Return to the Pencil Planet: A Tribute to Miss Foley

I  can tell you the exact moment I became a writer. It was 4th grade, 1964. Miss Carolyn Foley stands at the front of the class wearing that  familiar green dress that clings to her stately frame.  She holds a picture clipping from a magazine in her hand  and moves to the blackboard.  Her high heel shoes make clicking sounds on the dark tile floor as we sit there at our school desks in anticipation.

“Today we are going to try something different,” she says, emphasis on the word “different”.

“We are going to write with our imagination.  We are going to let our imagination carry our words. You might not know what that means yet but that doesn’t matter.  You will find out when you start to write.”

She pins the picture to the bulletin board and steps back like an artist trying to gain perspective.

“Look at this photograph and let your imagination find the words to describe what you see. Write a story about the picture. Don’t worry about your spelling or your grammar at first. You can fix that later.  Don’t let it make you lose your train of thought”

She moved away from the bulletin board and beckoned us to leave our seats and look at the photo one row at a time. When it came my turn I stood there for a good 10 minutes staring at the photo or the little pink elephant with the worried look on his face standing in a forest of yellow pencils with their pink erasers thrusting into the deep blue sky. What would I write about? I thought, as I sat back at my desk .  By now all my classmates had begun scribbling away on the paper, the distinct sound of lead scraping paper in stereo all around me. Each scrape seemed to sharpen my sense of failure.  What were they writing  about, I thought for a moment and then I remembered Miss Foley’s words, “let your imagination carry your words.”

Suddenly it came to me:  I could just make up a story about the little elephant and how he got to this place.  I didn’t have to tell a real story.  There  was no right answer here.  The first sentence  lept onto  the page before I was conscious of picking up the pencil.

“Once upon a time there was an elephant who had forgotten who he was, because , of course ,  elephants are very forgetful.”

In the story the elephant thinks he is a person and gets ridiculed by the people around  him for the way he looks and the way he continues to break furniture when he sits on it.   He is eventually helped by a kind doctor who tells him there is a place he can go to find his stories.  The place was called the pencil planet and you go there to write the  stories that tell you who you are.   The elephant goes to the planet and learns to write with his trunk, creates a land where creatures like him live and has many friends.  He gets to live inside the stories he creates and for the first time in this life he is not alone.

All of the students in the class had finished their stories  in the 20 minutes before recess.  My story was completed a month later. Miss Foley gave me special permission to take it home and make a book out of it.  I remember staying up late at night,  pacing back and forth in my bathrobe like the young Flaubert musing about my story. “what would happen next.  How would I end it?  Should there be a sequel? I made  carefully colored illustrations and borrowed my mother’s stapler to make the book. When I brought it into class, Miss Foley held it up for all to see and read it  slowly with deep emotion.  Soon, I had a small cult following in the back of the room.   They would ask me when my next book was coming out.  What was it going to be about.  There was  no doubt in my mind now–I was  a writer.

Looking back, I realize my story about the elephant was really about me.  My parents were 2nd generation immigrant Jews who had spent much  of their childhood rejecting the old world values of their parents and moving into mainstream American society.  My father had changed his name from Zysblatt to Lane to give it a slightly more anglo sound.   He had grown up in great poverty in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ended up taking his family to Dover,  New Hampshire on the coat tails of the company he worked for.  Being one of the only Jewish children in a public school where Christian religion was openly practiced added to a feeling of alienation.  Miss Foley sensed this and asked me to tell the story of Chanukah to the class and make a paper mache dredel from a Dixie cup while all the rest of the class was making Josephs and Marys for the crèche.  She knew that writing was not only an academic skill but an essential tool for self-expression. She nurtured our sense of self through our writing and like the elephant in my story, I gained acceptance.

Here is a photo of the young Miss Foley.

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Sometimes I hold it up at my writing seminars and ask the teachers who attend to think of their great writing teachers. You know  who I mean, the teacher who saw you for who you were , or the teachers who held a high standard and taught with passion and clarity.  I tell them one of my favorite stories about Miss Foley.  She once wrote a reading grant and bought guitars for every student in her class.  The name of the grant was Guitars with Strings Attached and she made the case that reading chords   G D A F   was decoding.  For 28 years she got to school one half hour early and tuned guitars. She taught every student in her class to play the old folk some Tom Dooley on the guitar.

Sometimes I stop at this point in the story and I turn to the room of teachers of all grade levels and subjects. I ask them, “Could you do this in today’s classroom with all the demands placed on teachers from above?”  Most of the heads shake no in an almost spring loaded reflex. Only a few veteran  teachers in the back give a slight affirmative nod, not wanting to tip their hand.  These are the teachers who sit in the back row at staff meetings, that mona Lisa smile planted firmly on their faces whenever new meaningless directives are handed down  from above.  These are the teachers who will do right for their students no matter what they are told to do from above.

Then I ask the second question.  “How many think they could do more than they are doing to bring your passion and  your self into the classroom.”  Then the nods come almost in unison. Every teacher has a Miss Foley inside, waiting to be born.

I remember 15 years ago when I went back to visit Miss Foley in her house on Silver Street in Dover , New Hampshire.  I knew exactly where she lived because we had gone there for a field trip once to look at her bird feeders.  We marched over their singing world war 1  songs. “Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail as those caissons go rolling along….”

Like many people I had passed her house many times over the years on visits to my parents and occasionally I would think about trying to visit but I never did.  Now,I walked up the familiar long brick walk way to the front door.  I knocked and like magic she appeared.  At first I thought she was a lot shorter, then I remembered  I  was only 4 feet tall in the fourth grade.  Her hair had turned gray,  and there were more wrinkles but those eyes sparkled with the same passion,.

‘Do  you remember me’, I asked.  ( perhaps the teacher’s worst nightmare scenario) but she did, “  Barry.” Was the only word she said as we embraced.

Later, I found out that not only did she remember me. She remembered exactly where I sat,  “right next to her desk.”  As we sat in her living room sipping cranberry juice I tried to tell he what she meant to me.  I remembered one morning, near the beginning of  the school year , before I wrote Return to the Pencil Planet,  that if I could write small enough and faint enough my penmanship might  appear neat because the entire page would be blank.  I sharpened a few pencils and assumed  my  medieval scribe writing position hunched over my wooden desk.  Miss Foley was making her rounds.  I felt her hand gently touch my shoulder and she said,  “Barry, what happened to your wonderful, looping letters.”  I exhaled deeply and began to write in my normal fashion.   Later I would reflect that this was perhaps the only time in school I remember a teacher saying , it’s ok  to be like you are already, that you just don’t have to squeeze yourself into a  little box to survive.  barry-001

 

When I told my story, Miss Foley paused and said, “ Barry I have a confession to make to you.  You know how you would see this beautiful handwriting on the blackboard.  I would get into school early, draw staff lines across the blackboard and then erase the little lines so the principal would think I had great handwriting too.”

Like all the great ones in education, be they teachers or administrators, Miss Foley did not pass down the anxiety she felt from above to her students.   She knew how to create a safe zone for learning.  She didn’t follow the curriculum. The  curriculum followed her.

Some might argue that we teach to  create better workers who can communicate ideas with precision, depth and clarity to their bosses.  Other’s might say it’s to succeed on  tests that measure student and school success and show the world how smart we are as a nation.  Others , like myself, might look at the bigger picture and say we teach to create  productive, creative citizens who contribute to this democratic way of life.   But as I think about Miss Foley and my story, the Pencil Planet,  I think of the Greek God Apollo who proclaimed, “Know thyself.”

We teach to help ourselves and our students find out who they are.

 

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Humans on a Plane: Circa 2013: My First Encounter with Competency Based Education: a True Story

He sat next to me on a plane to Houston. He was a big man with a dark beard, and his name was Al. He worked for a company that tailored software to the needs of human beings, the end users of the software. His company specialized in what is called ‘human interface,’ a very mechanical term for a very human thing. He explained that his job was to interview people who were beta testing software and get their input so that the software could be reshaped to make it more useful to their jobs. I told him I was an educator, and he told me he had recently began working with NYC schools based on a multi-million dollar grant from Mayor Bloomberg (the guy who took over city schools).

“It’s been frustrating experience working in schools.”

“Why?” I asked.

“The software company that hired us doesn’t seem to want suggestions from teachers,” he said. “Last week I went to this school and met with some. Many of them had good suggestions on how to make the software more useful in the classroom, but the company rejected all of them. We had another meeting and this one teacher, a guy, made some wonderful suggestions to make the program more useful, yet the company told me not to pay attention to that guy. He was a ‘troublemaker.’”

Al ate a couple of pretzels and glanced out the window at the puffy clouds.Then he turned back to me and said.

“Then, they told me out straight out: We are not interested in changing the program for teachers. We want teachers to do what we tell them to do. Apparently, they did not want real feedback. My company was hired because it looked good on paper that they were listening to teachers. It was all window dressing.“

Al was puzzled. He had been successful working with all sorts of Fortune 500 corporations, and the key to making the software better was listening to the needs of its users. Why didn’t this education software company feel the same way?

“Welcome to the world of education reform,” I told Al as the flight attendant handed him a beer. “ Many of the people who seek to reform education have little or no respect for the work that the best teachers do.” I felt that familiar anger rising. “What is called education reform is built on a distrust of teachers and total trust in un-vetted digital technologies that in the mind of business leaders will will individualize learning electronically and somehow replace teachers and lower the per pupil cost. Teachers are now seen as lowly implementers of these wonderful advanced systems of “personalized” learning. In the mind of these companies teachers are now tech support for students interacting with the light screens of enlightenment. These new McDonalds of education need only compliant line cooks who follow orders, not artful chefs who create their own gourmet learning meals. “

He sipped on his beer and I continued.

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“Teachers are now seen as the hand, patting the shoulder of students staring into computer screens. You see pictures like this on the websites of these software companies. The smiling teacher in the background, the delighted child gazing at the screen in wonder. This is also, of course, driven by the need of these companies to profit greatly off the trillions of public school tax dollars that could be better spent loweringclass size and investing in school libraries, librarians, arts programs, higher teacher salaries, buildings and professional development. Years of research show that funding these things results in real school improvement. You won’t find private prep schools using these lockstep programs for teaching and assessment.  They prefer the good old-fashioned, real, professional teachers; small classes and all the arts and sciences for their elite students. They have digital technology, but it is used as a tool in the classroom, not a way to replace real teaching, real thinking, and real learning. Programs like these are used in public and especially charter schools that teach the poor and rely on unskilled teachers who are easy to mold into the scheme.’

Al nodded as I spoke. We gathered our pretzel bags, and handed them to the almost smiling flight attendant. He thanked me for my insight.  It helped him to understand why his job in NYC schools was so frustrating and when the plane landed he looked at his smartphone and groaned.

“Oh damn,” he said as the plane lurched to a stop at the gate.

“They cancelled my meeting.”  He shook his head in disbelief.

“Al,” I said, “Your meeting was not cancelled.”

“What do you mean?”

I pointed to him and then back to me.

“This was your meeting.”

He smiled and we share a knowing look only humans who connect randomly on plane’s share.

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Later I searched online for the education software company Al’s company had contracted with. I clicked on the about us button and saw a page full of grinning head shots of 30-somethings. The company was composed entirely of MBAs and a series of Teach for America graduates (Ivy League college students who took a 5 week mini-course in teaching and then became teachers in inner city schools). There was not a single professional teacher in the mix. Today this company is working in many states, not just New York.

Now, three years  after this meeting on a plane, we have the ESSA law which green lights “Competency Based Education” to replace testing and computer programs that “personalize” learning and assess students each day or week.  Entire school districts are buying into these un-vetted, expensive technologies because they promise “results” and a free pass on accountability. Fake graduates schools of education ,like Relay Graduate school, have been sanctioned by the ESSA law to support these systems with narrowly trained teachers ready to do what the program tells them.  The  year-end assessment is now replaced by the daily or weekly assessment of competency with no thought to all the interactive learning time or teacher agency lost to students plunked in front of computer screens.  Parents can go online  each day to see how their child is doing.  Parents will not be able to opt their children out of these programs (as they can with standardized tests) because a large part of their schooling will be based on this program.

Our only hope is that school districts  and parents are informed about what real teachers do and will use new technology to enhance learning, not replace it with these snake oil schemes.    Competency or proficiency measured by a machine, even one that promises to personalize learning, will never honor the unique mind and spirit of our children.  When we resist such programs, we are not taking a stand against progress or digital literacy. We are neither luddites nor dinosaurs, but rather human beings seeking genuine “human interface” for our human children and their human teachers.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand … So Please Put Down the Calipers

 for Dr. Jennifer Cook  who held the hand of so many new teachers.  We will never forget you.

 

I was in my car listening to Spotify, the streaming music service with over 20 million songs.  At a stoplight I had typed in Beatles and waited for the music to start as I sped up the road. It started with an oldie,  I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the song I first heard when I was in third grade. “Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll under stand .  When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand…” For second or two,  I had a  sweet memory of me and my two friends Mark Veillux and John Kenney and I  singing the song in front of the class to start the morning in third grade.  I was Paul, Mark was John and John was George. Ringo was the  imaginary guy behind us that we would nod to occasionally.   We closed our eyes and shook are heads on the “  I want to hold your Haaaaaaannnd” line to get the full Beatle excitement.  I’m not sure the girls were that impressed , but for just a brief moment, we  were the Beatles. And our teacher, in a moment of spontaneous wisdom, had granted it be so.

As I listened now, driving down the interstate, something was terribly wrong.  The chords were the same , the arrangements the same, and the voices the same , but something  indescribable was missing.  I glanced at my smart phone and instantly saw the problem.   This was not the Beatles, (whose music is so heavily licensed it only made it to Itunes a few years ago). This was a Beatles tribute band, a group of four men whose sole purpose is to replicate Beatles music note for note,  word for word, to adoring  Beatles fans.   They were a live band pretending to be a dead band.  They were a group with a past, but no present, and no future. They were a Xerox machine with instruments.

I started to meditate on what was missing in a tribute’s band performing a Beatles song  compared to real artist like Stevie Wonder covering  We Can Work it Out on his Sign, Sealed , Delivered album.  Wonder interpreted the song,  he brought his unique spirit and voice  to the Beatles words.   The Beatles tribute band was not allowed to interpret or reimagine the song. Their performance was measured on how well they could imitate and duplicate the Beatles standard performance. In a flash, I had an uncomfortable realization on what is really wrong with our mandated Common Core  Standards approach to education and the high stakes  assessments to which they are so tightly bound. We are turning our students, teachers and administrators into tribute bands whose goal is to replicate past approaches to learning  to meet basic measurable test requirements. Creativity passion and interpretation, along with the magical yearning you hear in the real  Lennon or McCartney’s voice has been put aside in favor of the basic skills which can be measured , standardized and rewarded or punished.

This bureaucratic understanding of what learning is, and how it should be measured has not always been a part of the American Public Education  but gained great prominence in the  early 20th century. In his book , Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan documented  the profound influence corporations imposed on public schools in the early 20th century and how little resistance they faced from bewildered  educators.  The scientific management ideas of Fredrick Taylor which improved Pittsburgh steel mill production and Model T production at Ford plants,  seemed ripe for public schools.   Progressive educators like John Dewey,  who had  notions of teaching children to think for themselves, were seen as dreamy eyed idealists, or messy impractical thinkers .  The education reformers of 1912 believed that children,  like perfect widgets, must be sent through a system that insured they would be complete.  Our modern  curriculum and documents like the Common Core State Standards are like an assembly line  where each grade level adds new doodads to the car before passing them on to the next.  Our public perception of failing schools  begins with a politician saying that children are being passed through the system and not learning enough. We need to retain them to make sure the hubcaps are secured tightly, never mind the decades of educational research that clearly shows retention is damaging to a child’s psychological well being and their ability to learn.

This mechanistic model of learning is supported by the false assumption that the most important things about education can be tested regularly and tell us exactly what is being learned at any given moment.  The Gates foundation and certain  educational think tanks, including the United States Department of Education,  measure all their success  for schools on these standardized test scores that pretty much ignore  what happens in a classroom in favor of a narrow slice of iknowledge conceived by test makers miles away from the class. Even the highest scoring countries like China are questioning this myopic approach because their children are not creative enough to drive a modern economy forward.    “Real” education goes beyond the “workplace literacy”touted by the Common Core State Standards. Real education , like real art,  challenges the status quo. Real teachers , teach students that they have something to say , that their voice matters.  They have a song to sing that no one has sung it  before in quite the same way.  I am not always convinced these students would be college and career ready, but they would be “life ready.”   They would be citizens. They would be problem solvers not drones.   This may sound a bit romantic, but it is this wild ,absurd, solipsistic, entrepreneurial , romanticism that built America and spills from the voices as diverse as  of  Sojourner Truth, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gloria Steinham,  Henry Ford, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton,  Thomas Jefferson, Cheryl Sandburg, Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley.

We have always been a country that believed we could change the status quo, we could do it better, make it safer, fairer,  freer, wilder,  insanely greater. Today our educational leaders  have betrayed our children’s futures by investing a trillion dollars since 1990 in the NCLB law,  which even by their own  questionable  measurements, had no impact.    And now to pay for the dubious Common Core assessments,  schools are laying off teachers and librarians .The result will be larger  class size and less books into the hands of children.   Test companies and curriculum canning factories are the only winners here.

Meanwhile, private profit and non-profit corporations are moving in to create privately run public schools under the charter school movement. Well documented research shows that these charter schools have no better results than public schools, even though they are often funded better, end up with better students and are held to a lower  standard.  This broad ranging, systematic attack on our public schools is motivated, by profit, not the welfare and education of our children ,and the only thing we have going for us is that we still live in a democracy, our vote counts, and we have the right to speak up and organize.

In the recent Hollywood  fiction movie Wont Back Down as in the popular documentary Waiting for Superman  this was portrayed as parents and corporate leaders like Michelle Rhee rebelling against a hopelessly bureaucratic public school system. The enemy was seen as teachers unions, and the  simplistic solution, fire bad teachers, start your own private school.  This is the message of the corporate reformers, skillfully crafted to pin the blame on teachers, and unions who  are unable to defend themselves without sounding full of self interest.   Well I am here to tell you that the real problem with American is not “bad teachers”  but all the great ones who are leaving the profession  because their best work is ignored in favor of scripted curriculum and constant meaningless assessments which attempt to micro-manage every aspect of learning without adding to instruction.

Real teacher assessment should involve observation by a skilled team of teachers who know what good teaching looks like.   Real teacher evaluation would see teaching that sounded and looked  like a Beatles tribute band for what is is, a  flat, uninspired  effort. The test scores in such a class could even be very high, as  proven by conformity schools like KIPP academy, (which often hire 5 week– trained, Teach For America teachers to administer test prep curriculum.)  Are these students getting a real education or just an indoctrination? Are these students learning to think for themselves  or are they just learning to think for the test which all the newspapers report diligently to praise and shame? Don’t children of poverty deserve schools that promote curiosity and  love of learning?

I have been traveling down the education road for 20 years now working with teachers and students.  I am still in awe of the amazing teachers I see, often struggling to excel in a system that just ignores their best work.  In the past 10 years, since NCLB we have lionized  mundane education through high stakes testing and the foolish notion that schools must be punished and rewarded based on these test scores.   The music in American education died, the day No Child Left Behind law was passed.  The only way to get it back is to repeal the punitive No Child Left Behind law, and invite real teachers, parents and students into a real conversation  on how to improve schools. We need to stop Racing to the Top and start honoring and respecting those who work on the bottom.

Some of you are reading this and hearing the word’s of  Oklahoma daddy of  Rock n roll Buddy Holly, “That’ll be the day,” and I hope you’re not right for the sake of our future.   Our children will be the ones to solve all the problems we have created. Our children are not empty vessels that we fill with facts and then teach to dispense when required on test.  Our children have a voice, raspy  and raucus as John Lennon,  sweet and bell-like as Paul McCartney, a voice that rises up like a mountain from the sea of life , a voice that is unstoppable if we only would encourage it to start.

Together parents and teachers can take back the public school system.

Step one:  Opt your children out of all “high stakes”  meaningless state testing.  This includes the coming PAARC and Smarter Balance Assessments.    These tests tell very little of what a child is learning .  (The writing portion is scored by robots. Can you get more meaningless than that?)  If more than 5% of parents opt out in a district the test results lose their value and schools will have to find a better  and far cheaper way to assess learning.  Find information about your right to opt out at  www.unitedoptout.com .

Step two:  As a parent, insist on better information from your child’s school.  Instead of what did he get, move to what can she do. This discussion puts  professional teachers and children in charge of their education not politicians and testing companies.

Step three:  Find other parents who think the same as you on this topic and organize. Democracy only works when an informed citizenship rises up to reclaim what was theirs to start with.   It may take a village to raise a child, but it only  takes a few villagers to convince the village to do it.   visit http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org

 

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