Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pennsylvania's Latest Testing Contract

Surprise! Pennsylvania's Department of Education just signed another $250 million, 5 year contract with a corporation to continue the high-stakes testing of our students. Opt Out Pennsylvania recently posted:
Pennsylvania just signed a $250 million dollar, 5-year contract with Measured Progress for the Common Core Keystone exams and now common core aligned PSSA's under the guise of "college and career readiness".  Colleges and prospective employers DO NOT consider the Keystone Exams in any capacity yet students FORCED to spend 20% or more of their time in a class during the school year on test prep and testing resulting in lost instructional time for a single test.  This is not education.  Our students are unpaid employees to political and corporate interest groups who are making billions of dollars a year on these insidious tests.
So, I decided it was time for me to send John and Carolyn at PDE some mail.

Dear Mr. Weiss and Secretary Dumaresq,

I need to let you know that I am appalled that you continue to sign contracts with Measured Progress to test our children nonsensically. The latest $250 million dollar contract is a ridiculous example of unethical practices of top educational administrators on our children, who are now unpaid employees of political and corporate interest groups. 

I call your decision as a department (and the mandate from the legislature) unethical because these tests are not in the best interests of the children, the teachers, or prospective employers. Despite this contract being signed under the guise of “college and career” readiness, where is the research that demonstrates if/how these tests prepare students for the workforce?

I recently heard you, Secretary Dumaresq on a panel at the EPLC symposium. You and Ron Cowell made it a point to blame the legislature for the problems in public education. I call foul on that whole logic. As educators, it is also your ethical responsibility to “protect the student from conditions which interfere with learning or are harmful to the student’s health and safety.” It is you, the lead administrators in the department of education, who continue to violate Pennsylvania’s Code of Professional Practice for Educators. 

There are parents and taxpayers across this country attempting to work from the bottom up to address this issue in the legislatures in their respective states. However, as an educator, you too have a responsibility based on what you know about children and from educational research. Be bold and make the right choice. Our public schools would be better without the standardized tests that drain educational budgets, lead to corporate profits, and result in the worst deficits that we can imagine - those that directly affect our children. 


Leslie Gates, Ph.D./Angry Parent

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My go-to (online) art education resources

One of my current students asked me for a synthesized list of online resources that I have found valuable for K-12 art teaching. And so, I present to you my go-to online art education resources, in no particular order. Am I missing something? Add it in the comments.

  • Art 21 Educator Guides and Videos. Art 21 is my go-to site for teaching with contemporary art. Check out their educator guides under the "learn" tab for great art-making prompts and questions that correspond to all of their videos.
  • Art 21 Blog's Teaching with Contemporary Art Column by contributor (and high school art educator!) Joe Fusaro. Joe consistently writes about exactly what I'm wondering, or struggling with, or excited about. 
  • Art Educators on Twitter. Nothing like updates in art education in 140 characters at less that you can read while waiting for your next appointment.
  • Art Education 2.0: Connecting Art Educators Around the Globe. An online professional learning community of art educators with sub communities and discussion forums based on student age, media, interest, special topics, etc. Currently over 13,000 members. Did you know - the first two members besides the founder were art educators from Pennsylvania? :)
  • Teaching for Artistic Behavior websiteTeaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is a nationally recognized choice-based art education approach to teaching art. The Teaching for Artistic Behavior concept enables students to experience the work of the artist through authentic learning opportunities and responsive teaching. Website is full of resources about choice-based approaches to teaching art.
  • Olivia Gude's e-Portfolio. Olivia Gude's articles, presentations, lessons, and ideas all in one place and shared freely. Spend some time here.
  • The National Art Education Association. NAEA is the professional organization of art educators in the United States, and the website is full of books, advocacy information, and news. The NAEA site also includes a monthly mentor blog where various art educators write about various issues (I was the month mentor in July 2009). Make it a point to join and maintain your membership.
  • The "Art Teachers" Facebook page has over 5,000 members that share their successes, struggles, and questions with a community of art teachers. If you're on Facebook, join the group for some serious, some funny, and some enraging (lively) discussions -- all in the name of art education. 
  • The Art of Education is "ridiculously relevant professional development for art educators" and includes a blog, classes, online conferences, and other resources that many art educators I know have found extremely helpful. 
  • Favorite (Art, mostly) Educator blogs: I follow a number of blogs/sites in which educators I respect consistently post their assignments, ideas, and student work. Here are a few: David Miller - Wissahickon HSIan Sands, Apex HS"Teacher Tom," Woodland Park PreschoolDiane Jaquith, Self-directed art blog, and a list of the "top art education blogs of 2013" if that's not enough. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Considering lesson plan quality

My students gave themselves an assignment based on their desire to write "good" lesson plans. They went on a hunt for both the best and worst art lesson plans via the internet in order to analyze the characteristics of both, and asked me to compile our conversation. 

Here is the result. What would you add? What would you change?

 Thoughts about “Good” and “Bad” Lesson Plans
Ideas of ART 325 students Daniel Clarke, Alexandra Fleming, Marie Freiselben, Samantha Gehman, Amber Hile, Kyla Kirby, Katie-Marie McLean, Danielle Noll, Ashley Talamantez. 
Compiled by Leslie Gates, Ph.D., Spring 2014

Is the term lesson plan inclusive of the physical document and the ideas? One student noticed we were initially using the term to describe more than one thing. For instance, some lesson plans are written clearly, have goals, instruction, and assessment that is aligned, and includes necessary components. However, the projects/activities described in the lesson plan may not meet our expectations of quality. So although the lesson plan is written sufficiently, we realized that when we talk about “good” lesson plans, we are often referring to the quality of the activities more so than the technical aspects of the way the lesson was written. As a result of our analysis of lesson plans, we described “good” and “bad” lesson plans in the following ways, fully aware that lesson plans rarely fall neatly into one or two columns:

Good Lesson Plans…
Bad Lesson Plans…
are sufficiently challenging for students. Difficult concepts are scaffolded so that students are not overwhelmed.  are not developmentally appropriate - the most frequent offense within the lesson plans were reviewed were activities that were far too simple and underestimated the abilities of the student to generate their own ideas.
include a final project that provides students with an open-ended prompt that requires them to synthesize and apply knowledge they’ve gained from previous lessons or activities to a new concept. The project is acceptable evidence of both technical and conceptual goals.  include a final project that requires students to complete a step by step process outlined by the teacher, which demonstrates a child’s technical craft and ability to follow directions but fails to demonstrate a child’s understanding of non-technical goals. 
provide students with opportunities to use their diverse ways of knowing and life experiences to interpret prompts in particular and meaningful ways. They allow for authentic explorations of both students’ and others cultures.  assume a homogenous body of students that all celebrate the same holidays, and have similar cultural knowledge and life experiences. Bad lesson plans are conceptualized around one holiday or experience (often with a step by step craft).
present a theme or concept important in the work or one or more artists, and asks students to create their own work about that theme or concept without requiring students to adopt/copy the artist’s formal style/characteristics.  reduce a famous or exemplary artist’s work to purely the formal properties and then ask students to make a work like _____ in look only, and fail to engage students with artist’s concepts and process. 
provide in-depth information about the concept, artist(s), or technique being studied. Good lesson plans demonstrate a well-researched and knowledgeable instructor. provide little or narrow information about the concept, artist(s), or technique being studied. Bad lesson plans can be limited by “creating lesson plans that only go off of what you [currently] know.”
the goals, instruction, and assessment are aligned. The final project or activity demonstrates whether students’ have meet the goals of the lesson. Instruction supports student’s work toward the goals.  the goals, instruction, and assessment do not work together; the students’ final works may not demonstrate whether the students have met the goals of the lesson. 
include opportunities for students to learn information on an as-needed basis.  assume each student requires the same knowledge/demonstration.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ode to My Graduate Students

Dear Graduate Students,

I think it's somewhat unfair that you pay to take classes that I get paid to teach given the the amount of things I learn from/with you. The group of you in our M.Ed. program right now are some of the most generous people I know. You are curious, and eager, and reflective. You work hard. I want to be with you, look forward to our classes, and find myself thinking about our conversations may times over. I wonder about you, and your students. I suspect that our conversations are making a difference. I am delighted by your stories: you tried something new that made a difference for that distant student, you are mentally well despite your taxing schedule and roller coaster personal life, you approached your administrator because you were no longer willing to do something that you knew wasn't the best for students.

I applaud you. I tell everyone who considers our grad program that if they met you, or sat in a class, they would know that there was a place for them around our table.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Newest publication

I have a short section in a book that was recently released from the National Art Education Association. You can read a bit about the book below...

Practice Theory: Seeing the Power of Art Teacher Researchers
Melanie L. Buffington and Sara Wilson McKay, Editors

Teachers are powerful individuals who have the ability to effect change and meaningful educational reform. Seeing research at the heart of teaching can grow engaged educational practice and aid teachers in realizing their power.

Chapters on methodologies, as well as example studies in diverse art education settings, work to bridge the perceived divide between theory and practice. Examples beyond public school classrooms include senior citizen centers, preschools, museums, and international sites. 

This collaboration of voices—including those of the authors, a graduate student, and a wide range of researchers with various perspectives on how research occurs in art education—will help new researchers and teachers who may not have considered conducting research as a possibility for them, find a glimpse of themselves as a teacher-researcher.

Practice Theory is especially relevant for art teachers who wish to engage in research and have their voices heard and valued. Readers will be engaged in a research process themselves as side bars, comments related to the real world by the two editors, essays and research reports, and visuals and graphs demand they play a role in interpreting the text and arriving at understandings relevant to their own research practices.”
—Enid Zimmerman, Professor Emerita of Art Education and current Organizer of Gifted and Talented Programs at Indiana University School of Education, Bloomington

You can view the Table of Contents and order online at:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

School Experiences, Part 3: Montessori

This morning I visited a Montessori school. The Montessori school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located in an urban area close to museums, galleries, and a university. The large brick building in which the school is located also has commercial and residential spaces within it. A majority of the students were white, but the school appeared to be more diverse racially than the Waldorf school.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week isn't an option, and so I can't do a direct cost comparison to our current preschool she attends two days a week. The least amount of time a student can spend in the montessori primary classroom is three mornings. If I worked it out to an hourly cost, I suspect that the price is just over twice what we pay now. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $600 more a month than our mortgage payment, which is almost twice what the Waldorf school would cost.

I entered the school and was handed a clip board, two papers, and a pen by the secretary. She asked me to sit down and fill out the top paper that asked for basic contact information, ages of our children, where they are currently in school, and why we were interested in learning more about the school. The last question only had one and half lines of space to answer, and I probably should have just written the link to this blog. A group of four parents stood in the lobby talking about local restaurants. When I finished the paperwork, I glanced at the second, which was a very detailed sheet suggesting how I should observe (how to act, what to say to a student who attempts to engage me, and what to look for). 

The admissions director then came out, said hello, and told me we would head to the first observation. I was in a primary classroom for approximately 20 minutes. There were 17 students, working all throughout the room. They were engaged in a wide variety of activities. Some were completing puzzles, others were building with blocks, drawing, practicing writing letters, playing at a kitchen, and painting at an easel. Most students were working with at least one other student. All of them seemed engaged in their task with a freedom to change tasks or join someone on different work if they chose to. One student who was working in the kitchen approached me with a bowl of carrots she had just cut and offered one to me (note: how to respond to this offer was not on the detailed sheet!). One student got a wooden object off of a shelf and approached one of the two teachers in the room, asking, "Can you teach me a lesson on this?"

In this first classroom, one teacher was attempting to help about 6 students on different tasks simultaneously. Some times the students would sit and wait. Others would persevere through trial and error until she offered assistance. One student told the teacher three times he was ready to start the lesson but the teacher was reading math equations with another student and didn't hear him (or heard him and ignored him). I realized how essential the teacher:student ratio is in this model and wondered if these class sizes were too big. 

In the second classroom, also a primary classroom, I could sense a different culture, which I believe is attributed to a lead teacher with a very different personality. She was almost theatrical, moving around the room using exaggerated gestures to push in chairs while singing a song about pushing in chairs. At one point, I heard a student crying. He looked as if he had just fallen from his chair onto the floor, but neither the teacher, assistant, or I saw what had happened. Neither the teacher or assistant attended to him right away. A moment later the teacher asked him why he was crying. He did not respond. She said, "If you use words, we can help you. Using words can help," which seemed to dissolve the issue. The next time I noticed the student he was sitting at a table working with another student using blocks. A few minutes after that, a frustrated student on the other side of the room declared, "I'm not coming to school ever again!" to which the teacher responded, "Please change your attitude." 

In general, the Montessori school was clearly doing a number of important things: fostering independence, responsibility, and honoring student interest. Students could choose their work, could complete it at their own pace, would return it to the appropriate space when finished. The admissions director explained to me the significance of the types of activities students were engaged in -- but that's not a hard sell for me. You don't have to convince me that a three year old pouring water back and forth between two containers is learning. I get it. 

However, I found myself unable to think about this experience without comparing it to the Waldorf school yesterday. As I think about the two experiences, I have two main observations:

1) The Waldorf school philosophy (or at least how I saw it in practice) doesn't seem to be as student-centered as I tend to prefer. I use principles of democratic education in my own teaching in which students make a large majority of the decisions about how, when, and (to a certain extent) what to learn. In the Waldorf model, the curriculum and activities, at least for the main lessons, are chosen, paced, and guided by the teacher. One could argue that this is also true in a Montessori setting (because after all there are a limited number of options students can pick from for "work"), but unlike Waldorf, students were able to work independently on something when they wanted to and for as long as they needed to. 

2) The ethic of care present and deeply felt throughout my visit to the Waldorf school wasn't present (or at least in the ways I would expect to see it) at the Montessori school. 
The Montessori school I visited had an institutional aesthetic (lots of classrooms with blank white walls) and felt a bit unwelcoming following the previous day's experience at Waldorf. When I was asked to sit and fill out paper work upon entrance, I felt like I was at the doctor's office. In contrast, yesterday at the Waldorf school, the admissions director greeted me warmly, offered me tea or coffee, and asked me about my children by name based on her notes from an earlier conversation we had by phone. The admissions director at the Waldorf school sat in each observation with me, which allowed me to make comments or ask questions about what I was seeing. The admissions director at Montessori dropped me off at a classroom and picked me up. She told me the names of the teachers, but I had to ask the teachers in the first room about the ages of her students. (I also had to ask to see the art room, which she didn't mention on our school tour).
The ethic of care I saw at the Waldorf school also extended to how teachers were treating students. When a third grade student held up an incorrect time on her interactive construction paper clock, the teacher responded with, "look at that one more time" or "this is a tricky one, isn't it?" When one gave an answer that wasn't exactly what the teacher was after, she said something like, "well, that was not at all what I was expecting you to say, but you're right!" I was struck by the contrast with the second primary teacher I observed today who told a student to "change his attitude" when he said he never wanted to come to school ever again. I think I would have preferred a "why is that?" I mean, maybe the student had a really good reason!

Still to come in future posts: a homeschool coop, a meeting with the principal of our local public elementary school, and a post about a democratic free school.

School Experiences, Part 2: Waldorf

I am going to write this on a professional blog space knowing full well that I am not going to be able to artificially separate my professional and personal opinions and impressions. I am both education professor/researcher and mom simultaneously. Sorry if you were hoping for one perspective without the other.

This morning I visited a Waldorf school. The Waldorf school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located on a quiet street. It's located in an old brick two-story schoolhouse that used to be owned by the public school district in which it is located. A large majority of the students were white.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week would cost twice what we are currently paying at your average run of the mill church-based preschool. We could probably swing that financially. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $350 more a month than our mortgage payment, which unless/until my spouse transitions from stay-at-home dad to the workforce (and we want to spend half that income on education), isn't happening.

Walking up to the main doors, I could see through the glass and look directly at a woman sitting at a large wooden desk located up half a flight of stairs. I pushed the buzzer and she waved me in. I was a bit taken by the large abstract painting hanging behind her, lit by an appropriately-placed spotlight. The admissions director met me in the lobby and we proceeded to observe three classes (8th grade, 3rd grade, and Kindergarten).

The twelve 8th graders present in the class (and their teacher) had their desks in a circle facing each other. They were reading their own pieces of writing aloud to the class. I was surprised by the sophisticated nature of the writing prompt that challenged the students to write about one place from two perspectives: one person having a positive experience and one having a negative experience in the exact same space. I noticed that one student offered some helpful feedback to another student who voiced concern about her ability to complete part of the writing task, which indicated to me that students' ideas were valued among their peers and teacher. The student offered feedback before the teacher. Immediately after reading their writings, the teacher passed out charcoal and they began working on drawings that would represent these pieces of writing.

The twelve students in the 3rd grade were reading words out loud as their teacher pointed to single words written on the board. The teacher asked students how many syllables were in each word, and asked if it was true that the number of syllables correlated with the number of vowels in the word. Students described to her why that is not always the case, using words like book and tree (included in the list on the board) to come to the conclusion that two of the same vowels often work together as one sound. I noticed the schedule on the day included "Games" and "Chores." They continued some work on time-telling using clocks with moveable hands they had made out of construction paper and brads, and in the last part of the lesson I saw, were working in their notebooks to describe a measurement activity they had completed outside the previous day. The notebooks, which I had seen in the 8th grade as well, were student-created illustrated textbooks, and a summative record of the things they had already learned in various subjects. While I was in the third grade classroom, the sound of a piano being played (quite well) in the room next door became a soundtrack for what the students were doing. I later learned they had a eurhythmicist that visits for 6 weeks each year, and it was she who was playing the piano.

Finally, I saw 14 students in a mixed-aged kindergarten class. They were engaged in play, with fabric, fantasies, and a complicated storyline that involved a freestanding piece of equipment in the room as the "castle." There were a number of play areas or stations. A few of the students had made a tent and were sitting underneath it in their created world. Bread was rising in the room and the assistant teacher was making snack for the day. The entire room smelled heavenly. When a few of the students struggled to negotiate their diverse perspectives on who should and should not be allowed to use the sliding board, one upset student approached the teacher to taddle-tale. The teacher casually asked her if she would like to join her and two other students in what they were doing, and began humming and singing as a means to calm and redirect the student. I asked permission to take a picture of the classroom because it was so stunning. I saw special attention to the lighting in multiple rooms and common areas throughout the school.

Also during my visit, I found out the mixed aged kindergarten teachers and assistants teach kindergarten continuously, while other teachers move up the grade levels with their students (grades 1-8). That helped me make sense of the deep relationships the 8th grade teacher seemed to have with his students...after all, it was their 8th year together.

There were a number of things I really appreciated about the school, some of which aren't different from most private schools: small class sizes, curricular and budgetary freedom, teachers that look like they love what they do. There were a few things that I wondered about, mostly because I don't know much about the philosophy that undergirds Waldorf Education. It certainly has it's critics, both in the scholarship and among my parent friends. One friend recently said to me "yes, my friend sends her kids there, and they can't read." Well, they can't read YET. Waldorf doesn't put pressure on students to become literate in the same ways and on the same pace as public schools. So among parents of same-aged children it looks like public school kids outperform these students, yet the priorities for what these students should know when are fundamentally different in the two settings. The 8th graders I saw were completing a writing activity that I might struggle with rather easily. So apparently they can read and write quite well, and the way they were integrating a number of subjects together, easily floating from one to the other, was impressive.

Most importantly, the students at the Waldorf school looked happy. In contrast, both of my friends who have high achieving students in another great local public school have first born children that stay up late every night with their noses buried in a book. However, both parents have told me that these children don't like school. Isn't that interesting that yes, they are young readers (and I assume, love learning through reading), but hate school? They aren't happy there.

How can we make public schools a place where students want to go? And like it? And are happy? Because not all families can pay anything, let alone more than their mortgage payment, to send their kids to a different type of school. These are the issues I am wrestling with.