It’s time to escape. There’s no need to shower. I’ll be drenched soon enough, especially in the July humidity. I slip into the dawn with stained, faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Freebie Shoprite gloves, caked in dry mud, flap in my back-pocket as I try to discover the location of some happy wren. Dirt from the previous day still stains my fingertips. That’s something that eternally abides - the dirt.
By the time I encroach on the fields at Barclay Farms, the dimmer switch of the sun slowly reveals the reds and the yellows and the oranges of the sunflowers that grow with an abundance in this garden oasis of Cherry Hill. The walk from my house takes just five minutes, an amenity not mentioned on Trulia.com when we bought our house in 2011.
No human is there, not even the early morning joggers or the dog walkers or the hard-core gardeners. The grass is still damp. The yellow finches dart and dive between the ten-foot high sunflowers like Spitfires from 1940. The fields are alive with birds. Gentleman rows of rainbow zinnias have blossomed overnight, alerting the birds to the feast. I admire that someone has the time and the inclination to provide such a stellar service to the birds and to me. Weeds like cathedral spires now surround the leaf mulch pile that had been my toy sandbox in the spring. It’s why I like the garden. I can make a mess, and it’s my mess.
It’s my first year with Cherry Hill’s Plant-a-Patch program. It’s a community garden in the center of the sprawling township. Most days, as I’m there most days, I feel like the Barclay Farmstead is my actual estate, and I’m some gentleman farmer. But this estate only costs me $30 a year to garden my 500 square foot lot. I’m sure real farmers would call this “cute,” but for me, with sixteen years of gardening like a dilettante around the home, the Plant-A-Patch was my entrée into the Major Leagues. I had enough of demonic squirrels nibbling on tomatoes they actually detested. Between the limited space and the backyard vandals, I needed a larger pitch, dedicated to the sport of gardening.
My wife Mary Jane calls herself a “a garden widow,” but she has been so supportive. She’s also a trained dietitian who appreciates the daily, organic produce. “There are much more expensive hobbies,” she conceded. “At least we don’t have a yacht. And you don’t gamble or drink. I really shouldn’t complain about a few bags of manure in the car.”
It’s amazing to see the transformation of a plowed field. In March, I had been so anxious to break the earth. I was one of the first, staking out my claim, laying down lime to reduce the acidity of the soil. I staked simple fencing.
Now, as I walk to my plot, R2, I take note of other gardens. Sunflowers line the two-foot common walk between the plots. I’m careful not to bang them because I know how angry I get when I’m feasting. But I’m tame compared to an angry bee. After a hour of weeding and watering, I see that Joyce my garden neighbor has arrived. She enjoys books on tape. Another garden neighbor plays NPR plays on radio. An older gentleman, one of those “Master Gardeners,” plays with his grandchildren on his four incredibly productive and ordered plots. He adds a dash of the decorator, too. I take more notes. Another neighbor has five plots in a row. The earth is tilled. There’s a high fence. I saw him once or twice. There are no weeds, really, but the earth is brown and ready but bare, and I wonder why he even bothers.
I pick over twenty Roma tomatoes, a few Beefsteak, and some Rutgers variety. I cut back the weed-like tomalitoes, a gift from Joyce that seems more like a curse because I did not plan on tomalitoes reaching every orifice of the garden. Someday I will make salsa verde. I cut free an eggplant for my step-dad who loves to eat his South Philly Italian heritage. I pick through the yellow wax beans. It will be one our plates tonight for dinner. My wife also teaches culinary arts so we often cook together. It’s where are two passions fuze: my herbs and produce, and her cooking skills.
Walking back before the real heat of day settles over Barclay, I speculate on three lessons of the day: Never underestimate the power of weeds. Never underestimate the growth of a plant. And never, ever tell the wife you’ll be right back.
As soon as I’m home, I dump the tomatoes on the counter.
“What happened?” my wife asked
“Water happened, and sun. Lots of sun.”
Dad,” my daughter Nancy said. “You have dirt on your nose.”
“I’m a farmer,” I replied. “Okay, a gentleman farmer. And some day, perhaps, a Master Gardener.”
Dear former students, I would like to take this time to formally apologize for brainwashing all of you. I apologize for the teaching of Walt Whitman who said to "filter" from all what you have learned; I apologize for teaching Thoreau who believed in the majority of one; I apologize for Emerson and his belief in the interconnectedness of all life; I apologize for Ben Franklin and all the other fellow skeptics, like that awful Mark Twain. I apologize for the viewpoints of many women, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Alice Walker, Amy Tan. I apologize for understanding the plights of African Americans in such plays as Fences and Raisin in the Sun; for reading Cicero, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Plato, Jefferson, and Paine - writers who dared to question authority. For this, I'm truly sorry. I apologize for allowing such works as The Great Gatsby to question the hallowed state of The American Dream. I apologize for teaching the true story of Pocahontas. I apologize for Hemingway's bottle, Faulkner's Emily, and Plath's suicide. I apologize for assigning the essays and the poems and the stories and the orations. I also want to apologize to my journalism students who sought out facts and the truth and the stories of the marginalized and voiceless while all while while winning awards and acting as the 4th Estate. Who needs a 4th Estate? Government officials are fine to act as they wish. What an idiot, I have been. I truly did not know what I was doing. Perhaps the new Education Secretary can provide for me a suitable curriculum. She can provide a can, and I can open the can to feed the poor in spirit. Until then, I'll ponder, in the words of Cicero, "Quo usque tandem aubutere, DeVos, patientia nostra?" I hope all of you can forgive my trespasses and moral lapses in judgment.
Teachers, you have thirty seconds to seize the attention of your students. Ok, I’m making up that number, but statistics show that first impressions are essential.
Students are just like us, really, when we meet someone for the first time. We’re defensive. We may feel awkward. We may not even want to be there, but that positive first impression can be the difference between a positive school year for the students, or a negative one.
Last year, after reading the book, Teach Like a Pirate, I acted the part of the pirate for my junior-level English classes, complete with loud pirate music from Youtube, a Jolly Roger flag, a hearty, but laughable pirate accent, and an eye patch. I even faked a limp. Students had to stand in the center of the room while I dressed them as new recruits. Anyone who laughed, I addressed promptly with the “eye.” I informed them how challenging the class would be, an essay was due the next day. I also told them how essential it was to do well in English. “Every major, every field, will require you to read and to write and to persuade people,” I said, or, well, snarled. “In this class, you will write until your fingers bleed bright red!”
At the end of the year, numerous students told me they almost dropped the class. “Something about maggots coming out of my eyes” may have done it, Mr. Bowne.” But the opening helped establish the tone of the class: challenging, interactive, and fun. It was something they remembered and talked about at home at dinner.
Other years I pretended to be nervous with opening-day jitters. I pretended to throw up in a trash can, and then played a film I made at home over the summer. I’m comfortable using my family as actors and props, and in a way, it humanizes the teacher, We’re not some robot who only lives in the room to hand out work and punishments. It had worked for me for years, and when my wife took up teaching as her second career, she also made an introductory video that the kids loved. It takes some kids a while to get over the fact that they’re watching a funny video of a teacher who is standing in the corner, but again, it’s the hook.
In one study, 33% of bosses knew within the first 90 seconds whether they would hire someone or not. You students will cannot “hire” or “fire” you, but then can mentally. In persuasion, there are three resolutions: conflict (which means the student openly acting against you or the class or policy), compliance (students do the work but only because they have to), and commitment (this is where the students see the rhyme and reason of the work, and they work hard).
A strong opening day can get more kids on the commitment bus.
We just need to know our audience; it’s crucial in public speaking, writing, and in teaching. For instance, if you’re teaching a lower level math course, consider the audience. They may have had long struggles with math. They may hate math. If I was required to play baseball every day for an hour, and I never once hit the ball or field a ball correctly, guess how I would feel about baseball. They may don’t trust you with another long slog of math. So you’ll need to address the issues, whether you want to or not. It can only help to find yourself in their seat, looking at you. How do you look to them? Why should they trust you? How will you be different? How may this year be their best year in math?
Writers know about the hook, or in journalism, the lead. We would rather do anything than read, because reading is tough and takes time and concentration, so the job of the writer is to entice the reader. It’s the delicious, wriggling worm at the end of the line. Various methods are advisable: anecdotes, humor, facts, statistics, startling claims, and the good old standby, the rhetorical question.
You do not need to be a film major or play a deranged pirate. Have a song play when the kids come in, and then discuss why the song is meaningful. Make the opening narrative-based. We are storytelling creatures. Share a story about why you decided to teach. Make sure the students know that the course is essential. After all, why else spend the time? And if you can’t consider reasons why you love what you do, and why the subject is so crucial, perhaps, maybe, it’s time for someone to persuade you to do something else. The stakes are that high. The profession is just too important. We need to hook these kids, and hook them early. Just make your class the most exciting class to be.
Because no one wants to it in a seat and hear: “My name is Mr. Bland. I expect everyone to be on time, or you will have a detention. I am passing out the course syllabus. Please follow along as I read the policy to you."
Make those early seconds count.
What I witnessed over the course of last year for National History Day is a testimony to how we can revolutionize education in the United States.
During Back to School Night at Rosa International Middle School in Cherry Hill, 8th grade social studies teacher Mrs. Marella cheer-leaded student participation in National History Day - an organization where half a million children compete “to tell the human story.” Pom poms and somersaults were the only missing feature. A combination of Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Rosie the Riveter, Ms. Marrella soon became known as merely “Crazy Marrella,” the mad scientist of history.
And the only thing she seemed to love more than history, was her love of student engagement - a key ingredient missing in many classrooms. Our daughter Nancy was already on board, along with seventy other students from Rosa. This, of course, made my history-buff self jump over the volumes of Hamilton, Lincoln, and Susan B. Anthony.
Nancy worked with two other girls, Melanie and Alyssa, and they logged over 1,000 hours on a documentary of John Brown. They researched, interviewed, wrote, edited, and filmed a documentary on the controversial abolitionist. I came home one day, and I heard my daughter interview Anne Kretsinger-Harries, a Penn State professor, over Skype. At dinner, she asked if she could borrow my biography on Ralph Waldo Emerson to read the connection between Brown and the Transcendentalists. For Christmas, she wanted a book on John Brown, Patriotic Treason by Evan Carton - and then interviewed the author. Within a month, the book was a porcupine of Post-It notes. Another day she was interviewing a descendent of John Brown. Another day, she was recording an interview with a Park Ranger from Harper’s Ferry. (This was in addition to her regular school work).
Guess what my wife and I did not need to ask: is she bored in school? Will she be prepared for college? For the workplace? Is she being challenged?
By the time NHD regional competition started at Princeton, the John Brown Trio of Young Scholars compiled an annotated bibliography that included nearly 100 entries. The Beast was Master’s level dissertation.
And then I cried when I heard my 8th grader defend her thesis in a Princeton classroom before a panel of three professors. The Q&A session floored me - literally. The room was crowded so I had to sit on the wood floor. She was professionally dressed, poised, calm, and confident.
And all because she was lucky enough to get Ms. Marrella - a master teacher regardless of her simple trio of Marzano scores from an administrator.
Without a doubt, Ms. Marrella is the most dedicated teacher I have ever witnessed. My wife and I, both teachers, cried again when we heard her address her students in a huddle - a motivational speaker akin to General Patton, just with more hugs and less cursing. She inspired us to be like her! The John Brown Trio won, moved onto States at William Paterson University. They won there, and went to Nationals at Washington, DC, along with two other groups from Rosa.
The teams stayed at The University of Maryland and met with scholars from all fifty states and other countries, such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. Every Common Core objective was achieved in that ten minute, award winning documentary, tenfold.
We did not need a test to tell us that our daughter far exceeded the standards.
In the regional Q&A session in Princeton, most of the comments from the various students from around the state mentioned the PARCC testing as their greatest obstacle to learning. Libraries closed. Computers unavailable. Technicians needed for PARCC prep. The entire classroom of attendees laughed, mothers and fathers and proud grandparents, but then they knew it wasn’t funny. Wasted resources are never funny.
At National History Day at William Paterson University, my wife and I sat behind a great team of middle schoolers from Lawrence Township. Before the opening ceremony, they were still researching and tailoring and editing. They were dressed in ties and skirts and slacks. I’m not sure who worked with those kids at Lawrence, but she was another Marrella. The auditorium was full of successful teachers and students with one motive: having fun while learning at the most challenging level.
Heart and souls and minds were in those presentations. No one’s heart and soul and mind are in standardized tests. There is no soul in standardized tests. It takes a human heart and a desire, a goal, to attain great heights in education.
My daughter was vested in her learning. She learned to cooperate and negotiate with different learning styles. A computer and a textbook and a test will never replace the motivation and the love and the energy of a human being. The emphasis needs to be there: hands-on, guided, student-centered, interactive, and goal-oriented. Let’s try to help more teachers teach like Ms. Marrella - and reward them with more than our applause and our tears of joy.
Dear Ms. Waters,
I find it ironic that you found me because I encouraged student journalists to find you to interview as a proponent of PARCC, Pearson, and AchieveNJ. When I was directed to your blog, I was intrigued, and then when I did more research, I discovered your picture and your position with Lawrence Township, and I have read much of what you have written.
I am glad we both share a commitment to education and to lifelong love of children. I dedicate almost every moment with my students. Whether it’s driving to Princeton to hear one of my lower level students recite her poem that she won for a poetry contest. (You see, I don’t just teach the “privilege” students). Whether it’s attending a NOW conference in Moorestown to hear two of my students read winning essays, or whether it’s writing 56 recommendation letters for students, some headed to Penn, yes, and one, a letter to help stay out of prison. That was a character essay. I can happily say, with my intervention, he’s probably making more money than I am as an auto technician. When I brought my car for service, he gave me a hug and said I was the best teacher ever. This was from a kid who once called me an “asshole jerk” because of some assignment he never turned in. But to paraphrase poorly from Nick Carraway in Gatsby, “Reserving judgement is matter of infinite hope.”
I have taught the very high and the very low and the very many in the middle. I am in the trenches. I read their journals. I read their poems. I encourage them to write and to challenge. What I have taught them, beyond the rigor of a very challenging classroom where we do not read Pearson textbooks for reasons you will have to read in my next essay, extends far beyond what twenty questions on a PARCC exam will reveal.
You will have to admit I am in better position to objectively evaluate field operations. I am an independent, free thinker in the vein of Emerson. You, as a board member, do not inhabit the trenches. You are also not as a free as I am. You are beholden to Pearson and PARCC. You seem to tow the AchieveNJ-line. I am only beholden to an amazing school district and my students and their parents.
Perhaps I misspoke about my evaluation being tied to test scores. Perhaps I was merely speaking as Every Teacher who is scared to death of having a questionable test tied to evaluations. Perhaps soon AchieveNJ and Pearson will find a way to have every teacher evaluated by student test scores: even the pottery teacher and the music teacher, if they are still allowed in Pearson World to inspire. But it will not lure the best and the brightest to the profession. It will drive the best and the brightest from the profession. Look at current figures. Look at what’s happening to teachers in England. Can we really afford to mess this up?
As far as comparing my essay to Swift, well, as a comp teacher, you must realize the logical fallacy of the moral equivalency; passing an observation of motivation and PARCC does not equal that I want to abuse children the way the British exploited the Irish poor. I could also enumerate other fallacies, like slippery slope, as you do not prove the argument, as no one has proved the argument, that standardized testing helps the poor. Feeding the children helps the poor. Making sure those poor children are in schools that are properly funded and not closed due to poor test scores.
My own wonderful daughters, who have succeeded in school because of high rigor, dedicated professionals in the classroom, and a sense of belonging and freedom for thought, have never, ever been helped through a corporate “test.” Even the AP, SAT, ACT are irrelevant, as many colleges are now deciding, because what happens in a classroom matters more than a hour or two on a test. Why are colleges dropping then SAT when you are vamping up tests?
Let me a give you an example that’s close to home for you in Lawrence. I was attending National History Day in Wayne, New Jersey. My daughter logged in over 1,000 hours of after school work on a documentary of John Brown. She interviewed over eight authorities, including descendents, authors, National Park rangers. She worked with two other amazing, highly motivated girls. They read primary sources and secondary sources. She read full length, adult level books on Brown. Their annotated bibliography included nearly 100 entries. The thing was Master’s level dissertation. Her teacher is the most dedicated professional I have ever witnessed. My wife and I, both teachers, cried when we heard her talk to her students. She inspired us to be like her! Every single Common Core objective was achieved in that ten minute, award winning documentary, tenfold. Her team won, and they are now headed to Nationals in Washington, DC.
I did not need a test to tell me that my daughter far exceeded the standards.
In fact, in the regional Q&A session in Princeton, most of the comments from the various students from around the state mentioned the PARCC testing as their greatest obstacle. Libraries were closed. Computers unavailable. Technicians needed for PARCC prep. The entire classrooms of attendees laughed, mothers and fathers and proud grandparents, but then they knew it wasn’t funny. I was there. As I am in the hallways, in the testing rooms, and in the classrooms, in the cafeterias, in students homes for homebound.
Where are you? Safely ensconced in an office? Writing essays in response to the growing anti-PARCC traffic?
Here is where Lawrence comes to play. At National History Day, there was also a great team of middle schoolers from Lawrence. My wife and I sat behind them. They were still researching as the opening ceremony got under way. Those kids were amazing! They were dressed in ties and skirts and slacks. I’m not sure who works with those kids at Lawrence, but please send my regards to that wonderful teacher. Those kids were bright, diverse, and ready to perform for what mattered. Their heart and soul were in those presentations. No one’s heart and soul is in a PARCC exam. There is no soul in an exam. It takes a human heart and a desire, a goal, to attain great heights in education. Those Lawrence middle school kids, as far as English is concerned, needed no PARCC exam. It only serves the number crunchers and politicians and Pearson pockets.
Every child needs to have teachers like my daughter has, like those Lawrence students have. The emphasis needs to be there, not a test. Get administrators back into the classroom, and out of the offices where they need to log comments on IObservation and comply with state regs and SGO compliance. No student is getting smarter with state regs. Validate and provide actual feedback on lesson plans. Make sure movies are at a minimum. Make sure students are writing dozens of essays a marking period and dozens of full-length novels and books: not pocket-sized Pearson excerpts about Pineapples!
I know I will not convince you. John Oliver will not convince you. Jesus and Socrates, two master teachers, would not convince you. Perhaps one day, when the Pearson Empire collapses, and the State of New Jersey can find people smart enough in its own universities to write its own challenging exam (which I do not object to, by the way), you may reflect upon these words written well too late into the night, and discover that your support for a flayed system was misplaced. There is just too much evidence out there to be ignored.
I could go on, and I will, as I am compiling enough material to write a book along the lines of Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. A great book, by the way. Before I leave, however, here are a few facts from the trenches:
I’m sure you have stopped reading by now, but because I do know people at Lawrence, I know that those fine teachers are working without a contract, like teachers here in Cherry Hill, and in Haddon Township, and the list goes on… but for some reason there is money for Pearson and Chromebooks and headphones and wired mouses and . . . As a board member, do the right thing.
And remember those fine Lawrence Scholars at National History Day. They were amazing. I was there. I know. Perhaps there is hope for all students, after all.
By Walter Bowne
I fondly recall the brick-heavy, tissue-paper-thin pages of my Norton Anthologies of American and British literature. Even now, the smell is redolent of intimate seminars with scholars in open-windowed classrooms, white casements encased with dust with the scent of April lilacs. Professor Donahue would wipe the froth from his mouth as he gushed over Emily Dickinson’s erotic “Wild Night - Wild Nights.” My scribbled notes in the margins still remain.
His love of Dickinson’s atypical poem is one reason I use it with my high school juniors. But the liberal and conservative censors that drive textbook sales in the nation in such large states as California and Texas would never allow such sensuality to students.
Okay, so what’s my point?
Well, if we’re really serious as a nation to get students to read, we’re doing a lousy job in the classroom. If I relied on high school textbooks, students would only get a glimpse of heaven. Reading two G-rated “pro-America” short poems from Walt Whitman in a sanitized, Common Core textbook is akin to watching thirty seconds of an awesome football match. Is it any wonder our students cannot read? Or that students groan if a text is more than a few paragraphs? Imagine reading just a stanza from the Book of Job? Or one song of the Song of Solomon? How about a single “excerpted” chapter Grapes of Wrath - the one, you know, with the turtle and not the one where Rose of Sharon breast feeds a hungry man?
But the reading passages in classroom textbooks should mirror reading passages on standardized tests, right?
Our new textbooks, based on Common Core curriculum, actually contain less content than the old pre-CC textbooks. We are now standards based, not content based. The content no longer seems to matter. So many of my colleagues now rush to the copier to print out copies of now-deleted classics (most of which are now legally obtained for free, but please don’t tell the textbook companies this).
What do the textbooks contain? Various “Common Core” standard extension activities? Will these help students become better readers? Will they help them synthesize information? Process better analysis? Perhaps.
But what is lost when students no longer face the daunting and amazing challenge of reading a weighty text like The Federalists Papers or the whole of “Civil Disobedience”? What happens to a society where students and teachers no longer tackle texts like Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Silent Spring? I may seem an archaic Defender of the Canon, but these are the foundational texts of Western Civilization.
What is lost when the literature, the preservation of our culture, the poetry, the beauty, is replaced with supplemental standards? The text becomes dead, the teacher now a technician, the text no longer a divine bolt of electricity between professor and student.
An English teacher worth her or his salt does not need a textbook company dictating what students should read. With a Master's degree in English, I know from surveying my students what they want to read and what they may be able to tackle. I also suggest students to select their own texts.
WIth short attention spans anyway, the short essays and extracted texts do not show the complexity of a text, the depth of a text. Students do not see that an introduction may actually be longer than a paragraph. Students need to probe the outer reaches and the bottomless depths to understand life and their world. What is worth having rarely bubbles at the surface. It takes patience.
And so our SAT scores suffer. And so our teachers complain that students cannot sustain a narrative or cannot develop and defend an argument or cannot compose a research paper over two pages. And so the bureaucrats complain that Johnny can’t read as well as his or her Chinese counterpart? And so mounds of money are invested in textbooks that are aligned with Common Core and textbooks and tests to measure, measure, measure. And so the kids will rattle through the test in minutes, not caring that millions were spent to measure and collect cold data.
I wonder how we as a nation ever got to the moon. I wonder how we ever won the Great War. I wonder how we created some of the best music, the best literature, the best films in the world. Just how was The Greatest Generation educated anyway? And what age was Emerson when he entered Harvard?
Read and write. Employ effective models. Write and read and enjoy. Discuss. Make the classroom student-centered. And have a great teacher as the guide. Make learning fun and make worksheets worthless. It’s really that simple.
And no corporation needs to profit from public dollars.