Michelle Gunderson on Teaching in the Time of Trump

How are educators managing in these trying times? Reports from early childhood classrooms have been finding their way into Facebook posts.  Many are filled with angst, and the heavy burden of explaining the unexplainable to the nation’s youngest students.   Some offer moments of great transcendence—like the notes, below, from Michelle Gunderson.

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A veteran first-grade teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction, Gunderson is a leader in the Chicago Teachers Union, where she honors the expertise of early childhood teachers, fighting for their rights through sane policies that support them and best professional practice.

 

By Michelle Gunderson

On inauguration day a friend of mine, Gabriel Sheridan, said, “Let’s wake up and be our best selves.” I have always tried to be my best self each time I cross the threshold of my school. Some days are better than others, but teaching in the time of Trump has brought a new intensity to my teaching, and I find myself reflecting on my every move.

When I think about the work the children, my co-teachers, and I did today it feels like we all climbed a mountain together. And it was a mountainside of justice.

Today we sang one of our favorite songs and books, We All Sing with the Same Voice.  The lyrics of this song talk about children from all types of places and all types of families. Because I teach in a historically LGBQT neighborhood, we all love the line: “I have one daddy. I have two.” If you are not familiar with this book, I encourage you to get it and sing along heartily with your students.

One of the children turned seven today. We sang our “Happy Birthday” to him and listened to him read Green Eggs and Ham. Our Mr. Reynolds came back to us after tragically losing his brother, and we hugged and kissed him, and gave him cards. Then we played a game where we learned that it’s only fun when you play fair.

All of these things seem ordinary, but in the time of Trump they take on strong meaning for me: Celebrating diversity, caring for one another, and learning to play by the rules.

And then it happened…

One of our students who has been struggling to learn was sitting with his reading partner sharing a book when his partner came running over to us. “He read it! He really read it! All by himself.” In the field, this is sometimes referred to as “breaking the code,” or the time a child launches as a reader. When young students begin to read at first they break down each sound and word.  Then, suddenly, the walls collapse, and reading becomes smooth.

I am here to tell you that it is one of our miracles, and the reason I teach first grade.

So, how do we teach in the time of Trump? We wake up and be our best selves, and everything we do has meaning and importance. There are no small things right now.

 

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The Power of Their Voices: Early Childhood Teachers Talk School Reform

A former preschool teacher carried the torch for democracy at the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. “The Senate should not be a rubber stamp,” Patty Murray said.  “We owe it to the American people to put families and children first, not billionaires.”

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Those were fighting words from the mild-mannered senator from Washington State, and senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee.  Especially with Microsoft and Amazon among her top campaign contributors from 2011 to 2016.   But as  the results of our recent election attest, women’s ascent to power is convoluted.  The pacts we make can be Faustian: these days, a former Microsoft executive runs Washington’s department of early learning.

In the week before the hearing, as opponents of DeVos signed petitions, called their senators, and entreated members of the HELP committee to dump her, Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit organization based in Boston, released “Teachers Speak Out.” The report highlights the concerns of early childhood teachers about the impact of school reforms on low-income children.  Authors Diane E. Levin and Judith L. Van Hoorn culled their data from interviews with 34 educators in California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington, DC.

The link between socioeconomic status and academic achievement has been firmly established in research.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 47 percent of children under six years old lived in low-income families near or below the poverty line in 2014. The level rises to nearly 70 percent for Black and Native-American children and 64 percent for Hispanic youngsters.  In a recent survey conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers—which helped design  the Common Core standards—teachers across the United States listed family stress, poverty, and learning and psychological problems as the top barriers to student success.

Yet the mandates of the Common Core are exacerbating the problem.  As Levin and Van Hoorn point out in the report’s introduction, “recent reforms…have been developed and implemented by people with good intentions but often little formal knowledge of early child development.”   Those with the expertise now face a  “profound ethical dilemma.”  As top-down mandates dictate the teaching and assessment of narrow academic skills at younger and younger ages, early childhood educators are forced to do the “least harm,” rather than the “most good.”

In an exchange at the hearing, between DeVos and Todd Young, a Republican senator from Indiana, she crowed about our “great opportunity…to really empower [teachers] in a new way to do what they do best.”   She horrifies educators.  They’ve been leaving the field, exhausted and dispirited, in record numbers.  Respect for the profession and morale are at an all-time low, as teachers have picked up the slack for a society that starves its schools and communities, and blames them for all its ills.  But out of this malaise, a new activism has emerged, with great energy dedicated to defeating her.

Early childhood teachers—with some notable exceptions—have been missing in action. The reasons are complex.  This is a workforce that has long been marginalized, their work devalued, and expertise ignored.  “It’s just babysitting,” New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, said some years ago, of his state’s prekindergarten program—a perception shared by many, and internalized by those in the field.  Salaries for educators working in community-based programs are significantly less than those of their colleagues in the public schools.  Many are living in poverty, and afflicted by the toxic stress common among their students. The newest practitioners are worried about putting their careers at risk.  Few have been willing to go on the record with their critique.

As I read through the report, I kept underlining the quotes from the teachers, as if to amplify them, to lift them off the page.  They’re struggling to honor early childhood’s robust evidence base, but they’re undermined by a lack of agency and autonomy:

The trust in my expertise and judgment as a teacher is gone.  So are the play and learning centers in my classroom.  Everything is supposed to be structured for a specific lesson and rigidly timed to fit into a specific, tight, preapproved schedule.

The negative impact of reforms on children’s development and learning can’t be overstated. Practice has become more rote, and standardized, with less time for deep relationships—among children, and between them and caring adults.  We’re stealing the heart of high-quality early education, as the individual strengths, interests, and needs of children get lost:

With this extreme emphasis on what’s called ‘rigorous academics,’ drills are emphasized.  It’s much harder for my children to become self-regulated learners.  Children have no time to learn to self-regulate by choosing their own activities, participating in ongoing projects with their classmates, or playing creatively.  They have to sit longer, but their attention spans are shorter.

The authors bring us into the classrooms studied by Daphna Bassok, Scott Lathem, and Anna Rorem, of the University of Virginia, who used two large, nationally representative data sets to compare public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010. More formal, directed instruction in reading, writing, and math, once the province of first grade, has trickled down into kindergarten.  Close reading is becoming part of the expected skill set of 5-year-olds, and the pressure has extended, in some cases, to prekindergarten, where children are being asked to master reading by the end of the year. The repercussions are severe:

It’s essential for every kindergarten child to feel welcomed and included, to be part of the class. Instead, we’re separating the cream from the milk.  From the beginning, we’re telling kids who are poor, ‘You’re deficient,’ instead of helping them become competent and feel successful and part of their class.  Then it’s ‘remedial this, remedial that.’  It’s discrimination.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations—from the real experts in the room.  The first calls for the withdrawal of current early childhood standards and mandates. Another urges the use of authentic assessment, based on observations of children, their development, and learning.  Number ten addresses child poverty, our national stain:

Work at all levels of society to reduce, and ultimately end, child poverty.  To do this, we must first acknowledge that a narrow focus on improving schools will not solve the complex problems associated with child poverty.

Breaking the silence was never so sweet.  Now it’s time, as John Lewis says, to get in good trouble.

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Ruben Brosbe Fights the Flood of Hate

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As Donald Trump ascends to the presidency and bias threatens our civil society, educators along the spectrum are searching for solutions. In Ruben Brosbe’s post, a revised version of a piece originally published at his blog, he harks back to Gloria Ladson-Billings’ groundbreaking work on culturally relevant pedagogy.

A former New York City Teaching Fellow and 2012 graduate of the the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Brosbe teaches fourth-graders in central Harlem. He is a founder of #TeachResistance and one of the authors of a toolkit including lesson plans and resources for . . . Read full article →

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High-Quality Early Learning According to Yvonne Smith

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No fewer than 8,9600,000 results for “high-quality early learning” appeared in .57 seconds, the time required by Google’s query processor to find the relevant web pages from the company’s database. How comforting to think one might get a handle on this phenomenon.

“What does high-quality early childhood education look like?” was the seventh entry on the first page when I last looked, the headline of an article by Mary Ellen Flannery, who tracks news and trends at the National Education Association. Julie Bullard, of the University of Montana-Western was her main source. She “knows it when she . . . Read full article →

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