About Kylene Beers

Teacher, writer, speaker, and wanna-be tech-savvy thinker, I'm interested in helping struggling readers, thinking (and rethinking) about the literacy demands of this quickly changing world, and encouraging and extending the conversation about improving public schools.

Answering Your Questions: How do I help students with the Signpost Anchor Questions?

As Bob and I looked through the Notice and Note Book Club page, we saw some questions that we thought we would answer via video.

This first question is from Jasmine Meade who wondered how she could better help her sixth graders who were doing a good job of noticing signposts but then were struggling some with the anchor questions.

We understand that struggle and in our short video here below, we offer what we hope will be a helpful solution. Embedding the video here might not have been smart as it seems to need a lot of buffering. So, you can also pop over to my Facebook page and see it there, easily.

PS: Cancer treatment still going well and I’m loving all the hats and scarves teachers from across the nation are sending. Many thanks. I feel  your support each and every day. #IveGotCancerAndImOk

 

I’ve Got Cancer and I’m OK.

Some of you know that seven years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer – two different types, one in each breast. One bilateral mastectomy later, I was headed toward recovery. For five years I stayed on the current drug of choice to keep that cancer under control. After five years, current thought was not to stay on that drug any longer, so I didn’t. Fast forward two years and all is fine until exactly one month ago from today I noticed a lump. In my breast.

I gave it day to be scar tissue and then got myself a mammogram which led to a biopsy that same day which led to a phone call the next morning telling me my cancer had returned.

Within 48 hours I had every scan, MRI, X-ray, pee-in-the-cup, draw the blood test one can have and the next day was at a table surrounded by 7 doctors, all men.

Two were from my first go around, five were new. All were saying “What the hell?”
“This is truly rare,” one declared. “We’ve been on the phone with other specialists and they agree, this is rare,” another chimed in.

OK. I got it. This is rare. What’s not rare is my type of cancer. What is rare is the reoccurrence.

I joined the conversation: “Let’s move on. What’s the cure?”

Well, they had that answer. The cure is aggressive chemotherapy followed by aggressive radiation/chemotherapy followed by more chemotherapy. You see, I’m one of the lucky ones – this is not metastatic, is still localized, and is still that cancer called “curable.” So, you attack hard.

Then they mentioned that this cancer is very slow growing, not aggressive. Brad – dear husband – groaned and said, “You shouldn’t have mentioned that.”

I perked up: “Well, if it’s slow growing and not aggressive, next week I have four keynotes in four different states. Don’t you think I could do those first before we start this?”

Seven men each shook his head no. I nodded yes. “Slow growing. Not aggressive,” I repeated. Finally, one asked Brad, “Are we winning this one?” Brad said, “Probably not.”

And so that next week, off I went to Denver, NYC, Pittsburg, and Minneapolis. On Monday, October 23, at the end of my time with the 300 teachers at the Minnesota Council Teachers of English Fall Conference, I told them that the next day I would be receiving a port and starting chemo for a reoccurrence of breast cancer and I wanted them to know that spending that day with them was the best shot of get-well-soon I could ever receive. I told this huge group I wasn’t yet ready to post this online and asked them to please not have any social media chatter. And there wasn’t. Not one tweet. I LOVE teachers.

The next day off I went to have a port inserted and that afternoon, Tuesday, October 24, I started day 1 of chemo.

My oncologist does things a bit differently than most. He gives slightly smaller doses of chemo for longer periods of time (over several days at a time) to be more humane on the body. He draws blood more often to watch carefully how white blood cells and red blood cells and platelets are doing and reacts immediately as they start to fall. And he or one of his associates sees me every day. Every day. Weekends included.

And as he sees me, he always starts by asking the most direct question, “How are you feeling today?” With that he’s wondering how I’m feeling physically, but also mentally and emotionally. “How are you feeling today?” From there, we chat. Are there questions I have? Is there something bothering me we should figure out? What am I doing for fun when I get home? Yes, a glass of wine will be ok, a small one. No, a martini is not ok.

We talk. Doctor to patient, person to person. We get to what sometimes causes tears; we linger over what’s most concerning; we push on to what makes us laugh. We end, always, with “You have got this. You’ll be just fine.”

Our chats make me think of how he has taken this huge impersonal world of medicine and made it intensely personal. Intimate. As he leaves, I often wonder how we do that in education. I wonder how we give this time that he gives me to each kid we see each day. I think of the power of the reading conference, the writing conference, the stand-in-the-hallway-and-say-hi moment. I think about asking a kid “How’s that book going? What are you thinking about today? What questions do you have? Is there something bothering you with this essay/this book/this assignment/this moment that we should figure out?” I think about promising a kid “You have got this. You’ll be just fine.” I think he’s teaching me a lot about teaching.

And so, folks, I wanted you to know I’m on a side trip right now. I’m sporting a new do that will last for a while. I feel great – again a more humane way of doing chemo. Bob and I are using this time to get a lot of writing done. Bob’s being Bob – helping me get through this with his ready wit. We’ll be doing more FB Live events during this time, and I’ll be blogging about this journey on my blog site – as soon as I remember the password to my blog site.

MeredithBaker, and Brad are, as always, my lighthouses, keeping things bright and showing me the way. And you, dear teachers, are my inspiration. I know so many of you walk into a classroom each day carrying the burden of this disease and you stand there and teach. You teach. Your dedication is carrying me forward. Thank you.

So, I’ve got cancer, and I’m ok. I promise.

P.S. Here I am, with a buzz cut so I don’t have to keep watching hair fall out. And with the last batch of the thousands of backpacks that arrived – these from kids in Florida. And the other photo with Stephen who has done my hair forever and best friend Suzanne who has stood by me for everything!

 

Once Again

We have far too many of these Monday mornings when children will walk into schools once again after a mass shooting from the day or couple of days before. Any number is too many.

Dearest Texas teachers – as your neighbor, as someone who grew up in one of these small Texas towns, as someone who knows you teach because you believe you have a more important calling than to simply help raise a test score, I wish I had a way to make tomorrow easier.

Honestly, though, I don’t want tomorrow to be easier. My fear is that this day you face tomorrow has become too easy. My fear is that your students won’t expect that this horrific killing will be discussed. My fear is that tomorrow is just another Monday.

My fear is that we’ll put some extra grief counselors in some schools and make an announcement that they are available if any one needs them and then move on to the announcements of when drama club will meet and how the schedule will be adjusted for the pep rally on Friday. My fear is that we’re so damned reluctant to share with kids that we’re as confused, angered, saddened, horrified, and afraid as they are that we take the easy way out – and nod in agreement that it is terrible and then move on. My fear is that there is even one teacher here in this state who will worry that talking about this will open up the gun conversation and that could seem political and that could be bad, so best to just stay away from it at all.

My fear is that even one teacher will forget for one moment that all those students in all those classrooms watch you. Sometimes you know when they are watching. They squint their eyes, tilt the chin, and stare. They dare you to miss that they are watching you. Other times, those eyes dart from desktop to you. Just for a moment before they quickly look away. Sometimes they push someone a bit harder, laugh at someone a bit louder, crash notebooks onto the floor a bit more often just so you’ll look. Look at them. Look past the bravado and the swagger and the “Nah, I’m good” to see the tension, the anxiety, the fear. And sometimes, they just come and stand a bit closer, linger a bit longer, fiddle with something on your desk just chatting about nothing. I can’t tell you how they will watch you, but I can promise that they will.

And that’s why I know, I know, what you do matters and what you do after horrific events matters even more. No one ever told you that you’d need to know how to sit with children or teens to talk with them about people in churches getting killed by a gunman or little kids in a school getting killed by a gunman or families at a concert getting killed by a gunman. No one. And you didn’t sign up for that. You didn’t. But they will watch you and they will listen for what you say and what you don’t say. Many of you have been calling this group of kids “your kids” for months now. They are your kids. And you are their – something. That person who stands before them and affirms them each and ever day.

So, you’ll make that circle a little smaller so that these children sit a little closer and you’ll tell them you’re sad and angry and confused and you know they are, too. And it’s ok to feel that way when such horrific things happen. We’re supposed to feel that way. And you’ll tell them that smart people are trying to figure out why he did this and others are talking about how to keep this from happening again. And others are making sure they are safe where they are. So their job, yes their job, is to make sure that while they are thinking a lot about reading and math and science and band and football, they are also remembering that the most important thing they can learn is how to be a good friend. How to be kind to others.

Our students won’t solve the gun problem we have in this country. And they aren’t tasked with wondering if this was an act of a terrorist or a murderer – a conversation I heard on national TV today. But we can take a hard look at how we treat one another – how teachers treat colleagues, how students treat peers, how teachers and students and parents treat one another – and ask ourselves, “Is there is enough kindness?”

Because all I got right now is that what will get us through the worst times is standing closer, holding tighter, listening harder, loving longer, and being kinder. And if even one child goes home tomorrow, at the end of what I know will be a very hard day, with that quick grin of remembering being kind or receiving a kindness, then tomorrow will be a day well done. And you, once again dear teachers, will have done far more than help raise a test score. You will have helped raise our nation’s children.

And School Begins

You’ve been getting ready for this soon-to-begin school year. You have been reading books, attending workshops, thinking about lessons, collaborating with colleagues. You have arranged your classroom; put out books; hung artwork; organized supplies. You have thought about this next group of students, students you will come to call “my kids.” You have wondered if you know enough to teach them; hoped that you have stored up enough energy to love them.

And then Charlottesville happened. With their anger showing, white supremacists marched, proud in their racism, torches in hand, guns slung over shoulders, words shouted in unison “Heil Trump,” “You will not replace us,” and “White lives matter” and suddenly all the preparations for Monday —whenever your Monday is—didn’t seem quite enough.

Some children and teens will enter your classrooms over the next few weeks more knowledgeable than many adults about what created that weekend. These students will understand that, all too often and for too many, white identity has long been tied to making sure non-white groups don’t succeed, or at least don’t succeed as much as they do. A country born of leadership that felt compelled to explain that all men are created equal though some men are only three-fifths human was bound to face problems.

And some—because of youth or because of protective parents or because of just not knowing—won’t comprehend what just happened. They won’t know that white supremacists marched bearing clubs and guns, that counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by one of the protesters, that the former Ku Klux Klan leader attended the march and explained that this protest “represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back . . . .” Some students will arrive Monday in your classrooms and not know.

Yet all of your new students—those who know and those who don’t—will sit together in one classroom and look to you. They always look to you. The whole nation—even when they don’t realize it—looks to you. You are our nation’s teachers. In all likelihood, you didn’t sign up for this. You wanted to share your love of science, your excitement over math, your joy of reading. You wanted to share Charlotte’s Web, not Charlottesville’s pain. You expected to remind little ones—and bigger ones—to be kind; be fair; be nice. Share. Listen. Respect one another. But perhaps you didn’t expect those lessons to be so critically important; so immediately necessary. Perhaps you hadn’t expected the anger, the confusion, the frustration, the racial violence to be part of their young lives. To follow them to school.

I can’t help but think of the two questions that guided what my colleague Bob Probst and I kept thinking as we wrote Disrupting Thinking (Beers and Probst, Scholastic, 2017):

  • What needs to change?
  • What assumptions make those changes hard?

As I think about those questions, I realize that I need to amend the first one: What needs to change about me? It would be far easier to ask that broader question, “What needs to change?” Then the answer can be out there, about someone else, about another town, another race, about other people. Those racists, those people. Them. Not me.

But if I always blame someone else, I never give myself the chance to grow, the chance to become better; I never give myself the chance to be a better person in this world and in my community, a better person as I stand next to those who don’t look like me, a stronger person who learns how to better speak up and speak out against racist words and actions. What needs to change about me? That’s a harder question for any of us about any topic. But when the topic is racism, I believe it’s a critical question for white people—this white person—to ask. People of color did not ask for racist acts to be committed and they do not benefit from sustaining them. We must ask – I must ask – who benefits when any person of color is kept oppressed in any manner, by any other person. The answer is so very obvious. (Some will say that this is true of any group that is oppressed. I agree. But this post is about racism.)

Some changes will require deep reflection, heart-felt conversations, raw honesty, and bravery. Perhaps you might start small and build from there. Perhaps this list could be a guide:

  1. Hearing our names matters. Can you pronounce your students’ names? Don’t say, “I’ll just call you . . .” or ask ,“Why’d your mom give you such a hard name?” or laugh aloud as you mispronounce a child’s name. Ask for help. Ask the student to tell you how to say his/her name.
  2. Seeing ourselves matters. Take a close and critical look at the reading (and viewing) materials in your classroom. Who is represented? How is that group represented? Who isn’t there? What does this say to each student? Don’t forget to look at those inspirational posters on your walls and the walls of your school. Who is represented in those posters? Who is not? And look at the staff in your school. Do students see teachers and administrators who look like them? If not (or if rarely) do you talk with students about this inequity? How can you and colleagues change who students see in your school?
  3. Having a chance to speak matters. Who speaks up in your classroom? Who needs help finding his or her own voice? How do you encourage all students to speak, to be heard, to listen, to participate?
  4. Being brave matters. What’s your response to colleagues who say, “Those kids just can’t do this” or “I teach white students, too, so shouldn’t they be represented in the curriculum and on the posters in my classroom?” or “We can’t worry about racism issues; that’s for families to discuss” or “That’s not my job. I’ve got standards to cover” or “If those parents would just speak English” or “I didn’t oppress anyone. This isn’t my problem.” When you hear those comments—and you probably will— silence is not an answer; silence is an agreement. Use your voice and speak up. Start a conversation. Remember that disruptions require that we ask ourselves what assumptions make change hard.
  5. Listening matters. Listen to your students’ stories. Ask them if they’ve experienced unfairness. Are they afraid? What could the school community do to change things. What could you do? What could they do? What conversations would they like to have in school?

This list is just a first step. Websites such as the following offer important resources and support:

A podcast by leading educators Sara Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul, and Cornelius Minor is worth every minute you’ll spend listening: http://www.heinemann.com/blog/the-heinemann-podcast-dismantling-racism-in-education/

It’s critically important to look closely at the books in your classroom. When students of color look through the books on your shelves, how often will they see a book by an author who looks like them, a book with characters who look like them? Can your LGBTQ students see books about them? Your Muslim students? Your Jewish students? Do you expect one or two (or three) authors of color to represent the entire range of experiences of everyone of that race? (Likewise, do you expect that of the students of color you teach? That one colleague in your department?) We all need to do better with diverse books. If you have yet spent time at the following website, I encourage you to do so:

As you are looking at the books in your classroom, note where the “diverse” (as one teacher called them) books are. Are they on a shelf or in a basket labeled “Diversity” or “Multicultural” or “Culturally Responsive” or some other such designation? Why? If this is to make easily visible a large number of books that you know your students want to read and should read, be sure your students know that is the reason. If it’s to highlight the few books you have, invest in more. If it’s to say to students or visitors, “See, I’ve got these books covered” then there’s an assumption that needs to be checked.

I’ll close this post with an excerpt from Disrupting Thinking, words written long before Charlottesville, but that now resonate even louder with me.

“The last few years—and particularly the 2016 Presidential election year—have shown us brutality, racism, sexism, misogyny; hateful language and acts toward members of the LGBTQ community; increased bullying in schools; vitriolic language and unsubstantiated assertions via Twitter, personal blogs, YouTube videos, and online news sources. Because the Internet allows a level of anonymity, some people may feel “safe” being vulgar, dismissive, and hurtful. But the words are still there and the impact—whether inflicted by an unknown person or a prominent political figure—is still painful.

We [Bob and I] think that developing more compassionate citizens is a desirable goal in and of itself. But not only is compassion a desirable characteristic of people, we also think that it is a necessary characteristic of readers. The more capable readers are of compassion, the more likely it is that they will be able to read well. Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them. It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus better understand motivations and thinking.

Ultimately, we are teaching children to read the text of their own lives. We want them open to possibility; open to ideas; open to new evidence that encourages a change of opinion. We want them using reading and writing as tools that help them in the re-vision of their own lives. We want them to have a better tomorrow. You are, for so many of these children, their best hope as schools stand as gatekeepers of a better tomorrow. As always, we are proud to stand beside you, though truly, as we have said before, we stand in awe of you.”

Those students—all students—will sit and watch and wait to see what you do and say. I have always placed my faith and trust in teachers. I do so again, today.

A Letter to Teachers as Summer Begins

June 2, 2017

Dear Teachers –

It’s summer. Some of you have already taught that last class; others of you will do that very soon. I’m thinking of you as I begin my summer of workshops with many of you, and I wanted to wish you each a summer that leaves you renewed for the fall.

I hope you each find time this summer to walk some, nap some, and read some. Actually, I hope you read a lot. Read something – lots of somethings – for pure escape, and read lots of things to learn a lot. Read way, way below your Lexile level (if you even know your Lexile level) and occasionally read above it.

I hope you watch a favorite movie one more time, make popcorn the old-fashioned way, don’t give a damn about how you look in a swimsuit and jump into the pool with a splash. I hope you’ll find a group with which to discuss hard issues. I hope you’ll find a group with which to enjoy a bottle of wine, or two. I hope you’ll fall in love with something. And if you haven’t fallen in love with someone, if that happens, I hope you fall head over heels and enjoy the giddiness of the time. And if anyone stares at who it is you care to love, hold her hand or his hand tighter and look the other way. That person staring at you, well that person isn’t worth your time.

I hope you’ll try something really hard and fail at it. Yes. Fail at it. Failing helps us all remember what it’s like to be that kid who fails, no matter the effort put forth. So find something you can’t do and try. Try and fail. And remember how that feels. And then imagine failing every day. Imagine how that feels. You’ll go back to school a different teacher.

I hope you’ll bake a cake from scratch. I hope you’ll laugh until you cry. And I hope when something hits you hard, you give yourself permission to cry, to sob, to feel in that moment all you truly should feel. I hope you sleep past an alarm; I hope some mornings you won’t set an alarm. I hope you learn a lot. Love a lot. I hope on rainy days you stay in PJs and I hope on sunny days you play outdoors.

And for those of you this summer who face hard days and nights as loved ones face illnesses or you battle your own; as hearts break and lives move apart; as parents die or friends part or children face problems none should face, I hope you always find those around you to offer solace, to offer help, to offer a steady hand.

For those of you taking a child to college, breathe. You’ve done your job. Breathe. Be proud. Don’t cry until you get in the car. And don’t text; well don’t text a lot. And don’t get a dog. Seriously. Don’t fill that empty nest too quickly. You’ll love that dog, but give yourself some space to enjoy this next phase of life. Then get a dog.

I hope you have wonderful dinners with great friends; get closets organized; rooms rearranged; garages cleaned; flowers planted – or that you give yourself permission to do none of the cleaning and just have more dinners. I hope you find the time to help someone who wasn’t expecting it; encourage someone who needs it; provide a warm embrace for someone who feels alone or lost.

I deeply hope you have a summer that when you look back you see that you embraced every moment of it. Felt every day of it. I hope that eventually, you look back and remember this summer with clarity, this summer that gave you the time to become so much.

My best to you all —

Kylene

Thailand, Day 3

What I didn’t write about while in Thailand but I will remember the longest.

On day 3 of my Thailand trip, I didn’t go to the school where I was working, but instead I stayed at the hotel to work with my colleague, Bob Probst, who had arrived the day before. We wanted to make sure we had all of our keynotes and workshops in order for the weekend conference.

We headed to the 31st floor of the Landmark Hotel to work together. It’s a big space with comfortable chairs and tables and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to the stunning landscape of Bangkok.

In the states, this floor might be considered the “executive lounge” floor and only accessible for folks with certain Hilton or Marriott status levels. But in this hotel, access wasn’t limited to anything, that we could tell, so I met Bob there and we set up our computers, got our coffee, and began to work.

And then I noticed something odd. A 60-something-year-old man walked in with a teenaged-looking Asian girl on his arm. He sat down and said to her with a dismissive waive of his small hand, “Go get what you want” as he pointed to the buffet breakfast. He was speaking English, but not with an American accent. Pot-bellied, balding, and smugly confident, I was positive he was not her husband, father, or benevolent uncle. Within minutes another man – same description – arrived with another very young, wide-eyed Asian girl. He, too, sent her off for food. Seated near them, I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

SOB #1: Yours looks like a high-flyer.

SOB #2: She’s great. Was getting another tonight but will keep this one.

SOB #1: Mine, looks aren’t so great, but she is fa-bu-lous, if you know what I mean.

Me to Bob: No, you can’t throw them out the plate glass window. 
Bob to me: Watch me.

Two other “business” men joined them and the four of them moved to another nearby table and discussed something that I’m sure made their small parts feel bigger. I swear, if I had heard with enough clarity the type of work they were doing or the company they were with, I’d blast either or both all over the web. The young girls with them, both sitting at other tables, ate hungrily, never looked up, and said nothing to each other. They both sat. Waited. Not anxious. Not anything other than waiting. I kept trying to catch their attention. That would have required that they look up.

Bob and I left. I couldn’t stand being there and Bob’s idea of throwing the men through the plate glass windows of the 31st floor didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Yet, it seemed the perfect thing to do. I wanted to rescue those young girls. They didn’t act as if they understood anyone thought they need rescuing. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, and I completely understood it. I was sickened and heart-broken.

I told one of the conference organizers what I saw and she was as appalled as I was, but admitted I wasn’t the first American to see such a thing at that hotel. She explained that they had put other Americans at that hotel and another speaker – also a women – had encountered a very similar situation and now refuses on subsequent visits to stay there. I will, too, should I ever go back.

The problem, as it was explained to me, is that this hotel is located in the business area and some foreign business men enjoy sex with young Thai girls. That’s it. They enjoy sex with young Thai girls and it’s not illegal and the hotel is near the what the men want – where they conduct their business and where they can find the girls they want.

Sex-trafficking in this area is a huge problem and prostitution is not illegal. As one local explained to me, many families consider that when their young daughters are good enough for “town work,” they are able to move out of working in the opium fields. This is a step up. What I saw was a step up.

The most important association I might have right now is with Pam Allyn‘s work with LitWorld. This global organization helps girls worldwide find their own voices, discover what it means to be valued, figure out what it means to value themselves. What Pam is doing can help change the lives of girls. Everywhere. I deeply appreciate that Pam has invited me to serve on her advisory board. This board isn’t worried about Lexiles or state tests or leveled libraries. This board is worried about the lives of children, and especially of girls. There are girls out there in the world, in 2017, now, tonight as you read this, who have been convinced that a step-up is accomplished by lying down. With old men who leave their wives at home. Shame on those men. Shame on them. Shame. On. Them.

And as I condemn those men, I realize that I have done so little in this world. I have done so very little.

Yes, I want to go back to Thailand. I want to show all those girls that the next step up is there for them. That giving yourself to someone who does not value you, does not respect you, does not care for you, is not the next step for you.

And if you want to help, then donate today to http://www.litworld.orgbecause when girls find their voice, then girls find they have a choice. It’s one of the organizations my husband and I support. I encourage you to do the same. Any amount. You will be changing the lives of girls.

And as you do, those SOBs, and all their friends, will discover that they are only sad, fat, old, pompous, desperate, cheating, lying, bald men. Alone. On the 31st floor.

 

A Brief (Not Really), Critically Important (Absolutely) History Lesson

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Be clear about this -the ESEA was a Civil Rights law with President Johnson saying that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.” It offered more than $1 billion dollars a year under its Title I section to help with the cost of educating disadvantaged youth. This new act provided:

1. Grants to districts serving low-income students
2. Federal grants for textbooks
3. Federal grants for school library books
4. Federal funding for special education
5. Scholarships for low-income college students
6. Grants to improve elementary and secondary education. (see information at Dept of Ed)

Enter NCLB

This education act has been reauthorized repeatedly since then, with one reauthorization probably best known: in 2002, it was revised and reauthorized under the name No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This law, authorized under President George W. Bush, expanded the Federal role and focused specifically on holding schools accountable for student progress. If states did not comply with the new assessment measures, they risked losing their Title I dollars. (see No Child Left Behind: An Overview)

Under NCLB, states were to test all students in grades 3 – 8 and one time in high school and were to show how groups such as ELLs, children with special needs, children of poverty, and racial minorities were progressing. By 2013-2014, all students in all states were to have reached “proficiency” though each state could decide what that meant.

Another Reauthorization: ESSA

In 2015, President Obama signed into law the reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB and it was known at the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This bill was a strong bi-partisan effort with both sides claiming victory. Republicans liked that it returned a lot of power to local/state control. Democrats liked that equity was still a critical issue. The best side-by-side comparison of NCLB and ESSA I’ve found can be accessed here.

A few things to note about ESSA – our current law:

1. Codifies that districts must allow students in underperforming schools the opportunity to transfer to another school – if permitted by the state. So, this level of school choice is ALREADY LAW.

2. Requires that DISTRICTS (not federal government or state) develop their own evidenced- based strategies for school improvement. This is LOCAL CONTROL.

3. Requires that STATES implement their own actions for schools in need of improvement. Again, this is a return to STATE CONTROL.

4. Prohibits the Secretary of Education for prescribing any specific school supports or improvement strategies. (RETURN TO LOCAL/STATE CONTROL)

5. Requires that the annual state report card include a description of the state assessment; a list of schools identified (by the states) as needing improvement; graduation rates; NAEP results; per-pupil expenditures.

6. Eliminates AYP and the 100% proficiency requirement.

7. Prohibits the Secretary of Education from prescribing any part of an accountability system.

8. Allows STATES to decide how much weight to give to tests and what consequences if any should be attached to poor performance. (STATE CONTROL)

Understanding Regulations

Now, laws don’t provide all the details needed for people to be able to follow them. Congress writes a law. The President signs it. And then agencies fill in details. For those of us in education, that agency is the Department of Education (if looking at the Federal level). These details or rules are called regulations.

On May 31, 2016, the DOE published a draft of the regulations that would guide accountability under ESSA. (Don’t you feel smart using all these acronyms!) The DOE invited comments on proposed regulations and 21,000+ were received. Push backs on several areas resulted on the DOE being responsive and revising several areas of regulations. Eventually, Chris Minnich, who is the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (so think the 50 state superintendents) praised the regulations saying, “It is clear the U.S. Department of Education listened to the feedback from state education chiefs across the country and made several important changes to ensure the accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act can be implemented in all states” (See this report.) So, the STATES were happy with what the regulations told them they needed to do.

And so the states started writing their plans that needed to be submitted to the Secretary by April or (if an extension was given) by September of 2017. Things were going well. For a while, at least.

Enter Trump

Now, the Trump administration has decided to put its own stamp on education. And here’s where things get tricky.

In early February, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order that said that for every one new regulation issued at least two prior regulations must be eliminated and “the total incremental cost of all new regulations, including repealed regulations, to be finalized in fiscal year 2017 shall be no greater than zero.” Law experts agree that this order not only lacks details on how to accomplish this, but that it will probably result in a “de facto moratorium on issuance of many major rules” (http://educationnext.org/what-happens-if-obamas-essa-regul…/). What the heck does this mean? Basically, if you get want a new regulation, you have to get rid of two. Keep that in mind. You have to get rid of two.

Getting Rid of Regulations with an Obscure Statute

Usually, it’s hard to get rid of regulations that are part of laws. There’s a public notice time and a public response time. That often brings about some legal wrangling. This is because regulations are slow to be accepted and so tossing them out ought to require public response.

While we were all focused on Secretary DeVos’s hearings (and that “we” most certainly includes me), the US House of Representatives voted to roll back regulations found in ESSA. The Senate is expected to vote to do the same this week and President Trump has already said he’ll sign this. The House decided to eliminate regulations in ESSA concerning accountability using “an obscure statute called the Congressional Review Act, used only once before in 2001 by President George. W. Bush” (see previous citation).

The CRA allows Congress to repeal regulations by a simple majority. It also requires that any new regulations (pay attention to this) cannot be “substantially similar” to the regulations that were struck down. So, removing regulations on assessments via CRA means you can’t tweak the language; the new regulation must be substantially different. And, because of the Executive Order, only one regulation can replace two that are removed and the cost of that one must be zero.

Breathe. There’s more

So, ESSA was made a law; through a series of conversations, the DOE established regulations that the CCSSO liked. Now states and local districts know what to do regarding accountability if they want to receive federal funds. Currently, states must submit their accountability plans to the Secretary by April (or with an extension) by September 2017. And yet, the regulations that let states know what rules to follow, are about to disappear.

Secretary DeVos sent out a letter to the State Chiefs her third day in office and affirmed the April and September deadlines and said that “I am writing today to assure you that I fully intend to implement and enforce the statutory requirements of the ESSA.” She went on to explain that “Congress is currently considering a joint resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) (5 U.S.C. §§ 801- 808) to overturn these regulations. If a resolution of disapproval is enacted, these regulations ‘shall have no force or effect.'”

And Thus the Problem

So, we’ll probably find ourselves in a terrible conundrum if the Senate continues down this path. With an Executive Order that offers few details on what to do when regulations are repealed and an obscure act that allows for repealing of regulations with no discussion, and a demand that new regulations be substantially different, states are about to find themselves needing to prepare documents that help them receive needed Federal funds with no regulations to help guide them. The Secretary’s hands will be tied because of the Executive Order. State-level work that has gone into creating plans that specifically address teacher preparation and accountability are now in limbo.

The repeal of ESSA as handled by CRA repeal of regulations when seen in tandem with this Executive Order spells problems for local and state education agencies.

Call your Senators. Tell them not to repeal ESSA. Or tell them that using this obscure CRA provision will create more havoc than anyone wants. And remember, ESSA has its roots in ESEA, an act that wanted to assure that a full educational opportunity belongs to all. Education: a Civil Right.

An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

First, you should know that I did not support your nomination to be Secretary of Education. I suspect you come to this position excited to be tapped to hold such a noteworthy position and adamant in your support of education for children. I had hoped for a Secretary of Education who stands firm in her support for public schools, has worked in public schools, been a parent of children who attended public schools, has experience as a teacher, understands laws around public schools, and has published articles and/or books for teachers and/or administrators about teaching. I want the Surgeon General to be a doctor; I want the Attorney General to be a lawyer; I want the Secretary of Education to be a teacher. Nonetheless, you had credentials that the Republican party found made you the nation’s single most-qualified person to lead our public schools.

And so here you are. Please know I’m here to support you. I need you to support our public schools because that is your position. You might wonder what in the world the two of us have in common. I admit, I do not have your financial pedigree, but I do have decades of service to public schools and public school teachers, and I am a public school teacher. We disagree on the role of charter schools, but I suspect we would agree that without the best schools possible, our nation falters. I suspect we agree that our children of today are our best hope for a better tomorrow. I believe we would find common ground in the belief that our nation’s public school teachers are one our nation’s most precious resources. I bet both of us wanted an education for our own children that helped them be prepared for whatever this world throws at them; I would hope we both would agree that we want that for all children and that given the right resources our public schools can provide such opportunities. I would hope that you want to educate yourself about all that the Secretary of Education must understand and support regarding public schools.

In short, I would hope we might find more in common than we might have initially thought. So, I want to apologize for the way you were treated when you tried to visit a Washington, D.C., school. I want you in every school. I want you to sit in classrooms, talk with teachers, watch students, visit with administrators. Though you lack the credentials to stand before students and teach, I want you to sit through classes, go to lunch, head to P.E., stand in bus duty, take on lunch duty, visit the school libraries, sit with the school nurses. I want you to see the excellent teaching and joyful learning evident in our schools. I want you to watch teachers share their own money so kids can buy lunch. I want you to see teachers wipe away tears as children sob because Dad didn’t come home or Mom lost her job or a grandparent has been diagnosed with cancer, or a sibling is missing, or no one could take her to the store to buy the poster board the science teacher wanted. I want you to see teachers stand before thirty-five students who read at different levels and have only one textbook written at one level to hand to them. I want you in that school and every school. I want you to meet band directors who beg for any dollars to provide instruments for students, watch choir directors work after school with one more student who wants to try-out for district choir, see one more coach help one more kid. I want you to watch teachers deal with administrators who tell them to “get up test scores” when they know that teaching to the test means not teaching to the child. I am ashamed of the way you were treated and apologize. You are our Secretary of Education and we need you in many schools, immediately.

So, I’m here. Let’s talk. Let’s find our common ground – and I suspect that ground will be a larger parcel than either of us would have imagined. Let’s figure out how you can best support the people who each day walk into our nation’s schools and work hard to do their best, to ready our nation’s children for today and for tomorrow. And let’s figure out how I and many others can best support you. Let’s start today making our nation’s public schools what we all want: the best place for our children to reach their potential.

My best to you,

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.
Secondary Certified English Teacher
Past President, National Council of Teachers of English
CEL Outstanding Leadership Award
Comer School Development Program Senior Reading Researcher, Yale University
Author, When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do
Co-Author, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading
Co-Author, Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies
Co-Author, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters

What We Do Next

Dear Teachers,

So many of us are deeply disappointed in the committee approval of Betsy DeVos. We’re disappointed because we believe that the Secretary of Education ought to have deep understanding of educational issues and laws. We’re disappointed because during the hearings, DeVos did not demonstrate that she has that understanding. We must depend on that hearing because she does not have a history of work in public schools, at being published in peer-reviewed journals or by educational publishers. She hasn’t presented at state or national conferences, written educational blog posts, worked on textbooks, served on national councils, or been a part of the national conversation on educational issues. She doesn’t come to the job with the history of being a teacher, a supervisor, an administrator, a professor of education. So, it was the hearing that showed us, showed the nation, the depth of her knowledge of educational issues.

And that depth was shallow.

And so we wonder what it means that she might be our Secretary of Education. We wonder what it means that our Congress thinks she has the expertise to lead our nation’s public schools.

Here’s my answer: I don’t give a damn what Congress thinks. Congress seems to not care enough about what happens in schools to make sure the Secretary of Education actually understands what happens in schools. So here’s where I’m putting my effort: I’m putting my effort into helping you. I care what you think. I care what you do. I care what happens each day in your classroom.

And that means that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I need you to walk back into your classroom and teach students. Do the best job you have ever done. Look at each child and see that child as your own. Look at each child and know that one of them will cure cancer; figure out how to make polluted water clean; find a way to make sure no one is ever hungry; become a teacher or a fireman or a chef or a lawyer or a preacher or an actor or a mom or dad. That squirrelly child who can’t find a pencil might someday serve in our armed forces or become a policeman/woman or a plumber; a farmer or a pharmacist; a grocer or a salesperson. And one might decide to take on leading this nation and go into public service. Those children you teach are our tomorrow and for our tomorrow to be the best it can be, we need you to be your best today. Spend more time talking with colleagues about what is working and what isn’t. Read more. Read more. Read more. Push harder. Don’t ever give up.

Make sure you know who your local school board members are. Can you name them? Do you write them? Do you let them know what is working and what isn’t working in your district? Do you know who your state school board members are? Do you reach out to them? Do you create the time to write to them? Do you reach out to your local newspaper and describe all that is wonderful that your students are doing? Do you write for your state journals? Are you a member of your national content association such as the National Council of Teachers of English?

In other words, worry most about your kids. They deserve the best you can give. And worry a lot about what you know and don’t know. Work with your colleagues to learn more. Always learn more. And work hard to make sure you are active at your local and state level.

And call your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Respectfully share why you think our educational system deserves a Secretary of Education who actually understands and believes in public education.

And go tomorrow into your classrooms and teach. Shut your door and teach. And I’ll keep doing all I can do to support you.

You are, for so many of our nation’s children, their best hope at a better tomorrow. Go teach.

Reflecting on Tomorrow

Dear Teachers:

I have teachers to be with tomorrow, on November 9, and that is where I want to be.

What I have learned tonight is that the anger and hurt in this country is deeper and stronger than I understood.

I am a teacher. I am a teacher. I tell children “Don’t bully. Respect others. Don’t call people names. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t lie. Work hard. Prepare for important things. Study. Read. Think before you speak.” And yet tonight I sit here and watch how those qualities matter less than I thought they would, they should.

And so I sit here tonight and cry. I cry for the teacher who told me today that her colleague is Latina and has said she and her family have their escape plan to Canada because of a family member who is here illegally. I cry for the taxi cab driver in NYC who told me his eighth grade daughter is afraid to go to school the day after the election because they are Muslim and students at her school have said “You’ll be kicked out, you terrorist.” I cry for my friend’s son who is afraid his mom will die if Trump “gets rid of the healthcare my mom needs because she has cancer.” I cry for my friend whose son is disabled and he has wondered why people like a man who “makes fun of people like me.”

Dear teachers, some of your students will arrive sad and scared. And some will arrive boastful and willing to share that walls will be built and terrorists will be kicked out. And in one classroom they will sit looking at each other. And then they will look to you. If you are like me, you will wonder “What now do I do?”

Turn to books. Books have always saved us and they will again.

Our kids must read Wonder to sob at the way we treat those who are different and never, never, read that book to identify vocabulary words. We must read Speak to find our own voice and not to compare and contrast characters. We must walk across the bridge into Terabithia to stand in awe, not to answer a multiple-choice question. We must read Ira Sleeps Over and watch how one confronts fear. We must read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and wonder how, oh how, could we have ever have made those mistakes. We must read to laugh; to cry; to learn; to grow; to get lost and to be found.

And we must write to discover who we are as we hide in an attic; as we walk along a dusty road; as step through a wardrobe. We have turned literature into a multiple-choice test and writing into a chance to earn points on a rubric and in those moments we have forgotten that literature and writing heal; literature and writing never give up; literature and writing give us voice.

If we read to go places we have never been, then we write to become what we never knew we wanted to be. We must read and write more. More. And then more again.

So tomorrow, let your kids read. Let your kids write. Let your kids discover their voices. Let your kids know that kindness still counts.That bullying – in your classroom – is not tolerated. That stories can heal.

Tomorrow will be followed by the next tomorrow and the one after it and the next. And each day, you will help kids learn that words – those they read and those they write – can help them through the hardest of days.

So proudly, I stand beside you. Today. And tomorrow.