Monday, August 17, 2009

Homecoming! Or AKA: the one in which we arrive home and immediately I become famous and make friends with high-up government folks...well, KINDA

We left Indiana Friday night, and somehow made it through the 6 hour flight directly from Chicago to Anchorage -- it was a source of trepidation for me all summer, but we did it, and it actually went OK. There were definitely some moments when everyone on the plane hated us, but those moments didn't last long. Since the flight left at 6:pm Chicago time, and landed at 10:pm Anchorage time which is 1:am Chicago time, both girls pooped out about halfway through the flight, after a fierce battle with sleep. But, hey, at least they pooped out! So then, after a gorgeous, fun weekend on the Kenai penninsula and a day of shopping in Anchorage (hooray Natural Pantry!), we made our way home to Hooper Bay on Tuesday, and made it seamlessly; with our bush flight even taking off early and getting us home so we could collapse. Jill and Iris looking at a book during our short siesta in NikiskiEsther is hamming it up in Jill's dog lot:

But big things were a-brew at home. Rumors were flying about big-wigs making a stop in Hooper Bay, but no one could figure out who or why. Or exactly what day, or what time. Everyone I talked to knew about the previous security check, when security folks had flown out to Hooper the week before and timed voyaging around the village, such as how long it took to get from the airport to the school, from the school to the store, and so on.

It sounded exciting, but it was one of those things that I thought would never pan out, like however many times Sarah Palin was supposed to visit Hooper Bay and never did. It always seemed like she would schedule her Hooper visits on the days she really just wanted to stay home because she could always beg weather concerns (which she did) since they so commonly interfere with air travel here. But this did indeed happen, even with some fast-moving fog (but then, they also had a fast-moving plane and probably got here and out of here really quickly). So here's the news on my big moment: I had a chance to talk with the #1 person directly in charge of education policy in the US: Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education.

It happened like this: truckload after truckload of fair-skinned and blonde haired folks started arriving at the school, even riding in the back of the truck. We thought, "Wow, these politicians are hardy!" But it turns out they were just the press. It felt like we were playing a game of: how many reporters does it take to photograph a politician? But it turns out that it was more than one politician: it was kind of a lot of politicians from the state level and no less than FOUR of Obama's cabinet members AND their staff: the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the Secretary of Education, and the Secretary of Energy. They arrived at the school and were ushered in quickly -- everything happened quickly. The secretary of Agriculture spoke, and then our mayor, Joseph Bell, and our tribal chief, David Bunyan, spoke, all briefly, and then it was announced that the cabinet members wanted a tour of the school (too bad school was NOT in session yet and none of the classrooms had been set up). The members of the President's Cabinet and Alaska Senators, listening to Tribal Chief David Bunyan speak:

Everyone stood up and was milling around, and I lost no time. I located family members to toss my girls to, squared my shoulders, and in my rainpants and mudboots, with my tundra-wind-tossed hairstyle, made a beeline right for Mr. Duncan. I wondered if I would have to push through other people, but surprisingly I think folks were a bit shy of the bigwigs; I had wondered if I would have to ask a security person to approach him, but I encountered no obstacle as I made my way there. I waited patiently for him to finish his conversation with an important person in tribal government, and then he turned to me and stuck out his hand.

Although I was quite nervous, I think what came out of my mouth was halfway coherent. I had run it over and over in my mind how to say what I wanted to say succinctly and passionately and powerfully, and even though I didn't get it out exactly how I wanted it to sound, I think it went OK. Molly, another teacher at the school, came up and backed me up, and she said I sounded OK, so I'm just going to go with the memory of me sounding OK. Whatever happened, what I said held the attention of a very important man for at least 3 minutes, and to his credit, whether he is genuinely concerned with what little peons like myself think, or whether he is just a really smooth politician, he made me feel like what I was saying was the only thing he was interested in/paying attention to at the time.

I rarely mentioned my opinions or politics on this blog because I feel like it wouldn't necessarily mesh with the focus of the site. Also, as a teacher, I worry that my words and politics may get me in trouble. But sometimes I feel chafed by this because I am a strongly opinionated person and I feel like I am reaching a fairly wide audience at this point, at least from where I started out. So I am going to write what I spoke to Mr. Duncan about, because it's important, and although what I believe runs cross-current of national policy, that's why I value free speech. And I am not going to write anything I wouldn't say to any student, principal, or even the superintendent of the district. But don't worry -- I'm not changing the focus of the blog! :)

So this is my memory of what I THINK our conversation was like:
Me: Hello, my name is Cate Koskey, and I am a reading specialist at this school, and I would like to express my hope that the president will fulfill his promises to change the No Child Left Behind Act to reduce the testing pressure that our schools are facing.
Mr. Duncan: (nods) How long have you been teaching here?
Me: Ten years, off and on. I took time out to get my Master's Degree.
Mr. Duncan: Thank you for your years of service.
Me: Yes. In my time here, I have seen that our students have great intellectual strengths in spatial and kinesthetic intelligences, and we can use those strengths to teach them core skills such as reading, math, and science, but we can't do it within this intense testing framework. As teachers we do nothing but prepare for the tests; we have no time to teach to students' needs.
Mr Duncan: What would you like us to do differently?
Me: Replace the current testing with various authentic assessments that allow us to measure a student's strengths and growth from a previous assessment point.
Molly: I agree with everything she is saying (yay Molly, backing me up!).

And right then, a security person said to me, "We need the Secretary now so that he can go on a tour of the school with the superintendent," which was wierdly considerate that they would say anything to me rather than just bustling past. Next to me slipped his Chief of Staff, a tall blonde woman named Margot M Rogers, who said "If I could just give you my address," and handed me her card, "you can email me to articulate more of your concerns. Let's walk and talk," and I was bustled along with the crowd touring the school; a security person tried to stop me (and Molly! She was still with us!) from following the group, but Ms. Rogers said, "They're with us." and we were bustled through with the rest of the bustling group. Fancy!

Ms. Rogers said that they are working on the education policy. She said that of course there need to be standards -- and I told her that our district had gone to a level system in which students need to master certain standards to move on, and she liked that. She said that she thought they will be moving towards a system in which students can show growth from a previous point, which I agree with, but I spoke about how time-consuming some of those systems can be, as we use one in our district that takes away so much time from teaching. She said she really was glad to hear about our experiences and thoughts, and she felt she was learning a lot about all the corners of the country on this rural tour, as she was learning a lot about the challenges of inner city schools as well. I mentioned that one of my good friends is teaching in a school in Brooklyn, and that when comparing challenges, that we find they are often the same. Finally, I told her about our Yup'ik Immersion School, and how important that is for preserving Yup'ik Language and Culture, and how the testing interferes with that because the students are still required by the state to test in English. She appeared really intrigued by the Immersion School and said, "Well, I hope to hear from you," and by this point we had reached the bottom of the steps and the politicians and reporters were streaming out of the school for their tour of the village by truck, and she smiled, shook our hands, and rejoined her group.

Maybe it was all just smooth politics, but I have to say that I felt listened to and valued by these Washington bigwigs. I never expected that going in to the conversations. Could it be true what I feel about our current administration, that Obama and his people truly care about citizen's opinions and experiences, and are genuinely listening to people? I have been so jaded by our government that I never expected to feel this way again, kind of hopeful and sweetly optomistic. I guess it's like I'm having a crush on the current administration. Is my heart destined to be crushed? What do you think? Any teachers out there with a message that they would like for me to pass on to the Secretary of Education's Chief of Staff when I email her? :)


Liz said...

I think that's awesome that you got to talk with them! I'm not in education, but have a lot of friend that are-and they too are pretty frustrated with all the testing. The other thing they are frustrated with is that teachers are often blamed for the failures of some students. When will the parents take any responsibility?? There is only so much a teacher can do in the short span of 6 or so hours. I don't know what needs to happen for parents to be more involved in their children's education, but in the end I think that's the key to any hope of success.

TwoYaks said...

Hah. When I read about the visit to Hooper Bay, I'd wondered whether you were around for the visit (since it's been a while since the last blog update!). I'm glad you got the face time with Arne Duncan! It feels like too often that people don't understand how things work once you get away from the states... at least now Sec. Duncan can't claim ignorance anymore. Lucky you!

Amy said...

SOOO proud of you!

Finnskimo said...

oooohh Girl! Awesome job! So proud up here in Kotz.

We too have an Inupiaq immersion school, both my children attended for three years, until I put them in the public school because their tests were coming in English, and when my four year old was asked what 4 plus 4 was, she had no idea. But when asked sisamat and sisamat, she answered eagerly, "Talimat Malguk!"

So, thank you for bringing that up. My son is now 12 and in 8th grade, and my daughter 6 and in 1st. Both are well advanced, and I do believe its because of the immersion school.

Chris said...

Way to go Kate, Tuluk has chosen well! LOL,[His my older Brother!] I'm sure and hope that your 3 minutes made a big impact on our tax dollars going for a good cause. Your being a urban bush woman made the reality of the hard work that our teachers is not always seen in the Vill stand out to the Big wigs in DC. Wild wind blown hair and muddy boots are awesome!!!

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