Hearts and Minds: Teaching and Learning the Relevant and Valuable

Share widely, and please let me know what resonates with viewers in the comments below. Thx!

Special thanks to many, many groups and individuals who helped both -knowingly and not- in the production of this film including:

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Mikva Challenge & Center for Action Civics, Meira Levinson & Facing History
The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE)
Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce
Save Ethnic Studies of Arizona

Catalyst Chicago, National Louis Univ., and Teach+

More specifically, and in no particular order: Steve Zemelman, Mark Larson, Jill Bass, Anton Miglietta, Xian Barrett, Shanti Elliot, Liz Brown, A.C. Knapik, Hannah Willage, Pam Konkol, Sarah Slavin, Sabrina Stevens, Jose Luis Vilson, Meira Levinson, Elizabeth Robbins, Bill Keundig, and Amber Smock…for so much I have learned from you all.

Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

Happy Friday, all.  This one was originally posted on the VIVAteachers blog.  I’ll ask some students if I can feature their projects up here next week.

For more on CCSS, see previous post.    



Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

I consider most conflicts to be problems of design.  As a teacher, my first task is always to design lessons that are engaging.  Some teachers do this very easily with humor, or great storytelling.  I do this by prioritizing relevant and valuable ideas shared by the students in the room, and I excel at that…  or so my students and their parents tell me.  If my designs are off, my lessons will not be engaging and my students will not learn.  And, believe me, students are quite effective at letting me know when my lessons are not engaging.

In general, learning standards are implemented as a design solution for a problem that never was.  In my nine years of teaching social studies and Spanish, I have had to learn and prioritize the Illinois Learning Standards – of which there are six different sets for the social studies ‑ along with socio-emotional standards, the ACT-aligned College Readiness Standards, and now the Common Core State Standards for literacy.  (There are no social studies standards for this newest set, so by default, I am directed to use the non-fiction reading and writing standards.)  As part of my evaluation, all of these standards are to be accounted for in my lesson plans, as if they add value that wasn’t already there in the lessons I’ve been teaching.   Please consider the value and relevance of the following lesson currently happening in my classroom.

I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course for high school juniors in a Chicago public school.  The first quarter, which just finished on October 31st, focused on professional skills; the second quarter revolves around money management.  This week my students – who have just completed their mock interview for a future career – must go through the steps of determining a place to live on a fixed salary, and then present their decision to their peers in the form of a brief PowerPoint presentation.

To complete this project, the students must first determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (determined by scale based upon their grade from last semester, e.g. students who received an “A” earn $42,000, and performance in the mock interview), and then they must find a place to live.  To do this, students scour the Internet for classified ads on webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that the students who did really well in the mock interview have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while the ones who didn’t do so well might have to find a classmate willing to be a roommate.  Some even have to explain in their presentations why they are living at home in their parents’ attic!

Year after year, this is one of the most popular lessons I do with my students because they consider it both relevant and valuable to their real lives.  Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually the first opportunity they have had to navigate their possibilities for determining their living options.  This is an assignment that requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity.  They love being able to compare who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

They apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for the paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills both in the presentation of their PowerPoint and in the negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates for who get different sized rooms.  Some of the students argue that since their partners/roommates are contributing unequal amounts money, than perhaps that person’s bedroom will be the size of a walk-in closet.  We all get a good laugh, and then move on to budgeting in the real world the following week.

If I have explained the purpose of this activity clearly, the reader probably wasn’t judging this lesson based upon their determining what standard I was trying to teach.  That’s because I’m not trying to teach a standard, I am teaching a valuable lesson to young people: how to find a place to live when you are on your own, something that most people have to do sometime in their young adult lives.

This lesson has changed very little over the years I have taught it.  Neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards, and not even the Illinois Learning Standards have any bearing on the value of this lesson.  The standards are inconsequential.  The activities are not derived from or determined by standards; the lesson comes from the students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.

Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community.  But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with the pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the assessments (read: standardized tests). What then happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve describes?   They get relegated to “extra credit” instead of being the subject matter of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor classroom learning to the assessments that teachers most likely did not design.

This is not an appeal for more help in learning how to implement the standards better in my teaching.  If I wanted support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I could get it.  I could ask my administration or my union, and both would be responsive.  I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for some webinars in my pajamas any night of the week.  Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and Education Week is forever advertising a new solution system for my administration to buy.  Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago.  What if all that money went directly into classrooms instead?

No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.

“When you assume, you make a CCSS of you and me”

The Common Core is laden with serious problems, and it makes me want to vomit, but not until after I school some folks, out of the loop.  I won’t even bring up the fact -as TeacherX likes to point out- that it’s “a $14 billion Trojan horse for more testing.”

A week before school started and I had to sit through a horrible professional development that was put together by our “network literacy specialist” who, when I asked her where she got the document she responded that ” it was something I got from a friend.”  As if that’s good enough.  Thank you for your honesty in describing how you waste my time with such little forethought.

I was so livid about the content and methods, I posted pics to these to social media with the comment below.  Please note the description for the “close reading” strategy:

The text below (Dees) was given to teachers as professional development on literacy strategies for CCSS. The disposition we take is that this should be text-dependent reading, un-contextualized (second pic). This document expounding the virtues of vulture capitalism and philanthropic colonialism is meant to be read w/o understanding all the grief those two practices have caused in the world and more intimately in our Chicago communities. This is why educators must fight the common core animal head on. No text is without CONtext.
In the margin, I wrote, “If background knowledge is secondary, then why pay for certified educators?  Why not do everything via virtual school?  (Adressing the “close reading strategy) Very problematic: [this reading is] disengaging, individualistic, [encourages to students to] develop[ing] false conclusions.  This is the centerpiece of the CCSS problem.”
Today the Examiner published a poorly-researched op-ed extolling the virtues of Common Core, missed the boat completely and declared that professors -the one he interviewed- think that the CCSS will improve “teachers expectations of learning for young black and brown men in Chicago and nationally,” even while admitting they probably won’t be implemented well in Chicago.  Which is true.
Below is my challenge to the ideas he put forth:
I call into question a serious assumption that he makes: It is extremely problematic to call reading the “most basic of skills…” To be sure, there is NOTHING basic about reading. As literate adults, we take for granted and forget that, but the reading process is extremely complex to both learn, and to teach, and only more so under threat of high stakes (testing, school closures, merit pay), and the conditions of our schools (rising class sizes, no AC, students experiencing trauma).

I am a social studies teacher in CPS, but because there are no Social Studies Standards, I “officially” teach “Literacy.” This is because in the 1980s’ standards implementation set off the “Culture Wars,” and so a strategic decision was made by the (non-teacher) “experts” from the Governor’s Association and Achieve, Inc. to replace social studies with literacy in order to pass a “common” set of standards across the US, and in doing so bypass the inherent bias in social studies education: “the question of “which/whose history is the subject of study, and therefore the “official history?”

The CCSS are written in a way to declare that if any given young person is meeting standards, they should be able to “analyze context given a piece of text” via critical thinking. But without context a reader cannot place importance or relevance into a given document, and therefore critical thinking DOES NOT take place at all, and the standards ultimately feign neutrality in the face of “bipartisanship.” Real neutrality means analyzing text and contexts. As I say to my students, “we must read the word AND read the world.” CCSS does not ask this of young people.

It does not matter what kind of standards are developed or aligned to what kind of tests. The only way to make learning valuable for young people is to make sure they have context for learning. No set of standards can provide context. Only when we recognize to invest in the people who engage in both teaching and learning will we start to value the process as a whole.

Here’s what needs to happen to improve the rate of success for young people:

1) Invest in humane and developmentally appropriate facilities and conditions for teaching and learning.

2) The job of Principal should not be “building manager,” but “teacher-leader” as they were 50 yr ago focusing on staff development.

3) Individualized Professional Development Plans: Support for educators to work on what they want to work on that directly translates to improved curriculum and instruction for students.

4) A rich and varied curriculum of not only STEM, but the arts, humanities, health, civics, and vocational experiences.

All of this is not cheap. But I am convinced that if the United States can afford 4 wars in 10 years, or money to bail out major banks we can afford a dignified education system for all children.

The need for standards is a myth, but a lucrative one at that, and pervasive in the education reform world.  As educators we roll our eyes, but we need to speak up and expose what it actually does to curriculum and instruction – and ultimately students- is harm.

AFT Research is a Call-to-Action: Testing is Out of Hand, Costly.

Today the American Federation of Teachers published “Testing More, Teaching Less: What America’s Obssesion with Student Testing Costs in Money and Instructional Time.”  It is an audit of the total time and money spent on testing and test-prep in two mid-sized districts given the pseudonyms, “Midwest District” and “Eastern District” and it validates what every student and teacher knows, what parents are furious over, and what legislators are quickly catching on to:

Americans are testing our children instead of teaching them.

The release of this study is also an exciting benchmark for me personally, as it the latest step in a collaborative labor of love spanning multiple states, both major teachers unions (AFT, and the larger National Education Association), policy-makers at every level, parents and students, and rank-and-file educators, all with the goal of getting transparency for taxpayers, stakeholders, and decision-makers who may often hear that “we’re testing too much” but don’t quite know what it looks like.  We started with the question, “Exactly how much of an impact is testing in our schools?”

At the 2012 American Federation of Teachers Convention, the Testing Cost Audit language (Resolution 5) was introduced from the floor of the convention, motivated by the Chicago Teacher Union.  The language, adopted from the New Mexico Senate Memorial 73, sponsored by State Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez (D-23), called for a published audit of all time and money spent on testing, as well as a toolkit to be made available for rank-and-file members to conduct Testing Cost Audit in their own districts.  Earlier that July, New Business Item 82 which had similar language to AFT Resolution 5, passed in the National Education Association Representative Assembly as a grassroots collaborative effort sponsored by educators from New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, and Virginia delegations.  However, in AFT, while the amendment language of AFT Resolution 5 did not pass from the floor, it was summarily adopted as an amendment to the Exec Councils Anti-testing Resolution (#2) in late summer.  The report and the forth-coming toolkits for union locals are a result of the combined efforts of everyone from union rank-and-file members, to union leadership and staff.  This is member-driven unionism.*

The author of the study, F. Howard Nelson, Ph. D. also conducted a workshop around how to model the methodology for studying testing in members’ own districts.  Much of the  information for an Testing Audit is obtainable through disctricts’ public documents including included utilizing assessment inventories and testing calendars, as well as district budgets.  The tools created by Nelson are reproducible, to be put in an AFT Solution-Driven Unionism toolkit for locals planned for 2014, but members are encouraged to change and study what makes sense for their own contexts.  There are already some locals who have started to develop tools, including NYSUT’s web-resource Truth About Testing campaign, and Chicago’s More Than a Score coalition.  And organizations such as PUREparents have been advocating for testing transparency for years.

Workshop participants expressed interest in conducting the study in their own districts but noted that the study tools presented fell short of measuring all the conditions of over-testing that negatively impact instructional time for students.  The tools differentiate between standardized tests that are mandated by states, those that are mandated by local districts, and other “interim” (practice) assessments and benchmark tests.  Dr. Nelson acknowledged that while there was alot of information very accessible, there was “most likely, tests that districts give that aren’t even in [the study].”

Participants brainstormed a variety of other Testing Audit components they would want to identify for their districts such as the time loss due to testing of specialized populations including students with disabilities and English Language Learners, and the costs and time loss associated with the administration of “field testing,” exam questions, the practice of requiring students to take practice tests before the test-publishing company produces the mandated exam for that year.

The “Testing More, Teaching Less” study has a number of recommendations, including calling for a moratorium on high-stakes associated with testing, streamlining testing with teacher input, and eliminating benchmark and interim testing, but it also identifies the states’ adoption of Common Core “next generation” assessments as a way to mandate the “elimination of all duplicative out-of-date state assessments.”  However, education stake-holders and decision-makers must weigh that alongside the current push-back against the Common Core from educators and legislators who see the Common Core as both narrowing the curricula and an over-reach of corporate ed-reform interests (Liberal viewpoint) and Federal government (Conservative viewpoint) as well as the announcement yesterday that the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the Common Core Assessment producers will be doubling the cost of their tests for many participating states.

In any event, this is an opportunity for rank-and-file members to do ground-breaking, locally- and nationally-relevant research that can inform stakeholders – teacher, parents, students, policy-makers, and legislators – about the the schools we currently have, so that we can organize power – people and money- to fight for the schools we need and deserve.  This study and toolkit created to promote transparency in testing and test-prep is one of the necessary elements needed if we are to reclaim the promise of providing all public school students in America the opportunity for a high-quality, well-rounded and rich education experience.

*Special thanks go to Senator Michael Sanchez (D-29) and Elaine Romero, the New Mexico Education Association, the Washington Education Association and Julianna Dauble of Renton, WA, the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) caucus including Steve Owens and Rick Baumgartner, and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) including Xian Barrett, George Schmidt, and Sharon Schmidt. (2012) I would also like to thank F. Howard Nelson and Ed Muir of the American Federation of Teachers, as well as the Executive Council of AFT and especially AFT President Randi Weingarten and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Jennings Lewis.

Breaking News: New Group to Oppose Corporate Reforms

Its about time we sponsor our own.

Breaking News: New Group to Oppose Corporate Reforms.

WaPo Repost: #TooManyTests


 Time on testing: 738 minutes in 3 weeks

Posted by Valerie Strauss on November 11, 2012 at 11:30 am

How much time do teachers and students spend on standardized tests? That’s one of the big questions in public education today, which Adam Heenan, a Chicago school teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union addresses here.

By Adam Heenan

A few days ago, a colleague walked into our social studies department with a bubbled-in answer sheet from a test he had just administered. One student had turned the sheet on its side and bubbled in the colloquial acronym “YOLO” — You Only Live Once — on the exam. The teacher had  created the test, but to the teenager, it was just one more exam in a seemingly endless series of bubble-sheet, auto-scored assessments.

(By Adam Heenan)

I laughed at what the student had created, mostly because the “YOLO” script was evenly distributed across the length of the bubble sheet, demonstrating the student’s skill in measurement and design. But of course it isn’t funny. In my school, in just three weeks’ time, I have calculated that we spent 738 minutes (12 hours and 18 minutes) on preparing for and administering standardized tests. Our students are experiencing testing fatigue, which makes the results from each successive exam they take more invalid and the data about student learning more inaccurate. I can’t blame this student for speaking out against the excessive use of testing throughout our schools.

Though many people are waking up to the teach-to-the-test craziness gripping our schools, there are still many people who don’t understand the problem. They remember taking a few bubble tests as kids and didn’t think it was such a big deal — and for the most part, it wasn’t. At no time before now was kindergarten ever synonymous with 14 different tests per year, as journalist Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader has pointed out.

But the one-day, once-every-few-years standardized testing experience they remember is a far cry from the pervasive, high-stakes phenomenon testing has become. In order to make better policy choices about how we spend our precious education resources, the public needs to know just how much time and money has been spent on high-stakes testing in the No Child Left Behind era. This is why I and others have pushed for a full audit of the time and money that has been spent on all of this testing and test-prep, a call now supported by both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

This year alone, my colleagues and I have devoted a significant chunk of the additional time we were supposed to have for teaching and collaborating to testing. By mid-October, our school had already sacrificed a week’s worth of teaching and learning time for Chicago’s standardized beginning-of-the-year exams for students in their regular classes, to be repeated for the middle-of-the-year and end-of-the-year exams as well. There have been two days of “testing schedules,” where teachers and students in grades 9, 10 and 11 have had to sacrifice instructional time for EPAS exams (the system of grade-aligned tests from ACT). We have devoted our own time to looking at the data, and common planning time to talking about looking at the data and learning the tests’ gibberish language of “RIT Bands,” “cut scores,” “BOYs, MOYs, and EOYs,” none of which translate to classroom practice. It seems like every single professional conversation we have is not talking about students, but rather about the tests others create.

And because the stakes of these tests are so high, even the allegedly “optional” tests and interventions become—culturally, if not officially— mandatory. Officials higher up on the school district chain of command constantly warn those of us down below that “we must get our test scores up,” that “our school has been on probation way too long,” and that test-driven sanctions like closure or turnaround are constant threats. Because test scores are being misused as evidence that schools and the people in them—including administrators, teachers, students and even the lunch lady—are failures in teaching and learning, administrators and teachers succumb to the pressure to focus ever more closely on testing.

My colleagues and I are tired of the obsessive testing culture in our school. We just want to teach. And judging by all the petitions, testimonials and even wristbands we’ve seen echoing that sentiment, this is a national problem, not just ours.

We need to know how much time and money test-driven policymakers have diverted from teaching and learning into testing, and to show what we could be doing with those resources instead. Because, let’s face it: You only live once, and we can’t afford to waste precious minutes of our children’s education.

Charter School Forum in Chicago, Broy refused neutrality w. CTU

I attended the Charter School Forum last night hosted by the Better Government Association (@BetterGov), and Catalyst News (@CatalystChicago), a education news source in Chicago.  The forum comes at a time when 140 Chicago Public Schools are slated to be “turned around” and/or “charterized.”  Broy of the Illinois Network of Charter School maintained that charters schools are “places of innovation”  though Potter of the Chicago Teachers Union often pressed him on this he seemed to dodge the answers. Potter constantly asked Broy for a “neutrality” pact to stop the continuous proliferation, lets study what’s actually happening in these experimentation centers, and to actively allow charter school teachers to unionize.  Currently, fourteen charters are unionized, though there is still much harassment when charter school teachers express interest in forming a union.

At the end of the forum, Catalyst expressed interest in continuing this discussion.  I would hope that in the next panel discussion we could hear from teachers, parents and students.


David is a teacher-organizer on the south side of Chicago.  He is a member of the Caucus of Rank-and File Educators (CORE) and I met him in 2009 fighting against school actions that destabilize students’ teaching and learning conditions and ultimately lead to neighborhood gentrification.

Recently Steve Bogira (@stevebogira) wrote an article comparing the educational conditions of two students in Cook County, IL. Hayley is a student at New Trier HS on the North Shore, and Jasmeen was David’s former student at Hirsch Metro HS on the south side of Chicago.

The article is gripping, and David provides wonderful added context from an educator’s perspective.  I encourage readers to comment below and on the original article site.


The latest issue of The Reader, Chicago’s free alternative weekly newspaper, has a cover story on racial segregation in local schools. The article features a white student from a rich northern suburb, and a black student (Jasmine Wellere) from poor South Side neighborhood. I was one of Jasmine’s teachers in her South Side high school, and she was one of my favorite students.

Below is link to the Reader’s article, plus a comment he posted in response.
-David R. Stone

Original article:

My response:
As a former teacher at Hirsch Metro H.S., I know that neighborhood public schools can provide a way out of poverty for some students like Jasmeen, but we don’t have enough resources to help everyone. The Chicago Board of Education amplifies the city’s racial and economic disparities by taking resources away from schools such as Hirsch.

The Reader article correctly reports that at Hirsch, “enrollment has withered recently; at the beginning of the year there were only 390 students” – but doesn’t tell why.

One reason is that the mayor’s hand-picked Board kills successful programs that encourage students to attend neighborhood schools. At Hirsch, a Radio/TV program was eliminated, and the Board removed state-of-the-art broadcast equipment. The school’s TV studio was turned into an ordinary classroom, where I taught print journalism to Jasmeen and other students.

When students asked where all the TV cameras, mixing boards, etc. had gone, I joked that the school was so broke we needed to sell the stuff on E-Bay. Sadly, the students believed me, because the school really was broke. Unlike New Trier, we didn’t have money for new textbooks, and my journalism texts were nearly 10 years old.

About a year later, Westinghouse High School (which used to be a high enrollment school with many great vocational programs, open to everyone in its West Side neighborhood) was re-opened as a selective enrollment high school in a brand new building, with a state-of-the-art TV studio.

In Hirsch’s South Side neighborhood, similar shifting of resources led to the creation of charter schools such as Urban Prep and Gary Comer high schools. Their relentless recruiting at the neighborhood elementary schools led to Hirsch’s declining enrollment, as we got fewer entering freshmen.

Highly motivated students like Jasmeen can succeed anywhere, but others are kicked out or encouraged to drop out of the charter schools. When they come to Hirsch a year or two later, missing credits from the classes they failed, we don’t have enough resources to get them all back on track.

And our mayor’s “answer” is to open more charter schools and shut down neighborhood schools.
-David R. Stone
CPS teacher

Chicago Teacher Union fighting for Dignity in Public Education

This should have been posted three weeks ago when I wrote it, and my readers are due for an update, and I promise to write more soon.  However, my priorities lie with my members on the picket line until we see this through.


Friends and Family across the United States-

As most of you know Chicago Teachers Union has been in a fight to win a contract that requests not only fair compensation, but also great teaching and learning conditions in the face of mass privatization and charterization.  Our mayor has promised 250 more charter schools in place of traditional public schools.  Our mayor has promised more testing for our kids, and rating teachers based on those tests.  Our mayor has promised merit pay, and a longer day.  This is also a mayor who has seen a 70% increase in the murder rate in Chicago in only one years’ time, and an increase in public dollars to private corporations.
We are fighting for experienced teachers over expendable ones; fair pay for longer days; for the arts, P.E., foreign languages, and vocational studies.  We are fighting for social services in our schools.  We are fighting for dignity in the workplace and classroom, and the whole world is watching.  A strike is looming, and the Board has yet to come to the table with respect for our members and the teaching and learning process.
I spent my summer traveling the US from east coat to west coast spreading the message of what we are trying to do, and listening to the similar concerns of educators everywhere.  BOTH major teachers unions recognized that this is a fight in which everyone must throw in their hat, and passed support resolutions encouraging their locals to follow suit.  I have attached a sample resolution, and ask that if you can, to pass one among your congregations, whether that body be composed of teachers, parents, faculty, nurses, school board members, principals, doctors, steel-workers, coal-miners, and anyone in between.  Everyone has a civic stake in public education.  We need your voice on this. 
I ask you to watch and share this video detailing the what we are fighting for.  
I implore you to send us letters of support. 
I encourage you to donate to the CTU Solidarity Fund. 
I entreat you to join the nationwide fight for better public schools.
Thank you,
Adam Heenan
High School Social Studies
*Follow updates on Twitter; #FairContractNow

Student video from occupation of Social Justice High School in Chicago.