No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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What ARE the Odds?

http://insightbyseymour.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/2635-101413-gs2635.jpgFor the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the upcoming PARCC. I’m speaking of the Next Generation Assessment known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. If you thought the Ohio Achievement Assessment was bad, then wait until you see THIS! I suggest, if you haven’t yet taken a look at this new online assessment, you should…and soon!

Over the last 5 years, educators across the nation have witnessed the development and implementation of the Common Core standards. In writing this piece, I found it important to research the who, when, and how the standards were developed before expressing my opinion about the PARCC. In a February 2014 article, Allie Bidwell of US News reported,

Although they only recently captured national attention, the Common Core standards – which lay out what students should know and be able to do by each grade – have been in the works since at least 2008. It all started with former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was the 2006-07 chair of the National Governors Association and now leads the University of California system.

During her stint as governor, Napolitano desired to develop an initiative focused on strengthening the country’s competitive position in the global economy. As students’ performance in math and the sciences have become comparatively lower than their global peers, the goal of this new initiative was “to give governors the tools they need[ed] to improve math and science education, better align post-secondary education systems with state economies, and develop regional innovation strategies” (retrieved from http://www.nga.org on December 4,2014).  Therein, a task force of governors, CEOs, and university presidents was created. Think about that for just a moment. Does that elicit any emotions for you as it did for me?

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I remember hearing that the Common Core was essentially birthed from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 in that the standards were developed to hone in on the skills students needed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level.  The standards were thick with specific skills all students were to master only, with NCLB, this varied from state to state as state leaders played more of a role in the development of their own standards. Unfortunately, the level of expectation varied significantly as well from state to state. States, like Massachusetts, were known for holding very high academic standards, while other states, like Tennessee, did not (Bidwell, US News, 2014), making it more difficult to comparatively determine whether scholars were making adequate growth compared to their global counterparts.

The Common Core differs in that the numbers of standards have been decreased for each grade level and the depth of each of those standards increased. That’s my subtle way of saying that the standards push our scholars harder to learn skills they are fundamentally and developmentally not yet prepared to learn, whether they are ready or not! Don’t get me wrong, I do see this as an incomprehensible issue. It’s clearly a problem, and yet I was not at all surprised to find that the challenge of developing equitable academic standards has been in existence since the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s. Students of minority ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status, born in poverty from parents struggling to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table, and some of them with nothing more than a middle school education was prevalent then and still exists today. Oh yes! You see, what I’ve just described for you was my current classroom and any educator teaching in an urban school district can relate to that very description.

Our scholars have been chasing their peers to close an achievement gap that was created to keep minorities out of public education and distanced far behind their white peers for years! And now, here we are with the Common Core standards, an initiative started to strengthen our competitive position in the global economy when neither our scholars, nor their families, are adequately equipped with the resources or skills to compete in the local economy!

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Let me be clear, I can appreciate the idea behind the Common Core. I get it. We want to develop critical thinkers, leaders, social changers! But then you add the PARCC to the equation. Oh my goodness! Consider this, the majority of my fifth grade scholars are reading at a fourth grade or below grade level right now. I even have a few reading at a second grade level! SECOND GRADE!! That’s their fluency and comprehension level. Did you catch that? The majority of my class is still behind 1-3 grade levels in reading. They struggle to develop a 5 sentence paragraph with a clear topic sentence and strong conclusion. They’ve been working to develop these skills since the second grade. When they are challenged to push themselves to a higher expectation, they shut down with frustration. Oh, I’m not finished yet. My scholars barely know their basic multiplication facts, even though they’ve been exposed to them two grades prior. Many still struggle with regrouping in subtraction and will argue to the end that 0-4 = 4 even when provided proof that it is impossible!

Finally, after losing our technology teachers about four years ago, teachers were tasked to teach not only keyboarding skills, but also researching skills in a computer lab which we were scheduled to use once, maybe twice a week for 30-45 minutes, if we were lucky. There were several times I’d taken my class in to complete assignments and it’d taken the first 20 minutes alone just to get through all the glitches we’d face trying to simply get logged in! Amazing! Well, the computer lab no longer exists after 6 years of existence. The district has begun transitioning to the use of chrome books. I share a cart with a coworker. Yes, share! We make it work. Our scholars are most knowledgeable about how to search for information because that interests them. However, they still lack in the area of research, note taking, and essay typing. It continues to be a struggle for them since it requires more thinking and effort. Not a very good place to be with PARCC right around the corner, wouldn’t you think?

Our scholars, while they’ve shown growth in reading and math, are continuing to chase the leaders of the achievement gap every single day they enter our urban school. This is based on data from the Ohio Achievement Assessment, a two and a half hour, paper-pencil, written assessment. The new PARCC will assess my scholars electronically and will take multiple days. They will be given multiple reading samples at a time with two part answers where one answer will depend on scholars’ knowledge of and response to the other. On this assessment, scholars performance levels will be scored in the areas of text complexity, range of accuracy, and quality of evidence. There are multiple choice questions, matching, and two part extended responses that will need to be typed, providing explicit evidence from the text provided. The questions are much more challenging since they are multi-step questions and very different from what they’ve been used to. Scholars must use, not only the text provided, but also answers from previous questions to construct their responses. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the sample PARCC, you should take some time to peruse the website. Here’s the link:

PARCC Practice Tests

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If I sound a bit anxious about this Next Generation Assessment, it’s because I am, along with many of my urban school educator friends. It feels a lot like my scholars are being set up to fail! Do you understand that the growth my scholars have made, any growth at all, will absolutely go unnoticed after taking this test! And YES…I take it personally! If they are not functionally or developmentally prepared to meet the Common Core standards then how could they possibly be prepared to take this Next Generation Assessment? Well, I don’t know either, but it kind of sounds like yet another way to keep our minority scholars at the bottom end of the achievement gap. All I know is that we need to get our scholars ready for this PARCC with the limited resources we are provided and hope that just one of them beats the odds, gets across that gap, and comes out on top! With everything we’ve been given, what do you think those odds are?

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Know That You’re AMAZING!!

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Some months ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Matrix”. In it, I share the struggles my oldest has experienced with reading fluency and comprehension. I know I’ve spoken of him a great deal, but I am in absolute awe at the progress he’s made! I just can’t help it! All of my children are making great gains academically, but he truly exemplifies perseverance and hard work! He’s the one that has to work harder and longer, but he does it and he has proven to himself that it pays off!

He is now in the 6th grade and even though it takes him a little longer to do some things, he has demonstrated to himself that he does have the ability to achieve. He has made the Honor Roll all this year! Even with that, he has remained in disbelief about his Honor Roll status.  He didn’t believe it because he has doubted his capability for so many years! So much that he has stated, out loud, “I can’t get good grades. I’m not smart.” My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment and then came my response, “WHAT?!! Not only are you smart…you’re amazing!!”

A couple of days ago, he made a profound statement after taking his Reading OAA. He had been quite anxious about it to say the least and understandably so considering the difficulty he’s experienced with standardized testing thus far. In a concerted effort to boost students confidence, the school asks that parents write their students a note of encouragement for test days. I wrote him the attached note, not realizing the true impact it would have!

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When he called me after school, the first thing he said to me was he thought he did really well this time! He has NEVER sounded more confident and sure of himself!! It was a profound revelation from he who thought it to be impossible. I was filled with so much joy! I told him that was AWESOME! He continued by saying, “Yeah, I did slack a couple of times, but then I read your note and it helped me get focused!” I said, “Well, you DO know you’re amazing, right?”

I’ve said it before, there is power in words.  We all want our children to reach higher and go farther.  You know the saying, “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It is vital that we continue to instill in our students the importance of hard work and the diligent commitment it takes to succeed.  Come on, really. You do know they are amazing, right? So, no matter what it takes, we need to keep telling our children that they have a gift to share with the world, that they are capable of anything,  and just how absolutely amazing they truly are.

Another Snow Day???

I can remember growing up hearing that “there is ALWAYS learning to do”. Even when there is no homework, there is still homework. Boy, I thought my parents were as crazy as a loon! These folks are talking silly! It’s a SNOW DAY!! Of course, once I became an educator, those expectations began to make sense. Once I became a parent, it all became clear as ever.

This winter has been exceptionally troubling.  Schools and businesses have been closed and/or delayed more often than I can recall. It has elicited quite a few memories of the snow days we had when I was younger.  No school, no work, just fun and games.  Things haven’t changed much for the 21st century kids of today. Snow days are the benefits of the winter season. But, for parents, the feeling is not shared as intimately.

For working parents, snow days tend to cause frustration and irritation. Having to call off work or find accommodations for their children so they don’t spend the day home alone tends to cause unintentional stress to say the least.  Not necessarily stress from having to miss school, but the added stress of deviating from your normal routine in order to figure out what to do with them with such short notice. I know. My husband and I have dealt with the same dilemma. It is without a doubt, stressful and inconvenient. Nevertheless, today is a SNOW DAY, so we do what we need to do.

For stay at home parents, the irritation stems from the fact that along with any household responsibilities they must accomplish, NOW they have to deal with the needs of the children as well. There’s no quiet time or naps to be taken.  You can’t enjoy your lunch in peace, watch your soap operas, do the laundry, or read that book in the silence of your own home. Nope. There’s been a change of plans. Today is a SNOW DAY! So, instead, you get to hear the blaring of the video games, your son antagonize your daughter, screaming, yelling, the bumping of toys, and the ever pleasant yelping of “Mommy, mommy, mommy!” or “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” all day long. As it goes, this will undoubtedly become a great irritant. Especially after three, four, and five consecutive snow days in a row. But, what are you gonna do? Today’s a SNOW DAY.

Now, I may be in the minority on this, but I have to admit that I enjoy being home with my babies for snow days.  Yes, there are times when they become overwhelmingly rambunctious, but even with that, we make time to play games, relax, and even do homework! I’ve come to the realization that the moment they show tumultuous behaviors, they are communicating boredom. There are times they need to release that energy and then other times they need to take a break from over stimulation. So, I need to be careful about what we choose to do while we’re cooped up in the house. I noticed several parents on my social media page posting pictures of their kids playing games and playing in the snow during their snow days.  It warmed my heart to see all the family bonding. But I also noticed parents ready to get their kids back in school, regardless of the negative temperatures.  Everyone has their reasoning, but after reading so many comments about how the schools are failing kids by being closed for so many days and questioning students learning and success by refusing to stay opened, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the loss of their child’s instructional time in question or the loss the parent’s own personal time.

You know, I get it. These babies get restless and bored.  Their minds are hungry. We as parents, as the first TEACHER to enter their lives, we have the responsibility and the duty to feed their minds with information that is nourishing to their growth and development. Believe it or not, research suggests that even video games can be vital in strengthening a wide range of cognitive skills (American Psychological Association, 2013). Yes, even the violent ones (although, I don’t condone them).  Therefore, while there is video game play in our house, it is strictly monitored and controlled because after all, too much of anything good can become a bit toxic. Television and video games are limited to weekends only. And, well…of course, SNOW DAYS.

Snow days in our house consist of a variety of sensory stimulating activities. Most of the time, the kids play with toys, build things with their legos (and these aren’t the legos WE grew up with… these are advanced legos that end up looking like trucks, planes, and cities!), and they do watch TV for a while as well. But, after a few hours of that, we take time to read and practice math skills. You see, the rule in our house is much like that from my childhood…even when you don’t have homework, you still have homework. Yep! Even on your SNOW DAY! There’s always something to learn whether they know it or not.  Our kids can be learning something new all the time and the best part about it…they don’t even know it!  My daughter loves to draw and color and she can do this for hours without end.  What she doesn’t realize is that she’s strengthening her problem solving skills, her creativeness, her fine motor skills, and developing her higher order thinking skills.  She also enjoys reading which is a pleasantry in itself.  She enjoys looking at the pictures and even adding her own details to the stories she reads. Doing this develops her fluency and her vocabulary skills. In the meantime, she’s having fun and also…learning. Both of my boys love to build with their legos and to read. My youngest loves to read and write about sports and my oldest has taken a liking to historical fiction, again building problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, inquiry skills, and also…more learning.

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I know it seems that I’m going on and on about my babies, but I guess I’m trying to make a point.  I acknowledge that snow days may become an inconvenience. I acknowledge that kids have a way of becoming bothersome. But what I cannot and will not do is risk the health and safety of my children on a snow day for the sake of my own sanity. I will not blame the schools and/or teachers for that which Mother Nature has so lovingly bestowed upon us. “She” is out of our control. The schools have a responsibility to keep hundreds of children, teachers, and staff safe during inclement weather days, not to our work or soap opera schedules. We, the educators, understand that we lose valuable instructional time when we have snow days, however, if we, the parents, expect more of our children and take first hand responsibility for our students learning when they are home, we, educators and parents, can come together where the rubber meets the road and help our children attain that much more.

With that, let me revisit an earlier discussion of expectations. Not teacher expectations of students, but parental expectations of children.  When you were so blessed to have children, what were your dreams for their future? How do you picture them at age 5? 10? 21? I’d like to suggest that the moment we became parents, we imagined our children becoming something greater than ourselves.  We see them as the doctors, lawyers, police officers, and firefighters they declare themselves to want to be. But I encourage you to dig deeper than that with them. Ask them why they want to be what they have declared and how they will reach their goal(s). You may be as surprised as we were when our son told us that he would choose to be a doctor, but, “that’s too hard”. An honor student, unknowing of his own capabilities, defeated before he’s even begun working toward his goal. Why is that and how do I respond? Do I blame his lack of confidence on the school system and the teachers who have crossed his path? Has the 5 snow days, plus the 3 days he was out sick diminished his ability to receive and retain knowledge? Although easy to place blame in those places, it is ludicrous to suggest that my children will not obtain what they need because of all things…SNOW DAYS.

Consider this, our children are what we, the parents, shape them to be. If we instill in them our expectations, these will ultimately become their expectations.  If we model what learning looks like for them, they will ultimately mirror back to us the determination to learn. If we continuously talk to our children about how great they are, they will ultimately find that greatness inside. I whole-heartedly believe that we the parents hold the key to unlock our children’s future. Schools and teachers simply cultivate the seeds of knowledge, already planted. We are the first teacher our children encounter. Schools and teachers are in place to supplement and enrich the lessons we have already begun to teach. As teaching and learning change to fit the 21st century generation (and believe me, it is definitely different from when we were in elementary school), let us commit to changing and learning with the times for the sake of our children.

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Let’s make our children’s education our first priority rather than making it the schools responsibility. Teachers need parents to be more invested in their children’s learning and parents need teachers to keep them abreast of the new curriculum and learning outcomes within the classroom. So, you see, we need each other, but parents…PARENTS are the ones that first teach their children and help them begin to find direction and purpose in their lives.

So, now, instead of blaming the schools and teachers for missed lessons and instruction…decide instead on what your kids will learn new from YOU today, because today is yet another snow day.