)
  6. When there’s a break in the action on the chamber floor, the sergeant-at-arms will send your card in to the person you want to talk to, and hopefully he or she will come out.  Our experience was that most did.  The sergeant-at-arms will call your name, you’ll introduce yourself to the legislator, and the two of you will step into the hall for a one-on-one chat.  Simple as that.

My first impression of Senator Neville:  I liked him.  He smiled.  He was engaging.  He seemed very genuine.  We spoke first about school testing and the fact that Colorado requires far more tests than the federal minimum.  We found instant common ground.  He spoke about it as a problem with the government trying to tell states what to do, and frankly, I let it slide.  I see it as an issue of non-educators making too many education decisions, which was close enough.  We both thought the ACT was quite enough testing at the high school level.  Then he launched into the problem being that CEA had been taking “bribes” from the federal government (I assume he meant Race-to-the-Top money) that caused all the testing.

I said that led nicely into the topic of school funding, and that if the state weren’t running such a steep negative factor, we wouldn’t be forced to go to the federal government for money.  He countered that there was no money to pay it down because of Hickenlooper’s expansion of Medicaid.  (Again, he didn’t refer to any federal program by name, but I assume this was an attack on the Affordable Care Act.)  I said that, given the requirements of Medicaid, the state needed to be more creative about finding money for schools, like monies saved by decreasing testing.  He replied that there was a voucher bill on the floor this very morning that gave a $1,000 tax break to people sending kids to private schools.  I asked him to clarify how this helped, as it actually decreased tax revenues for schools.  He said the decrease was modest, and that schools could still get all the remaining money for that student without actually having to provide him with an education.  I told him I was confused, since funding is done per student based upon student counts in October, and asked whether he was saying that the bill guaranteed that the monies which would have been spent for that student would still go to public schools.  He chuckled and said that a bill cannot mandate future legislators to use monies in a particular way.  I pointed out that this meant the voucher bill he was discussing could actually hurt schools, as decreasing the student count costs a school thousands of dollars without cutting costs.  He started to argue, but then quickly conceded that a loss of five students might cost a school all that money but would not decrease general overhead.  It was nice of him to make the argument for me, as he did, in fact, anticipate exactly what I was going to say.

He clearly needed to get back to the chamber, so I thanked him for his time and recapped that it was good to know that we could reach across the aisle on the testing issue.

Several other teachers there felt he had been aggressive with me, but in all honesty, I thought he was just a spirited debater.  It was fun, and I was genuinely glad for the common ground.  I hardly expected him to just suddenly say, “By golly, you’re right about that funding issue!  Let me get right on that!”  We’re going to have to agree to disagree on the Affordable Care Act.

Later I chatted briefly with Representative Brittany Pettersen after a session of the House Education Committee to say “atta girl” to her, as she is already very pro-public schools.  She was warm and lovely.

Afterward I grabbed lunch with colleagues and froze my butt off at the education rally on the capitol steps feeling very patriotic and teacherly and generally like a good citizen.

In short, if you ever have the opportunity to participate in an activity like this, go for it!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

An Attempt to Explain the Inexplicable

This is not about the school board.  After the month I’ve been through, I’m reclaiming the rather eclectic nature of this blog and writing about what has been more pressing in my life these last few weeks: My mom’s death.

What I want to do is further develop a short Facebook post that caused some unexpected reactions, which ended up making me feel almost fraudulent, so I wanted to explain.  Here’s the post, for those of you not on my friends list:

I’m having a tough time wrapping my mind around the fact that my mom is gone. The phone rings, and I’m pretty sure it’s her most of the time, because it usually was before she died. I went to her house to empty her fridge, and the place still smells like her and looks like she lives there. It’s just not really computing, you know?

Well, she donated her body to the Colorado Anatomical Society to be used for research and/or education. It’s brilliant, actually, if you’re not too attached to bodies once people are finished with them. It helps people and it saves a bundle on what we euphemistically refer to as “final expenses.” So the phone rings, and I think it’s her, but it’s a lady from the Anatomical Society finalizing Mom’s death certificate, and she needs me to clarify some things that were hard to read on the paperwork Mom filled out years ago. (We both have difficult handwriting–very similar.)

A) I think it’s Mom. B) It kind of is. C) Suddenly I must think about the fact that her body is not gone. I don’t know where her body is or when it will be gone. I only know that they have promised that, when they are finished with it, they will respectfully cremate it.

It’s weird. I feel weird. I thought I’d make you all feel weird, too. You’re welcome.

I thought the tone made it clear that this was not a moment of deep bereavement. There have been those moments, to be sure.  I’m not saying there haven’t.  This just wasn’t one of them.  See, my mom has pretty much been the main person who calls me.  (I’m not really a phone-talker.)  When she called, it was generally a 50-50 shot the timing was convenient, and she was not an easy woman to get off the phone with. (She was a champion phone-talker.)  I’d just stuffed a bunch of potato chips into my mouth when that phone call came, and thinking it was her, I rolled my eyes in exasperation.  Chewing chips is a very inconvenient time for talking on the phone.  Then I realized that the only person it couldn’t be was her, and the phone kept ringing, which didn’t really allow me to process whether or not to feel guilty about having been exasperated.  That was my condition when I answered.

The nice lady needed to verify Mom’s last address and my grandmother’s maiden name, which I did (pronouncing the “w” like a “v” because it’s German and that’s how my mom always pronounced it—adding to the general confusion), and I hung up.

And then I realized that Mom’s body is still out there somewhere.

Her parents were put into a mausoleum, Bradenton’s water table being what it is, and my dad’s parents are side by side in the churchyard.  I know exactly where they are, not that I ever go there because I’m never in Florida these days.  My father was cremated, and his ashes are in the memorial garden at church, with the exception of some that his widow kept to scatter at various other special places.  My husband’s mother and aunt were also cremated, and we scattered them, along with two lifetimes’ worth of pets’ ashes, down at land the family owns in South Park.  Mostly I am accustomed to bodies becoming ash within days of death or at least staying put somewhere.

Sitting at my kitchen table, phone still in hand, it occurred to me that the body that had created me was somewhere else; I didn’t know where and would never know.  My mother now has some sort of existence (as opposed to life) outside of the context of me or our family.  I put down the phone trying to reconcile this.  I mean, you can talk about how that body is not my mom, and I agree with that—I don’t think the mother I loved is still in there in any way—but you can’t deny that that’s her body full of her DNA, however inanimate, and that half that same DNA is in me, and how the hell does one define “existence” anyway?

See, it’s an existential problem as opposed to a grief kind of thing.  I think.  After all, there’s also the quandary of not being able to objectively gauge one’s own emotions at a time like this.  And even that’s complicated because my relationship with my mom was complicated.  She was a good person with a good heart, but you may know that mother-daughter relationships can be a mixed bag.  I’m just sayin’.  (My mom would have said the same thing.)  So when people assumed I was coming from a place of grief because it wasn’t her on the phone, I felt a bit odd accepting heartfelt sympathy over something that wasn’t really the problem at the time.  (By the same token, I admit to calling her old number once to hear her voice on the machine, so there’s that.  It was emotionally confusing—I don’t recommend it.)

I will, however, take any and all sympathy for my existential crisis, as well as whatever random philosophy you want to put in the comments.

Posted in Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

Politics Schmolitics

My last post prompted a young person to reply.  This young man or woman wanted me to know that he/she is a proud conservative, and to assure me that conservatives do, very much, care about kids.  It is so discouraging that this person read my last post and came away with the idea that I believe conservatives don’t care about kids.  That is not what it says at all.

The controversy around the JeffCo school board is not political.  It’s not about Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. Citizens for Responsible Education, a website which describes itself as “dedicated to informing the entire Jefferson County community about the actions of the Jeffco School Board majority,” is run by politically independent, fiscally conservative JeffCo resident Michael Clark.  Shawna Schantz-Fritzler, one of the founders of Support JeffCo Kids is a conservative Republican.  Wendy McCord, a JeffCo conservative who truly believes in transparency, has been holding the board majority accountable by filing Colorado Open Records Act requests to reveal the secretive actions of the board three.  At this point, they’ve taken to stonewalling her, pretending they can’t find documents and insisting she pay thousands of dollars for documents that she, as a taxpayer, has every right to see.

A broad range of people are now standing up for all students: On Facebook pages and websites, in letters to the editor and house party hosts, one can find Democrats and Republicans, people of faith and secular humanists, liberals and conservatives, parents of kids in neighborhood schools and parents who love their child’s charter school.  As disparate as their personal beliefs may be, they are united in their passion and commitment to public schools.

The vast majority of conservatives do care very much about kids.  The New Oxford American dictionary defines “conservative” as: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.  There is nothing conservative in readily sacrificing resources meant for traditional neighborhood schools and long-standing homegrown charters for untried outside charters run by for-profit management companies.  Where are the traditional values?  Where is the caution? You see, it is specifically Witt, Newkirk, Williams, McMinimee, and their handlers I am calling out for not making kids their priority.

Fiscal responsibility? McMinimee is a much less experienced, less educated superintendent than his predecessor, yet Witt, Newkirk, and Williams are paying him $75,000 a year more than her. Brad Miller, the lawyer they hired despite the protests of two board members and a sizeable number of JeffCo residents, makes about $90,000 a year from the JeffCo coffers.  McMinimee hired a communications chief who had no experience but who is a political cohort of Newkirk and Witt.  He settled her with a salary around $5,000 more a year than her predecessor, a woman who had been in the position for 8 years. She’s in so far over  her head that she’s calling upon Novitas Communications for help.  Or maybe it’s just the board majority throwing more money at a politically affiliated company.  Either way, JeffCo taxpayers will foot the bill with money that was meant for kids. This is not fiscal conservatism.

In the long run, they won’t win.  There are simply too many people united in fighting for JeffCo public schools and the kids who attend them.  Now that the board majority’s true colors have been revealed, people from the entire spectrum of politics, religion, and educational schools of thought are united by things far more important than money: kids, the future, the long-term well being of the entire country.  Short-term personal gain doesn’t stand a chance!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

To Tell the Truth…

One thing from my last meeting with Dan McMinimee has been bugging me.  At one point, he essentially called me a liar, which—if I had been lying—would have been fair enough, since I’d pretty much called him the same.  The thing is, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m sort of freakishly honest.  Not brutally honest.  I won’t express a negative opinion about your haircut unasked, but really, I just don’t lie naturally.  I had a tough time doing the whole Santa Clause thing, because, you know…

See, I told Dan that all we talk about at JCEA is kids, and yeah, he basically called me a liar.  He seemed so sure, and honestly, I was shocked.  At first, I thought, “Geeze.  The very concept of focusing on kids is really this unthinkable to him?”

But I’m not the kind of person who just takes a glib, unexamined position.  (I had to laugh internally when a colleague was explaining to me how “complicated” this whole school board thing is—like I don’t research both sides of everything ad nauseam before I take a side.  I know the key arguments of both sides well, and if you think this is a “union” issue, you need to study up.  If you know what’s really going on, it isn’t complicated.  It’s a “schools are yet another great place to push a free-market ideology” or “schools are a place to teach children” issue.)

Anyway, on closer examination, I want to clarify my statement that all we talk about is kids:

Conversations at JCEA begin and end with our commitment to kids.  We believe passionately in public schools (and yes, that includes home-grown, quality public charter schools).  We talk a lot about the importance of public schools in any democracy.  We talk a ton about the kids we teach.  It is no coincidence that many (though certainly not all) of the most active members of JCEA teach vulnerable kids—at risk, low-income, special ed, etc.  Our kids are lost without strong neighborhood schools, and to us they are people with names and faces.  They live in our hearts every day.

But in between—sure, conversations go other places.  We talk about the Tea-party attack on public schools, waged primarily by attacking teachers couched as attacks on “unions.”  Why do we talk about this?  Because this attack is hurting our kids.

We talk about negotiations and what will happen to our contract.  Why?  Because our contract protects kids from being buried in class-sizes or teacher loads so heavy they get lost in the shuffle.  Because the contract keeps our voices in the decision-making for our students.  Because we want teaching to stay the kind of profession that attracts people who will love kids as we have, but if young people never see their way clear to the kind of salary they can raise a family on, good-bye committed teachers of the future.

Have we talked about a strike?  How can we not?  It’s what the board majority wants most in the world.  Teachers don’t want to strike.  We want to negotiate in good faith.  In the secret confines of JCEA, those teachers who teach vulnerable kids worry desperately what will happen to those families if we strike, but we also worry just as desperately about what will happen to public schools if we don’t fight for them with everything we have.  Talk about complicated.

We talk about what we can do to get the general public involved.  How do we get JeffCo small business owners, and retired folks, and folks with no kids but who care about the quality of life in JeffCo and the nation to take notice and care enough to act—go to school board meetings, write letters, talk to friends and neighbors.  Why do we talk about this? Because it takes a village to raise our children, and our village is patently under attack.

So I guess these things are not directly children, but they are 100 percent about children.

A new aspect of conversation about negotiation for us is the board majority’s insistence that these talks occur part of the time during the school day.  It was pointed out that the teachers on the negotiation committee have students.  Every day that they are forced to miss school for negotiations, they are unable to teach their students.  Negotiations may very well occur during the high-stakes test window.  Our kids need us.  We need to get them through these high-anxiety tests, and then they need our instruction.  Julie Williams kept saying, “But their leave time is paid.”

THE MONEY IS NOT THE POINT!!!  The teachers on the team have made it clear—they want to volunteer to do this in their free time because they need to be with their students.  Paid or unpaid, they do not want to leave their kids.  The board majority just didn’t get it.  They kept coming back to the idea that the leave is paid.  They simply cannot wrap their minds around the idea that kids could possibly be anyone’s first priority.  Because to them the negotiation process is all about ideology, they are unable to conceive of any other paradigm.  Negotiations being about a good learning environment for children?  About preserving neighborhood public schools because kids need them?  It just doesn’t compute.

I think Dan and I just come at this from very different angles.  He cannot imagine a group of adults so focused on kids that it’s all they talk about, and I can’t imagine a group of teachers not having kids at the root of every conversation.  To him, when we talk about negotiations, we’re talking about money for us.  To me (and the vast majority of teachers, including very active JCEA members) it’s about great schools and great teachers for kids.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 16 Comments

Meeting with the Superintendent 2.0

Good news!  Apparently there were just some messaging problems again in the district communications I recently wrote to Dan McMinimee and the board about.  (I’m sorry, am I speaking clearly enough?  My tongue is in my cheek, you see.)

Our superintendent of schools assured me that when he wrote to parents about the district’s ability to “develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed” being “distracted by outside influences,” he wasn’t talking about JeffCo teachers.  He handed me minutes from the Boulder Valley Education Association at which John Ford (the president of JCEA) spoke.  I read it.  Nothing new.  John Ford is, after all, a JeffCo teacher.

Yes, I confirmed, the National Education Association and the Colorado Education Association, accompanied by JCEA members, did knock on the doors of Jefferson County teachers over the summer.  I explained to him that teachers are actually not outsiders in education.  We are, in fact, very much on the inside.  The NEA and CEA (both organizations comprised of teachers) were providing support to their members.  (If you’re a member of JCEA, you are, by extension, part of CEA and NEA.)

Why did we need them? he asked.  I explained that 5,200 doors (the number upon which we knocked) required more manpower than we had.  I detailed how we went in pairs, and while one person carried on a conversation with the teacher, the other was recording data: What were the teachers’ concerns and what did they want from their association?  This is a perfectly appropriate thing for such an association to do.  Furthermore, I informed him, Jefferson County is not the only public school system that is, indeed, under attack from outside organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute—neither of which is comprised of educators.  The representatives from NEA were learning what kinds of steps teachers can take to preserve public schools across the country.

He agreed—by the way—that the outside forces I referenced are becoming very influential on school boards across the country.

I asked him repeatedly how our summer door-knocking activities distracted anyone from education.  Did they delay the start of the school year?  Did they prevent teachers from planning?  No, no problems there.

So he did what many debaters try to do: pivot. This only works with me when I want it to.  In this case, I was happy to take the redirect.  He referred to a video John Ford released to JCEA members telling them we were getting in shape for a fight.  What fight? he wanted to know.  “The fight for public schools,” I replied.  “The fight to keep the voices of teachers—the people who actually know what kids need—in the decision-making process regarding classroom conditions.”  I also invited him to share that information with the board—we will fight.

Of course, I assured him, the worst could be avoided if the board decided to negotiate in good faith.  He said we don’t know what will happen when negotiations begin.  I said the last round of negotiations hadn’t done much to instill confidence.  “In DougCo,” I said, “teacher voices in schools were lost because people weren’t geared up for the fight they had on their hands.”

Eventually I brought it back to my issue:  “Groups like the ones we’ve talked about are using a general anti-union sentiment to gain ground.” He nodded as I said that.  I continued, “I have an issue with a district publication that looks as if it is trying to deliver that message.”  He assured me again that this was unintentional.  I pointed out that it didn’t look unintentional when the inflammatory sentence about being “distracted by outside influences” was included in the parent communication but not another communication to teachers which included all the other connected verbiage.  He apologized and said he wasn’t aware that a different message had gone out.

I brought up that teachers do not use district communications to express our viewpoint, and this is where things got a little interesting.  He tensed visibly and disagreed.  “You have those buttons and the—the posters plastered everywhere!”

If you don’t know, we teachers have been wearing buttons that say, “Stand up for all students.”  On our classroom walls are 8.5X11 “posters” (sheets of paper) with a fist holding a pencil.  Underneath it says, “Educate!” I pointed out that this was all they said.  He said not everyone agreed with our point of view.  “Not everyone agrees we should stand up for all kids?” I asked.  He said they stood for something else.  I repeatedly asked what he believed they stood for.  He never answered.  He would only say they stood for something not everyone agreed to.  Well, true that, I suppose.

We chatted briefly about the Lisa Pinto appointment.  He was definitely not happy that I know as much as I know.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and it was another of those agree-to-disagree kinds of things.

I don’t know how enlightening this is to anyone, but I will say this: Wear your button everywhere!  We do not want Newkirk, Witt, or Williams to ever forget that it is we who have not yet begun to fight for Jefferson County Public Schools and the kids who attend them!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 11 Comments

My Letter (2.0) to Dan McMinimee, Superintendent Jefferson County Public Schools

I posted this letter on my Facebook page last week, but as Mr. McMinimee has requested another follow up meeting, and I anticipate writing “Meeting with the Superintendent 2.0,” I thought I would repost here:

Dear Mr. McMinimee and Jefferson County School Board Members:

Once again, I find Mr. McMinimee’s presentation of teachers in public communication reprehensible.  First, he sends a letter to parents telling them that the district’s efforts to “develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed” are being “distracted by outside influences.”  Then, when taken to task by parent Shawna Shantz-Frizler, Mr. McMinimee replied that he was referring to the statement “46 NEA organizers who ‘hit 5,200 doors in JeffCo this past summer.’ In July, CEA president Kerrie Dallman announced to the NEA annual meeting in Denver that 48 national union staff operatives would come to JeffCo to visit teachers in their homes.”

I was one of the NEA/JCEA organizers who knocked on doors last summer.  I moved to Jefferson County when I was six.  I attended Jochem Elementary, Open Living School, Sierra Elementary (when it was brand-new), East Arvada Jr. High, and graduated from Pomona.  I student taught at Pomona and have taught at Columbine High School since 1986.  My children attended Hutchinson Elementary, Dunstan Middle school, and Green Mountain High School.  How exactly am I an “outside influence”?  CEA president Kerrie Dallman is a former JeffCo teacher.  How is she an outsider?

Would you like to know what disruptive shenanigans I participated in when I visited my colleagues in their homes?  I listened.  I realize that this is considered almost subversive in Jefferson County these days–truly listening to people and actually caring about what they have to say–but that’s what I did.  I listened to a single mother say that she hoped her salary would reach a level where, as a college-educated professional who worked 50-hour weeks, she would no longer require public assistance to provide for her children.  I listened to a husband and wife who were teachers talk about working extra jobs to make ends meet.  I knocked on the door of a house where two teachers were tutoring neighbor children over the summer to help them be more successful in the fall.  I encouraged discouraged teachers not to give up, to believe in Jefferson County.  How, exactly, is this disruptive?

JeffCo is not DougCo.  The members of this community will call the district on it every time district publications politicize and misrepresent the facts.  If this is an example of the new leadership in communications, I am deeply chagrinned.

Sincerely,

Paula Reed

The letter I sent in August can be found here.

A summary of the follow up meeting can be found here.

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One piece of feedback I’ve been getting a lot lately that, in all honestly, I just don’t understand, is the people thanking me for being “brave” in my blog posts and Facebook updates about the school board.

To me, brave is when you’re afraid and you overcome it.  Send me up on a ladder past six feet and see how brave I am.  If I really, really have to, I can deal with it, but if my husband weren’t the one climbing up to decorate the house, we’d have no outside Christmas decorations.  Now, he doesn’t love climbing a ladder leaning against a house from a garden held up by a retailing wall, either, so he’s the brave one.

I am not afraid to speak truth to power, and if I am not afraid, then doing it isn’t brave.  In fact, speaking my mind and passing along common concerns is sort of a reflex action for me.  I’m not sure I could stop myself.  So as one who has pretty much done this forever, let me assure you guys, at least within the context of what’s going on in JeffCo, you can do it, too.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.

As you all know, education “reform” has been a big thing since the 1990’s.  We’ve been asked to keep track of so much data that none of it has any meaning anymore—no more than any individual drop of water means anything in an ocean.  New regulations require so much that the district began an avalanche of new curriculum, new assessments, new interventions, new technologies, new evaluation systems for kids and teachers, and mountains upon mountains of documentation.

Everywhere I went, teachers were talking about how the workload of pointless crap was interfering with their ability to do their jobs.  I wrote to our superintendent at the time, Cindy Stevenson, and told her of the negative effects of all this “reform.”  Two things surprised me: First, I was shocked that she was shocked.  She told me that she had been talking to teachers all over the district, and that by and large, they were happy.  This didn’t fit at all what I was hearing, also from teachers all over the district.  Second, I couldn’t believe how many teachers were stunned that I’d had the nerve to tell Cindy how everyone was feeling.  I was so “brave.”

Nothing happened.  I mean nothing.  We kept juggling balls instead of being able to really devote ourselves to the work at hand.  I didn’t get fired.  My principal wasn’t disciplined.  The world went on.  Because I was one of a very few who would be honest, I looked like one of a very few who had a problem with the loads of useless tasks, so that didn’t change, but even though I looked like I had no backing, I suffered no retaliation.

We got a new curriculum, one that every high school teacher I talked to thought was horrible.  I worked with the union, wrote a letter to the district curriculum developers, and asked teachers to sign it.  Many did.  Many were too afraid.

Nothing happened, at first.  Those of us who signed were ignored.  No action was taken on the curriculum; no action was taken against us.  I will say this: The district quietly got out of our way.  They didn’t exactly say we could stop doing the new curriculum.  They just stopped trying to enforce it.  Some schools stopped using it, and nothing happened (except that our students became better writers than the ones who’d been taught the “new” curriculum).  Our principal was reluctant to flat out say, “OK, stop using it.”  I made it very clear exactly how this was sabotaging our kids’ success in college and asked him whether he wanted us to serve the kids or the curriculum.  “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, but you know what the consequences to kids will be.”  My principal didn’t exactly say yes or no; he just kind of stepped out of the way and trusted us to teach.

This year we had instructional rounds, where district folks observe classrooms to talk about ways the school can improve.  It can be a valuable process, if everyone is honest.  A big focus was on student-initiated learning.  Getting kids to ask the hard questions and dig deep into material with less teacher guidance.  In case you think this sounds like teachers aren’t teaching, it’s a shift.  We are challenged to teach kids how to learn, not merely to learn what we teach. It’s exciting and important work.

A district leader wanted to know what we thought, and teachers mentioned that it is more time consuming than lecture.  The district guy said we should take the time.  I saw science and math teachers looking at each other with chagrin, but no one said anything.  Since English had been ignoring our stupid curriculum for years, we are quite able to slow down and do this.  Not so with science and math, and I knew it because I’d heard them voice their frustrations for years.  “You can’t simultaneously expect them to keep up with frenetic pacing guides and slow down for student-initiated inquiry at the same time,” I told the district guy.  “You either have to free them from the tight time constraints or keep letting them lecture.”

People couldn’t believe I would say something like that to a district administrator.  Why wouldn’t I?  It was the truth.  If he didn’t like it, he’d better fix it.  That’s his job.  Was I disciplined?  Called to the woodshed?  No.  (I have no idea what’s being done about the pace of science and math classes.)

I wrote our new superintendent last fall and took him to task for prevarication in his newsletter.  I still have my job.

Not every principal is as supportive as the principals I’ve had, I know.  And in all honesty, with this board majority and Dan McMinimee, principals may now have a very real concern about speaking truth to power themselves.  They are much easier to fire.  In DougCo, the principals who really watched out for kids were fired or their lives made so miserable they quit.  This is why teachers, parents, and community members need to do it.  (And this is why people need to stop bemoaning the idea that teachers are hard to fire.  While I am certainly in favor of removing ineffective teachers—which isn’t as hard as you may have heard—kids need teachers to be able to advocate for them without fear.)

I realize that I have a number of advantages that make fearlessness easier:  1) I grew up in a faith that sees speaking truth to power, even to the point of personal sacrifice, as a sacred obligation.  Leaders in my faith have died in concentration camps protesting the Nazis and faced dogs and fire hoses standing up for civil rights they already enjoyed by virtue of their skin color, but others did not.  2) I am married—not the sole breadwinner of my family.  I am still paying college tuition, and my husband’s salary is comparable to mine, so we’re not rolling in dough, but it helps.  3) Technically, I can retire today.  If I were to get fired, really I would retire, and while I wouldn’t get enough to live on, I could supplement that income with just about anything and get by.  4) (And my husband thinks this is the biggest.)  It probably isn’t in the district’s best interests to fire me, in terms of PR.  I have years of sterling evaluations.  I have been deemed “highly effective” ever since the designation came to be.  I have a years-long public record in my writings about how much I love my students and how passionate I am about ensuring a quality education for them.  I have years of students, parents, and colleagues who would come to my defense.  False modesty aside, I’m articulate as hell with years of debate experience, and if I were to be fired for speaking truth to power, I would be very, very public about what had happened.  5) I’m not afraid.  No one can make me afraid.

Those of you reading this who are not district employees—parents, business owners, citizens of JeffCo, you are especially immune.  No one can do anything to you.

The way I see it, those of us who can and are willing to step up must be the vanguard.  But even those with reasons to fear can do more than they may realize.  Never hesitate to share my blog or any of my public Facebook posts.  I set those things to public for a reason.  I write all of this on a blog that uses my name for a reason.  Do not fear for me.  And if 100 people share them, and 100 more after that, all those people make it harder and harder for anyone to act against anyone else.  Really.  Does this district want a headline that reads: “200 Jefferson County School employees fired for free speech”?  Of course not!  There is strength in numbers.

One last thing: If you think that li’l ol’ you can’t make a difference, I have two quotes for you:

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Edward Everett Hale

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

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Our New Chief Propaganda Officer

Boy, it sure would be nice if everyone could buy a political mouthpiece with taxpayer money like the board majority of JeffCo’s school board has.

Lynn Setzer, JeffCo’s Chief Communications Officer, left JeffCo last November.  As has been the process, an interview team of staff members assembled to bring forward a list of qualified candidates to replace her.  JeffCo’s superintendent ignored all of their recommendations and went for a candidate whom the interview committee had deemed unqualified.  She did not go to public school, sends her kids to private school, and has no experience in communications for any public school system.  In fact, two of the five board members questioned hiring her.  They, too, were ignored, and she was hired for more money than her experienced predecessor.

Kind of like this superintendent, hired despite his lack of experience and despite the legitimate questions of two of the five board members and paid more than his far more experienced, far more educated predecessor.

What made our new Chief Communications Officer, Lisa Pinto, so attractive to this superintendent and board majority?  She is a graduate of the distinctly political Leadership Program of the Rockies, a tea-party-run organization with an explicit political agenda and to which two of the board majority are tied.  In short, they now get to use taxpayer money to publicize their agenda.

Take the first issue of JeffCo’s Chalk Talk parent newsletter published under this new communications officer.  Granted, this message is ostensibly from Dan McMinimee, but it is telling that this is a more definitively political message than those in previous issues.  It is most likely a taste of things to come.

Let’s take his assertion that “We are trying to…develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed. Unfortunately, this cannot happen overnight and it cannot happen if we are distracted by disruptive outside forces.”

What are these “disruptive outside forces”?  Over the next few months, Lisa Pinto and Dan McMinimee will try to convince you that parents, business owners, students, teachers, and other taxpayers who believe that class sizes should be limited, that teachers should have adequate planning and collaboration time, that promises made to tax-payers concerning bond issues should be kept, that JeffCo should have enough buildings for all students and should not leave 5,000 children without neighborhood schools are “disruptive outside forces.”  The very idea that they believe JeffCo residents will, by-and-large, buy such a destructive message is insulting.

Now, let’s look at this part of his message in Chalk Talk: “Students, teachers, parents, administrators, President John Ford of the Jefferson County Educators’ Association and community members have all expressed concern that students are being over assessed and that the number of assessments and time required by state standardized tests has become excessive. On Thursday, Jan. 15,  your school board voted 3 (for) -1(against)-1 (abstained) (with Mr. Witt, Newkirk and Ms. Williams voting in favor) to request waivers from the State Board of Education from the Performance Based PARCC assessments.”

For a moment, the English teacher in me will try to get past the God-awful sentence construction Ms. Pinto allowed in this publication upon which the community forms its impressions of the district.

Note what follows, though: “As reported by CDE on Jan. 8, the State Board of Education voted to direct the commissioner to grant waivers for school districts that do not want to test the performance-based portion of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests for English language arts and mathematics in March. The commissioner has requested guidance from the Attorney General’s Office ‘to determine the legality of the directive.’ CDE has informed districts ‘to continue to implement existing state and federal law,’ until the attorney general’s decision is provided.

If the board knew (and clearly, it did) that this vote was premature and quite possibly useless, why take this vote and publicize it this way?  To attempt to convince JeffCo citizens that the board majority is listening to the community.  The truth is this useless gesture is an attempt to mask all the ways the board majority is ignoring the community.  Maybe we’ll all be so excited over their fool’s errand that we’ll forget that they are reneging on bond issue promises and being extremely cavalier about serious facility issues.  Maybe we can be misled into thinking this is some kind of advocacy on behalf of students so that when they fight against the community for things that really can be done to “give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed”—like limiting class sizes and attracting and retaining excellent teachers—you will believe that they are motivated by something other than politics.

Now, one can certainly argue that there are other political forces at work in JeffCo, including liberal ones, and that is assuredly true.  The thing is, those groups are not using district publications funded by taxes to convey their messages.  When Lynn Setzer was CCO, she did not allow messages painting the political alliances of the board majority as “disruptive outside forces,” though the argument could be made that they are.  Under Ms. Setzer’s leadership, Chalk Talk was what it should have been, a publication that informed parents without editorializing about district employees.  I have no doubt we’ll see more propaganda under Ms. Pinto.

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The Blame Game

With all the recent debates I’ve witnessed in all kinds of contexts about blaming the victim vs. making everyone a victim, I keep wondering why we’re so sure everything is black or white.  I thought I’d distill the basic concept into a microcosm—a single fictional kid whose story is an amalgam of too many I’ve taught.

A child—most often a boy when the story unfolds this way—grows up in a home with parents who yell obscenities as the go-to means of conflict resolution. Maybe things even escalate to physical altercations—pushing, throwing things, destruction of small, meaningful tokens in acts of vindictive anger.  He’s seen it literally all his life.  It’s not just between his parents.  He is sworn at, beloved toys broken before his eyes as “punishment.”

He’s been told by his parents that he’s a worthless little pain in the ass.  If he cries, someone yells, “What the fuck are you crying about?”  He doesn’t dare get mad at adults so much bigger than him.  Or maybe he does.  Maybe the only way anyone in his life hears his three-, four-, and five-year-old anguish is when he yells, “Leave me the fuck alone!”

Oh, you can judge his parents all you want, but what if they have toned things down from their own childhood homes where fathers brutally beat mothers?  This stuff seldom comes from nowhere.

Anyway, the kid starts kindergarten.  He arrives at school with five years of futile anger built up in his tiny body.  To him, adults are people who never listen to you, who take things from you and destroy them, who pretty much seem to wish you didn’t exist.

A classmate takes the glue without asking, and the boy shoves him and says, “Gimme back the fuckin’ glue stick!”  The teacher rushes over to settle the dispute and to correct the boy’s language.  He is disciplined for shoving, and now this crazy teacher seems to think that “using his words” is going to keep him from being pushed around.  What words?  She just said he can’t use what is, to him, the most important “I’m really serious about this” word he knows—fuck.

To much of the rest of the world, this kid’s a foul-mouthed bully.  He pushes, shoves, swears, and finally gets himself suspended.  In kindergarten.  Who’s the bad guy, the principal or the boy?  You tell me, is he a bully or a victim?  Is it really that clear?

I’m not coming down on grade schools.  Kindergartners need to be safe from each other. I get that.  The truth is, the school has very little influence here.  They can do everything they can think of to help the boy learn more appropriate methods of conflict resolution, but at 3:00, he goes home, back where people swear and slam things around.  It’s not the kind of stuff that gets a kid taken away by social services, but it definitely shows him that the shit they’re teaching at school is for pansies.

By second or third grade he’s a holy terror.  He comes without his homework done and glares daggers at the teacher if he’s made to stay in at recess.  The thing is, he’s not actually mean.  He’s fiercely loyal to his friends.  He’s not the kid who roughs up weak kids for the heck of it or makes fun of people—unless they make fun of him.  Heaven help the kid who starts messing with him, because this boy will beat the crap out of real bullies without compunction and proudly take the suspension.

By middle school, he’s smoking weed.  It chills out his parents, and he’s discovered that it does the same for him—helps him live with all the anger and pain.  By now, someone at school somewhere has said, “I don’t know why you come to school.  You’re going to end up in jail anyway.”  The pot dulls the shame.

With 30 kids in a class, it’s hard for teachers to deal with a kid who will NOT open his book, who glares when asked a question, who sits and draws pot leaves instead of working on the math problems everyone else is doing.  How can they help a kid who won’t work?  If he’s not being disruptive, they leave him alone.  He fails, year after year.

This is where many non-educators say, “Hold him back.  That’s the only way he’ll learn.”  For one thing, the research simply doesn’t bear this out.  Holding kids back seldom has anything but a negative effect.  For another, how long do you want to hold him back?  Do you want this boy in your daughter’s seventh grade class when he’s 15?

Besides, in actuality, he can’t get homework done in the chaos of his home, and he’s been told he’s worthless so many times he’s starting to find it harder and harder to see himself as anything else.  Holding him back won’t fix this.

By the time he’s in high school, should he be old enough to make better choices?  Sure.  But tell me how he should have learned that.  At home?  He’s a victim.  At the same time, he’d better figure a way out of the victim hole.  Without an education, he’s screwed.  No matter how sorry we may feel for him (since we know his story), he’s going to hit a whole new level of cold, hard reality in a few years.

Someone I know was talking about a new freshman who was suspended his first week at school.  They looked at his Facebook page, and there are pictures of him with guns and smoking from a bong, and the adult said, “The kid’s a thug.”  All I can think is he’s 14.  He’s a child.  He didn’t come from nowhere.  He has a background, one that most likely left him as unprepared for the access he has to weapons and drugs as if he were five.  He’s not a thug.  He’s a child.  Do I want him to be messing with this stuff around my kid?  No.  He’s dangerous—I totally get the suspension.  But God, how sad that he is where he is.

In our punishment-focused society, we too often believe that authority and force are inextricably interwoven, that shame and punishment are the best leverage.  I look at the posture of the cop who killed Eric Garner, and it’s there—legs spread, arms crossed.  It escalates the situation, but so does Garner’s refusal to cooperate, especially considering the gathering crowd.  I get why the cop was on the defensive.  I get why Garner was, too.  As a teacher, I could see in the video that that exchange wasn’t going anywhere good from the beginning.  Take more time, take the audience away from both, and it could have ended so differently.  We just don’t give people the time and space to really work things out.  Everybody has to jump in and judge, pick a side, find a bad guy, and nobody wants it to be themselves or the one they most identify with.

The best thing about ACE is having two teachers there.  When a kid starts to escalate, one of us can keep the class going while the other steps out into the hall with the kid.  “What’s up?” I ask as soon as we get out there.  Amazing how quickly a kid de-escalates when someone cares enough to listen and he doesn’t have to put up a front for his friends.  He doesn’t have to worry about looking “weak” to the rest of the class, and I’m not worried about sacrificing the authority I must have if I’m going to manage the class so every kid can learn.  When there is only one teacher and 30 kids, there just isn’t time.  When there is one cop, and then a group of cops, and an audience…  No one wants to feel unjustly harassed or to have their authority questioned.

I facilitated a house party last week where a father told me he thought it was perfectly appropriate (and much more cost-efficient) to have lecture-hall classes of 300, even in high school.  We pile so much on cops and teachers and the people we ask to keep the peace and care for children, as if all we have to do is shame and intimidate people into obedience when what we really need to do is build relationships.

There was a time that beat cops knew their neighborhoods, knew which kids were coming from rough homes, knew which kids only responded to a tough demeanor and which just needed someone to listen.  Or at least, in my old-time movie world they did.  I can’t help but think it would be a better approach than the penny-wise and pound-foolish system we have now.  More cops who know their beats vs. all those prisons?

We don’t fix every kid in ACE.  We have to do the tough-love thing to some degree, and plenty of kids don’t make it through the program.  Law and order, I’m a big fan.  I just don’t think we should ever forget the love.  Fixing the problem should be more important than fixing the blame.

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