I’m Terrible…by the Numbers

I woke from a nightmare. I was taking standardized tests. I bombed. I’m glad it was a dream.

It’s standardized test season, a time that strikes more fear in the hearts of schools than a life-sized poster of the Bieber mug shot. Everyone’s defined by these numbers. The media has a frenzy like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

We say we want schools to succeed but it’s completely untrue. Let’s be honest. We want to see blood. It’s a proven fact that Americans produce, consume, and enjoy more bad news than ever. My friend designed a blog dedicated to good news in education. She doesn’t have as many readers as a news story about drama, destruction, and gore. It’s what America wants. 

So, just to prove pundits wrong, teachers spend our valuable time compiling numbers to show our students are learning. I’ve spent an entire year this year logging numbers in spreadsheets. My husband laughs at me and calls me a bean counter. I’m a historian. I’d rather tell you the history of beans than count them–I’m not very good at that.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 6.08.26 AMAnyway, numbers can prove anything, depending on what we want them to show. 

I recently read this TechCrunch article where Facebook and Princeton duke it out using big words and math nobody can understand. Princeton intellects prove Facebook’s about to die and Facebook retaliates by showing on graphs and charts that in five years, Princeton will have no students. And it’s all “good” math.

What it shows is this–I should stop worrying about all these numbers that affect my life and start graphing. Do it in color to boot. In my first job, I prepared diagrams for arbitrations. This was before cool computer programs, so I’d sit down with rulers and colored pencils. Nobody else used colored pencils. I rarely, if ever, lost an arbitration. The key to life is colored pencils. When people see pretty things on paper, they are always predisposed to nod and say, “Yeah…” and agree. I have to make my numbers look pretty. And use colors in my graphs. 

Incidentally, this is why I spend so much time teaching my students to detect bias. 

I wish our educational system wasn’t based on testing and numbers. It’s hard to look at a student and say “Well… you look like an 85….Yes, you, indeed are a 92.” I’ve had smart students miss midterms and had to give them zeroes, as if that one grade made all the difference in their success. It does to the grade book, however. 

So, back to my nightmare. I have taken every standardized test alive. I sort of enjoy them because I didn’t grow up with video games. SATs were the nerd way of beating our friends. I enjoyed the idea that someone out there was trying to defeat me and I had to stop them. Nerd “video” games.

But I fell asleep on section three every time. The silence. The lack of communication. It was like meditation with multiple choice questions. Trivia questions. I fought sleep…then…out cold, drooling. But I always scored well. I wondered what I’d have scored if I stayed awake. 

The point is, test numbers aren’t a solid measure any more than Facebook or Princeton’s predictions. I don’t like basing graduation or teacher careers on them.

If the numbers don’t prove much to me, what does, you ask.

Vision. Creativity. The ability to work and stick with a problem until it’s solved–the recognition that learning has changed and that students have the power to blow things out of the water and follow their passions. All I do is connect it to success. I’m the guide, not Alex Trebec.  If students have those three things they are well on the road to amazing. 

In my dream, I failed the standardized test. In real life, if every adult out there took these standardized tests, I think the media would have fun. It’d show I’ve forgotten all the trivia that once made me great. Made me able to defeat tests even while half asleep. I bet we all have, but we’re still successful. I am. I do a lot, and I like the person I’ve become. 

But if you give me that test, the numbers will show you I suck. 

So today, I pause for a moment to tell students how awesome they are. “You are not defined by the numbers. You are defined by you. Do the work. Stop at nothing to keep learning things you are passionate about–for your whole entire life. Be great…No, don’t be great. Be amazing. Regardless of what the numbers told you you’d become.” 



[image: valdosta.edu]


What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.

[image: investopedia.com]

Can Too Many Veggies Kill You?

Garden partyI stop. I look around my garden, which just six weeks ago was a 44×33 section of lawn. Odd dimensions, I admit. Rusty bought a tiller for my birthday and turned over the soil. Best birthday present ever! Since moving to the sticks, every gift-giving occasion, we get a new Swamp Yankee Thing. I got him a tow bar for his birthday. He got me the tiller, I got him a trailer for the lawn tractor so he can Indy 500 around with loads of wood and leaves and stuff. He bought himself a chainsaw. My chainsaw is wimpy. We split the Jeep trailer. Now we can forage wood. By “we” I mean “he,” but I can stack it up nice and run the wood stove. I’m learning my rustic skills. I’d like to be off the grid someday. Just a bit.

Rusty is better qualified for this. His first teen job was felling trees and taking care of horses. Mine was working at a real estate agency finding house listings and spell checking ads before Google and spell check were invented. Mostly, I learned to drink coffee and call WHCN to win concert tickets back when radio stations were local and had fans. I’m not sure that prepared me for getting off the grid. 

Rusty made the mega-garden mostly to “keep (me) the hell out of the front yard.” He said I should not even think about planting a horseradish or spring onion border in his flower beds. I totally would. I don’t plant much I can’t eat. Veggies are beautiful. I’d line the sidewalks with rainbow chard and use mint as the groundcover near the road. You can’t eat portulaca. It’s not very useful. Weeds are beautiful, too. They have flowers. I’d get rid of the grass if possible. Plant the whole thing with food, with English-garden pathways. In my mind’s eye, the front yard is simply a canvas for food. In fact, many lawn weeds are edible if you just let them grow. Though the lawn’s stunning, I’m a bit sad each time Rusty outflanks weeds with chemicals, defeating the chickweed, dandelion greens, and plantain leaves that are just trying to say, “Hey, here I am, tomorrow’s salad. Celebrate me!” 

“Thanks for growing, guys, but you have been sprayed with RoundUp. I think I might grow another hand if I eat you.” I think twice. The prospect of growing another hand is actually pretty attractive to me–I’m super busy. I could take multitasking to a new level, but since the Roundup label has too many big side-effect words, like a Viagra commercial, I give up contemplating eating weeds, and go back to my birthday garden, which has way too many veggies anyway. 

I empathize with Rusty. I understand the strict warnings. Every time he turned his head in our former urban paradise, I planted something new; constructed a new raised bed. I didn’t do this to annoy him, I just saw places where vegetable plants should be. You might call that obsessive. I think it’s a metaphor for life. You see an opportunity for growth; you plant something. Plant enough seeds, and you’re guaranteed a decent harvest. He does this all the time in business and entrepreneurship, but when I do it by planting, say, seven  hundred beet seeds and carrots in cracks in the sidewalk, it’s somehow not as cool.

My friend called my garden “big ass and ugly.”  He’s forgiven. It’s either jealousy or he’s glad he doesn’t have to put up with my carrots in the sidewalk. Indeed I am going overboard. I will to eat from this garden from now to late fall. It’s already begun. Eight days of kale and spinach. Priceless.

I’ve been told document the money spent on the garden to calculate the real cost of food. That reminds me of a great book, “The $64 Tomato.” I’m sure I’d be shocked. I tell everyone I just want to enjoy the beauty of life popping up where no life had been. It’s an excuse–I’m terrified that the bottom line will officially prove I’m insane. 
Besides, I don’t want to measure everything. It would remind me of work. I feel like I exist to measure stuff. Test, assessment, goal, target, graph, pie chart…I don’t want that to be the spirit of my garden. It’s my soul.
“How will you know what you did so you can be successful next year?”  Good question. Oh, I will take notes and information. I’ll remember that my cucumbers died and I swore.  I’ll remember that my farmer told me I planted the carrots too early and I need to reseed. No need to measure. My only goal–to weed, eat, and share the deliciousness with some aphids, and maybe some of you. 

I will never be as cool as my siblings because I am “just a teacher”

I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who stops by.   When I started this blog, I figured, “What’s the worst that can possibly happen? I’ll write something, and nobody will read it.”  I’ll probably have five loyal readers–four of them will be related to me.

It didn’t turn out that way–no matter what I do, I my brother won’t read my blog. He keeps meaning to, but I suspect the fact that he’s busy counting all his children to make sure they don’t escape might have something to do with it, so even though he was technically an English major and should be here trying to find dangling participles and vague antecedents, he’s nowhere to be found.  Which is why it’s safe enough to make fun of him in the lead paragraphs.

My sister reads this blog sometimes but she’s more important than me, so if she can’t get to it every day, that’s okay. She writes an awesome national brief–it’s not really funny, but I’ll overlook that point, because it’s tough to laugh when you have to write about countries that are blowing each other up. Her entire life goal was to spark world peace, not to have to write another column each time someone throws Molotov cocktail across a border. I hope world peace comes soon–not only do I think it’s important, but I think then my sister could use the day off.

Funny–I remember the days that my brother and sister became cooler than me. My brother, let’s call him “Dan,” because that’s his name, played soccer and wrestled.  He tried very hard.  He played video games with his friend “Kevin” (any resemblance to actual individuals is entirely intended), and we–the older sisters–felt “Oh my god, these kids are doomed.”  Not that I was an expert in cool–I was the anthesis of the “in crowd.” But still, I was concerned.

Turns out Dan and Kevin did alright–Kevin has a family and a Ph.D in something I’m not qualified to understand.  Dan got his name put on “The List” traveling around Ireland meeting students and buying books about Bobby Sands. Apparently they write down your name if you read about such people. He’s a peace-loving person, in case anyone’s still watching.  A harmless Yankee fan who just loves Irish history.  Now, he gets to work with some of the best and brightest language-development minds in the world.  He is much cooler than me.

My sister–we’ll call her “Mary,” became cool much quicker. She did sound production and got to blow off rappers who were late for studio sessions, which would have been even more impressive if she knew who they were, and she got to do political spots during several election seasons. I love politics. Meeting those people would have been cool.

Then, she decided that cool wasn’t cool enough, and she went back to school to save the world–a degree in “Peace and Conflict Resolution.”  If I invented that degree, I’d have put a question mark after it, “Peace and Conflict Resolution?” because no one really wants to stop fighting as long as there’s money flowing on both sides, but Mary is doing her best to promote key solutions, and far more people read what she writes on a daily basis than will ever read my stuff.  She is definitely much cooler than me.

Alas, I am not cool–I just got put in my place again last night, “I don’t understand why you guys (referring to me and to a couple other college friends) went to the University of Rochester to become teachers. Seems like such a waste. If you wanted to become a teacher, why didn’t you just go to a cheap college instead of such a good one? Spending all that money to become a teacher is just stupid.” Sadly, it was an honest question, not an intentional insult. I get those types of questions and comments a lot.

This happens more and more frequently of late. When I switched careers thinking I’d save the world, my friends frowned just like they had when I considered law enforcement as a career.  “Really?  You’re overqualified.”  To improve lives? To save the world?  If I succeed in saving the world, that would make me, like, God, and am I truly overqualified to be the Almighty?  I think not…but apparently the world does not agree.

I figured people would high-five me as I went into teaching. Not so. College friends have put up with my decision, and in some cases openly mocked me, as if I were throwing my life away to join a monastery. “Casey, really?” Or when I tell new people what I do, “I teach,” they immediately say one of two things, “Oh,” and they walk away to find someone more interesting, or “Good luck with that, I’d never do it.” If I’m lucky, they’ll tell a bonus unsolicited story about how teachers are lazy, ruining the world, or how “nothing personal but” they all suck.

It’s getting tough to remain positive in a career that everyone despises–one that throws new regs on daily as if the art of saving kids weren’t enough. As if it can be micromanaged down to the last bits and bytes of data. Not only am uncool, but I spend more time chasing numbers lately than I do teaching my kids. I feel much more like an accountant than the saver of the universe I set out to be.

James Altucher came through with some inspiration  the other day, “Complaining is the opposite of improving,” and when James is busy writing about other things, I can always turn to Tom Petty, who “won’t back down.” Just in the nick of time someone recommended Margaret Wheatley’s new book to me, which I’m only partially through but makes perfect sense.  She urges us to avoid burnout by knowing that the world is flawed and flawed systems make it impossible to save the world.  Recognizing that helps us to avoid fighting the windmills and still realize that we are doing the good work.  Work that must be done. She must have seen the Picasso of Don Quixote I keep close by.

I’m grateful to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog–the blog I never expected to exist. I’m grateful that I have seen your blogs and discovered inspirational people, teachers, visionaries, writers, scientists, Zen thinkers–people who bring joy and inspiration to my life.  Although I may not be as cool as my siblings, because I’m “just a teacher,” you all give me hope that someday we might change that, and being a teacher will be something people aspire to be once more. In gratitude for your trust, I will do my best to make this career a better place to be while simultaneously inspiring and informing my own students to carry the torch further.

Even if I will never be quite as cool as Mary and Dan.