VIVA Teacher Speaks Out on Chicago Teachers Union’s Common Core Vote

Freeda Pirillis, a first grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was a member of the very first VIVA Idea Exchange, Voices from the Classroom. For the last three years, she has been working with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop Common Core curricula.

As she describes in this story on Chicago Public Radio, she was stunned to learn union delegates had voted to oppose the standards.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core (by Linda Lutton, WBEZ 91.5, May 8, 2014)

Freeda said she understands the frustrations her colleagues have with how Common Core is being implemented. (Read her blog post, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little Too Soon, from last spring.). She is personally concerned about how the standards can and will be applied to students who have special needs or are English Language Learners. And, of course, she wonders what will become of the considerable amount of work she has done with the union the past few years.

Instead of just “looking up,” let’s look at one another

By Jennifer Reinhardt

If you’ve been on social media channels lately, you’ve probably seen Gary Turk’s “Look Up” video, which urges us to put down our smartphones and engage with the people around us.

I admit that I am often guilty of this, choosing to beat the next level of Candy Crush (or not) instead of striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me.

But, I think it’s a mistake to frame all types of online engagement as a cacophony of noise that distracts us from being “productive and present,” as the video would say, in our own lives.

Here at New Voice Strategies, we strive to create authentic relationships that propel policy change by cultivating trust between our members and partners. And we do so primarily through online tools.

I’ve never met face-to-face most of the teachers and community leaders whom I am honored and humbled to work with. I don’t have to; technology offers us a powerful platform from which to support, connect, promote, and learn from one another.

Here are three recent examples that highlight our online community coming together to identify key issues and take action:

1) After an online discussion about how housing issues affect students, and how teachers can take leadership roles to advocate for change, Julie Miller Hays (Anoka, Minn.) attended the Urban Institute’s “How Housing Matters” roundtable in Washington, D.C., in April. She was the only teacher representative on the panel.

2) Fellow educators Ahngelique Davis (Philadelphia, Pa.) and Lesley Hagelgans (Union City, Mich.) are currently forming a research cohort among VIVA Leaders to promote scalable research models across school districts and create a pipeline for teacher-led research and articles.

3) In conjunction with Jose Vilson’s (New York, N.Y.) new book This is Not a Test, a collection of essays about race, class, and teaching, “with a mix of research and first-hand experience,” we’re exploring ways to engage our members around social justice issues in the classroom and beyond. If you are interested in hosting a community event or participating in a book discussion, let us know!

We believe what distinguishes our VIVA community is how we elevate one another and put teacher voice front and center in our dialogue.

As we continue to build our engagement programs, we would love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Please share success stories from within your district, or let us know if you would like to join or form an action group around a particular issue.


jennJennifer Reinhardt is New Voice Strategies’ engagement program manager. She works through the VIVA Leadership Center to design, implement and lead strategic campaigns around practitioner-identified issues.

VIVA Teacher Leaders in Chicago Call for ISAT Boycott

By Adam Heenan

ice-the-isatEarlier this week, teachers at Saucedo Elementary, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago, unanimously voted not to administer the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT).  Parents at Saucedo submitted close to 500 opt-out letters, and now that number is rapidly growing across the city.  As of this morning, the Local School Council (school-based democratic decision-making body) at Murray Language Academy, in the upper middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park,  also recommended that they “Ice the ISAT” at their school.

My hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill., weighed in to register its support of the ISAT, and condemned the Chicago Teachers Union for seemingly taking sides with the protesting parents.  I responded to the editorial with a letter to the editor, and encourage teachers across the country to do the same.  As teachers well know, testing as it is today is not the tool it was meant to be. The more we communicate to people who don’t work in schools or currently have children in the system about what’s really happening, in our classrooms, the more likely we are to create allies for better American schools.  

Below is the text of my letter to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Please feel free to borrow from it to send letters to the editor of your local papers.

Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School (CPS) on the southwest side.  I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union.  I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while tests are administered.

Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys), and you know what happened?  Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic workplace tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students. In fact, I know of at least one student who wrote about his opting-out experience as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.

In the way that it is being used today, there is very little that standardized testing can tell us.  I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago.  The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created,or scored by actual educators.

In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois.  That’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day.  As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year — 60 days — on testing.  Yes, Kindergarten.

In the Civil Rights era, standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools. That doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act, which labels schools that don’t make the grade as “failing,” and the follow-up Race to the Top, which “leases” those public schools — and all our tax dollars that go with it — to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws.  With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them.  However, we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts.  I should know, I taught at a charter school.

We know that, as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know. It’s more likely a predictor for what zip-code they live in and, at best, can tell us how well any given student may do in the first year of college.  The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC (and the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway) do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.

We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure and even willing to cut programming, especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses.  Perhaps Kankakee teachers (Yes, I used to be one of them) aren’t sending in Student of the Month photos for “top-speller” because Spelling Bees have been all but eliminated along with everything else we used to love about school.

The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in Illinois: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam.  Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose.   We need parents across Illinois to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.

You can learn more about the ISAT boycott at More than a Score and Common Dreams.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.

Autonomous Teamwork and the Common Core

By Wade Sutton

“We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent….the most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, more collaborative and nurturing.” – John Gerzema, author of The Athena Doctrine at TedxWomen Talk 2013.

Imagine your child’s day at school: In History they read and examine forms of government, the next period he or she plays soccer after reading and discussing an article on the qualities of leadership and teamwork, in Environmental Science the class examines the needs of a balanced ecosystem and reads an essay on current issues and later continues to build a terrarium in shop. At the same time in English your son or daughter is reading The Lord of the Flies and discussing Democracy and Fascism. It all fits together and reinforces itself. In this imaginary school, each teacher is autonomous and expert yet nurtures the learning experienced by the students throughout their day. Imagine autonomous teamwork.

Traveling to MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall and Common Core Teaching Institute in New York last October gave me the opportunity to revise a lot of what I thought I knew about Minnesota’s transition to the Common Core Literacy Standards. I like these standards, however, the basic truth remains that educational improvements (including the Common Core) must come from within a school where staff, students and parents work together. Mutual trust and teamwork is essential.

Of course we at Indus can always improve, and trust is built over time. But autonomous teamwork among teachers is what makes good education become great. In the 21st century, schools must be “flexible” and “collaborative.” Good leadership nurtures and encourages this, and, if it is the common practice, your school is serving you. Your son or daughter will benefit. When students, parents, educators, and administration commonly rely on each other’s strengths we become the real core of education.

Autonomous collaboration makes education work. Literacy standards begin at home and great student achievement is the result of school staff and parents working together. This has struck me consistently in my conversations with educators whom I respect from across the country working in schools I admire. As an educator at Indus School who values an extended team, I am not alone in feeling the desire for more parental involvement. This is not a criticism; it is a request that parents accept our respect for what they do. Parenting is difficult and a good school seeks involvement in the learning community. Parents are the foundation for successful literacy. I trust parents more than the Common Core because that trust is key to a successful education.

The Common Core itself will not raise standards of education, but excellent educators, trusted and trained, will. As Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, said at MSNBC’s Teacher Town Hall last October, “Teachers need training; teachers need respect; teachers need autonomy.” As an educator, every day I consider how I am working in unity with my peers. The responsibility that comes with professional trust within a school can drive me toward high standards far more than any directive could. Over the years I have experienced how a professional team of autonomous educators can leverage basic education and transform it together to meet literacy needs throughout the day. While literacy begins at home, the Common Core at least recognizes that reading is not isolated in English class but is taught “in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” A hallmark of a school implementing Common Core literacy well is a team that works together. Classes are not islands and teachers are not overwhelmed with classroom sizes so unmanageable that they are not able to be flexible according to the needs of your son or daughter.

As a parent can we evaluate whether teaching is done as a community? I believe yes. You can judge your child’s school by how well they listen to you and by how much time is created for educators to educate themselves, improve and work together. One of the exemplar educators at the MSNBC Common Core Workshop confided in me that her school does not provide time to work together. It is a major failure in her district while at the same time it is necessary to meet the literacy standards. At your next parent/teacher meeting ask your teacher what the atmosphere is like for them: Is there an atmosphere of professional trust? How do they collaborate with other subjects? How is administration nurturing and valuing time to collaborate among professionals? If your child’s school organization provides time for educators to meet, plan and teach together then they are on the right track and ready to work for you, the parent. If it does not, then speak to its leaders to encourage them.

Find out how often teachers meet to match the reading and exploration in their class with another: At Indus we keep learning. Our science teacher and FACS teacher collaborate on the topics of food safety and sanitation and scientific principles related to biology and chemistry. Best of all, they work together on the school garden project. We have created a working timeline in our hallway where students from all grades post responses to informational texts and topics in their classrooms. Our history teacher has recruited me to grade the essays on her World and American History tests according to what students learn in English and I organize my subject matter according to her timeline to streamline the literacy and student learning. In science students practice similar methods for reading and understanding texts as in other classrooms to meet Common Core Literacy standards. Our art teacher critiqued the rough drafts of the World Literature projects for visual communication and I use art to teach text interpretation. She is also having the seventh and eighth grade illustrate their own short stories for publication. And the ninth grade class at Indus is mentoring the 5th grade in composition which helps both grades. As a parent I like what I see. As a teacher I have learned that this works and hope to keep improving together.

Because autonomous education within a school team should be commonplace.

wadeWade Sutton teaches 7-12 grade English at Indus School in Birchdale, Minn. He was a member of the VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the report 360 Degree Leadership: Evaluating Minnesota Principals.


View the original postings on Wade’s blog, ProspectiveEducation, and The Journal 

Reimagining School: Why Creativity & Innovation Matter Symposium

Monday, March 3, 2014
6:30 – 8 p.m. CST

The Reimagining School symposium series, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, brings together nationally recognized visionaries to discuss the ways schools can and must foster the creativity and innovation essential to our students’ global competence in a changing world. While New Voice Strategies is not an official partner in this event, we invite you to join the conversation either in person or online. There is no cost to participate.

Attend this event in person with an RSVP to the live event or register for the online live stream.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater
800 East Grand on Navy Pier
Chicago, IL 60611

Featured speakers:

Trung Le has an incessant energy and curiosity exploring the intersection of design and learning. Le’s recent collaboration with Bruce Mau resulted in the publication The Third Teacher, an incomplete manifesto on how design can transform the ecology of learning. Launching from the collaboration with Bruce Mau, Le founded The Third Teacher +, an education design consultancy. As the world is pivoting from the industrial model of education to a new landscape of learning, The Third Teacher + believes in curating an authentic engagement with our clients that uncovers and amplifies our human capacity for empathy toward designing this new learning landscape.

Nichole Pinkard, Ph. D. believes that digitally literate kids – those who can critically consume and produce alternative media – grow up to be better citizens. With a B.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an M.S. in Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University, she is an Associate Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University in Chicago, and is the founder of Digital Youth Network and RemixLearning. Both organizations focus on developing digital literacies as tools for extending traditional literacies. Dr. Pinkard is also a co-founder of YOUmedia, a public learning  library space that immerses high school students in a context of traditional media – books – where they make and produce new media artifacts such as music, games, videos and virtual worlds. The recipient of a 2010 Common Sense Media Award for Outstanding Commitment to Creativity and Youth, the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies, and an NSF Early CAREER Fellowship, Dr. Pinkard serves on the Boards of Institute of Play and ChicagoAllies.

The Educator Forums series was created by Golden Apple, National Louis University, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and Family Action Network (FAN). Conversations are moderated by Alison Cuddy, WBEZ Arts and Culture reporter.

The Next Generation of Cheating: Improving Academic Integrity in the Age of the Common Core

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

Another day, another cheating scandal. Students at Stuyvesant and Harvard, teachers in Atlanta and Philadelphia, adults on K Street and Wall Street. Dishonesty is rampant in American society.  The ultimate consequences are significant: the IRS estimates the tax gap to be around $300 billion in any given year; the National Retail Federation reports their members lose approximately $30 billion to shoplifters each year.

An Unabated Concern for Schools

Cheating starts young, and academic dishonesty is pervasive.  A 2012 survey by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics reported that about three-quarters of American high school students admitted to copying another student’s work and around one-half had cheated on a test in the past year. The picture does not improve much at the college level. Surveys of tens of thousands of university students elicited admission of cheating on tests, exams, and written assignments. Since the student respondents were self-reporting, the data around faculty perception of cheating versus students who actually admitted cheating are quite stark: Faculty reports of cheating behavior were generally 20-30 percent higher than student admission of the behavior.

Putting the prospect of graduating the next Bernie Madoff or Lance Armstrong aside, educational institutions need to address academic integrity directly for two reasons. First, cheating eats away at their central mission: student learning. Second, integrity itself is a learned behavior. It needs to be modeled, practiced, and discussed to become habitual. School is one important place for that learning to occur.

Cultivate Community with an Honor Code

Since 1919, Wellesley College has asked students “to act with integrity, honesty, and respect” in their academic and personal conduct. David Haines, a Chemistry professor there, notes that Wellesley’s honor code allows him to assign open-ended, challenging work with the assumption that collaboration allows each student to develop her own best ideas. He says,“when the honor code is working, it’s because the community has bought into it,” but that can only happen when “the code is externally defined.” Research backs up his experience. Cheating is reduced significantly when a school has a clearly articulated and accepted academic integrity policy, when students perceive that infractions will be reported and penalized, and when students perceive their peers are honest. All schools will benefit from putting resources into cultivating their communities’ relationships with integrity.

Make Common Core Curricula and Assessments Fair and Meaningful

David Haines also notes that underclasswomen at Wellesley often experience “a difficult transition [to the Honor Code environment], because high school is so focused on grades and credentials, rather than authentic learning.” His perception is borne out by numbers. Students who view their education as a “means to an end” are almost 40 percent more likely to be academically dishonest than those who view education as a path to “personal development.”

The Common Core places strong emphasis on performance-based assessment. In theory, this type of test should promote integrity. However, it can’t be fostered unless the new curricula and tests truly promote critical thinking and relevant application. This requires an iterative and time-consuming development process. Unfortunately, the rollout of Common Core has been rushed, resulting in myriad problems and complaints. The authentic problems in new math curricula are often just rebranded word problems, while complexity in ELA is mostly manifested in confusing wording. In the realm of testing, a recent Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education report asserts, “the progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purpose.”

States and districts need to invest in more thoughtful curriculum development and truly authentic assessment if we want the scores to reflect what was learned and not how much someone can cheat. As the Wellesley honor code points out: if you cannot trust someone, respect is even more difficult to give. Poorly designed curricula and weak assessments are already losing teachers’ trust. If teachers don’t trust the standards and curriculum, we can’t expect them to respect the test.

Taking a Journey Away from Walmart

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch warns that Common Core represents the “Walmart-ization” of American education. Walmart is most certainly a means to an end, not a destination for personal development. If the ultimate goal of K-12 education is for Americans to be college, career, and citizenship ready, they need opportunities to learn and practice integrity every day of their K-12 experience.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.




Chicago to Add Gym and Art Classes Recommended by VIVA Teachers Two Years Ago

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will require its students to have daily physical education. Two years ago, 600 CPS teachers participated in online VIVA Idea Exchange™ about how the district’s students spend their time in school. Among the six recommendations that came out of the Idea Exchange, two specifically focused on physical activity:

  • Ensure all CPS students a well-rounded education, including art, music and physical education.
  • Ensure all children have time for free play in the school day.

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, Chicago Board of Education will vote on new policy mandating 30 minutes of daily PE for elementary school students, and an average of 42 minutes of daily PE for high school students.

Currently, elementary school students average 60 minutes of PE per week. High school freshmen and sophomores have one semester of PE per year.

The VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers called for doubling physical education minutes for all grades to 180 minutes per week. Under the new CPS policy, elementary schools will provide up to 150 total minutes of PE per week.

These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators.

Citing obesity rates among CPS students, which have only gotten worse over the last two years, the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers wrote: “We cannot morally neglect our students’ physical health. Many students also suffer from chronic stress, fatigue, lack of focus and disruptive behavior. Research shows that an increase in physical education can alleviate all of these problems as well as support student learning.”

New Voice Strategies, the nonprofit operator of the VIVA Idea Exchange™, applauds CPS for its action to increase physical education in its curriculum.

Xian Barrett, national program director for New Voice Strategies, participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange when he was teaching in a CPS high school. He said, “We are gratified that the CPS board is implementing a solution that VIVA Teachers and our parent and community allies have advocated for years. We also would urge CPS leadership to invite educators to lead the discussion as how to best implement this needed change.”

The new physical education policy will roll out over three years. CPS will use TIF funds to cover 75 percent of the cost to hire new teachers in the first year and 50 percent in the second. Schools will cover their own costs in year three. TIF funds will pay for 84 new PE teachers. Schools with the highest needs will be staffed first.

VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange teachers also recommended that each elementary school week should include 90 minutes of art. CPS has announced it will use TIF funds to hire 84 new art teachers, as well.

“VIVA Teachers have emphasized the importance of a well-rounded curriculum; especially in the face of the growing focus on standardized tests and tested subjects. There are many students whose joy of learning depends on access to rich opportunities in the arts. We hope that CPS considers further reforms to how time is used in school that place student needs before bureaucratic and political priorities.  These changes represent two gems in a whole treasure trove of improvements that the board can access by listening to classroom educators and the parents, students and communities we serve,” said Barrett.

CPS has already implemented other recommendations that were outlined in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange report, Time, Teachers and Tomorrow’s Schools, which was presented to the district, Chicago Teachers Union, and Mayor’s Office in December 2011. For example, CPS reduced the amount of time spent on tests and called on VIVA Teachers to develop a plan for implementing recess in all elementary schools.



A Year Without: Building Hope for a Safer Future in Newtown

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember … It’s about keeping our future alive.

Newtown’s first snow fell yesterday and I felt the sensation that my year of mourning has waned. For the first time in nearly 365 days, our grey world seemed illuminated and the day seemed to linger, as the ice-trapped light refracted through the soft snowflakes. Although the recent release of an investigative report on the Sandy Hook massacre and the 911 tapes chafed at the scabs, I can look to the future knowing that, though the road to recovery is long, there is light at the end of this dark journey.

Last December 14 was sunny, snowless and fairly warm. I drove to work at 7 a.m., with thoughts of the weekend and holidays. Two hours later, a babysitter walked my two little girls through our backyard to Hawley School. The school day that started happily quickly became a nightmare: a morning was spent in lockdown, listening to sirens screaming past their school to get to Sandy Hook. When I picked them up from school that afternoon, I couldn’t hold back tears when I explained that a bad man went into the school down the street and hurt many, many children. Twenty of their peers were dead, six of their teachers’ colleagues, at least 10 of whom we knew as friends or neighbors, and I had no idea how to tell them this.

I didn’t sleep that night. As dawn broke on December 15, I knew the only way I could get out of bed that day, or any day soon thereafter, was if I devoted myself to helping correct what it was that created this disaster. I soon understood that there was not one easy answer. The investigative report made it clear that the shooter Adam Lanza behaved bizarrely for almost his entire adult life, and that his family was concerned but enabling. While his motive will never be known, his easy and legal access to guns and large ammunition magazines made December 14 the massacre that it was.

United by grief

I took my daughters to Washington D.C., at the end of January, to march and rally on the National Mall. The group of Newtowners who went quickly formed into the Newtown Action Alliance, devoted to strengthening laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. A few weeks later, a bipartisan committee from the Connecticut Legislature was in Newtown, listening as citizens from all walks of life and every political stripe asked for laws to prevent what happened to us from happening in another town. Around the same time, I worked  with 10 other teachers from across the country to collaboratively write the VIVA Idea Exchange report, “Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The Connecticut Legislature was able to pass major gun violence prevention measures in early April with bipartisan support.  Twenty-one other states, including Florida and Texas, enacted some sensible legislation in 2013.  The effects are real. A graphic in the new Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard: Why Gun Laws Matter, clearly shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The tipping point begets a cultural shift

For awhile, it seemed that the massacre at Sandy Hook School would be the “tipping point” that would compel even the U.S. Congress to act.  Members on both sides of the aisle wore green and white Sandy Hook ribbons during President Obama’s State of the Union address. As the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on expanding background checks and bans on assault weapons, high capacity magazines and straw purchases of guns, I called congressional offices around the country, telling them about my family, friends and neighbors’ intense grief at losing our innocent loved ones.

We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

It was discouraging when the federal bill failed in a cloture vote on the Senate floor, but we were not very surprised. The journey to making our country safer so that kids can grow up without being shot will be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s as much, and probably more, about changing our culture as changing our laws. We are making incremental and significant changes. When Starbucks became a magnet for “open-carry enthusiasts” this summer, CEO Howard Schultz changed company policy and requested that patrons not bring their guns into its shops. NASCAR recently rejected NRA sponsorship of its races, and the NFL has refused to air a pro-gun commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.

Will it take another elementary school massacre for Congress to move beyond business as usual? Safety from gun violence goes beyond the partisan divide: 80 percent of the American public supports background check legislation. This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember. Speak out. Call or write to your members of Congress and tell them to act to reduce gun violence.  Remind your neighbors, family and friends why you care. It’s about keeping our future alive.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Common Core

By James Kobialka

In a recent VIVA Teachers blog, Design Lessons for Students, Not Standards, Adam Heenan wrote about his distaste for the Common Core standards. He described a lesson he uses to teach his high school social studies students financial literacy, and said, “No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators.  In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.”

I disagree with Adam’s dismissal of the Common Core – I think it is a valuable tool. My perspective on this has developed very slowly, beginning with a rabid mistrust of the standards and moving to a moderate admiration. I’ll try to break it down my thoughts, but if you desire a concise opinion, this entire post can be summarized thusly: Excellent, student-centered teachers don’t need the Common Core, but everyone else does.

Adam is clearly a wonderful teacher. The lesson he talks about does, in his own words, prioritize “relevant and valuable ideas shared by students in the room.” This is the main purpose of education: to help youth uncover their truths, share their ideas, and build skills relevant to their lives.

Unfortunately, many – especially new teachers with no experience beyond textbooks – do not agree with this. These are the “drill and kill” teachers who place the holy grail of content above all other goals, and who are egged on by administrators who seek high scores instead of competent students.

The Common Core is a set of standards for good teaching. Good, effective, thoughtful teachers already hit dozens of standards in their everyday lessons. They integrate reading, writing, thinking, questioning, and numeracy into their classes, just as the Common Core suggests.

However, many growing teachers do not. For them, the Common Core – combined with reflection and pedagogical evolution – provide a road map to success. Hitting those standards means that they must teach questioning, analyzing, modeling, presenting, evaluating, thinking about perspective, and more skills that an intellectual agent for change would need.

The standards are not the issue here. The implementation is.

Just as many people the world over grab hold of the New Testament’s message of charity and forgiveness, so too can educators grab on to critical thinking and writing to learn. On the other hand, just as many zealots choose to focus on the text’s mentions of death to sinners and perpetuating slavery, so too can administrators, bureaucrats and companies focus on “meeting standards.”

I am reminded of the following exchange from the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch:

Tommy: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior?”
Hedwig: “No, but I love his work.”

In this case, the Common Core is Jesus. (How’s that for a soundbite?)

Or, in other words: Adam’s blog post let readers into his classroom, a place where fantastic lessons unfold… lessons designed for youth, not for tests. And, as it happens, it is also a Common Core ready lesson. Based on just a quick skim of the standards, it covers at least the following 14 (and probably more, if you’re inclined to look):

HSN-Q.A.1-3 (Reason quantitatively and use units to solve problems
Standard Set: Modeling (An aggregate standard about creating and using models)
All ES and MS standards dealing with basic functions and data analysis
RI.11-12.7 (Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information)
RI.11-12.4/5/6 (Analyze the intent of authors and determine their validity)
SL 11-12.1/2/3 (Discussion and response, using diverse info, using diverse media)
SL.11-12/4/5/6  (Present information, make use of digital media, adapt speech to tasks)

The phrase I once heard and held onto (at, full disclosure, a Gates Foundation conference last year) was: common is not the same, and standards are not curricula.

The standards are not a checklist, and districts that use them as such are flat-out wrong.

In my mind, adopting the Common Core should mean doing away with standardized tests. Instead of whatever the PARCC is, students should be rated on these standards with a portfolio and performance assessment. Have they written critical papers (W.11-12.112)? Developed ideas influenced by historical thinkers (RH.11-12.6)? Solved real life math problems like Adam’s, or crafted their own scientific investigations? Are they ready to move out of the protective walls of our schools and into the more rigorous halls of academia? Or onto the even harsher world where the only thing between them and homelessness is their wit and ability to survive our biased capitalist economy?

These questions should be thriving under the new standards, caring administrators, and talented teachers. They should not be displaced by some sort of artificial checklist tied to our professional lives as educators.

These standards are no panacea. We have known what will “fix” education for years – more support for students, more community involvement, more funding, professional communities and benefits for teachers, a robust public education system instead of corporate charters – and this is not that. But in a political climate where real reform is an uphill struggle at best, these standards are a step in the right direction.

Using the Common Core as direction, combined with the right sorts of development, induction and training for teachers, has the potential to change classrooms from drill and kill hellholes into oases of discovery. Inspired teachers – like Adam, our colleagues, and that one high school teacher who really got you all those years ago – can create transformative spaces under this model. We can still help our students become agents of change, fires burning for the fuel of knowledge.

Teachers, students, bureaucrats, and community members need to cooperate to let education flourish; I think the Common Core has the potential, more than any other standards, to let that happen.

I do worry that the Common Core will be used to enforce narrow-minded agendas instead of fighting them. This is true of almost anything: the best intentions, when systemized and standardized, suddenly become the worst ideas. Those who support testing and hierarchical education could use these standards to remove ingenuity and agency from the classroom. I am already hearing stories of that happening – I only hope that these stories are flukes, not dominant narratives.

The Common Core should provide direction, not punishment, to those who use it.

So, to Adam and all of my colleagues who might read this – take these standards in the spirit meant by the teachers who sat on the advisory panels, not the profit-hungry test-makers.

We will dismantle this testing culture. Piece by piece, student by student, day by day, with or without the Common Core. A good teacher – reflective, positive, endlessly dedicated, masterful – is a good teacher. You do the same thing regardless of the bureaucracy: take what you want, sneak in the rest, stay subversive, stay strong, and always stay true to yourself and your youth.

Not that you needed reminding.

jkobialka2013James Kobialka teaches science and English in Worcester, Mass. He was a member of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative.


New NEA Idea Exchange on Time in School

Time in school is a hot topic among both educators and education policymakers: If your school or district isn’t already talking about it, it won’t be long before they do. For that reason, NEA is launching a new initiative to develop a national strategy to help its state and local associations respond to time in school issues.

NEA-Banner-190-1To inform that strategy, NEA has launched a VIVA Idea Exchange™ on this question: If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students, what would the school day, week and year look like?

As every educator knows, time in school is a complex issue that relates not only to how long the day or year is, but how much time is spent teaching, how much time students spend on learning, and how teachers balance preparation, professional development and non-classroom activities. NEA is encouraging its members to be creative, push the bounds of current structures, and challenge conventional thinking to structure time in school that provides the most benefits to students.

If you are a member of NEA, please join the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange: Time in School to share your ideas for making the most of teacher and student time in school. At the end of the online dialogue, a small group of participants will present recommendations to NEA leadership in Washington, D.C.