How We Flunked Story Time

may_28_6968_frog_tadpole “Story time saved my sanity.” Thus proclaimed a friend with children much younger than mine. She gushed to me how much her family loves the library, and especially the children’s programs.

This sent my mind into a reminiscence of my own family history. I didn’t reveal to her my shameful secret. But I will confess it here. When my daughter was three and my son a newborn, our family flunked out of story time. At the very library where I now work.

It had to do with the green paper circles. Lily pads you might call them if you were a story time lady presenting a tale about frogs. Or, if you were my then 3-year-old daughter, you might call them wall dots, green steering wheels, round green hats, or frisbees. In her eyes, the possibilities were endless.

“Let’s sit on our lily pads little frogs, while we hear a story!” prompted the cheerful story time lady. 10 or 11 out of the group of 11 or 12 little frogs obediently criss-cross apple sauced on their lily pads.

“Frogs sit *on* their lily pads, not *under* them,” said the story time lady, still cheerfully.

“Mine’s a hat!” said my three-year-old, also cheerfully.

“Okay, well, let’s get the story started,” said the story time lady, gamely.

As the other children were doing the finger plays, my daughter was driving us to the store with the steering wheel that had been so thoughtfully provided. “I’ll drive since you’re holding the baby,” she whispered to me.

“Remember to sit on your lily pads,” prompted the story time lady, a little sternly, as the story ended and she prepared to begin a song. This time she was looking at me, a look that told me I was allowing my kid to Set a Bad Example, and I should begin enforcing the story time rules like a Good Mother.

But she’s not being disruptive, I thought back at her. She only whispered once, right in my ear. If I argue with her, that will be disruptive.

I don’t remember the song, probably something to do with amphibians. I remember I sang along, while wearing a green paper hat, held on my head by my kid. It was only fair that I have a turn, after all. See, I had taught my child about taking turns and sharing. Not a total loser mom, huh?

As a finale, there was a second song. And the kids were allowed more action this time, hopping, a little, in place, on cue. Or in one case, doing a small interpretive dance – The Dance of the Green Circle. My inner being was divided between mortification and fierce pride. I know which side the story time lady came down on, as she threw in an extra demonstration of the proper form of hopping.

As the program ended and parents left hand-in-hand with their children, I saw some other families grouping together, comparing this experience with story times of other weeks. Apparently they had a story time clique. Their offspring had been in training since birth. And here I thought I could bring in my wild child starting at the advanced age of three and have her fit in.

Said child, meanwhile, now that she was allowed to move around and talk freely, was pointing out to me all of the things you could do with a circle of green paper. You could decorate a wall with it. You could tuck in the top of your shirt in back and have a round superhero cape. You could hide your face behind it to play peek-a-boo with a baby. You could use it as a baby blanket. After a minute, my mixed feelings coalesced into amazement at my kid’s mind and attitude – that she could be so excited and could see so many possibilities in circle of paper.

I glanced around at the other families, with their conforming kids, who would have fit right in on that planet in “A Wrinkle in Time” – the one where the children bounced their balls at the exact same time on the exact same schedule every day. Suddenly, they seemed a little, hmmm, soulless might be the word? Those poor moms and dads, seeing the limitations of their merely adequate children exposed in the bright illumination cast by the creative genius shining from my daughter. Yeah, I couldn’t put them through that again.

We’d stick to our informal weekly playgroup and leave the organized story times for those others. I imagined the librarian in charge of the program that day thinking of us as “not story time material.” I suppose some people might look at it as having failed, and at times I have looked at it that way, too, wondering why my kid has such a hard time getting with the program. But I prefer think of it more as not a good fit. See how non-judgmental I’m being about the others’ rigidity and lack of imagination?lilypad

The same dynamic would continue to play out in public school as the years went on. My older kid often had “better” ideas than the teacher about how an assignment should be done. Some teachers loved this and used it to advantage. In those classes, my child learned a lot and accomplished some remarkable creative achievements. Others instructors – I call them lily pad teachers – lived by the philosophy “Rubrick uber alles!” My offspring showed a marked failure to thrive in those classrooms.

I never have completely sorted out my feelings. No, I don’t think the school should have to convert any of their computers from qwerty to Dvorak because one kid think it works better. (Pick your battles, child.) But yes, I do think my then-10th-grader should have been given extra credit instead of a zero on that world history report for having gone so far above and beyond in research and effort, in having a desire to do something that wasn’t a rehash of every other paper that had been written in the same classroom for the past decade.

Eventually the little frog grew strong enough to hop its way out of the public school pond and forge its own path to college, via self-study and a GED. Have I mentioned the college major? – Fisheries and Wildlife. Lack of preschool success at frogdom notwithstanding. I guess it didn’t go on the permanent record.

greencirclegreencirclegreencircle

A History of Snow

One thing I adore about my husband is that he loves to play in the snow. The first Christmas we were dating, he gave me a sled. Living in Missouri, we get two or three decent snows each winter, which is about right for me. I like snow, but not enough to live someplace like Buffalo, NY.

We’ve tried to pass on the “snow is for fun” attitude to our kids. Following is a collection of photos I’ve taken over the past few years of snow creations and activities involving my household.

Ode to My Favorite Picture Books

I was thinking today about two of my favorite childhood picture books: “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf, and “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson. I read both of these over and over. I see now how they’ve influenced me for life.

Here’s today’s poem, a tribute to these two books. It’s rough, but from the heart.

Two Great Teachers

Ferdinand, from you I learned
The value of sitting in the clover
Quietly being true to yourself.
You and Harold
Were my first great teachers.
Ferdinand, I’m so glad you came along
When I was young to show me
conquests and prizes pale
Next to the victory of retaining
Your integrity. From you I learned
Contemplation.
Harold, with his crayon, spurred my creativity,
Showed me I could travel anywhere
Be anything, have wondrous adventures,
No matter my circumstances,
Without depending on someone else,
Without a car or bike or money,
As long as I had imagination.

If you need to find me, I’ll be
Traveling this world and others
In my clover patch.

Let’s Be Purists

Here’s a phrase I’d like to see used only in its original context: “lowest common denominator.” I suggest we stick to purist principles and use these words only in relation to actual math problems. I’m feeling pretty done with hearing the expression applied to human beings, especially children. To be honest, I’ve used it myself in the past. But I’ve declared a personal moratorium on it.

Think about it. That kid who is struggling with his reading – he’s a real person. He’s someone’s child. The girl who takes a few minutes longer than your kid to figure out the least common denominator in math class – she’s a human, and she’s good at something that some of the other kids aren’t. Every child, and every adult for that matter, struggles with something, and nobody wants to be ridiculed for it.

If I want my humanity recognized, I need to recognize it in others, and not use dismissive terms. Lowest Common Denominator, I hereby by banish you from the realm of humanity-describing adjectives.

A Tale of Two Classrooms.

It was the best of educational experiences. It was the worst of educational experiences. It was a time in which a student could get an A on her English assignment for writing her “how-to” paper on the subject of How to Begin Your Secret Mission. It was a time in which a student could get no credit at all for writing a paper in World History with the assigned topic of “Ancient Greek Mythology” because she went beyond the rubric when she explored the sociological aspects and explained why the myths made sense in the context of the culture, when they can seem so nonsensical today. It was a time in which English teachers were lauded and World History teachers reviled within certain households. Creativity was nurtured and creativity was punished; individuality was encouraged and rigid conformity was enforced. Students were going directly on to brilliant college success because of their abilities to stretch their minds; students were headed to a life selling cigarettes at QuikMart because of their inabilities to follow directions to the letter. It was an American girl’s sophomore year in high school. The two classrooms were in the same building, but may as well have been on different planets.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you have a child in public school, I’ll bet it does. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from seeing my kids go through the school system, it’s that the administration can be good, bad or indifferent, and so can the curriculum. But it’s the classroom teacher who makes the most difference between a good educational experience and a bad one. If you’ve had a good teacher, remember to thank him or her.

Those are my thoughts for today.

 

A Mother’s-Eye View of Standardized Testing

I wrote this essay a few years ago. It has received more “we almost published this” letters than any other piece of writing I’ve produced, yet it never makes the final cut. So why not put it here?

Good test scores? A lifetime supply of cookies for you!

**

Human beings are incapable of playing in the rain. I learned this when I worked for the local public school district. One of my duties in the Title I office involved processing the tests given to children as part of their preschool screening. In the section used to determine a child’s problem solving ability, a question asked, “What do you do when it rains?”

One boy answered, “You can play in the rain if it’s warm and there’s no lightning.” He was marked wrong.  Apparently the creators of the test and the answer key knew something I didn’t. I thought people possessed the ability to frolic in falling water. I was also under the mistaken impression that we humans could stomp in puddles, but the kids who mentioned this activity were considered equally wrong.  The only things we can do when it rains are: go inside, use an umbrella, or put on a raincoat. According to the test makers anyway.

I’m not criticizing the Title I program. It’s a good thing. It helps kids who need extra assistance prepare for kindergarten, and provides individualized instruction to children who are struggling with reading. The Title I teachers and administrators I saw in my stint as an office grunt were by and large hard working, empathetic and dedicated. But they worked within the public schools, and as far as I know, no part of the public school system escapes the scourge of required standardized testing.

This isn’t a new development, of course. During my own school days, in fourth grade to be exact, I was identified as gifted and placed in a special program. In what area did my gifts lie? Not visual arts; I was about average there. Certainly not music; to this day I can’t carry a tune. My social skills were mediocre at best, so I wasn’t being recognized for my interpersonal abilities. I could do math in my head, and I loved to read. But my real, true gift, my greatest ability, was test taking. I intuitively grasped the formula for multiple-choice tests and I had a talent for figuring out what authority figures liked to hear in the way of answers. Throughout the years of my formal education, I received a lot of praise for my exam marks.

How have I applied this skill in my adult life? I haven’t.  I’ve never found an employer willing to hire me to take tests. I don’t field requests to perform the Stanford Binet at parties. Nobody knows or cares what my SAT scores were. My husband didn’t bother to find out before he asked me to marry him. My children don’t care; they just want to know what’s for dinner. All of those numbers everyone made such a big deal about back then turned out to be the most irrelevant facts of my life.

As much emphasis as test scores received when I was in school, things are worse for my own kids. For their generation, it begins when they’re toddlers. Both of my children were enrolled in Parents as Teachers, an early childhood program, free to families, in which a parent educator comes to the home roughly once a month, does educational activities with your child, and gives you information about child development. Like Title I, it’s a good program with many benefits. Then there’s the testing.

My kids, both at the age of two, participated in the Denver II screening, given to check their progress on various developmental milestones.  My daughter and son both proved the maxim that tests can be standardized, but children can’t.  One of the skills the children were asked to exhibit was block stacking. My daughter, as a toddler, adored building toys. She performed brilliantly on tower making. The problems began when the blocks were put away so she could move on to demonstrating her social and verbal acuity. The parent educator may have thought they were done playing with blocks, but the examinee disagreed. For the remainder of the session, every question posed to my daughter was met with a request for more block play.  Finally, the examiner gave up asking her anything.

As my little girl sat happily constructing walls, the parent educator pondered how to “score” her. I looked over the questions and pointed out that my daughter had demonstrated all the listed skills during previous visits. According to the rules, though, she couldn’t be given credit for them if she didn’t do them during the test. On the other hand, the examiner couldn’t well write down that my child was incapable of things she had been observed to do. The parent educator eventually wrote the word “refused” on the lines where the child’s answers were supposed to be recorded. An Alford Plea of sorts, I suppose.

When my son did the same screening three years later, he willingly answered every question. He loved to talk; it was his favorite activity at the time. But he tended to give nonconformist answers. When asked to supply the name of a friend, he said, “Grace (his sister) is my most friend.”  Wrong. He was supposed to have given a name from outside the family.  In the world of the Denver II, siblings can’t be friends. As his mother, I felt he couldn’t have given a more right answer.

At the time I found it amusing and even endearing, the way my children wouldn’t be boxed in by these silly tests. I stopped laughing when I discovered the scores were to be included in their school records and the numbers used by people who had never even met my children to make decisions about their educations and lives.

This is what makes me all prickly about standardized exams.  They don’t produce insight; they produce numbers, which are taken completely out of any context, and then used to define a child. I never met the Title I child who liked playing in the warm rain, but his response gave me the impression of a joyful little boy who also had a level head on his shoulders. Not only did he refuse to allow the weather to spoil his fun, he possessed enough wisdom to evaluate when it was safe to be outside and when it wasn’t. That made him an A#1 problem solver in my book. Unfortunately, what went into his school record likely reflected a different view; perhaps of a boy who was only a three in problem solving, not as clever as those fives. We can’t expect as much from him.

Similarly, my son’s “score” was skewed. In our family, we regard each other as friends. I guess the folks who created the developmental screening didn’t get along so well with their own relations.  Too bad they’re the ones who get to say which is the right answer when a difference of opinion arises. Where I saw a sweet, big-hearted boy who adored his sister, the number assigned to him declared he wasn’t quite up to speed with his social awareness, and subsequently he entered school already labeled as a bit deficient.

Then there’s my daughter, who exhibited all the skills they were looking for every day of her life except for test day, when she had something else on her mind. Even if everyone agreed on which questions and answers were necessary and right (a big stretch), a test score still only reflects what the child does during one small portion of one day, ignoring whatever accomplishments she demonstrates the entire rest of the year.

My children have been blessed so far with wonderful teachers, ones who do look beyond the numbers. My daughter’s second grade teacher realized that reading level and emotional maturity are two very different things. Though my daughter could read most of the books in the school, she wasn’t ready for the themes in some of them. The teacher made an extra effort to find books for her that met her needs on all levels. In first grade, my son rarely completed any work assignment. His teacher, drawing on her years of experience, recognized his painfully slow work habits as a product of perfectionism. She had the wisdom to see he didn’t need extra instruction in the subjects at hand, but did need encouragement to take risks. These are the sorts of insights that are at the heart of effective teaching and can never be gained from penciled-in bubbles on an answer sheet.

Yet, thanks in large part to the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act, these terrific educators are able to spend less and less time educating. One day, looking at my daughter’s heavy homework load, I asked, “If you’re doing all this work at home, what is it you’re doing with your class time?”

“Taking tests,” she said with a world-weary sigh.

A number of philosophers have written about the human tendency to confuse the symbol with the thing it symbolizes.  It seems to me this has happened with test scores. They’ve been transformed from a symbol of what students are pursuing – education – into the thing pursued. In the interest of raising scores, students at West Blvd Elementary School, in Columbia, Missouri, are now be required to spend longer days, and more of them, in the classroom than other students in the Columbia Public Schools. The district’s budget is so tight that some teacher positions had to be eliminated; yet money was found to create a new administrative position, “Director of Research, Assessment and Accountability.” A testing czar, in other words.

Posted on the Columbia Public Schools web site is the district’s Assessment Plan, all 49 pages of it. Two pages are devoted to “motivating students to do well on state and district-wide assessments.”  Techniques mentioned include treats as rewards (Tootsie Rolls are listed by name), raffles, and motivational assemblies. Another two pages are devoted to test-taking strategies. One of the strategies for multiple choice tests is: Choose a middle answer (B, C, or D) versus a first or last choice when a guess is necessary. This isn’t unique to one school district; it’s a standard tactic for multiple-choice tests. It’s also an admission that a high test score doesn’t necessarily reflect mastery of a particular subject. Mastery of how to work the system maybe.

There are better ways to assess the areas in which a child is doing well and in which they need more help. Some private schools and home school families have pupils build a portfolio throughout the year to provide an overview of what they have learned and accomplished. Daily observations and common sense go a long way as well. I don’t need a test to tell me if my kids can manage fractions. They cook with me in the kitchen and can easily double recipe ingredients from a quarter to a half-cup, from 3/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons.  My daughter has taken several sessions of private weaving lessons with not a single test of any kind.  But anyone looking at the pieces she turned out with each successive class could see how much she was learning and improving.

So why do we parents, teachers and school administrators keep participating in what so many of us see as a deeply flawed and harmful practice? Though it makes me cringe to admit it, the honest answer for me is fear.  According to federal and state mandates, any school with less than 95% participation gets in trouble. So do the schools where students don’t produce high enough scores.  I’ve considered boycotting the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) by keeping my kids home on testing days. But then I’ll think, “Do I really want our school’s year extended? Do I want to feel responsible if teachers lose their jobs?” No wonder the administration is almost frantic to make sure children show up to take the test. And fill in the correct bubbles.

Another problem with moving away from mass standardized testing toward a more informative and helpful system of assessment is that it would require teachers to pay increased individual attention to each student, which would mean smaller classes, which would mean a need for more money.  I’m convinced the resources are there; it’s just that we as a society would have to make a major commitment to changing our priorities. The words from the classic bumper sticker come to mind:  It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. A tall order, but maybe we don’t have to try to accomplish it all at once; we can keep it as an eventual goal.

In fact, simply eliminating standardized testing would be a good start on freeing up material and human resources to be used for better purposes. My local school district’s budget for the past year included more than $170,000 just for testing materials.  I don’t know what salary is paid to the new testing administrator. But it looks to me like eliminating the testing budget plus the new administrative position could provide enough money for at least a few more teachers.

And what can parents do to make this start happening? Realistically, many of us struggle just to keep up with the laundry and grocery shopping, and don’t feel equal to the task of reforming an entire culture. For some the answer is private school or homeschooling. For others, those aren’t viable options. Personally, all I know to do is keep talking every chance I get, and encouraging others to do the same. Maybe someday someone will listen.

In the meantime, I do what I can to educate my own children about the realities of standardized testing. I especially like to tell them true stories about “problem” students, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and M.C. Escher (who famously flunked out of school because his test scores were too low.) When we talk about the ‘gifted” program and the fact that the school district deems only 2% of students worthy of an enriching educational experience, I give my kids a story problem, “If two percent of students have enrichment provided by the schools, then what percentage of pupils will have to go get what they need for themselves, and which group is learning more about resourcefulness?”   And when we get tired of discussing schools and testing, we all go out to play in the rain.  Some days I feel like that’s the best thing I can do for my children.

**

Uh-oh! Low scores! It's into the pit for him.

The pay off

My son is in middle school and bumping up against a dilemma faced by many writers. How willing should you be to sacrifice your artistic vision for  pay? In this case, the payoff is a grade. We’re finding, sadly, that the writing taught in language arts in our local schools is preparing the students to conform to the formula required on the MAP test (Missouri Assessment Program.)

In my son’s class, they’ve been working on memoir writing. He decided to write about how he came to be obsessed with Lego architecture, something that began with a trip to Chicago, where he discovered a Lego version of the Sears Tower. So far, so good. It’s not a bad choice for an 11-year-old. But he wanted to make his piece stand out. He told me he didn’t want to just write down a list of events. He and I brainstormed for a while and he came up with a pretty original writing plan; he would write a backward memoir.

So he started the piece with the most recent relevant event, then explained how it had been spawned by a previous event and how that had grown out of something that happened before, and so on. Right back to our trip to Chicago. He was pleased with  how well the idea worked and so was I. He had attained his goal of writing something that was interesting and stood out from the rest of the memoirs in the class.

Therein lay the problem. He wasn’t supposed to write something different. He got marked down because the scoring guideline states memoirs are supposed to relate events in the order they happened. Tell that to Dave Eggers. Hmph!

To be fair, the teacher presented things honestly. The students were told what to do to get the best score, and my son did decide to do it a different way. It’s a decision he’ll have to keep making. Does he want to find his own voice to do the best writing he can, or does he want the grade? In a way, the fact that Language Arts is not his favorite subject might make it easier for him to choose the higher grade. He’s a lot more passionate about science. On the other hand, he might have inherited enough of my personality to figure it’s worth sacrificing a grade in order to make a statement.

It’ll be interesting to see him choose his path.