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When state report cards get released right in the middle of a school campaign, both sides are bound to seize upon them as proof that their cause is the right one. Well, guess what? State report cards were just released and they prove that our cause is the right one.

Most of the measures on the state report cards have remarkably little to do with what goes on inside a school and much more to do with what goes on outside a school. Study after study has shown that scores on standardized tests (what much of our report card’s grades are based on) do not reflect the quality of a teacher’s teaching or a student’s learning, but instead simply reflect the socioeconomic background of the particular children in that particular district. Look closely at a school’s test scores and you can make an educated guess about how many of those children’s parents went to college and how many of those families are living in poverty. Our local test scores reflect that as well.

The state report card’s only real measure of how much a teacher is teaching in the nine months that he or she has a certain student, and the report card’s only real measure of how much a student is learning in the nine months he or she is enrolled in school, is “Value Added.” (Let me say here that there are many, many other measures of how well a teacher is teaching or a student is learning that aren’t easily quantifiable and therefore not considered on our report cards, but that’s a post for another day.) Value Added means pretty much what it says it means: how much academic value was added to that child’s educational life in the course of that one school year? And the measurement is straightforward: assess a child’s abilities and skills in August or September (how well they can read, what their math skills are, and so on) and then assess again in May or June. This shows one of the few things we can measure that’s actually worth measuring: their academic growth.

Here’s how the Ohio Department of Education describes Value Added: “This is your district’s average progress for its students in math and reading, grades 4-8. It looks at how much each student learns in a year. Did the students get a year’s worth of growth? Did they get more? Did they get less?”

There are four categories on which districts are graded: Overall, Gifted Students, Students Achieving in the Lowest 20th Percentile, and Students with Disabilities. And for the second year in a row, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District earned A’s in every category of value added: A, A, A, A.

This means one thing: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

But how can this be, one might ask, when many of the other test performance measures are low? Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: A 4th grader moves into CH-UH from another district, reading at the first grade level. That child is placed in a small class with a reading specialist to learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years’ worth of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade PARCC test in reading, he will fail (especially because the PARCC uses reading material at one to two grade levels above the grade being tested). And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is also failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s, points out an important truth: Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Now, some of the naysayers (we have naysayers, in case you hadn’t noticed) might assume that this Value Added category must not mean much; maybe it’s easy to earn four A’s. I will show you, through comparison with other districts, that it is not. I don’t mean to put these other districts down (I know and love many people whose children go to school in them and they no doubt outperform us in other categories), but such a side-by-side look is necessary to understand that it is not, in fact, easy to earn all A’s in Value Added.

Our neighbors to the south (Shaker) earned D, A, C, C (see the categories listed above to refresh your memory). Someone may say, “Well, their kids are clearly doing too well to begin with to even show that much growth.” But then I would reply, “Look at Solon, who earned B, A, B, A.” Hudson earned A, A, C, A, which is sort of revealing (maybe they don’t have the same kind of experience we do in CH-UH at reaching the lowest achieving kids and helping them grow). Other districts widely believed to be doing a great job educating their community’s children, are (Beachwood earned A, B, B, A — almost as good as Heights). And this is not one of those cases where starting with low scores benefits you (as in, then you have more room to grow); East Cleveland earned F, F, C, C. Two districts that we’re often compared to (Lakewood and Euclid) earned A, D, A, B and A, D, A, A respectively, which shows that CH-UH is doing a noticeably better job meeting the needs of our highest achievers and helping them grow as well.

I don’t honestly believe that levies should become referendums on the performance of school districts, but they very often do. I have seen, time and again, in the comments of the anti-school folks: Where are the results?

Well, here they are. The results show that our teachers are teaching all our students, from the one with disabilities to the one identified as gifted. The results show that all those students are learning, from the one who started at the bottom to the one who started at the top. Now those are what I call results.

I had a job interview last Wednesday. For a third grade position at Boulevard. This is really good because it means the district has hired back all the previously laid off teachers and is now finally looking at outside candidates.

The interview was all going well — my experience and enthusiasm make me fairly confident about my performance for such things. Until they asked the final question: What makes you the best candidate for this position? And in the split second while I considered how to sell myself for this job, I realized that I didn’t want it, that I wouldn’t accept it if offered. I only want to teach at Fairfax. I am in the extremely fortunate position of being able to turn down anything that doesn’t perfectly meet my needs or mesh with my life. And, nothing against Boulevard or its staff or families, but if I hold out and manage to get something at Fairfax, even if it’s down the road, my kids’ lives won’t be disrupted all that much. I could go from not working at all (well, that’s a debatable description of my current situation) to working full-time without any change in childcare whatsoever. My kids could leave after me in the morning and walk to school on their own, needing only to lock the door behind them. They could go home by themselves after school if they weren’t engaged in some PTA-run activity like racquet club or tumbling class or bike club. They wouldn’t need before-care or after-care or anything outside of what Mark and I could provide ourselves.

So, I paused for a moment before saying, “I actually don’t think I am the right candidate (now THAT’s not what they tell you do to at job interviews!) because I only want to be at Fairfax.” Hmmmm, that was followed by an awkward moment. We chatted a tiny bit longer and then it was ,”Ok, thanks, goodbye and good luck . . .” I emailed later, apologizing for wasting anyone’s time and explaining myself a bit more articulately, which the principal responded to with appreciation for my honesty. And that was that.

Back to wait and see. Choosers can’t be beggars, after all.

And so, just like that, another year goes by. My sweet boys finished school on Thursday and suddenly I find myself the mother of a rising first grader and a rising fourth grader.

Austin had a truly fabulous year: learned to read, made new friends and thrived in every possible way. After all that back and forth about when to send him to kindergarten, I can finally say that we did the right thing. I know a woman, the grandmother of some kids at Fairfax as well as at local private schools, who has tutored in our building the past few years and she recently said that if she had a kindergarten-aged child and could choose any single teacher in all of Northeast Ohio for that child to have, she would choose this one:

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Braedan’s year was okay, with one good teacher and one, well, I don’t want to use this as a place to publicly criticize someone, but let’s just say we’re glad the year is over.

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But he does have truly wonderful friends.

As for mama bear, I have finished my fourth and final course and have freshly renewed certification to teach first through eighth grades in the great state of Ohio. Unfortunately, the single district in which I’m willing to teach (ours) laid off 32 teachers in April due to a reduction in force and cannot even look at outside candidates until all those teachers have been rehired. Although information is hard to confirm (and that’s putting it lightly — I swear, this stuff is guarded by the CIA), it seems that most of the elementary classroom teachers have indeed been rehired by now and I am still fingers-crossed-hope-hope-hoping that there may be a spot left over for little ol’ me.

But for now, we look forward to a summer of friends, relaxation, Chautauqua, waterskiing and baseball, baseball, baseball.

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I had an epiphany one afternoon back in October. I was over at Fairfax tutoring in a classroom that is nurturing, challenging, supportive, creative, . . . everything an elementary classroom should be (and what, unfortunately, too few are). And I realized: This is what I do. This is who I am.

I am a teacher.

So I went straight home and, after unflinching encouragement from Mark,  called the Ohio Department of Education and was dismayed to learn that I needed a whopping 12 credit hours to renew my license, which I had let completely expire during my years of caring for Austin. How on earth would I find the extra time to actually go to class in addition to all the other things I’m in charge of right now? Aaaahhh, enter the world of online education. And University of Phoenix. I had a rather funny phone call with the admissions guy whose initial question was, “Do you have a high school diploma or equivalent?” By the end of my list of degrees, he simply said, “Oh, that’s an impressive resume.” And suddenly, I was a student again, enrolled in what turned out to be a fascinating exploration of social studies instruction in the elementary classroom (my personal fave).

My first official day of class (Election Day) coincided nicely with that Facebook post from one of my old fourth graders, mentioned here, which further reinforced that I was doing the right thing. More recently, one of my old third graders from Compton posted a photo of our class, circa 1995, which resulted in a 134-comment-long conversation on Facebook where my “kids,” now twenty-somethings with jobs and children and spouses of their own, reminisced about the books we read, the field trips we went on, the school-wide Olympics we organized, the Multiplication Masters tests they all mastered.  They remembered things I had completely forgotten, like that we grew alfalfa sprouts and then I made them all try them in a sandwich (with very limited success, as evidenced by their still-disgusted-after-all-these-years comments!).

I love teaching. And, because of that love, I have completely overstepped my role as a PTA mom in the past few years, as I spend my time organizing and implementing academic initiatives instead of bake sales. (I don’t doubt that there is more than one teacher on that staff who has thought, “Get your own classroom, lady!”) Right now, the largest portion of my overflowing plate is Science Week, something I casually proposed at a PTA meeting over the summer and which i am now completely running. (Anyone interested in volunteering in any way, let me know.  It’s all day, every day, January 28 through February 1 at Fairfax, and you don’t have to be a scientist to help out.)

I am currently halfway through my second course and expect to be done by mid-May. And I am so thoroughly excited to have my own class again. But of course, I’ve never worked since having my own kids. I mean, I know people do it all the time; most of my girlfriends are working moms, at least part-time. But it scares me! My life right now is so easy. I can work out every morning while the kids are at school and can take off for vacation whenever the opportunity arises. I can volunteer for almost any cause I’m passionate about (well, that’s not quite true because I’m passionate about way more causes than there are hours in the day, but still…). Most of the hats I wear come from helping out the schools (district chair of Kindernet, coordinator of the Many Villages tutoring program, PTA vice-resident, Lay Facilities Committee member) and those would all naturally fall by the wayside if I was an actual employee. In order to maintain as much sanity in my life, and to be able to be as engaged in my own kids’ education as much (or more!) than I am right now, I would really really love to teach in their school. Of course, there are no openings there right now and no obvious retirements at the end of this year and I don’t even know if the district has a policy about parents teaching in the buildings their children attend, but one can hope.

All of this is actually a very long excuse for the pathetically scant blogging I’ve done over the past few months. I still have plenty to say (shocking, right?), but no time left to say it! But this does feed nicely into my next post, which will be about the value (or lack thereof) of homework in elementary school. Get your comments ready, folks . . . .

I certainly did not mean to insinuate that my child is not being exposed to literature in his current schooling. He absolutely is, and to a lot of it. His teacher has read them fabulous books, many of long-standing renown. She often (and wisely) reads the first in a series, without continuing on, which piques their interest and then allows the children to pursue the rest of the books on their own. That’s how Braedan was turned on to the Little House books, which I had never ever read until this year, and now with the Narnia books, which again I’d only ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Now, Braedan is reading them all on his own, plus I’m following along by reading them aloud at night.

Braedan has also had that wonderful experience of choosing a spot in the room, even under the desk, to enjoy a carefully chosen book. He has done this quite a lot in his English language arts class this year and it has fostered his love of reading in a way I had only dreamed possible a year ago. He absolutely totally loves reading and allows himself to get fully immersed in a story. He said recently that he finds it hard to go twenty-four hours without his book, even (he noted with some amazement) on the weekend, when reading is not so strictly enforced. He — and we together — have gotten to know the characters in some of these books so that we’ll refer to them in completely unrelated circumstances: “Wow, that reminded me of the way Pa always says….” and “I think if Digory were here, he’d ….”

Unfortunately, the reason Braedan has had such wonderful and free exposure to literature is because he’s in the highest reading class. (Of course, no one ever says these things aloud, but it’s true nonetheless…) I’ve seen, both as a teacher and now as a parent, that the lowest performing students (and those, one might argue, who most need exposure to high quality books) are the ones forced to do tedious and repetitive remedial work with little or no literary value. And that, in my mind, is unacceptable. Meaningful learning takes a long time and can be hard to measure, but it is still immensely important.

When I was teaching 6th grade language arts in Cleveland Municipal, I used to allow my students time to write, without specific guidelines, in their journals. I had created a list of possible topics for them to write about, unless they had their own pending issue. The list was stapled in the front cover of their notebooks and they could freely choose from among the nearly 50 topics.  Everything from “Do you think it’s better to be an adult or a child? Explain” to “If you could change one thing about your home life/school/neighborhood/world, what would it be?” Students had to truly think and then had to express their thoughts and opinions in writing in an effective and coherent manner.

The journal entries weren’t graded (gasp! today they’d have to come with a 4-point rubric) but I did indeed read them and often responded in writing right in the notebooks. It provided incredible insight into my students’ lives and minds and built a level of trust between us that served me well. But one day I sat in a meeting with some district administrators where we were discussing the various ways to teach reading and writing, and the woman in charge asked who used journal writing in their classrooms.  I proudly raised my hand (thinking, my god, who doesn’t?) and was completely shot down. She berated me and my methods because there was no measurable data generated from them and because they failed to correlate with any specific tested objective. Ummm, how about to think? To have ideas and opinions and actually express them?

The very students who most need opportunities to connect, either with literature or through writing, are the very ones whose educational experiences are being made narrower and narrower until the whole of what they “know” can be expressed by filling in a bubble.

And that, in my mind, is shameful.

I’m taking a much-needed break after several hours of hard digging in my yard, so I figured I’d tell you about the conversation I had with the boys last night. The three of us were lying in bed in the dark, having just finished our bedtime stories (the very best time for talking), when Austin asked, “Why do boys and girls get cancer?”

He’s never asked a question like this before, nothing even close. If he talks about cancer at all, it’s usually to ask about specifics: “When are we going to the hospital?” “Who will be our nurse?” “How many nights are we sleeping over?” For the most part, I think he just assumes cancer is a regular part of everyone’s life and is no more likely to wonder why it exists than he is wonder why we eat food each day.

So I saw this as a great opportunity and launched into my weeds-in-the-garden analogy. I didn’t make this one up, in fact I think Kelly Corrigan used it with her daughters in The Middle Place, but I have managed to add some extra layers to it. This was  how I explained cancer to Braedan’s class a few months ago when I visited at his request. (That afternoon quickly morphed into a discussion of gardening, with twenty eager little hands waving in the air to tell me about their experiences with weeds.)

Cancer is like a weed growing in your body, I explained to Austin. And how do you get a weed out of your garden? Well, you can dig it out, which is like surgery: doctors literally cut the cancer out of your body. (“With scissors?”) But you have to be careful when you dig a weed out of your garden not to take too much of the good stuff along with it and not to damage the roots of the other “good” plants that you want to grow there.  Same thing in your body: sometimes when you cut the cancer out, you end up removing or hurting some other part of your body that you actually need.

So what’s the other way to get weeds out of your garden? You can spray them with chemicals (this was really when the kindergarteners really got excited). But the chemicals can hurt the other plants nearby the weed you’re spraying. Just like chemo: a chemical that kills the bad stuff but kills the good stuff too (hair, of course, is the easiest example of “good stuff” for children).

So what happens if you just leave the weed there, let it do its thing? It spreads, winding its way through your garden, twisting and choking other healthy plants, potentially destroying everything in its path. Same, duh, with cancer.

One of Braedan’s classmates earnestly told me a story of how he and his grandmother worked really hard to dig the weeds out of her garden and they thought they got them all and then a few days later they came back. Ah ha, exactly! (A new dimension added to my analogy.) That’s just like with Austin’s cancer. We dug it out and sprayed it with nasty chemicals and thought we got it all and then weeks, months, years later, it reappeared!

I was all excited to share these bits of wisdom with Austin, but he interrupted me partway through and said, “Wait, but Mom, why do soccer players play baseball?”  Braedan and I stared at each other with raised eyebrows and then everyone devolved into a fit of giggles and thus ended my teachable moment.

Back to the garden . . .

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