Immigration Assignment & Montgomery County Public Schools

May 29, 2013

Immigrants In Own Words, Woodlin ES, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Immigrants In Own Words, Woodlin ES, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Well, the two-month long ordeal that was my son’s fourth grade immigration/migration segment and assignments concluded at the end of last week. While my son’s teachers at Woodlin ES and administrators at MCPS were well-meaning, this was probably the single worst assignment I’ve seen given by them to my son and his classmates. As I said in my post on this project from earlier this month, teaching undergraduates and graduate students the big and nuanced differences between two enormously important trends in American history is difficult. Teachers with an average understanding (at best) of historical trends and patterns like immigration and migration teaching nine and ten-year olds? That’s an almost impossible task.

It was a thoroughly frustrating assignment to watch my son go through and for me as his helper. It was a terrible set of tasks pedagogically, and just plain bad history, even for elementary school. Their so-called Wax Museum immigration project (they also titled it the 4th grade Legacy Project) called for each student to interview a relative that immigrated to the US. After our complaints, the school modified the assignment to include “a composite of several of your family members, with a mix of fact and fiction to tell the story” (emphasis added). Sorry, but encouraging “realistic” fiction for a big social studies assignment is beyond unacceptable. It shows a complete misunderstanding of US history and proper teaching methods for this subject.

In getting ready for my version of summer academic enrichment for my son (where he can build on his reading, writing and math skills while also doing fun summer camps), I ordered textbooks and other grade-appropriate materials. One of these was the activity workbook for The American Journey textbook, typically US history taught between sixth and eighth grade. I have tons of US history textbooks — I wanted the activities workbook to help guide and calibrate what my son should read and learn without going into every college-level historical nuance.

"An Immigrant's Experience" worksheet from The American Journey activity workbook, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

“An Immigrant’s Experience” worksheet from The American Journey activity workbook, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

When I leafed through the workbook last week, I found a worksheet activity titled “An Immigrant’s Experience.” The worksheet directions asked for students to “[i]nterview someone in your community who immigrated to the United States from another country or research the life of an immigrant to your state.” I realized that the questions from my son’s “Immigrants in Their Own Words” assignment were similar to the ones from this worksheet meant for kids at least two grade levels above his.

That sounds great in some respects, but it’s not. Not really. Not when I considered the fact that this was my son’s (and his classmates’) first real foray into US history at his school. Not when I figured that even this material from Glencoe McGraw-Hill mixed up immigration and migration, and yet the questions were specifically about immigration. These questions were obviously meant to cover either the 1870-1920 period or (in some cases) the period since 1965.

And certainly not when I thought about what my son told me about his teacher’s negative response to changing his assignment questions to specifically reflect migration, in his case, Black migration. Really? I didn’t think that asking his grandmother about what her folks thought about the differences between the US and their home country was an appropriate question.

As part of this social studies segment, my son also had to complete an assignment on waves of immigration, one that listed immigration to the Western Hemisphere in four phases or waves. One being from 1492-1820, then 1820-1890, then 1890-1950, then 1950 to today. This just made me shake my head. The periodization — as we historians call it — was so far off that slaves and conquistadors could be considered immigrants in the same way as Scotch-Irish living in the hills of Kentucky! Apparently MCPS produced this handout in 2001 as part of their social studies focus.

Focus Questions For Waves of Immigration (2001), MCPS, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Focus Questions For Waves of Immigration (2001), MCPS, May 28, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Now I’ll have to do something I hoped I’d never have to do, at least prior to my son going to high school. I must now correct what my son has been taught in school for the past two months. Good thing, though, that most of what my son learned on this topic will be forgotten by July 4th. It’ll make it easier for me to correct the incorrect.


K-12 Curriculum as a Mystery Novel

May 2, 2013

Unsolved Mysteries, December 19, 2011. (http://news.discovery.com).

Unsolved Mysteries, December 19, 2011. (http://news.discovery.com).

This week, my son will complete a fourth-grade project in which he interviewed his Pittsburgh grandmother about her migration experience from rural Arkansas to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Depression decade. Sounds pretty good — and very advanced — on the surface of things. But the reality of how this school project evolved shows how much has changed — and not for the better — regarding schools and curriculum. For my son’s school in Silver Spring, Maryland, for Montgomery County Public Schools and for schools across the country.

You see, the bulk of testing season is over for MCPS’ elementary schools. So instead of practice tests, formative assessments (otherwise known as “formatives”) and the actual exams (MSA, MAP-M and MAP-R), the teachers now have to focus on lesson plans that aren’t test-driven. For April, the fourth-grade teachers at my son’s school decided to do a social studies project on immigration. They started with a wax museum project at school, as well as a field trip to the Phillips Collection in DC.

This was where things began to get interesting for me as a parent. The permission slip for the field trip presented this unit as immigration. Yet in my son’s trip to the Phillips Collection, him and his classmates would peruse a set of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on migration. For those of you who don’t know, Lawrence’s most famous paintings were of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between roughly 1915 and 1930.

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Series, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (1993), May 1, 2013. (Elizabeth Hutton Turner; http://ucdavis.libguides.com/).

Jacob Lawrence: Migration Series (Cover Art), Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (1993), May 1, 2013. (Elizabeth Hutton Turner; http://ucdavis.libguides.com/).

I could barely contain the historian side of me when I read such an obvious and unbelievable error. But I decided to not assume that the fourth-grade teachers made the decision to treat immigration the same as migration. So I hand-wrote a note that politely suggested that they make a correction on the permission slip and for the overall assignment, since immigration and migration aren’t the same at all.

This was the response I received by email on April 4:

“We have had this wonderful trip planned for the 4th grade for the past 4 years and we always make sure to front load the students with information about the migration process.”

When teachers go into placating-mode without actually addressing my concerns as a parent (and an educator, for that matter), it’s usually a sign of trouble where there otherwise shouldn’t have been any trouble.

Then, nearly two weeks ago, my son brought home his interview/presentation assignment based on the wax museum project and his Phillips Collection field trip. It was titled “Immigrants in Their Own Words.” The fourth-grade teachers had charged the students — including my son — with the task of finding a family member who had immigrated to the US, interviewing them and asking them questions like “In which year did you come to America?” and “What is the biggest difference between America and your country of origin?”

Flabbergasted is just the beginning of my deep sense of puzzlement over the assignment. It was an assignment straight out of a Facts of Life or Head of the Class episode from the 1980s, culturally and racial insensitive to the core. After all, the height of White immigration to the US ended nearly a century ago. For Blacks, well, if I have to explain it, then it may be worth the while of those of you who do teach to take my History of American Education course (that is, whenever I get to teach it again).

My wife wrote an email about this follow-up assignment, to which my son’s teacher replied, “[e]migration and [i]mmigration are almost splitting hairs.” Really? In what history or ed foundations course? With some prodding, we were given the opportunity to adapt the assignment so that my son could work on migration. Of course, even without that note, I would’ve insisted on him doing migration anyway.

Mysterious...the new Sherlock Holmes, January 17, 2011. (H. Armstrong, Roberts/Corbis; http://www.guardian.co.uk/).

Mysterious…the new Sherlock Holmes, January 17, 2011. (H. Armstrong, Roberts/Corbis; http://www.guardian.co.uk/).

That this process was poorly executed is only part of the story. For nearly five years, my son’s curriculum has been a mystery to me, as it jumped around from pre-algebra to basic addition, from writing letters in which he could write phonetically to having to write about beetles in grammatically correct but short sentences. After five years, my son has never brought a textbook home. The weekly emails from teachers and postings on the neighborhood school website and the MCPS website tell me a lot about nothing.

In sum, I know quite a bit about test dates, subject areas and sometimes subject matter in which the state of Maryland and the school district will test the students. What we don’t know from day one of any school year are the themes for each subject for the year or for any given marking period. Because of the priority of testing above all else, the amount of time in the curriculum on subjects like social studies has narrowed, and with it, a teacher’s ability to be autonomous and to think through curriculum in a critical manner. And without textbooks, I as a parent can’t truly anticipate how to help prepare my son for any new or potentially challenging materials.

It’s difficult, though, to anticipate that your son will come home with an assignment on immigration in the fourth marking period of fourth grade. Especially when I as a history professor know how complicated these processes are for undergraduate and graduate students to wrap their brains around. Especially since my son has yet to write a full-fledged book report on any any book he has read for school. Or spent significant time on history or other, non-test-related subjects. Education should always be a journey, but never a mystery.


The Wussification of Grading

August 29, 2012

Grades Collage, January 24, 2010. (http://hopkins.typepad.com).

Montgomery County Public Schools opened its doors to students for the start of the 2012-13 school year on Monday, August 27. With the start of the school year came some new changes to the report card and grading system, at least for MCPS’ elementary schools. Starting this year, the school district has dropped the old grading system of O, S and N (Outstanding, Satisfactory and Needs Improvement) for first and second graders, and the old A, B, C, D and E system for third, fourth and fifth graders. Instead, they’ve introduced a new grading system for all 1st-5th graders:

Score Description
ES Exceptional at the grade-level standard
P Meets the grade-level standard by demonstrating proficiency of the content or processes for the measurement topic
I In progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
N Not yet making progress or making minimal progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
M Missing data – no grade recorded
NEP Not English Proficient; may be used for a level 1 or 2 ESOL student for no more than two marking periods.

According to MCPS, “[t]he goal of this grading format is to give families a clear understanding of your child’s progress toward end of year grade level expectations.”

Now, I’ve been an educator of some sort now for the better part of two decades, and have worked with several grading systems as a college professor. Not to mention having to learn different grading systems as a student even before that. Trust me when I say that this new grading system isn’t a clear one, and isn’t easy to understand.

But the overall goal is clear. MCPS wants to tie grades to their new yet only partially implemented integrated Curriculum 2.0, adopted as part of the new Core Curriculum for the state of Maryland. It is an integrated, standards-based curriculum that introduces a variety of interrelated themes across the various subjects for K-5 (although fourth and fifth grade will not see any of this curriculum until 2013, when my son is in fifth grade). In theory, this grading system will be more directly tied to students’ proficiency levels in achieving or exceeding state-level standards in reading, mathematics, writing and other subjects for their grade level.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, if a child is proficient in say, the fourth-grade standard for reading, then they would receive a P grade. This is unreasonable, though, and for at least a couple of reasons. For one, it means the entire MCPS elementary school curriculum has become about meeting standards that will be tested at the state-level on the MSA, and at the county level on MAP-R. The curriculum itself has now become integrated into the testing game at the elementary school level.

Second, and maybe even more important here, is the idea that grading-to-a-testing-based-curriculum is a better and more accurate way to assess children. I’m not sure how this helps kids, though. If a student does well enough to score multiple “ES'” on their report card, they’ve exceeded the standard for their grade level. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready for the next grade level. If a student has multiple N’s on their report card, does that mean that they have failed to meet the standards in several subjects at their grade level, that they aren’t making progress?

ESPN logo, August 29, 2012. (http://thebiglead.com). In public domain.

It seems to me that beyond understanding the grading system and the tensions in its methodology is the fact that, in the end, these grades aren’t going to mean much to MCPS’ K-5 students. Or to students across the state of Maryland, for that matter. After all, an A, C, or E is much easier to interpret than an ES, P, I or N (or ESP(i)N, as I’ll begin to call it from now on). Psychologically speaking, while this grading system takes some symbolic pressure off of performance via state and county test scores, it also means that kids won’t have a full appreciation for success, mixed success or failure beyond a curriculum of testing.

It would’ve been smarter to go to a qualitative grading system — something that I know some schools and universities have used over the years — than to this one that ties curriculum and grading systems to testing. At least with a descriptive system of grading, you can get in a single paragraph a fairly focused analysis from a teacher about a student’s progress, their strengths, weaknesses and where they’ve had good or great success. This new MCPS grading system, though, is the academic equivalent of giving every team in a children’s soccer league a trophy, whether their record was 10-0 or 0-10. It pretty much renders grading meaningless, as everything is about standards and measurements, and ultimately, testing.


Curriculum 2.0 – Been There, Done That

May 21, 2012

Nekyia: Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BCE, from Vulci, February 13, 2007. (Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikipedia). In public domain.

This school year, my son’s school district, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, began implementation of what they call Curriculum 2.0. This new curriculum, formerly known as the Elementary Integrated Curriculum, has been in the works for the better part of a decade. As MCPS explained in a flyer to parents, Curriculum 2.o will be one that will “better engage students and teachers, and dedicate more learning time to subjects such as the arts, information literacy, science, social studies and physical education. By blending these subjects with the core content areas of reading, writing, and mathematics, students will receive robust, engaging instruction across all subjects in the early grades.”

Why is better engagement of teachers and students necessary, and how will an integrated curriculum make this possible? The answer to the first part of this question is much more obvious than the answer to the second part. In light of county-level and state-level testing (in the latter case, the MSA for third, fourth and fifth grades), an engaging and integrated curriculum will enable students to be better prepared for the heavy doses of critical reasoning and reading comprehension that this testing involves, at least theoretically.

What hasn’t made much sense has been the implementation process itself, as Curriculum 2.0 became the curriculum for kindergarten and first graders in this 2011-12 school year, with the option of having it for second graders at some schools (like my son’s school in Silver Spring). Meanwhile, third and fourth graders won’t become part of Curriculum 2.0 until 2012-13, and this year’s fifth graders won’t see Curriculum 2.0 at all. It seems as if the implementation process was about as well planned as the SS Minnow’s tour of the South Pacific.

But that’s not the only story here. For someone’s who’s spent a great deal of time attempting to understand

A One Thousand and One Night manuscript written in Arabic under the second half of the Abbasid Era (750-1258 CE), February 9, 2008 (Danieliness via Wikipedia). Released into public domain via cc-by-sa-3.0 license.

the circumstances under which I grew up, including my times in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools in the ’70s and ’80s, MCPS’s Curriculum 2.0 is sort of like deja vu all over again. Except that in the period between ’76 and ’93, the kind of curriculum MCPS is implementing now was mostly for Mount Vernon’s gifted and talented students then, students who were part of the district’s Humanities Program, particularly those in the Grimes Center for Creative Education. The motivations for developing a similar curriculum three and half decades earlier came out of the need for racial integration and preventing White Flight, and in the process, a measure of academic excellence. Different circumstances in search of the same results, I guess.

A piece of evidence I uncovered a few years ago while working on Boy @ The Window shows how much educators reinvent the wheel in terms of curriculum development, a pitfall in education on which Diane Ravitch has been proven correct for the past thirty years. Charlotte Evans wrote in her April 1981 New York Times article on the Grimes Center that there “is a flowering of creativity at Pennington-Grimes [Grimes had combined with Pennington in the 1980-81 school year] that is evident in the hallways as well as in the classrooms.” Leroy L. Ramsey, New York State Department of Education Administrator of Intercultural Affairs and Educational Integration, when asked by Evans to comment, said that “the intent” of a school like Pennington-Grimes “was to break racial isolation and to stop white flight, and we have done that in Mount Vernon.”

As detailed by Evans in her April 1981 New York Times article, with the

[c]oordinating [of] language, math and science with social studies in the same way, first graders study the family and its roots, how people live and lived in different places. Second graders focus on prehistoric times – the old and new Stone Ages; third graders on the ancient Middle East, fourth graders on Greek and Roman civilization and sixth graders on the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Discovery.

This interdisciplinary approach to creating a magnet-style gifted track curriculum did not stop with a focuson other histories and cultures in social studies. “Fifth-graders, for example, specialize in studying the Middle Ages in Islamic nations and in Africa and Europe,” but they also “read Arabian Nights in connection with their Islamic study and went on to African folk tales,” according to fifth-grade teacher Mattie Lucadamo. In addition, there were other “flourishes,” such as “learning the foundation of Hindu-Arabic numbers” and “study[ing] astronomy, tracing it back to the Babylonians.”

It never ceases to amaze me how we as educators, education researchers, and governments spend time, money and human resources recreating what was already in existence, in this case, when I was my son’s age. But, like with the experiment that was the Grimes Center and Humanities, parents with resources will find a way to game the system. In one case, an innovative program was moved to Mount Vernon’s predominantly White North Side in May ’80, and tended to give more preferences to White students in general.

In the case of Curriculum 2.0, the more aware parents will send their kids to Kumon or Kaplan or other testing centers to give their kids every opportunity to do well in this new curriculum, score in the top percentiles on the MSA, and garner the gifted label in time for middle school.


Getting My Son To Eat Lunch

January 19, 2012

Lunch at a DC public school, (the closest approximation to the pizza lunches I've observed this school year), March 14, 2011. (http://betterdcschoolfood.blogspot.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as photo is used only to illustrate subject of post, not for reproduction.

I’m out of new ideas, old ideas, tried and true ideas. In the three and a half years since my son began kindergarten in Montgomery County Public Schools, he has become increasingly picky and undisciplined about eating his lunch. He eats breakfast, snacks throughout the evening, and eats his dinner just fine. But lunch, oh, lunch — it’s been a struggle.

Noah hates sandwiches, ALL sandwiches. He stopped eating peanut butter and jelly almost a year and a half ago. For most of second grade, I bought Noah chicken nuggets, the organic kind from Whole Foods, toast them, put them in a Thermos, pack a separate container with ketchup, and had confidence that he’d eat most or all of it. Then last March, I did one of my random lunches with him at his school, only to discover that Noah had been throwing away his lunch from home, for at least two months according to one of his friends. “The nuggets are too hard and cold,” he said.

My son all but gave up on the lunches served at his school two years ago. By the second month of first grade — October 2009 — Noah would only eat the chicken nuggets lunch or the hot dog lunch. By the end of that school year, it was just the chicken nuggets lunch. Given my observations of two dozen or so lunches served at his school since August ’08, I can’t really blame him. Holmes Elementary’s cold PB&J sandwiches, A.B. Davis’ grilled ham and cheese sandwiches (at least by how they smelled), and Mount Vernon High School’s “murder burgers and suicide fries” would be like eating at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for Noah and his compadres these days. (By the way, thanks Akbar Buckley for the burgers and fries refrain, wherever you are).

Noah proud of his cinnamon sugar donuts, December 18, 2011 (maybe should serve for his lunch now). (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve spent morning after morning fixing lunches that I hoped Noah would eat. I’ve done everything I know and then some. Let’s see. McDonald’s McNuggets and fries, cheese pizza slices, Oscar Meyer Lunchables, turkey drumsticks, chicken drumsticks, meat slices, bologna sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, beef patties, spaghetti and meat sauce, apples, chips, Goldfish, cookies, homemade french bread, fruit snacks and Fruit Roll-Ups, pancake and bacon, and hot dogs. His response. “The hot dog is cold, and the bread is too hard,” or “I didn’t have time to eat,” or “I don’t like sandwiches,” or the slice of pizza was “too big.”

This is where we are. Noah, like every other student, needs to eat in order to function at maximum capacity academically. But my guess is that the constant noise of his lunchroom and the chaos that is recess is a distraction for him. MCPS’ stripped down budget and bare minimum USDA-approved lunches don’t help stimulate his digestive tract either.

It’s not like he could walk home for lunch like I did all through elementary school. Kids within half a block of Noah’s school aren’t allowed to walk home, given the times we live in. And we live a mile and a half from his school anyway. Short of picking him up for lunch every day — which I doubt he’d want — I’ve lost my footing on this issue. I don’t want to go there with disciplinary actions, not with food, not with the way kids handle food these days. Hmm…


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