Friday, October 03, 2014


Sunlight dropping through fog
from just after dawn
paints each needle of the spruce sentinel
with a brush dipped in future
telling me (even more clearly
than the wall’s funeral home calendar)
that winter’s hoarfrost waits.
Not too long will this late September weekend
hold the roasted colors
and gentle hush of drying leaves.
I will soon look out this window
into a bony swath of naked but patient trees.
This shining fall mist will evanesce, fall anew
as the white time machine of another winter.
The asters’ seeds, soaking in death,
will wait silently for the peepers
and then send out green
that convinces me all is young again,

and new, clad in memories.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The lessons on unethical education policies will continue until you cry out against them. The policies, that is.

I am asking your school board to join more than 120 school boards across the state - to pass a resolution calling on our representatives in Albany and Washington to stop high stakes testing for grades 3 through 8, to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known as No Child Left Behind), and to develop other systems for public school accountability and evaluation.

Concerned citizens want high quality education for all students. We know our state needs policies and spending to solve problems of poverty and equity. That money is instead being spent on tests and supporting materials widely recognized as inadequate and unreliable measures of student learning and educator effectiveness. The intensive focus on achievement, simply defined as test performance, narrows our schools’ curriculum, taking time from a broad range of learning experiences that promote innovation, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking - everything our students need to thrive in a democracy and a global society and economy, let alone in college or careers.

Even more problematic, students leave schools, sometimes dropping out, with no love for learning. Excellent teachers leave schools when policies countermand what they know professionally about teaching and learning. The negative effects of this nationwide wave of high stakes standardized testing are especially bad for low income students, English language learners, those with disabilities, and children of color - the very students we have said we wanted to help! Indeed, we had begun several promising initiatives for these students when NCLB interrupted our progress. In the years since, NCLB and Race to the Top have denied much of what we wanted to accomplish.

We do not have to go along with what we know is wrong. We can ask our state and federal representatives to instead work toward a school culture that matches what research tells us about fostering engaging school experiences that promote joy in learning, depth of thought, and breadth of knowledge for our students.

I am leaving a copy of a possible resolution for discussion by the board. I urge you to adopt it, or some form of it, and send it on, adding your voice to many that are starting to break through the formidable wall of corporate interests. Corporations, which drive this testing movement, do not belong in schools where student well-being, rather than profit, is our motive.

Thank you for taking time for a message that is so important for our children and our future.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Thanks for your service, but please educate yourselves...

This is an open letter to New York State boards of education at local school districts across the state. I am Dr. Carol Mikoda, a lifelong resident of my school district, a former employee, and currently a local community college writing instructor.
I am here to talk to you, the local boards of education, elected representatives of this community whose children benefit from the K12 schools you oversee. I thank you for your voluntary service to our communities.
You are in a position to affect the quality of those schools and schools across the state and nation.
The New York State School Boards Association, at its annual business meeting in October, will discuss a resolution supporting the use of student performance in annual performance reviews of our teachers.
The Board of Regents wants state test scores to count for 40%.
I am asking you to send a message to NYSSBA that you do not support the evaluation of teachers using student scores.
Evaluating teachers in that way will not contribute to the quality of education and can actually produce schools with narrow curricula and students who think only in the most narrow sense, in limited ways, followed test-developed formulae.
Contrary to the justification given for using such tests, equity will suffer when students who do not perform well are shut out of an education.
I know you want all our students to leave Windsor as competent career- and college-ready problem solvers.
The changes that come with over-reliance on these flawed tests and with de-skilling of teaching professionals are far-reaching.
The evaluation plan has been declared flawed by groups such as the American Educational Research Association,  the American Statistical Association and the American Mathematics Society.  
Too many factors affect student performance to hold teachers accountable to that degree.
The tests students take are intended for other purposes, created by non-educators with no direct knowledge of our students and classrooms.
The motive of the companies producing the tests is profit, rather than our children’s potential.
These businesses have not provided evidence to support the effectiveness of these tests for performance review nor even for educational purposes.
I urge you to oppose the NYSSBA resolution number 9 on APPR by voting against it when attending the conference or by sending a letter of opposition by September 19.
We would like, of course, to use numbers and data to make schools more efficient, but education at its best involves human beings working face to face.
Teacher evaluation is difficult. Student assessment is complex.
Only the teamwork of professional educators can help us arrive at better systems of evaluation and assessment.
We should engage in that teamwork while asking politicians and interested philanthropists to solve the major problems affecting student achievement - namely, poverty and inequity.
Please take a look at the letter I’ve left with the clerk and consider sending it as a group or individually to NYSSBA before September 19.
Thank you for your time.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Writing, Teaching, and Vulnerability

As a writing teacher, I often place myself in a vulnerable position. In providing an example, whether it is a sentence or a string of sentences, I often choose to write about something that is in my head at the time; that is, a topic of interest or one I am passionate about. I expose some of my thinking about that topic, and thus I am susceptible to verbal or emotional attack. I must do this, as I am the model for the routines of the class.

I ask my writers, each week, to lay before us, the entire class, their most private and personal ideas in essays written about topics they care about. They read aloud their thoughts (which often have been placed on the paper as raw, absolute-zero drafts, perhaps from a free write during the previous class) as we all listen intently. This is the routine: reading aloud, listening intently, writing down some responses and listening and contributing to a discussion of each essay.

That routine is the core of the class. That kind of listening, applied to each student’s writing, leaves them vulnerable, so I can certainly spare a few sessions that involve my own vulnerability when we are working on sentence construction; that is how we fill any time left after everyone has read their weekly essay. By exposing my own thoughts and being willing to accept their suggestions for improving my sentences, I model what they must be able to do with their own sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

As the second and then the third week of such careful reading and listening go by, the practice takes on a ritualistic feel, so I must train carefully from the very first session. The sacrament of sharing our essays is not easily given up. Indeed, when I have on some few occasions split them into smaller groups to share their essays, it was always less satisfying, both to writers and to listeners. At the end of the semester, students cite the reading aloud and the listening, both from that position of terrific vulnerability (who wants to be the one to say where some cloudiness occurred, where something could be added?) as the single most helpful practice. They like to workshop sentences, too, but the reading and listening and discussing is where they learn best, or so they tell me.

And so I continue to refine the design of my writing class to center on that feature and marginalize all else. They write weekly essays, read and listen, turn them in to get my individualized comments, then revise each one. At the end of the semester, they have written pages and pages, all subjected to revision, especially at the level of sentences. They take three of the essays and revise them further at the end of the semester when they have learned the most. Centering my course on an activity that makes them all vulnerable means I have to acknowledge that and build in supports for it and think carefully about what I will say to each writer and to each listener who comments.

Comments must be observations that any of us might notice. They can not be judgments about the quality of the writing or of the ideas. Listeners must use their observational skills to say what they noticed about the effect of the writer’s words on their own listening mind, not to say what judgment they might pass, if they were the “teacher.” They are not taking on the role of teacher, but rather the role of listener and responder, one who is in dialogue with a writer.

We all feel the vulnerability of putting out our ideas and observations during a discussion of some topic. It is not any easier when we are in a group, a class for which we will receive a grade and some credit toward our next degree. It has become easier for me, but I still experience a twinge when I place some sentence on the board for analysis.

The issue that creates vulnerability is that I do not know what we will all discover. The writer cannot know, before listening carefully to her own and other’s words, where those sentences will take us. Writers bring essays to us which morph into different essays as we discuss them. The authors come to realize, by sharing and listening, where they really want to go with their words, or at least to understand that they did not go where they intended.

When I typed the word, “vulnerability,” at the top of this page, for example, and began to think and write, I did not know that I would end up here. This place, though, is valuable, and I now feel an interest in refining the raw ideas I have generated. The same happens to my younger writers. I must demonstrate that metamorphosis to them again and again if I expect them to realize what revision is about. I must let them see it happen with material they care about. And I must provide for the experience of dialogue about ideas and rhetoric if they are to understand that writing, as a system of communication, is dialogic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Spring Meditation from the Back Porch

The day has finally arrived - the morning when the sun quickly warms the back porch and yard, the morning with no wind or clouds, with birds of all kinds cavorting in the air and gliding on the pond just behind our house. I can hear the chickens, the roosters, rather, crowing out to the sun, so I know that I will have to stop writing to walk over to the coop and throw open the doors. They may not come out yet, as the dew is still heavy, but they revel in the rectangular patch of sunlight on the floor, as do I.

I walk back across the grass, reveling also in each individual drop of dew with its suggestion of a rainbow. Each is revealed to me separately in its own glory, which is odd, because I know this summer will birth many crystalline, dewy mornings. The individual drops will not leap out at me as they do today, when I have spent several long cold dark months anticipating this moment. We have looked forward to watching the show that now spreads before us on the back acreage.
Surrounded by this natural theater, I worry, though, that something may have happened to the Canada goose hen’s clutch of eggs. She has been off the island nest, eating grass in the yard at my feet, for such a long time, watched over by her mate. Just now they are both floating on the water, retreating to it when I walked over to the coop and back. Perhaps they have hatched and she is able to be away longer. I have been thinking it was time.

Yet something about their quietness makes me worry. She should be swimming purposefully back over to the island, as I have seen her do many times, but she is not. Did the eggs meet an untimely end, from the beaver John’s been tracking, or a mink or weasel? I would have heard the commotion in the night - I am not a deep sleeper and the fury of the pair’s fight would have been notably loud. Perhaps the eggs did not develop in the usual way, and this pair has realized it, through deep instinct.

I have been watching pairs of Canada geese nest here on our pond or nearby for nineteen years. They bring the goslings to our lawn to feed until they are developed enough to fly away. A clutch of eggs on the island has not gone bad on my watch. I begin to anthropomorphize these two large geese, imagining that the low tones he is making in her presence are his grief and mourning and his attempt to comfort his mate.

She has spent so many hours on that nest. She was there during the icy pelting rain last weekend, during the snow the week before that, the frigid nights over the past month. She left only for short sessions of bathing and feeding, staying there alone when the male left to feed at the neighboring pond. Hers was an investment no less important than the nine months I spent nurturing each of my sons before their births.

Nature can seem cruel but I am trying to remember to take nothing personally. I invoke that ancient Agreement from the Toltecs and let go of my own disappointment, let go of the mourning I imagine for this mated pair. The cycle of birth and death sometimes involves death at unexpected points. The local habitat may not have needed more geese at this juncture. The eggs may have contained damaged genetic material not capable of conjoining to form strong viable goslings. Better that the geese try again next year, perhaps.

As I process my momentary grief and move on, I notice that the imagined island tragedy has not interfered with Rex, the resident redwing blackbird, and his morning routines. He has been clicking and singing since before six, a soundtrack for my pre-dawn dreams. As I sit musing, he flits from the top of the tall sycamore to the post by the bird feeder, and from thence to visit various nests hidden in cattails or skeletons of Queen Anne’s Lace, scattered around other sectors of the pond’s stage. He has mated with many, spreading his DNA and potential progeny across our three acres. If anything happens to one nest, he has another and another. Despite their number, he will still worry any crow who gets too close.

John puts forth another theory about the mother goose’s absence from the nest, which is in full sun just now. Perhaps she feels safe leaving the eggs in the sun’s warmth. If they have hatched (which we cannot tell from here, even when I fetch the binoculars) the sun may also warm them enough.

Flycatchers dart in wide circles, drawing my eye from the nest and from my thoughts. Chickadees and nuthatches chatter in the nearby bare branches of the Norwegian maple, cracking sunflower seeds they import from the feeder. Loud crowing reaches us from many points in the yard, as the flock has been freed to seek seeds and bugs. A kingfisher arrives with loud pronouncements to look over the pond’s surface from the tip of the island’s tall spruce tree.

John shares his haiku, written at the other end of the porch while I contemplated spring and death:

See the tapestry --
Branches holding new blue sky --

Monday, April 07, 2014

Technology, Ethics, and Education-- Ethical Issues in Education Reform: Privacy, Parents’ Rights, and Big Data

I spoke at a conference this weekend, as an education activist, because of ethical issues I faced in my public school classroom in the years following New York State’s inception of intermediate assessment. Here is part of what I told those who attended.

From 1998 to 2008, I saw my eighth grade students subjected to more and more testing.

An intermediate ELA assessment given to eighth graders in 1998 soon expanded to include ELA and math tests given to sixth and eighth graders, then tests given to seventh graders, and additional tests in social studies for eighth graders.

The cumulative science test of eighth graders was expanded to two different sessions where it had been only one before.

Our entire middle school faculty and support staff was enlisted to engage students in practice tests for each of these exams. Tremendous time and effort was spent to pin down the logistics of each practice test and then each official state assessment, as we provided testing modifications to suit all students’ needs.

Administrators insisted on seeing some form of test preparation, which they defined as practice tests and parallel tasks, in our classrooms. Then other teachers, of special subjects like technology, art, home and careers, other languages, and even gym class, were asked to contribute to that test preparation.

Time spent on test preparation and practice took away from time we could spend on activities that would increase my students’ skills as readers and writers. What we did in class each day no longer supported the curriculum and standards that had been in place for New York State already. Those standards had been developed by my professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, and adopted by the state education department, and rightly so. They were based on the very best research and scholarship into literacy development, but they went by the wayside.

Data-driven instruction took over our building and then our district. Administrators, trying to keep up with what they saw coming from Albany and from Washington, D.C., began to emphasize quantitative tracking of students’ achievements. Student writing achievement does not lend itself to quantitative measures, and I made my case to my principal, but my professional judgment was ignore in the face of tremendous pressure to attain higher scores on state assessments in any way that we could. Spreadsheets of vaguely-related information replaced attention to the details of each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael Apple has used the term “de-skilled” to talk about what has happened to teachers’ professional status. I definitely felt de-skilled, though I had not read Apple’s work yet.

By 2009, I could no longer be in my classroom doing what I knew was not the best practice in my field of teaching. I left to study for my doctorate so that I could perhaps effect some changes in the policies that I saw a wrong. This was a moral decision. I was ethically opposed to what was happening. I chose a path I felt I could follow. Many teachers stay on because they can see no other path, but many still have doubts about what they are being asked to do.

After I left public schools, the emphasis on data increased. Our state’s involvement in Race to the Top meant our school districts had to enter into a new approach to data.

I am a teacher, one who acts as an interface between new technologies and students. I provide a classroom teacher’s professional perspective on this slide away from  caring about students into caring about data points. My career spans decades, and while I would not advocate a return to any sort of “good old days,” I would urge our state and its citizens to rely on educators’ professional judgment rather than the urging of corporations with data management products to sell.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

My opening statement for the Board of Regents interview:

Legislators, I appreciate the time you are taking to be here for these interviews. I’d like to introduce myself. I grew up in the southern tier of New York and attended colleges and universities around the state. I taught English to over two thousand individual students, grades seven to twelve, between 1978 and 2009. I also taught writing to many students in our state college and university system, and I have been teaching pre-service teachers about the best ways to develop students’ writing and literacy over the past five years. My work in the classroom and my recent study and research into the transition of writers from high school to college have brought me here for this discussion with you.

New York’s public schools are not broken. NAEP scores have mostly been leveling off over the period of years leading up to Race to the Top. Students from other countries flock to our schools, colleges and universities, and have for some time.

Although some nations may have higher test scores on internationally-administered assessments, the United States provides universal, inclusive K-12 education, and thus we test all students, where some nations restrict the test-taking, or perhaps even the opportunity for education, to only their top students.

Our schools are not the cause of a weak economy or a compromise to our national security.

Many if not most of the problems our educational system faces cannot be blamed on teachers or principals, but rather on poverty and segregation, which are far more complex problems we need to tackle as a society. Teachers are not in the profession to make money. They DON’T make a lot of money, which may contribute to other problems we are trying to solve.

Accountability is a requirement in every job: elected representatives know that as well as anyone. But evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is a flawed system. Teachers simply cannot control all the factors that affect student test performance.

All students, of differing abilities, from families with varying incomes, and from any school district, urban, suburban, or rural, should be able to attend a public school with adequate resources, with a staff that values learning rather than test scores. Not all learning can be measured by a paper and pencil (or computerized) test. We must rely on the informed judgment of professionals who spend time with our children as they are learning.

Policy makers must neither rely on Hollywood for information about schools nor encourage Hollywood to promote and disseminate erroneous educational narratives. Nor should we rely on those with a product to sell. Profit is not the bottom line in a school, nor is widespread, uncontrolled collection and storage of data about our children and their families.

Policies developed without consulting those who are in classrooms contribute to inequity. In the case of the increased testing that accompanied NCLB and now Race to the Top and the institution of Common Core Learning Standards, the increased time spent on testing and preparing students for testing situations reduces the time spent reading freely chosen books, writing sentences with original ideas, sharing those ideas with others, and pursuing in-depth understanding of topics in which they are interested.

As I talk to former students who are now parents, and other parents around the state, I find that their voices have been missing until very recently. The communities surrounding our local schools, our school officials, and especially students have felt trapped by the newest initiatives. Teacher educators, busy helping pre-service teachers negotiate an entry into real classrooms, are left out of discussions about teacher preparation. I would like to bring their voices into our discussions here in Albany.

When I began my teaching career, almost 40 years ago, New York State’s public schools were among the best in the nation. A Regents’ diploma was considered golden. I taught English classes using an excellent set of language arts standards developed and revised by teachers, informed by continuing research, over the years. I do not advocate a return to any “good old days,” but I hope to contribute to an informed collaboration between the Board and the legislature. Many eyes are on New York State, and I would like to help restore our system’s national reputation for the sake of all children across the nation.

Healthcare for new mothers and focused attention on early childhood education are excellent first steps. Involving experienced educators in all aspects of educational policy and practice will be another good step. Age-appropriate goals, smaller classes, access to a good library with a knowledgeable librarian, a balanced curriculum including physical activity, the arts, and a range of academic study every day: educational experts agree on these requirements. Involving teacher educators in planning will help us to prepare new teachers who can feel confident working in any public school. Time that is being spent on testing and preparing students for testing can be returned to children and their teachers for wide reading and thoughtful consideration of whatever they read about, to develop thinking, reading, and writing skills. Money that is spent on software, hardware, and printed material to support the tests can be given instead to principals who can make their schools marvelous places where students can become passionate about their learning.