Archive for the ‘education’ Category

We’re Number 50! We’re Number 50!

Just when you don’t think education in Arizona can get any worse, the state legislature pulls another stupid one. One of the state senators actually said education wasn’t important to business – getting good business in Arizona was what was important.

Yeah, I know….but it gets worse. We are facing a 16% to 18% budget cut for next year – which will basically cripple the district. Imagine having 35-40 kids in math class, all of whom failed math in middle school. Can you imagine the nightmare? We’ll have less monitors and one less assistant principal for a school of nearly 3000 students. No new texts, no supplies for next year, and 600 teachers cut district-wide.

Yeah, I know….but it gets worse. Our governor who managed to hold the legislature in line and not let them decimate education is now in charge of Homeland Security, and we have a bunch of bozos in the legislature. They insist on balancing the budget on the back of public education. At least the charter schools are facing some of the same budget cuts. Bus routes cut, support staff cut – and a new superintendent who is trying to bring this district into the 21st century – who can’t believe the turf wars and unreasonableness of the state.

Yeah, I know….but it gets worse. I do have a job, but no raise again this year, and I am looking at either losing my extra 20% of my contract with a class cut, potentially losing more in my contract due to a proposed salary cut if things get worse, and watching this affect my last three years’ earnings for my retirement. Yes, I have a job, but in 30-plus years of teaching I have never worked in these kinds of conditions. Vermont friends – you have no idea how wonderful it is back there!

Yeah, I know….but it gets worse. We still have to meet all of the state and federal mandates. In fact, we just had to sign on Wednesday (and the paper was due Wednesday PM – convenient for the board) that we approved the new 301 monies for the extra work we do (funded by sales tax), and without a 70% (I think) vote we wouldn’t get any money at all next year – and still have to do the work (and a “I didn’t vote” vote would count as a “no” anyway).

Yeah, I know….but it gets worse. Now the state is threatening to take away our “carry-over” money – savings we have worked to keep as a result of becoming more fiscally responsible. And ya know – not once has our state superintendent stepped forward to have his voice raised to support education (Well, maybe once – to tell us we were being too worried, and the cuts would only be about 2%). Better believe he ain’t getting re-elected….

At least I still have a job – I don’t know how effective I can be for kids who are terribly at-risk and need the best we can give them. No child left behind, huh? At least I know this year my students have learned math and now think it’s okay – still hard, and they’re not fond of it, but they know they CAN DO IT.

When Art Class Works

There are times when art class just doesn’t work. For example, this past Monday. I had planned a time in the computer lab for the kids to browse a variety of sites and see some other potential areas of art they might like. One great site is the Frank Lloyd Wright Architect Studio 3D by the FLW Preservation Trust. This site takes the students on a tour of homes and information about the architect, but the best part of the site is the design studio, where kids can actually design a house. Sounds great, right?

Well, only if you are on a certain web browser, have updated computers, and have mice that work. Otherwise, you have 30 minutes of random clicking and shouts of “Miss, it’s not working.” By the end of the 90 minute period (and needless to say, no one had listened earlier to log-in instructions), I was so frustrated. Some kids stayed on the cartoon site the whole time (with some really great instructions for them), and some stayed on the Shadow Puppet site, building their own show (this is a fabulous site!). You can access my art class sites here.

I was both frustrated with the kids and with the computer lab. But on Wednesday the 8th grade class was wonderful – worked hard on mandalas and created and completed some great stuff. Thursday I started the illuminated letter project, with making “parchment” paper to start. After 45 minutes of no one listening to me, I took the kids out of the room and to my math class and proceeded to yell at them – which I never do. They had been horrible.

On Friday I tried the same assignment with my seventh grade, most of whom I have in math class. This is when it works…..

I was able to work with nearly evry student on some aspect of their art. I got all kids making the water color wash for their “parchment.” There were some great questions (can I use another blend?) and lots of creative ways of covering the paper. But the best part was helping the kids finish and mount their mandalas (I promise pictures soon). I would take their work and rotate the design, helping them to make decisions about orientation (not a word they knew). One student actually said, “You can do that?” I can so relate, because there were times when I thought the same thing.
The students were able to articulate which orientation they liked, explaining that it “moved” better. So I introduced the word “flow.”

Some students wanted to be creative in their framing – they wanted their circles kept whole on the white background, but wanted to play with the shape of the background construction paper. The biggest issue for me was trying to just suggest ideas, but still keep their work as the artist as much theirs as possible.

This really was a problem when it came to color. Some of the kids got very involved in the line drawings inside the circles that they had seen me do. They would occasionally moan about not being finished, but they also weren’t ready to quit until it was just the way they liked it. All designs were then gone over with a thin black marker – made the shapes really show, and also let the kids work with the idea of a draft.Then so many of them needed color.

I didn’t want to “instruct,” I wanted to lead. This was tough. I had some colors speak to me immediately, but I didn’t want to force anything. For one, he had some shapes that looked like arrows, and I suggested he look at just those – put his focus only on one area. What color would he like there? He chose red – just the color I was thinking of. So he did just those. We looked at it from a distance, and he decided he wanted to do the part on top in yellow to emphasize some of his lines. Looked fabulous. Then I suggested he do the same thing on the bottom, and introduced the idea of balance. When he finished, he looked at it again and pronounced it finished. He was happy with how it looked. (I would have added blue, but he’s the artist.)

Even better was the fact that I had several students who usually rush through assignments take three class periods to do their line work, and now they are just considering color. At the end, I was able to sit with one of my somewhat “energetic” group of boys and use their five entirely different mandalas to do a brief lesson in art critique.

That’s a class that works. The high from that 90 minutes will stay with me for several weeks.

More with Eric Maisel

As promised, here’s more with Eric Maisel, author of The Van Gogh Blues and creativity champion. I asked Eric a question concerning come of the frustrations I have been experiencing in teaching this year.

Me: I have come to see that for the immediate future my creativity is tied directly to my teaching middle school. I really work at making meaning when I am teaching, but I need some advice for my students. How do I help them make meaning? There is no light of learning in about 90 percent of them – they literally do not want to do the work – they will admit “I am lazy.” I always look beyond that to see what else might be going on (living out of a car, etc), but I really am stumped.This is a very low socio- economic area (I have never experienced poverty like this before in a school setting), and a failing school under No Child Left Behind. These kids have no record of school success for themselves – no sense of any intellectual meaning….

One of your comments (page 28, I think) is about how hard it is for professionals to stay away from depression, as opposed to interns and persons just starting out, since we have seen so much more. How do I help my kids?

Eric: I wonder if the answer, insofar as there is an answer, might not be in having (or allowing students to have) existential rather than curriculum-based discussions. What if students were asked to identify their most cherished values and to then try to imagine a life constructed around those values? Would they draw a blank, wax ironic, or find the task rich and useful? My hunch is that it is quite worth a try; one teacher reported to me that she engaged her third-graders (!) this way and that it make a remarkable difference in the way they self-regulated and tackled their work the whole school year. It would be grand to see meaning brought into the classroom—what could possibly be more important for students to think about and discuss?

I very much want to try more of this with my kids. I need to think about how to bring it in to the group, within the context o the classroom and the benefits of their education. Or maybe I just need to raise the issue of what is meaningful to them, and leave education completely out of the mix to start with. I would welcome comments and thoughts from you all!

Some other questions for Eric:

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO ARTISTS TO HANDLE THE POST-CREATION BLUES? The blues that happen when a project is done and you’ve worn yourself out.

Eric: Meaning must be made at all times or else we start to get those existential blues. But that isn’t to say that we can’t frame a day by the beach or a week incubating a project as meaningful time. The art is in our self-talk, where we consciously address our meaning needs by announcing where we want to invest meaning today: in a good rest, in a visit to the bookstore, in a little office organization, in a visit with a friend, and so on. What we want to guard against is the experience of meaninglessness that follows the completion of a project, and this we do by investing meaning wisely even though we may not have a new big project wanting to launch.


Eric: The answer revolves around how long the period of dormancy is and what the quality of that period is. If you tend to take three years off between projects, there is something going on there that needs to be addressed and you need to do a better job of forcing life to mean. If we’re taking about two weeks, that’s a very different matter. If it’s that shorter amount of time, then you can catch up on business matters (there is always something in that realm that needs doing), remind yourself why you love your art discipline by visiting a museum or reading a book, and passionately living your “parallel life,” that life of relationships and other meanings not connected to your creative projects.


Eric: The first step is remember that everyone has an opinion, that great works have been roundly panned, and that you and you alone are the arbiter of meaning and quality in your life. If you don’t buy that at a visceral level, you will block when criticism comes. You have to have more than an intellectual understanding that your opinion must count the most: you must feel it in your bones. Once you possess that absolute certainty, then you can examine the criticism to see if there’s something there for you to learn—for often there is. The tricky dance is to reject all criticism while at the same time making use of feedback that serves you, a dance that no artist manages perfectly. Some err of the side of grandiosity and listen to no one; others, lacking in self-confidence, err in the direction of caving in and blocking.


Eric:It is my opinion that we should fight them, though not necessarily in the first five minutes or the first hour. Being in “that space” for a little while may be unavoidable and even necessary, but remaining in that painful place of inaction and despair has nothing really to recommend it. As soon as we can—and if we have gotten in the habit of disputing the blues, this will be sooner rather than later—we stand up tall, remind ourselves that we make the meaning in our life and that there is no meaning until we make it, and decide where we want to make our next meaning investment: in a new project, in the business of art, or in another sphere like relationships. If we can nip the blues in the bud before they even come by making that next meaning investment before meaninglessness even has a chance to rear its head, so much the better!


I tried, I really tried…….I kept calming myself, one thing after another, starting at 7:30 when I walked in the door. It just kept getting worse. Then I had my difficult class during fourth period, and they were wonderful – and we got loads done. I was very proud of them. But the rest of the day – sheesh.

No wonder my blood pressure was up at the doctor’s. I’m trying….I’m really trying……

The Loss of Creativity and Meaning

Eric Maisel, a creativity coach, talks about the need to make meaning in our work. One of the things I notice about creativity, art, and teaching, is that to be really good in the classroom and create meaning for kids, you have to be an extremely artistic person – your creativity is in the brain power and not the art as we would normally think about it. Which is one of the reasons my blog talks about teaching, because I see that as my major art form at this time. I create other art, but trying to create educated, capable children with untold options for the future is to my way of thinking one of the highest art forms.

That said, math kept me awake last night, because I kept getting so angry at the school district. I spent about three hours working on my math plans for the first three weeks back, and since I have to cover four specific objectives, I looked carefully through the pretest on these objectives. Normally I concentrate on the math concepts and how best to work for understanding these concepts.

But nooooo – not with this district and school. I have to actually teach to this specific test, screw understanding. The first thing I have to decide is how to meaningfully get across all this new vocabulary – a minimum of 10 words just to get into this objective, which is all about surface area and nets. Now, the Connected Math unit does an exceptional job of volume and teaching surface area (filling and wrapping), but I have to deconstruct the unit to pull out what is essential in these next three weeks. So a program that has 15 years of extremely successful results is no longer valued in the attempt to raise stupid test scores.

This next week will be spent on various strategies for teaching vocabulary (and attempting to get understanding), as well as drawing nets and trying to understand the concept of wrapping for surface area and filling for volume. I am diagnosing the test, in an attempt to get the kids to really look at these questions and see that with a little bit of new knowledge they can easily do this. The kids are not supposed to write on these, but I’m sorry – that’s not gonna happen. The kids are going to write all over these, make their notes, and so on. At least if I have to teach the stupid test, I can also teach basic study skills that will carry over to other disciplines and tests.

This makes me so angry I could spit. I can do this, no question about my abilities, and I can no doubt sneak in lots of other information to help make this meaningful and maybe have it actually “stick” for the kids. There is no doubt that this deconstruction of public education is a deliberate effort to change how our society educates children. Sure there are things wrong with public education, but teaching to a test is not going to solve any issues. (Too bad you didn’t see the draft of this sentence – it was a pretty ugly condemnation……..)

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

If I had written this last night because I couldn’t shut my mind down from educational incompetence, this would have been titled “#(*^!@&^%!@$*&%@$.” Moving into teaching math was not an easy decision for me. I was not a good math student once material moved into the abstract – a combination of bad teachers, “new math,” and not being in formal operations, as Piaget would have it. And it limited my options. I chose a college major based on the least amount of math I would need to take – history. Granted, it led me into teaching (nothing else out there), but there could have been a lot more options for me as a career.

Which is what I want for my students. Options. Loads of them. And research has shown that mathematics is the gatekeeper to all else economically. Now, I don’t expect my kids to love math – I want them to know they can do it – way more important. Especially where I am now – I have never worked in a school with such a strong poverty level, where kids have to worry about school lunch being their only meal of the day. So math becomes even more important – their ticket out to something better for them economically.

But it all depends on them building a foundation that is strong – not just the little pig’s house of twigs that collapses from lack of understanding. A strong house – they may not like the decor, but the house provides all the shelter they need – and their friends, and stands the test of time. That’s called mathematical understanding, and it doesn’t come from practicing test taking so you can do well on stupid local and state tests.

Alright, I’ve said it, that’s where I’m really going with this. Learning to do something for a test will not build understanding, and it makes me NUTS when I am being forced into that role. Not what I signed up for this year in making the move to a new school. And I am being told if I don’t like the way things are going, to look for a new school. This for one of their most talented teachers (and I am being incredibly humble) who has learned oodles of new stuff to do with management and student engagement this year. So – I guess that’s the decision I will need to make – for my sanity.

I try not to be political…..

…in this blog, as I like to keep that separate. But lately politics is impinging on my art. Primarily the issues with my school district, and the fact that exhaustion seems to be the constant factor each day.

Yesterday I had the blue flu, and the irony is that I really was ill. In 30 years of teaching, this is the third time my district has come close to chaos in bargaining. The first was 1972 in Hawaii with a teacher strike. Ugly. I remember going to my depatment head ofter a nasty day on the picket line and telling her I was sorry for the crap said to her as she crossed. People have their own decisions to make. The second was in Vermont in about 93 when we were getting close to striking, and the teachers knew I would have to cross, because part of me was an administrator. They were fine with that.

The third is now. Over 40 percent of the teachers were out yesterday in our district, sending a really strong message. The offer still sucks, but I think we have their attention now. This is the most united I have seen the district teachers in a long time. And the best part is the district has so shot itself in the foot by all their financial mismanagement over the last two years in particular. For once maybe we won’t take the brunt of criticism – but I still am not reading the comments in the paper!

On Going Back to School…

There’s more trepidation than usual as summer draws to a close (yeah, the beginning of August, and “summer” is over….) for the start of the school year. Some of it is new school, some of it is lack of decision making, some of it is still having to move classrooms, and some of it is the loss of free time. As usual, I’ve noticed that I get more “artsy” productive as I begin to run out of free time, when I could have done so much more over the last 10 weeks. This has really become a habit, and it’s one that needs to change.

I’m productive for a short spell, as I’m aware of running out of free time. Yet I can’t get myself started earlier, and I can’t sustain the impetus beyond the first week of school. Not good as an artist. I did get lots of loose ends done as we spiff up in time for holiday shopping, and yes, all of that was needed. But I’m still not making any concentrated new art.

At least I have figured this out and put it into writing – maybe that will help me move ahead.

I did do about an hour’s worth of quilting yesterday on the ice piece. The quilting is soothing, yet at the same time boring. I love quilting the chevron pattern, but I keep thinking about when it will be done and I can look at adding embellishments. It seems like I will be quilting that forever, and yet I can get a huge amount done in only 30 minutes. So again I need to change the mental mindset of what it will take to finish this piece. And I still need to finish the dress I started…….

This will be a hard year at school – there, I’ve said it. I am trying (somewhat successfully) to just let go of a lot of loose ends concerning the start of school – like no technology set up, computer not having internet, no books. But I kept telling myself that I can do this. I just finished “Good to Great” about businesses, and I am trying to see what I can do to implement those steps. I think I’m approaching a Level 5 leader, I know my hedgehog concept – the best possible learning environment, attitude, and skills to help all my kids succeed. I have looked at the Stockdale Paradox – I can do a great job with the kids, but the reality is the test schores are low and test scores are the focus this year.

Stay tuned….

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