Testing, Homework and Racism in Norfolk Public Schools

With all of the furor and stupidity surrounding the presidential election, I’d like to draw your attention back home here to Norfolk, Virginia. The wisteria and azaleas are blooming, one last cold snap from winter has grasped our air, and we are only weeks away from a very important municipal election on May 3rd. On the ballot will be a new mayoral contest, as the incumbent of 22 years is not seeking re-election, and for the first time in decades we will be electing members to our school board. The school board race is where I’d like for us to sit and have a discussion.

If I had the attention of the two candidates who are running for school board in superward 6, Dr. Noel Gabriel and Carter Smith, there are quite a few things that I would like to hear them address that extend beyond their current talking points:

  1. Testing: Last year, the late Virginia Senator, John Miller, passed a bill, SB 336, through the general assembly to begin reducing the number of SOL tests required from 29 to 17. However, this does not address the preparation testing culture that has pervaded K-5. My 7 year old first grader does not take an SOL for 2 more years, however, he is regularly tested on content in the same format as the SOL in order to prepare him for the structure of the future test. The teacher is not allowed to prompt him if she sees him struggling to find the answer. Even though he performs well at home and on his homework, he receives failing grades on all of his tests because he is being held to the testing standards of 9 year olds. This is unacceptable. It has already given him high testing and performance anxiety. I want to know how our school board candidates will encourage less testing in the classroom for assessment and preparation testing that is developmentally inappropriate for younger students.
  2. Homework: There is significant research that suggests that homework in grades K-5 does not have any significant correlation with academic achievement. And if there is slight a correlation, that anything past 10 minutes per grade level actually does more harm than good. My first grader regularly spends 30+ minutes a night working on homework plus an added 20 minutes of required reading. With extreme testing practices and an onslaught of homework, first graders are expected to perform at grade levels and ages much more advanced than is developmentally appropriate and creates high anxiety and stress levels. Not only that, they’re spending hours and hours a day doing school work when they need to be playing.  Which brings me to #3.
  3. RecessNo teacher should have the right to take away recess as a punishment. Unstructured play is not just a way to combat obesity and improve wellness. It is an important learning tool and process for children. It isn’t something that can be tested and standardized but it is vitally important for how children learn and retain information about the world. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits” and that it is “unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” I would like to know how each candidate will revoke the right, city wide, for any teacher to take away recess as a form of punishment and require 20-40 minutes of active, unstructured play for K-5th grade.
  4. Nutrition: This year Granby Elementary School received a very generous grant that provides free breakfast and lunch to every student. That’s simply remarkable! Children are being fed and no one is going hungry. But a close look at these meals reveals how extremely sugary, fatty and unbalanced they are. A frozen fruit slushy, which is made from a fruit juice concentrate and high in sugar, is considered a fruit serving. French fries are considered a vegetable serving. Corndogs on a stick and chocolate milk are a standard breakfast. And this is simply unacceptable. We need to collectively raise our standards for the food that is provided in our schools. All sugary milk needs to be removed. High salty, fatty, and sugary processed food needs to be limited and instead fresh and locally sourced food needs to be offered. An excellent way to encourage healthy eating, and teach SOL standards, is by growing a school garden (which we personally have experienced doing at PB Young Elementary School very successfully!). I would like to know how our school board will prioritize and budget nutritional standards and encourage school gardens.
  5. Zoning: There is a very sinister (and I believe racist) zoning practice in Norfolk Public Schools that encourages specific schools to flourish and others to decline. I would like to hear the school board candidates address the zoning practices that proliferates the belief that Norfolk Schools are dangerous and inadequate and pushes parents to enroll their students outside of their zoning districts, as candidate Noel Gabriel has done with her children, or to enroll in private schools. There are extremely high numbers of parents who send their children out of district or to private schools with the belief that Norfolk’s schools are too dangerous and unqualified to teach their children. I would like to hear the decisions and guidelines that direct the zoning lines to be drawn. How will you encourage parents to send their children to the schools for which they are zoned? There also needs to be a discussion about the practice of enrolling middle and high school students in honors and AP classes along racial lines. If you walk into Maury High School today, you will see a distinct racial line between those who are in AP classes and those who are not. I would like to hear the candidates discuss the criteria for who is encouraged to take these classes and who are not, and address why there is such a wide racial disparity among these courses.

These are my top 5 issues that I believe need to be addressed by our school board candidates. I unfortunately had to miss the Colonial Place civic league meeting last night that hosted the candidates (my pesky college students needed me to teach them about anti-racism and sexism in literature), though I do plan to attend any future forums hosted by other civic leagues.

I would like to encourage my readers to leave any of your comments, suggestions, agreements, and disagreements in the comments. This is a space for dialogue and conversation and your stories. And, please, share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else that you think would get it into the hands of the candidates. This is an important conversation that needs to be fostered and encouraged.





An Ode To Democracy

(This poem is in response to this old chain mail letter that was sent around during the 2012 presidential election and recently found its way to me. So of course, it provided excellent fodder for a new poem.)

Give me your life-long welfare dwellers,
food stamps, homeless, homeboys,
hippies, druggies, illegal aliens, and
heavy laden.
For I will give you rest.

Give me your tired, your poor, your
huddled masses yearning to
breathe free
of lead contaminated water, heavy
metals, algae blooms, pesticides,
coal dust, and oil spills.

For we hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men, women, children, gay, straight,
trans, cis, black, white, yellow, brown, red,
tan, disabled, and abled are created

That they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness,
even if
your opinions and beliefs are vile,
self serving, homophobic, racist,
sexist, and un-democratic.

Home of the brave. Land of the free
to say whatever you damn well



Politicking Our Children

Oh GOD, she’s going to talk about politics. And children. And feminism. And Donald Trump. 

You’re either interested at this point or you’re no longer here, clicked to another page, or are so annoyed that someone would ruin your day by making you think about things that you’d rather not think about that you’ve only stuck around so that you can have something to complain about later with your girlfriends over wine. I get it. We’ve all been there.

I recently read this blog post by Girl’s Gone Child and it got me thinking about how I talk to my children about political and social things. Things that I think are important. Things that I want my children to care about. Racism. Feminism. Poverty. Food sovereignty. How to not bother me with Minecraft at 6:30 in the morning. You know. Important things.

I often watch the news in the evening right at that really loud and difficult time of the evening: when dinner is over, children are tired and grimy, the dog is standing up at the dinning room table licking up the crumbs after supper, and either you or your spouse are in the bathroom on the phone avoiding having to adult again. So why not add to the chaos and turn on  NBC Nightly News where of course Donald Trump just about always starts their news lineup? Any time a TV is on, my 2 sons glue to it immediately. A 5 and 7 year old watching the news with their mama, while their dad scrolls through Instagram on the toilet. Yea, I’m on to you. It’s a beautiful family moment. So when Donald Trump is front and center, claiming my children’s attention with his toupée and vitriol, I decide to say something.

“This guy wants to be president, you guys. And he’d be a very bad president. We’re not voting for him. Mom and Dad are voting for Bernie Sanders.” I say.

“He would be a bad president? Is he a bad guy? Does he want to kill kids?” asks Myles.

Because to a 7 year old, the world works in bad guys versus good guys; killers versus heroes; mutants versus humans. Thanks, Power Rangers. You’ve been super helpful here. So, what do I tell him? How do I:  1.) Dismantle this world view they have and 2.) Communicate that, yes, Trump says and does bad things?

We work very hard to remind our children that there are no bad guys and good guys. There are only people. People who make bad decisions, who choose to do bad things. And that this includes them, us, their friends, teachers, etc, etc. They hate this idea. They just refuse to acknowledge that there are not people who are born good and people who are born bad. And then there’s Donald Trump. Who spits his racism, jingoism, xenophobia, and misogyny at me and my kids. And then I think… maybe I believe in good guys and bad guys, too. Because just listen to him. His words drip with nonsense and bigotry.

So I have to remind myself that the Power Rangers aren’t real. That Donald Trump is not a bad guy. He’s not a good guy. He’s a man who has been taught to say whatever is necessary to get ahead. To trample those who are inconsequential to him. Disposable people. People who get in his way. Women. Black people. Mexicans. Immigrants. It’s what white men have done for centuries on this land. And we’re surprised? Because it’s 2016? Please. This is normal. But it’s not how it’s supposed to be.

That’s what we teach our children. It’s how we acclimate and politick our children, if you will. Two of our children are white males and they were born with an immense amount of power and privilege. More than I and my daughter will ever have. So at every opportunity we point out those who’s power has been taken away. Anytime they see any person’s dignity trampled on, we point it out and tell them that it’s wrong. And we’re very sure to tell them to care about everyone at an expense to themselves. I’ll, of course, tell my daughter the same. I’ll point out the young black girls who are given less opportunity and dignity than she is.  And when my daughter is trampled and belittled and given a Barbie instead of a hammer at school, I’ll look at her and hand her a shovel and we’ll grow our own food in the backyard. Because that’s what we do. That’s what women do for each other. We help each other and lift each other up. And my sons are going to do the same. Right along with their dad. Who’s feminism turns me on so bad that I could jump his bones, even though he’s still probably in the bathroom on Instagram.