Chapter 29: I’d Rather Get a Root Canal in Mali Than Teach in the U.S.

Last year, during a severe sugar craving bout,  I found an old piece of hard candy in my desk at school. Despite the fact that this red sticky thing was probably manufactured back when Mali became a country in 1960, I still popped it into my mouth. Then it got stuck on my lower molars, and upon disengaging it I also yanked off a crown.

This is not a good situation to be in when you live in a developing country where some

My tooth, sans roots.

My tooth, sans roots.

dental work occurs roadside. But lo and behold, I discovered a Lebanese dentist (raised in Senegal) who operated a modern, dental practice in an actual building near our school, and he had a number of our students as patients. So off I went to have him reattach the old crown which I was sure would take ten minutes. Except the old crown was cracked and he needed to make a new one. And then he discovered that a root canal had not been done on that old tooth (thank you crappy Florida dentist).

So long story short, he did the root canal (even finding a 4th root which he said was rare), had a fancy new crown made in France, and made my mouth whole again…all at half the cost of a dentist in the U.S. My dentist in the U.S. checked his work and gave his seal of approval. However, this all took six lovely visits, some of which seemed like movie scenes: the time he and his wife/assistant had a huge argument in French during my actual root canal; our debate over whether I have a gag reflex or whether he just put too much of the molding material in my mouth because it touched my uvula, etc.).

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on!  photo: Snipview

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on, God!
photo: Snipview

I spent a lot of time in that dental chair, staring out the window and thinking about how I would rather be just about any other place than a dental chair. Truth be told, for me just about any other place would be preferable–a Siberian hard labor camp, a Crimson Thorn concert (Christian death metal band), a gas station bathroom, a party attended by everyone working at Fox News. I mean really, can there be worse places on this earth?

Why yes, yes there can.

My last school year in an American classroom started with a bang, and by bang I mean like being hit over the head repeatedly with a 2 x 4 until I was knocked senseless.

Usually those first few days before students arrive are when administrators pull out all the

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!  photo: Oriental Trading Company

stops to get teachers pumped up for the year ahead–spreads of artery clogging breakfast foods, singing some upbeat pop song in which the lyrics are changed to something school-related (I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas can sue whenever a faculty croons, “I’ve got a feeling, that our school’s gonna be a good school, that our staff’s gonna enforce good rules, that data’s gonna be a good tool…”), and cheap but useful gifts from the Oriental Trading Company catalog such as lanyards, water bottles, and rum. Okay, alcohol wasn’t really one of the gifts but if Oriental Trading added rum-filled key chains, I’d be all over it.

Usually there are also fun activities to inspire the faculty, help them bond, and help set the stage for creative instruction, such as determining your teaching team’s multiple intelligences or participating in a talent show (where it was immediately evident which teachers did not possess any multiple intelligences related to performing).

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength...you decide.   photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength…you decide. photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

But for this particular school year, my very last as a U.S. classroom teacher, I knew things were different the moment I entered the meeting room—or as I like to call it, the chamber of horrors. At each place setting rested a cinder-block-sized, serious looking binder stuffed to the gills with inserts and tabs. On the front was a label printed with “DATA BINDER” in all caps. A screen in the front of the room glowed with the light of an LCD projector, showing a bar graph with words and numbers too tiny to read. There was no music, no animated conversation about how thin/tan/rested everyone looked. There may have been food but I really don’t recall because the gloomy mood sucked the appetite and life right out of me.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides. photo: envisiontheamericandream.com

For the next three, grueling hours we were tortured with slide after slide of bar graphs, pie charts, line charts, histograms, and scatter plots from the school district headquarters, all showing us how crappy we were as teachers based on how low our students had scored on a single high-stakes test. Water boarding would have been easier to handle than this. Seriously, if the principal had said, “You can either watch this data PowerPoint or be shocked with raw wires attached to your private parts” I would have started attaching the copper wires myself.

The sad thing was, we all knew this test-focused mania sweeping the U.S. was hogwash, a movement led by non-educators with le$$-than-hone$t intention$. Since 2002, the law of the land told us that if we tested kids a lot (a whole, whole lot) and made teachers solely responsible for improving test scores, every kid would be “proficient” by 2014.

Yeah, not so much.

Maybe that’s why 500 education researchers recently signed a letter to Congress & President Obama saying, “We strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” Now there’s a ringing endorsement.

At the end of this first day I loaded my Data Binder cinder block into a wheelbarrow and

Hope he doesn't have to use the bathroom anytime soon.

Hope he doesn’t have to use the bathroom anytime soon. photo: jokes.naij.com

glumly shuffled to my classroom. Along the way I thought about jobs I could do that would be more pleasant, less painful. Like cleaning out clogged sewer pipes without protective gear, tarring roads in the Gobi desert in summertime, being a bicycle brick carrier, exploring the growing field of ice road trucking, or having stun guns tested on you.

It’s a wonder that I made it through that year without developing a crack addiction or multiple personality disorder. It was tough trying to understand the new normal, that our schools weren’t places for inspiring kids to learn but places that made them develop irritable bowel syndrome over constant test stress. I should have been tipped off when we were given a series of procedures to follow in case a student vomited on the end-of-year standardized test. It was no coincidence that this would be my last year in a U.S. classroom.

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time   Photo: TLC (My Strange Addiction)

So rather than go slowly insane and start eating my mattress, or hair, bricks, plastic bags, or paint pens (habits featured on “My Strange Addiction” on TLC), a few years ago Jamey and I moved to sub-Saharan Africa to teach at an international school. To ask me if teaching in an international school in Bamako, Mali is preferable to teaching in the U.S. is like asking if anesthesia is preferable to biting on a stick when you’re having you’re foot amputated.

Here’s how it went at our international school this past August during our first days before students arrived:

We began by discussing how we can strengthen our school community. Then we talked about our goals for the school year, like developing a meaningful service-learning program so our students learn as they help their local community. On subsequent days we learned about new developments in classroom technology, got a refresher on the Understanding by Design framework we use for the curriculum we develop, and had plenty of time to set up our classrooms and to collaborate with colleagues.

For the third year in a row I started the school year inspired, motivated, and full of ideas. And that was without the aid of the Oriental Trading rum. Okay, there was our Friday happy hour on the patio at the Mande Hotel, watching the sun set over the Niger River. But we weren’t drowning our sorrows as we so often did back in the States, but celebrating the start of a great school year.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about standardized testing.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about high-stakes standardized testing.

As the year has progressed, I can almost say that I’ve forgotten those scary days back in a U.S. classroom. But these memories are gone in the same way that I almost forget how I stuck my foot in a wasp nest when I was ten. For example, I’d love to forget that I heard an administrator, with regard to the annual state test, tell a colleague, “You need to get your student test scores up because right now, the assistant superintendent knows your name. And that’s NOT a good thing.” Ahhh, intimidation as motivation…the stuff memories are made of.

During my last two years in the U.S. I left the classroom to work as a resource teacher

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

with our school district, one of the largest in the country with 13,000 teachers and nearly 180,000 students. I had just been honored as the district’s Teacher of the Year, so a job at district headquarters was my attempt at a promotion to fancier digs with a higher level of respect. The first clue that I had made a judgment error was when I moved into my workspace, a windowless cubicle smaller than the closet in my former classroom. On Day Three, I discovered that my lunch bag had been removed from the lunchroom fridge and placed on top of it, plastered with a yellow sticky note saying, “This food takes up too much space.” Fancy, indeed.

But the worst part of that district job ordeal was the new teacher evaluation system implemented during my final year in cubicle quarantine. This evaluation system was two-part: half relied on your students’ state tests scores. As any ed researcher will tell you, using student high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers is unreliable and misguided, but that’s another conversation.

High tech data analysis tool photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

High tech data analysis tool
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

But what made my situation even stranger is that I didn’t have any students. I was a mere resource teacher with little exposure to actual students and just a bit of exposure to teachers—most of whom didn’t listen to me anyway because they were suffering from PTTS (Post Traumatic Test Syndrome). So nobody was sure exactly which student test data my evaluation would be based upon. Maybe the average scores of students in the entire district someone said. Maybe the student scores from the schools I visited someone else said. Or maybe they would ask the Oracle at Delphi or use a Magic 8 Ball (“Reply hazy, try again”). I would certainly trust a Mattel novelty more in this situation.

The other half of the new teacher evaluation relied on an observation system performed by an administrator. This system is a complicated mélange of domains and data marks and frameworks and elements and instructional categories and design questions. Here is part of an email I found on the district’s website, a simple little message sent to administrators about this evaluation system:

Please be advised that the Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee has released an updated Observation Schedule for Category 1B and Category 2 for the second half of the year. Twenty data marks are still required to complete the Instructional Practices Portion of the evaluation for Category 1B & 2 Teachers and the data marks are derived from the elements rated as a result of an observation and any elements rated in Domains 2, 3, and 4. Administrators can view the number of data marks scored by running the following report in iObservation: Evaluative Element Scoring by Learner.

Sidebar: The fact that this system required creating a Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee (JENC, pronounced “junk”) should give one pause.

So administrators observe teachers a bunch of times and rank their performances with a

Better pay, more respect than teaching. photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

five-category scale that ranges from “this person should be working in the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory instead of a classroom” to “this person is so good they should immediately leave the classroom to work in a closet-sized, windowless cubicle at the school district office.” Actually the categories were Beginning, Developing, Applying, Innovating, but I like my scale better. To receive the top category, Innovating, one had to “Adapt and create new strategies for unique student needs and situations.”

Again, this system was set up to evaluate teachers in the classroom so my situation as a resource teacher didn’t quite fit. Perhaps I could be judged on the way I was able to write curriculum in my cubicle within an open workspace, surrounded by secretaries chatting about green bean recipes while 20 other resource teachers talked on the phone or to each other and someone else was sharpening 250 pencils for an upcoming state test and the fax machine continuously beeped after each page it spit out from a 100-page fax.

Or maybe I could be evaluated on the clever way I camouflaged my mini-fridge (a banned appliance in cubicle world) as a box of supplies, complete with a false front that opened to reveal an array of cold beverages and my (apparently) very large lunch bag, now safe from the lunch police.

I wasn’t too concerned about the way this observation would happen, though, since just months before the district has knighted me as Teacher of the Year for my “innovative approaches in the classroom.” It was as simple as changing the suffix on “innovative” to the present participle “innovating.” I mean, once an innovator, always an innovator, right? Even though I wasn’t in the classroom I continued writing and teaching others how to use innovative, arts-integrated curriculum. I still presented innovative sessions at national conferences. Besides, wouldn’t it look pretty stupid ranking your Teacher of the Year as a moron who still hasn’t quite the hang of teaching after 8 years in inner city schools and 6 years as a national education trainer?

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker? photo: bookcoverimgs.com

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?
photo: bookcoverimgs.com

So imagine my surprise/shock/nausea when I discovered that administrators were told that, for this first year, they should NOT award any teacher with the highest designation of “innovating.” That would leave them without room for improvement, they reasoned, without any motivation to do better. I mean, just look at how lazy Steven Jobs became after his success. Or Ben Franklin. Or Marie Curie. All slackers, every one of them. Thank goodness my own administrator fought back and in the end I was ranked as Innovating, even though my mood at the time would better be described as Loathing or Abhorring. I didn’t see those designations on the form though.

So you can understand how nostalgic memories like these don’t fade so much. The good news is that in my Life 2.0, phenomenal educational experiences are crowding out the crappy ones in my head. Here are a few recent classroom events worthy of being stored in my long-term memory:

When Lessons are More than Just Lessons

The think tank...coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

The think tank…coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

For the third year in a row my class of Grade 4 and 5 students is partnering with a local NGO, Mali Health Organizing Project, to create a health-related graphic novel for distribution to local school children. It always starts with a science unit in class that provides the kids with basic knowledge. From there they spend the day visiting the neighborhood where the school children live, a slum adjacent to Bamako. They visit a school, a clinic, and walk the dirt streets in order to understand the context of the health problems we are trying to address. Then a group of local school children visit us at our school, and collaborate with my students on the plot, illustrations, and comic software work.

The end products are professional looking graphic novels in both French and English—one on malaria prevention (The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man) and another on rotavirus prevention Agents of HEALTH: When Rotavirus Attacks), and another one on malnutrition currently in process—that are given to hundreds of local children and just may save lives. You can see the last graphic novel here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1oBcyWe5BkyS1FCcE0teWtyNkk/view?usp=sharing

My students say the same things every year: I never realized how lucky we are and how nilbad it is for other kids. I never thought a kid could help save lives. This project makes me feel good. Can we watch Frozen?

And to think we spend about 25 total hours on this life-changing project—about the same amount of time on average that US students spend taking standardized tests and practice tests. I actually read that some U.S, schools allocate a quarter of the year’s instruction to test prep, and that some schools have daily two and a half hour prep sessions and test practice on vacation days. I vow right here and now that the last words that will EVER be in the same sentence for me will be “vacation” and “test prep.”

 Andy Warhol in My Classroom

I’m a diehard proponent of arts integrated instruction, an approach that should be welcomed in test-obsessed U.S. schools because it helps kids become critical thinkers, develops creativity and problem solving, allows kids to retain information longer, and leads to world peace (sorry, got carried away on that last one, but you never know).

Half Pint's schoolhouse.

Half Pint engages in drill-and-kill school fun.

Unfortunately if it doesn’t look like a test prep workbook or a drill-and-kill exercise that Laura Ingalls Wilder did on the prairie in 1877, it’s probably not going to be welcomed in a U.S. classroom these days. Which is why when I arrived at the American International School of Bamako, I felt like a refugee who just escaped from North Korea and landed in the middle of Candyland or Disneyworld. Sure we implement standardized tests at AISB, this one on a computer. But students spend just 2.5 hours in September doing so, and another 2.5 hours again in April. The results are immediate, so teachers can use the data as one of many measures to inform their instruction. That frees up the rest of the year for…….wait for it……actual learning! I know, it’s a radical, revolutionary approach, but I hope it catches on.

So I always hit the ground running in August, and this year Andy Warhol was with me. This

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

was going to be a Warhol-inspired kick-off that would have all the fun and excitement of pop art. I started with a Warhol quote and the door. Next the kids made Warhol-inspired portraits in which they used color to define their personalities. Then we created our classroom rules for the year, but this time expressed in Warhol-style posters. We read about his life, and how his experiences as a commercial artist and aficionado of movie star life helped him develop a unique style as an artist, then analyzed many of his works to look for references to his life experiences.

be respectful nilNow, despite the fact that of my 19 students just one speaks English as the first language at home, and that a quarter of my class had a year or less of English instruction, they all thrived during these Warhol activities—analyzing, critiquing, comprehending, evaluating–all those things standardized tests are SUPPOSED to measure. In addition, these activities fostered creativity, critical thinking, motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, and integrity—all those things standardized tests CANNOT measure.

Social Studies is Actually A Thing

Unlike my experience in U.S. schools where I heard more than one administrator say,

Live at "The Pharaoh's Court"

Live at The Pharaoh’s Court….the Master Sculptor did, I swear!

“Forget about social studies; it’s not on the state test,” I teach it daily at AISB (this last statement would raise eyebrows across the pond).We study river civilizations by exploring ancient Egypt. Students take on roles as actual ancient Egyptians (a vizier, a dancer, a tomb painter) and are challenged to solve an actual tomb robbery, something that requires them to develop their own alibis and to question suspects in “The Pharaoh’s Court” (which I must say was much more exciting than the past-due rent cases on the People’s Court).

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

To study the spread of ideas we explore ancient Greece, anchored by a daily dose of Homer’s The Odyssey. As students complete challenges (one of which involved creating a tableau scene from The Odyssey) they moved their team ship on a big wall map, following the path Odysseus took in his many adventures. Safe to say that all teams did arrive in Ithaca at the end, and were treated to a viewing of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. I’m still scared by those skeleton soldiers that grow from Hydra’s teeth that are planted in the soil.

Science Too

IMG_6625Unless you teach Grade 5 in Florida., the grade where students take a science state test, science is an afterthought at most elementary schools, usually shoved into the few remaining weeks that follow the completion of state testing. At AISB I teach it daily. Students make their own handmade books to create an earthquake survival manual for our unit on earth building and breaking. For our unit on microorganisms they engage in the service learning project described above. For our sound unit they’ll create their own outdoor sound sculpture. Students analyze songs that relate to our science themes….John Denver’s Calypso during our unit on ocean ecology, The B-52s Planet IMG_6254Claire and Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets during our unit on outer space.They act out the three types of tectonic plate movements.We watch clips of the cheesy Earthquake movie to see if it accurately portrays an earthquake.

So it’s discouraging to hear that a national 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of U.S. school districts reduced the time spent on science, social studies and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week in order to focus on reading and math. No B-52s for you American kids! Get out that damn workbook!

 All the School’s a Stage

IMG_7065My kids engage in acting every day, well, beyond the fake No-I-really-didn’t-at-all-mean-to call-her-a-heifer-and-I-am-truly-so-sorry kind of acting. In reading, the students show their knowledge of vocabulary words or important plot points in a novel by performing quick tableaus (frozen pose). They engage in story dramatization to explore major characters and events, or to predict how characters will fare after the story ended. In science they use their bodies to demonstrate the way white blood cells attack bacteria.

IMG_7249

My clever thespians doing a tableau for the word “reflection.”

To be engaged, or not engaged, that is the question. Being engaged in so much performance work leads to confident kids who don’t know what stage fright is. I suppose that’s better than what education researcher Gregory J. Cizek discovered in studies that show how U.S. testing. produces “gripping anxiety in even the brightest students, and makes young children vomit or cry, or both.” I’ll choose performing a tableau over vomiting any day.

 Art Attack

IMG_7216

Maimouna’s Basquita-inspired art

The Grade 4 – 5 students demonstrate their learning visually too. After exploring symbolism in a novel, song, and poem, students create their own symbolic artwork. But they are challenged to do this in the style of one of the symbol-heavy artists we studied, such as Keith Haring, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the Malian artists who create carved Dogon doors. That means they have to get inside the artist’s head and embrace his approach.

IMG_6783 IMG_6767 IMG_6758Students also created cubist portraits of characters from the novel we read, Shiloh by Phyliis Reynolds Naylor.

IMG_6241In writing we explore figurative language through visual art, creating self portraits to learn about alliteration or comic strip panels to show onomatopoeia. My classroom is plastered (in a neat, organized manner, mind you) with posters of famous artworks, movies, musicians, and Broadway shows because I think these are a bit more inspiring than the pacing schedules and anchor charts about verb conjugation that I was required to post back in the USSA.

Not only does this arts-integrated approach help kids learn valuable content, it fosters creativity. Remember that stuff? Maybe not if you’re in America. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990. Says researcher Kyung-Hee Kim, “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.” That’s enough to make Haring, Changall, and Basquiat turn in their graves.

Professional Development

In my old life, professional development meant another visit from a district “specialist” with

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization.

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization, which is apparently more fun than data analysis.

a dull PowerPoint full of words in Comic Sans font, touting the latest focus/fad (“You and Data Analysis: A Match Made in Heaven”). Lots of chart paper, and if they were really fancy, lots of sticky note posting on the chart paper. At the PD session I recently led at AISB, my colleagues (all of whom weren’t even required to attend) engaged in the story dramatization of an American Indian folktale to see the connections between drama and literature.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

Our last session on standardized testing at AISB could have been dull, except for the fact that beer and wine were served (hey, it’s 5:00 somewhere). Back in the States I’d get excited about PD sessions held outside of school, like sessions in the cafeteria of a nearby high school. Yeah it smelled like old food and the tables were sticky, but at least it wasn’t the same old media center we always met in. Contrast this with my last out-of-school PD session here…in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Not only did I get to present a session on service learning, and get to meet educators from across Africa, and become addicted to Ethiopian coffee and food, but we even had a baboon-on-the-loose alert during the conference. And the cafeteria was outside, so no old food smell.

Granted, one has to consider the cost of sending teachers to conferences. But U.S. states seem to have lots of money when it comes to testing. From 2009 through 2012 Texas spent $88 million per year just to test students.

 Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

There wasn’t much to celebrate back in my old teaching life, except maybe the end of the

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

week or the school year. But here, I celebrate on a regular basis…including Halloween. Yep, Pat Robertson and the 700 Club have not convinced international schools that Halloween is Satan’s birthday (yet) and we actually have a traditional Halloween party where kids and adults dress in whatever they want, not some stupid literary character, and enjoy trick-or-treating, a haunted house, and tons of sugar-laced food and drink.

Epilogue

Jamey and I will be leaving AISB and Mali after three adventurous and enjoyable years, and I look forward to filling my head with even more excellent memories at our new post in Shanghai. I’m happy to report that, again, I won’t need rum-filled key fobs or episodes of paint-marker-eating to get through the school year. Because I do hate the way that mauve paint stains my teeth.

Note: Thanks to the website ProCon.org for the fabulous standardized testing facts.

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Chapter 22: Zombies, High-Stakes Testing, and Cab Calloway

The other night I was awakened at 3 AM when the electricity cut out for the eighth time, the AC unit sputtered to a halt, and the guard cranked up the generator, which sounds like 100 of those machines at Home Depot that automatically shake your paint can. paintAs I was lying in bed with that soothing, lullaby-like background noise, I started to reflect on this school year which, surprisingly, is drawing to a close.

Seems just like yesterday when I stepped foot for the first time in my classroom at the American International School of Bamako. Before our August 2012 arrival the school had been shuttered for four months, closing in April as a result of some, um, minor issues in the country. Okay, maybe they weren’t so minor (and mom and mom-in-law, you can just skip over this next part and head straight to the next paragraph). Maybe there was a coup that effectively ended Mali’s record as the West African country with the longest and most stable democracy. And maybe this led to the total destabilization of Mali’s north and allowed crazy Islamists to take over a few towns up there that required thousands of French troops to flush them out and a huge contingent of UN troops to keep them out. But I digress.

Anyway, when I walked into my new classroom it had the look of a suddenly evacuated classroom that had been empty for awhile, sort of like when the humans in The Walking Dead went into that abandoned school looking for shelter from the zombies, although I can assure you that I have not spotted a single zombie on the school grounds here yet. Written The-Walking-Dead-Walkpapers-D-the-walking-dead-30444936-1440-900on the board in dry erase marker that wouldn’t erase was “April 5, 2012” and “It’s the zombie apocalypse!” Wait a minute, I think that last sentence was from The Walking Dead, but you get the idea.

Every surface was covered with a layer of Tang-colored dust. There was a chocolate bar in the teacher’s desk (and yes I tried it and it tasted old but I ate it anyway). And the student desks and cubbies were still stuffed full of half empty notebooks with 3D covers (I snagged a 3D Transformers notebook that I proudly used all year long), dried out markers, desiccated foodstuff, love/hate notes, socks, half-full water bottles, and the like. I really did feel like one of The Walking Dead humans scavenging for goodies as I picked through everything in this room (and the room next door), creating stockpiles that I used all year long.

Once my classroom environment seemed more conducive to learning and less like a potential battleground for the undead, I was ready to plan my lessons. And then it hit me like a crowbar across a zombie’s crumbling skull…here at AISB I was free from the shackles of high-stakes testing! I’m sure I levitated off my chair a few centimeters.

I looked on my desk, and there was no gigantic binder swollen with pages of information about the formats of questions on the state test or which benchmarks to focus on and which to ignore. No stack of graphs showing me how pathetic my school was compared to the test scores of other schools. No school “data wall” made of color-coded index cards, two per student, showing their most recent state test score and taped to the wall in a massive 10’ x 30’ display that showed us which students to really pay attention to and which can function independently (e.g. which ones you can ignore). data wallNo faculty meetings in which we were told to put the arts, social studies, field trips, and guest speakers “on the backburner,” (e.g. until the state test was over in April). And no know-it-all school district people skulking around the school, popping into our classroom to make sure we were focused on state test prep and not something useless like learning about the three branches of government or learning to speak a foreign language.

Back in Florida a few years ago I wrote a Grade 4 language arts unit based on a short story about the Harlem Renaissance. I really couldn’t imagine teaching about the Harlem Renaissance without exposing my mostly African American students to the wonderful music, dance, literature, and visual art from this exciting time in U.S. history. harlem renSo I was about to begin teaching a lesson from that unit when in walks a gaggle of District “experts,” sour-faced minions who lined up across the back of my classroom with the body language of an executioner—no slight welcoming head bob or quick smile to put me at ease. They clutched notebooks and iPads (because you can look even more official when you carry an Apple product) and had that “so-get-teaching-so-we-can-criticize-you-and-move-on-to do-it-some-more” kind of look.

Frankly, I wasn’t ruffled in the least. Judging by their fashion and hair choices alone, I knew I didn’t have a whole lot to worry about. Although the lesson I was about to teach wasn’t as drill-and-kill/worksheety as they probably hoped for, I was a dutiful soldier because I had done everything on the district checklist:

  • objectives written on the board in kid-friendly language (check!)
  • monthly skill schedule posted next to the door, although it was kind of a fake one I did for show (check!)
  • “anchor chart” of the skill I was teaching stuck to the wall (check!)
  • detailed lesson plans—complete with every tested benchmark color-coded—on my desk for all to see (check!)
  • all creative inclinations, emotions, and personal opinions drained from my body (alright, so I didn’t do everything on the checklist)

Bring it on, I thought to myself.

I began by playing a blues song from the Harlem Renaissance–Graveyard Dream Blues bessie_smithby Bessie Smith–and asked the kids to pay close attention to the lyrics, any patterns they noticed, and the music itself. Afterwards I charted their observations: it was about a sad subject, certain lines were repeated, and the music was slow and gloomy.

Next I played a jazz song from the same era–Harlem Hospitality by Cab Calloway)–and again asked the kids to listen carefully. cabcallowayWhile the song played the students bounced and swayed to the music—I mean it was Cab Calloway music after all! However, those goofs in the back stood as still as statues. Really. So then I charted the kids’ observations: this song was about joyful things, the lines in the song were short and jumpy, and the music was fast and fun. We spent a few moments comparing and contrasting the two songs in a Venn diagram since compare/contrast was my targeted reading skill.

Next I showed PowerPoint slides of two Langston Hughes poems that we read aloud. After they got a good feel for each poem I explained that one of these was considered a “blues poem” and one was a “jazz poem,” and it was up to them to decide which was which. This required them to refer to the notes about the blues and jazz songs, so in teams they tried to match the characteristics of the poems with the songs.

The discussion was animated and sort of fun to watch—they were singing lines from each song, arguing about what certain stanzas meant (“Seriously Kayla, do you think a sad person shimmies and shakes? That’s jazz, okay?”) , and pointing out patterns in the songs and poems. Eventually they did correctly identify each poem, and we spent some time reflecting on why a poet would write in two such very different styles. Their comments showed real critical thinking, and even better they asked me to play the songs again (and again). They were also now instant fans of Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway.

I was thrilled and so proud of my students. But the Sour Squad in the back stood motionless, like wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s museum–just not as lifelike, though. jane lynch 040810They solemnly filed out of my room and into the class next door to spend some more quality time glowering. Even though a cloud of gloom surrounded them, I was somewhat hopeful that even they could clearly see that my students (a) were actively engaged in reading, (b) had thoughtfully applied the skills of comparing and contrasting, (c) tackled poetry that Grade 4 students seldom tackle.

But it was not to be. In the voluntary feedback session that I decided to attend (along with our principal and just one other colleague who showed up), the leader of this pessimistic pack–a PhD, mind you–first addressed my colleague and rambled on in some gobblety-goo edu-speak laced with plenty of buzz words (that year they included “efficacy” and “laser-like focus”) and plenty of acronyms (at a two day workshop I attended that year I recorded 67 acronyms the speaker used). Then she sighed deeply and said to me in an emotionless tone—without making eye contact of course–something like, “I really don’t even understand what you were doing.”

yosemite_sam_stressedAt that moment I’m pretty sure I looked like an outraged cartoon character with steam shooting out of both ears and my enlarged eyeballs boomeranging out of my head. My principal, noticing my reddening face, blurted out something like, “Well, Dr. Dourbutt, you have to understand that Jeff uses many different techniques like arts integration and….” But Dourbutt cut her off and started with the rambling edu-speak again. So then I cut her off.

“Have you ever taught at a school like this, with mostly African American students living below the poverty level, smack dab in the middle of the worst crime-filled neighborhood in town?” I asked in a fake, calm voice.

Before she could answer I added, “Do you know that every year my student’s high-stakes reading test scores exceed those of the school district and the State of Florida? And I don’t use test prep workbooks or test prep worksheets and I don’t drill-and-kill them to death. And they love to read.” I was on on fire and felt like I had those eyes the demons have in that show Supernatural.demon

Then I went on a bit of a rant, schooling her on the research-based approach of arts integration and how my students need to understand the amazing cultural contributions of African Americans and reminding her as often as I could that I was a National Board Certified Teacher in literacy and, oh yeah, that I was a published author and at least my shoes were well cared for and polished instead of all scuffy like hers. Well, I didn’t say that shoe part but I sure as hell wanted to.shoe

Then I did one of those little moves from the movies that you always want to use for real. I curtly said, “Well, I’m done here,” slammed my notebook shut, and got up and walked out. Except I walked out in the wrong direction and had to embarrassingly circle back and pass that same room again, where I heard my principal trying to smooth things over the best she could.

toy 2011 113Well guess what? There is actually a happy ending to this story. That very same year I was chosen Palm Beach County Teacher of the Year based on the “innovative instructional approaches” I used. I was honored out of a pool of 13,000 teachers for using techniques that ol’ Dr. Scuffy Shoes didn’t even understand! And of course I used every speaking opportunity required by this award to retell this ironic Dr. Scuffy Shoes story, even though it made for some awkward laughter once when the crowd was mostly school district office folks.

Fast forward two years later, and here I am in Mali where I’ve successfully escaped from Planet Testobsessed. I’ve landed in an international school totally unaffected by corporate “reformers” like Bill “I didn’t finish college but I know what’s best for teachers” Gates and Michelle “My kids go to private school” Rhee. But get this…we still give a normed-referenced test (the MAP). It’s a couple of short computer tests we give at the beginning and ending of the year, and we receive instant results. We use that immediate data, along with many other measures like classroom observations, class work, teacher-created tests, parent conferences, etc., to plan and tweak our instruction to meet each kid’s needs. Radical, huh?

However, unlike in the U.S. the results from that one test do not determine my salary or bonus or whether or not I’m fired or whether or not I get an ulcer. And my school is not assigned a grade based on the results, and punished with a spanking or a dunce cap if we get a C.

And best of all, we don’t have any stupid test pep rallies, a bizarre phenomenon sweeping the nation. Here’s one from a school in Indiana with the teachers performing “Test Me Maybe,” a parody of, well do I really have to explain that one?

Nope, here in Bamako we don’t spend a minute of energy composing high stakes test-related songs. Here’s part of a test rap song I found online, this one written for Florida’s high-stakes test, the FCAT:

Alright, now I know y’all hate the FCAT
But ya got pass that
So you don’t mess around and get held back
Let’s do somethin’ about that

Say I’m gonna pass the FCAT
You need to pass the FCAT
We need to pass the FCAT
Whatcha all know, gonna blast that

Y’all really wanna know about the FCAT
Whatcha need to know to try and pass that
Why listen up close I’m ‘splaining that
How to do good on the FCAT

I know ya’ll know where the lie-berry’s at
And most ya’ll seems to got a backpack
So you gots the books so you can study that
Got to put in work to pass that.

Gosh I hope those Florida kids do well on the grammar portions of the FCAT.

I’m also pleased that at AISB we have no high-stakes testing flash mobs. I know you’re thinking I made that one up. Nope. Here’s one from a school in Missouri.

We also don’t have to bribe our students to do well on the test with rewards, such as a limo ride to the Golden Corral buffet, a post-test dance party, or making the principal kiss a pig. In this video a teacher explains how his students can “win some awesome prizes for rocking the FCAT,” including iPads and flat screen TVs.

Geez, all of this testapalooza stuff sounds funny at first–until you realize how really sad it is. At least all of those activities are supported by loads of research proving their effectiveness, and students are sure to look back fondly on these activities as some of their favorite school memories. Okay, not really.

The upside of being cured of test-mania disorder is that I have plenty of time to….wait for it….TEACH! Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a free-for-all here at school. We abide by international academic benchmarks and a set of school beliefs that brazenly encourage resourcefulness, creativity and self-expression. That’s a bit of a departure from my previous world where we were encouraged to be dependent, robotic, dullards. As radical as it sounds, here we are actually entrusted to use our own talents and expertise to create lessons that meet these guidelines. I’m thinking Dr. Scuffy’s head would explode if she ever visited our school.

So, in the interest of preventing cranial explosions, I’d like to dedicate my big finale to Sgt. Scuffy and her band of bothers. Here is what happens when an educator goes through high-stakes testing detox and lands in a magical (albeit dusty) world where creativity and critical thinking are valued more than high-stakes test scores. Welcome to my classroom…..

Anti-Malaria Man to the Rescue
If there’s one thing my partner Jamey taught me, it’s that science should be cool (he once bleached his hair in class to teach his students about re-dox reactions). So I had my kids write and illustrate (in French and English) a graphic novel about malaria, a disease that infects up to 2 million people a year in Mali.P3012110 It’s a story about the superhero Anti-Malaria Man (with leotards and boots and the whole outfit thing) that teaches about malaria transmission, treatment, and prevention. Our PTO funded the printing and next week we distribute copies to local school children in a poor community near our school. My kids learned multiple science benchmarks, created a smashing plot, became fantastic illustrators, and will never look at a mosquito in the same way again. Check out the finished product: Adventures of AMM (English)

Cool School Rules
IMG_1488Rather than bore students on the first day of school with a laundry list of rules they must IMG_1487follow (no teasing the school tortoises, no touching Niger River water

without gloves, etc.) I allowed them to take the lead. I taught them about artist Keith Haring, and how his simple drawings communicated complex messages. I challenged teams of students to create a Haring-style poster–using mostly illustration–that encouraged positive behavior. Our director had these duplicated and put up around school.

IMG_1489

My Face is Green
The best way to get to know my students is to first see how they view themselves. So I introduced them to artist Andy Warhol, and how he used unconventional artistic methods to portray celebrities. Students created their own Warhol-style portraits, expressing their personality through color they applied to a black and white photo of themselves. Then they wrote an artist’s statement to explain their crazy artistic decisions. I’m hoping to one day sell these for millions, just like Mr. Warhol did.

warhol

It’s Vocabulary Instruction, Not Waterboarding
In my student days, vocabulary instruction began with a new list of random words from the teacher on Monday, finding definitions in the dictionary Tuesday, writing sentences using each word Wednesday and Thursday, and a spelling test on Friday. If we missed a word we had to write it 10 times. I’m sure my teachers found these techniques right out of the “How to Make Language Arts Torture” handbook.

In my class, our vocabulary words are taken directly from the novel we are reading—a couple of words each day from the chapters we are about to read. I select words that are key to the story and that will be useful to them in their own life. Students create a 3-column chart (word, definition, sketch). I read them the passage in the book that contains each word, and student teams use context clues to determine the definition. Then they make a quick sketch that will remind them of the definition. Finally, each day I check their understanding of the words by having them create a tableau (frozen pose) showing the definition of the word I say. tableauThey might each individually do a tableau at the same time, or they might work in a team to create a tableau. Every day they beg me to let them do “just one more” tableau. I can’t recall begging my teacher to please let me look up “just one more word in the dictionary.”

Cubist Character Portraits
After reading the novel Shiloh and focusing on identifying character traits, I gave the students a quick overview of Cubism, the early 20th-century art style from where objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form, and where the artist depicts the subject from multiple viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context (thank you Wikipedia). cubismThen I asked them to choose one character from Shiloh and create a cubist portrait. It was certainly a challenge to represent the character traits in a more abstract way, and required a through understanding of the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of a character. They also explained their portrait in a written artist’s statement, which made their seemingly bizarre artistic decisions seem a tad less bizarre. Sometimes.

Abstractly Speaking
After a unit on the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S. during WWII, students chose from three poems written by prisoners from the camps. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter analyzing the type of emotion the poet expressed, I gave the students a quick Abstract 101 lesson, showing them how the artists used only shape, line, and color to express emotions. Then students then created an abstract piece of art that visually expressed the emotions in the poem they chose. After this experience, I’m pretty sure these kids will never stand in front of an abstract painting at a museum and say, “That’s stupid. Anyone could paint that.”

It’s Alive!
It’s one thing to read a novel, but another to live it. With story dramatization the kids act out a scene from a novel we just read, taking on the role of not only humans, but also doors, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdogs, trees, and caves. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore we begin we discuss the scene—the motives of the characters, the part of the plot where we are at, “what’s between the lines.” Then as I narrate, they create dialogue and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAaction that brings the scene to life. They can add or tweak the dialogue and action in the text, as long as they stay true to the plot. And everyone speaks, even doors and caves. Can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing the lines that inanimate objects come up with (Cave wall: I wish that guy would stop chipping off pieces of me with a hammer and just find that hidden door!”)

Human Geometry
To make sure students could thoroughly identify a dozen or so geometric shapes–OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbecause you never know when you might need to know the characteristics of a triangular prism–students walked around campus identifying and sketching the shapes they saw in the architecture and landscape (real question from that day: “Mr. Fessler, I’m drawing the guard’s head since it’s either a sphere or a cube.”). Back in the classroom they worked in a team to create various geometric shapes using only their bodies. I would definitely have sprained my back doing the moves they did.

A Picture Paints 1000 (or more) Words
In every academic subject I had students analyze visual art (paintings and sculpture) that connected to the topic. We looked at Paul Klee’s painting Fish Magic to deeper understand the concept of “magic,” something we were exploring in the novel The Wish Giver. We looked at African mudcloth and Navajo rugs to understand symmetry in math. We analyzed illustrations from the Odyssey to understand Greek mythology. In writing class we looked at Monet’s impressionistic masterpieces from Giverny to see how simple paint strokes and color can speak volumes—just like a few choice descriptive words can create an amazing essay. Of course I invested a little time upfront to teach them about the elements of art so they had the tools to analyze, but it paid off in the end. I now have a roomful of art critics who can talk about one painting for an entire period if I let them.

A Song in Our Heart
Just as I did with visual art, I never passed by an opportunity to have the kids listen to and analyze a song connected to a topic or concept in class. From the most basic level (Schoolhouse Rock videos on conjunctions and adverbs) to the more complex (comparing and contrasting the themes in Christina Aguelira’s song Beautiful and our novel Loser; identifying science fiction subgenres in the Carpenters’ song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and Ella Fitzgerald’s song Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer and comparing those with the subgenre of our novel The Forgotten Door), music brought more life and learning into our classroom. Plus I’ve expanded their musical knowledge/appreciation beyond Gangnam Style.

Classmates Across the Sea
As a teacher in Florida my students collaborated on a project with kids in Northern Ireland and Zambia. This year, working with my good pals at Blue Planet Writers’ Room, my students in Mali are collaborating with students in North Palm Beach, Florida. We’ve explored the concepts of community and peace through writing and art, and will soon have a live chat between the classes IF the Skype gods smile down upon us.

Multiple Intelligences in Living (water)Color
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter teaching a unit on multiple intelligences, each student created twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA watercolor portraits, one of a famous person they admire and another that was a self-portrait. Both had to include symbols expressing the multiple intelligences of the painting’s subject. The word “multiple” was so fitting for these projects as we had multiple spills of water across nearly-finished portraits, multiple instances of paint drops landing on another person’s portrait, and multiple times when I said, “WHY oh why did I choose watercolors for this project?”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And that’s just a glimpse into my high-stakes-test-free classroom. Whenever I did this kind of teaching in America it was always done covertly with my eye out the window, watching for the test prep police. Now I’ve come out of the closet….as a creative teacher whose not afraid to inspire my students, not afraid to step outside of the box, and not afraid to trust my own expertise.

I think I’m still afraid of zombies though, especially ones wearing super scuffy shoes.