Multiple Intelligences (Part 1): Welcoming the new guy

Saturday, June 9, 2012

            When I finished graduate school in education over a decade ago, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences was already a pillar of education.  However enough  time has passed since then, that I felt the need to freshen up and read the revised and updated (2006) version.  It was well worth the read, as there is more to his theory than I’d realized.
            First, a review of the intelligences:
  • Musical
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Linguistic
  • Spatial
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist
             Those of you with a better memory than I, will note that naturalist was not in the original list.  Gardner holds up Charles Darwin as an example of someone with this sort of intelligence and describes it as an ability to distinguish between members of the same species.  Bird watchers, bug collectors, and dinosaur hunters unite!
            Gardner points out that there are two types of intellectual profiles:  searchlight and laser.  Those with a laser profile tend to be off the charts in one intelligence and show significant weaknesses in others.  Think Einstein.  In the long run, it is the achievements of people with laser intelligences that society most values.  Not to be dismissed, however, those with searchlight profiles are essential to keep society functioning.  They have strong intelligences in several areas and their weaknesses are less significant.  They make great politicians and CEO’s.
            More significant than the list, which most educators already have a handle on, and the profiles, which are interesting, are the educational implications of multiple intelligences.  When faced with a weakness in one area of intelligence, educators are left with the philosophical question:  Should we give up on the weak intelligences and instead hone the students’ strengths, or should we use the strengths to bolster the weaknesses?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And the Winner Is....

Friday, May 25, 2012

      Do you teach early childhood students?  Are you a parent of a child ages 0-5?  Do you need a gift for a parent of  a young child or an expectant parent?  Then this is the contest for you.   
      I find myself in possession of two copies of Brain Rules for Baby:  How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from 0-5.  Amazon describes the book, "Brain Rules for Baby bridges the gap between what scientists know and what parents practice. Through fascinating and funny stories, Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and dad, unravels how a child’s brain develops – and what you can do to optimize it." One copy I plan to devour (and probably blog about).  The other I've decided to use as the prize for my very first contest.  Just in time for summer reading.
     To play--leave a comment in the post below with your advice for raising/teaching smart and happy children.
     I'll write all of the commenters names on a slip of paper and pull one from a hat.  There's probably a more high tech methodology, but I don't know it and this works--so don't laugh at me.
     If you win, I'll contact you for your mailing address.  If you lose, you'll still have the benefit of reading all the wise comments below.

The deadline to enter is midnight June 1.   Good luck.

Re-inventing Social Studies

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I’ve always loved social studies, so much that I even taught it for eight years. Social studies should have two goals:
1) to produce a patriotic population with a basic understanding of the values of our country and how the government functions, and
2) to produce a voting population willing to invest time and effort into investigating current events, to consider them critically, and to call for action when appropriate.
The curriculum here in Virginia does a good job of the first goal, and in large part ignores the second.  Many teachers choose to sprinkle in the second goal when they can, but because the means of assessment is centered on the first goal, the second goal gets pushed to the side particularly with lower performing students.  Unfortunately, it is those same lower performing students who are easily misguided by self-serving politicians and lobbyist into supporting programs and leadership that is not in their best interests. 
I propose that the re-invention of the social studies curriculum begin by changing the assessment methods.  Multiple-choice tests encourage social studies to be taught as a series of facts to be memorized rather encouraging students to see connections between their lives and history.  It encourages students to think of social studies as a subject with answers, rather than questions.  High school students should take year-end assessments that require answering essay questions, incorporating primary documents.   Students with documented language problems could submit a portfolio (student, not teacher, created) rather than participate in the essay test.    Middle school students should create student portfolios with work samples of their learning.  And in elementary school, teachers should be required to submit a portfolio which might include a log of time spent on each objective with an indication of how the time was spent, sample lesson plans, student samples with teacher feedback, and visual representations of the lessons.   I can already hear elementary teachers groaning—I would be if I still was one—great, one more darned (such restraint) thing to do.  Only really, I’ve had to submit something similar at the university where I work, and it takes three hours tops to put together this stuff.  Imagine trading three hours of your life for an elementary school experience free of social studies SOL tests.  Imagine being able to teach social studies through historical fiction, projects, re-enactments—rather than drill and practice.  Imagine kids who love social studies because it’s fascinating and relevant.  Imagine kids who grow up to become adults who love social studies and become engaged citizens as a result.  Imagine….
            But I digress. Okay, so once the assessments are straightened out, we need to re-examine the order in which information is provided to students, such that topics and methodology line up with developmental readiness.  Young children live in small worlds that expand over time and the social studies curriculum should do that as well—broaden its scope as children do the same.  Additionally, as children age their minds become more capable of complex thought and topics that lend themselves to such should be postponed until learners’ minds are ready to dig deep, rather than teaching a whitewashed version of the topic before children are able to truly understand it.   Elementary schools should focus on character and citizenship, American history, map skills, and group dynamics.  Economics could be introduced in fourth grade and government in fifth.    Then in sixth grade we should introduce world cultures and more complex geographical concepts.  Seventh grade could examine leadership and include service projects.  Finally eighth graders would examine current events from a historical perspective. These middle grade topics lend themselves to collaborative project oriented, student-centered, active classrooms, which are ideal for the middle school learners.  By high school, students are ready to study world history with an eye toward its relevance on current international relations and to revisit the complexities of both economics and civics.
            Finally, social studies should not be taught in a bubble.  Rather, the emphasis should be placed on application.  For years we have hoped by teaching students history, they’ll be savvy enough not to repeat its mistakes, but we rarely teach them how to make those connections.  What if instead of the traditional, linear way of considering social studies, we taught it “backwards”?  What if in teaching economics to high school juniors we started with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and worked backward to understand how our society came to that point, then examined cultures with different economic structures and their results, and finally looked toward the future to consider what our economic policy should be going forward?  And what if the teacher told them none of this, but rather provided resources, clarified confusing concepts, and guided their work through thoughtful questions and evaluations?   Now that would be some real learning.
            The current social studies curriculum successfully churns out students who know who FDR is, admire him, but generally lack any real sense of his impact on their lives.  It is time to take this to the next step.  It is time to produce a citizenry that can not only identify FDR, but can look to his actions, decisions, and policies during the Great Depression, evaluate them, consider the differences between the economic situation today and that of the 1930’s, and then develop ideas on how to get us out of our current economic mess.  That’s how we move forward. 

Outliers (Part 3): Nose to the grindstone

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ten thousand hours.  That’s how long Gladwell claims it takes to gain expertise in any field.  According to his research, that’s how many hours outliers (successful people) invested before their careers took off. Ten thousand hours.  That’s a lot of hours. 
It’s a little nebulous though.  I was trying to figure out how many hours I’ve invested into getting a book published.  Do I count all the English classes I took starting in kindergarten?  Or do I start 13 years ago when I first thought about writing as a career?  Do I count the time it takes send out cover letters to agents and other aspects of the business?  How about the time I spend reading about writing?  How about the time I spend reading fiction?  The truth is that Gladwell’s outliers worked really, really hard for a long before they became successes and ten thousand hours sounds good.  People like numbers.  People believe numbers.
Gladwell’s equation for success is at least 120 IQ, a family and/or culture that with values conducive to succeeding in the field of interest at that particular time, luck, and hard work.   The only part of Gladwell’s equation that his outliers had any control over is the hard work.  So here’s the take home—you can’t control your family, your culture, your luck, your intelligence, but you can work crazy hard.  If you don’t you, won’t be an outlier; if you do, you probably still won’t, but you might.
So, you ask, how does this translate to the classroom?
Ah, glad you asked.  Gladwell holds up the Kipp Academy in New York City as an example of how hard work translates to success in the classroom.  Students at this public middle school are chosen by lottery from some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York.  Kipp Academy has been enormously successful at transforming at risk kids into college students.  How?  The school day is 7:25 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Then the students have several hours of homework each night, attend a half day of school on Sat.,  and attend a three week summer session.  These students work hard to compensate for not having the cultural legacy of success.  Wow.  
I am impressed by the dedication these kids demonstrate.  I’m grateful they have this opportunity.  But I’m sad that they have to trade in their childhoods for it. 
Kipp Academy stands on one end of the spectrum.  Kipp Academy makes a strong argument for year round schools.  Surely, summer break is a legacy from a long gone agricultural society.   Why do we still have it?  Do kids need breaks?  Yes.  Do they need a three-month break?  No.
I’ve always thought year around school would be beneficial in terms of retention and providing more but shorter breaks throughout the school year.  Studies indicate this isn’t true. However, Melissa Kelly aptly explains why such studies are inconclusive:  can you really isolate year around schools as the cause of any test score change when variables in the education process are so plentiful? Hmm…I admit to being puzzled.  I’d love to hear from teachers, parents, and students with experience in year around schooling.  What’s your take? 
The other obvious part of this discussion is the longer school day.  Wouldn’t it be great for family life, if the school day matched the standard 8-5 work day, but there was NO HOMEWORK (perhaps with the exception of reading and studying for tests)?  No more after school childcare expenses.  No more power struggles over homework.
Really, both year around schools and homework deserve a series of posts in and of themselves with more research on my part, but maybe this will get our juices flowing.
Did you miss Part 1 of this series?  Did you miss Part 2 of this series?  Check 'em out and share your thoughts.

Outliers (Part 2): Why the rich get richer

Monday, May 14, 2012

           Gladwell’s Outliers is a thought-provoking enjoyable read.  Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions (see previous post), one in particular hit a homerun with me.  One of his major points is that successful people come from families and cultures that indoctrinate successful behaviors, like how to challenge authority and beat the system within the system. To illustrate his point, Gladwell describes a mother from a well-to-do family encouraging her child to discuss his health concerns with his doctor.  Gladwell compares this to other cultures in which children are taught to submit to authorities (like teachers and doctors), rather than question, challenge, and engage them.  Gladwell believes that parents from middle and upper classes teach their children what he calls “practical intelligence,” or interpersonal skills. 
Since at-risk populations might benefit from similar instruction, Gladwell highlights a program called SSLANT at Kipp Academy as model school. Kipp Academy students are taught to
       ·         smile
       ·         sit-up
       ·         listen
       ·         ask questions
       ·         nod when being spoken to
       ·         track with your eyes

 SSLANT incorporates active listening, active thinking, and strong interpersonal connections.   This blows me away in its simplicity and power. As a teacher, my favorite students, my best students did this.  Someone (probably their parents) taught them to do it.  But the kids who sat in the corner with their heads down, mumbling in response to questions simply weren’t taught these simple skills.  And the sad part is, it NEVER occurred to me to teach them, to expect, no, to demand this behavior.
Another advantage of successful people according to Gladwell is that they come from homes full of books.  Most studies agree that early literacy is a huge advantage and that the availability of books in the home is a high indicator of academic achievement.  School and public libraries can rectify this inequity, but they can only get the books in the kids’ hands, the home situation has to support reading.  Is there a place to read?  Is there time to read?  Do other people at home value reading?  Is there someone at home to discuss books with?  To get help from?  Will someone take them to the library?  As long as reading is a chore, as long as it’s something only required at school, it doesn’t matter how many books we can get in their hands because they won’t read them. 
The problem isn’t access to the books, it’s that some cultures don’t value reading.  That’s harder to change.  So how do we fix this?  Schools need to educate parents on how they can best help their child be successful, and they need to bend over backward to incent parents to come to regular training sessions (offer child care in another room, a meal, whatever it takes).  Education needs to be a partnership between parents and teachers.
Books and practical intelligence—yes, but on this next bit I’m back to questioning Mr. Gladwell who believes that the children from higher socio-economic homes are advantaged by their sense of entitlement and by their parents tendencies to over-schedule their children.  What?  What?  
Not everyone agrees that enrichment activities are beneficial.  The backlash from over-scheduling “enrichment” activities is that structured free time doesn’t allow for imaginative play and that adult supervised activities thwart children learning to solve problems and resolve conflicts independently. In fact some claim that over-scheduling leads to the break down of the family unit as kids are shuttled from one activity to the next in place of quality time together.  Gladwell doesn’t address these issues, but does seem to believe that enrichment activities are, in fact, enriching. I’m not sure. What do you think?
And entitlement?  Isn’t that a bad word?  Not so, Gladwell claims.  It is that very attitude of entitlement that leads to success.  You believe you deserve it.  You demand it.  And in some cases (if you work hard and are really lucky) you get it.  
I suppose it depends on whether or not your measure of success is completely materialistic.  Gladwell’s weighs heavily in favor of riches.  Many Americans share his viewpoint.  I don’t.  In some cases entitlement might lead to success, but in my experience it is more likely to engender snotty, lazy, little twerps.  And so, on this note I hold firm.  We don’t deserve anything.  We earn it.  That’s the message I hope to send my kids, and I’ll hold my breath that they turn out “successful” in spite of it.

Outliers Part 1:Misguided conclusions about cut-off ages and ability grouping?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

            Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell isn’t a book about education per se, it’s about how successful people became successes and as such it dabbles in education.  As a best-selling sensation, Outliers influences education policy within the masses in way that many educational authorities don’t and this is unfortunate.  Don’t get me wrong—Gladwell is a smart guy and good writer, but he is not an experienced educator.  Millions of readers are likely to be taken in by his prose and to push for the changes he advocates, but doesn’t have the personal experience to support.  To compound this, some of his conclusions are clouded by cherry picked research and logical fallacies that could push education in the wrong direction. Today, I begin a series of blogs that address some of the educational implications of Outliers
            One issue that Gladwell addresses is that cut-off ages in schools result in skewed distributions that favor the older kids in the age range.   He proposes that teachers mistake maturity for giftedness resulting in the older kids in each grade level being more likely to be streamed into advanced classes.  This error perpetuates itself, such that those deemed talented early on have access to better teachers and a more demanding and engaging curriculum. Over time this gives them an even greater advantage over their younger peers, eventually to play out such that those born in the months just prior to the cut-off age are even underrepresented in colleges. 

Gladwell makes two suggestions to rectify this inequity.  One suggestion is to group students by birth month when placing them into classrooms such the age distribution in each class is several months rather than a year.   In this way students would be competing with others at the same developmental level and differences in ability would mean something more than a mere difference in age.  The other suggestion he makes is to delay ability grouping until students are older at which time many of the maturity differences would have leveled off.  He points out that schools in Denmark wait until age 10 begin ability grouping. 

On a personal level, Gladwell’s conclusion worries me.  My daughter has a birthday three weeks before the age cut-off.  By sending her to kindergarten “on-time” am I relegating her to a lifetime of being over-looked?  Additionally, “red-shirting” kindergarteners is a common strategy in the neighborhoods around my home, which only worsens the effect in that some of the children in her kindergarten class could be over a year older.  Yikes! 

So I mull, I research, I think, and I’ve grown concerned by the assumptions Gladwell makes and the conclusions that he reaches.  First, Gladwell indicates that developmental differences are age related and while on some gross level this is true I’ve taught students with birthdays the same month and year and at widely different developmental stages—a gap that might widen, narrow, or even flip-flop over time.  Separating students by birth month wouldn’t necessarily account for that.  Next, if students are in developmentally different places, then I’m not really sure why we need to level the playing field.   Shouldn’t they be receiving different instruction?  Also, some of his research confuses me.  Here’s why…many of the test scores that school systems use to place students into advanced programs report their data by grade as well as by age.  The Otis Lennon, for example, breaks the data into three month ranges.  If students are competing with others born in the same quarter for spots in gifted programs, Gladwell’s theory hardly accounts for a skewed distribution in such programs.  In fact, while Gladwell goes to great lengths to prove the effect of cut-off dates in sports, his argument on the same effect in schools is considerably scantier.  I’m left wondering how strong the correlation actually is between age and academic performance, as well as the methodology in the few studies he references. 

Second, Gladwell assumes that the classroom is in its very nature a competitive place.  Perhaps, he is right; perhaps he isn’t, but the real question is should it be competitive?  Competition is an easy motivator, but does it produce the best results for everyone?

Third, he holds Denmark up as the only national school system that doesn’t utilize any ability grouping until age ten as if they have the right idea.  Hold up— and check this out.  Or don’t, but know that it implies that Denmark’s test scores by international standards are “mediocre” and that Demark is concerned about the shortage of high performing graduates.  Hmmm. 

If there really is a correlation between academic performance and birth month, then I’d suggest the answer is not found in Outliers.  Instead, I’d look toward a student-centered, multi-age classroom that revolves around cooperation rather than competition. Montessori?  I’ve read a few articles on multi-age classrooms. Studies indicate that such classrooms when done correctly produce gains in both academic performance and in social skills.  I, however, lack personal experience in a multi-age classroom.  If you have any, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Monday, May 7, 2012

              Have you heard about Khan Academy?  It has over 2,000 ten-minute video lectures mostly in math and science (a few in art history, American history, and civics).  Khan describes the site and its power in this TED talk video (man, I love those TED talks).  
What I found particularly exciting about his speech was the concept of the “flipped classroom,” in which students can watch the lecture at home and then in class complete what would traditionally be homework practice but with the teacher’s active participation. Watching the short snippet at home, allows students to rewind as needed for understanding.  Students can even post comments and questions below the video.  
Then instead using instructional time for passive lectures, class is spent interacting with teachers and other students in an active environment through labs, discussions, simulations, and other hands-on activities.  The classroom Khan describes has teachers spending half of class time meeting with small groups and individuals who are stuck on a concept, while allowing other to progress forward. Such efficiency prevents students from practicing poor math skills and makes the other half of instructional time available for work with manipulatives, word problems, and projects that connect concepts to reality.    
Me, I’ve flipped for the “Flipped Classroom.”  If only Khan Academy covered grammatical concepts.  (Witness:  mind racing...mind shelving...perhaps I could? Another day).

That Which is Left Unspoken (Part 2): What parents wish they could tell teachers

Friday, May 4, 2012

You may have caught my blog earlier this week on what teachers wish they could tell parents.  As someone who's sat on both sides of the table, I decided it was only fair to voice the thoughts of the parents too.

  1. Don’t lecture me on my failures as a parent.  I’m doing the very best I can.  Please offer me suggestions on ways I might better help my child.  I want to; I just don’t know how/lack the resources.
  2. I’m sorry that you have problems in your personal life.  I will help if I can.  But this is my child’s only chance to learn (fill in the blank) and you are his/her guide, and your personal problems are getting in the way of your ability to do that. 
  3. I may not be an expert in your classroom, but I am an expert on my child.  I also have some experience in education, as a student, in the workforce, and in my home.  Don’t discount my opinions.
  4. If my child is happy in your classroom, I’ll be happy too.  I don’t mean that you can’t hold my child accountable or that you can’t challenge him/her.  I do mean that my child feels as though you respect him/her.  I hold you accountable for how much my child learns and how he feels about that learning.
  5. I love my child.  I know my child in a way that no one else ever will.  I have invested years into molding and shaping this child.  I am biased.  I know my child isn’t perfect, but I want you to love my child in spite of his/ her shortcomings.  When we meet I want to feel like you’ve come to know my child and to appreciate him/her.  I want to know you see my child’s unique magical spirit, and only then am I willing to listen with an open mind to how we can work together to improve my child’s weaknesses by playing on his/her strengths.

That Which is Left Unspoken (Part 1): What teachers wish they could tell parents

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

1.   Sure, the summer breaks are great, but they’re not the reason I became a teacher.  In fact, many summers I get another job to supplement my income.  I became a teacher because I love learning.  I love my subject area and want to share it with the world.  I love children.  I love your children.  Teaching though is not everything I thought it would be (life rarely is), and so on some days I may lose sight of why I chose this career.  I could use your encouragement.

2.  Just like babysitting does not make one an expert on parenting. Going to school does not make you an expert on education, nor does volunteering, nor does substitute teaching. Sometimes I make choices that you don’t agree with.  Please come talk to me about them in a professional manner at which point I can either explain my choice or admit my error. 

3.  I am on your child’s side.  I want to be part of your team.  I am not your enemy.  I am not your child’s enemy.  I don’t pick on your child.  If your child thinks I do, then we need to talk in person and figure out ways in which both your child and I can interact differently so that we’ll have a smoother relationship.

4.  Please don’t send me e-mails dripping with fury or veiled threats or biting sarcasm.  If you are upset with me, please send me an email requesting a conference and let me know the subject matter on which you wish to speak beforehand.  We will be far more successful coming to an agreement if we aren’t both seething.

5.  Teaching is a calling.  In a perfect world, my entire workday would be spent teaching your child and planning to teach your child. Instead, I attend meetings, I take classes to stay on top of technology, I have conferences with parents, I update websites, I answer e-mails, I grade papers, I deal with disciplinary infractions, I fill out reports, I have extra duties (sponsoring clubs, coaching teams, monitoring the lunch room, organizing buses, etc.).  Some weeks I work 70 hours to make all this happen.  I do not spend my planning time  (what little there is) gossiping in the teacher’s lounge.  My job is hard.  But those few precious hours in the classroom watching an incredible lesson unfold, seeing those light bulbs flick on, now that’s something…that’s what pulls me back every fall. The other stuff?  I guess that’s why they pay me…

One Paper Towel Isn’t Enough

Friday, April 27, 2012

When I taught middle school, I had the pleasure of working with the student government.  These kids were the cream of the crop--smart, motivated, responsible, and charming.  One evening several of the kids were running a refreshment stand and someone spilled a two-liter bottle of soda. 
They ran out to find me and asked, “What do we do?”
            I was taken aback and stated the obvious, “Clean it up.”
            The students, again—bright, sweet, hardworking, twelve-years-oldish, gave me blank looks.
            I clarified, “Go the locker room, get paper towels, and clean it up.”
            One girl ran off and returned later with one, yes, one paper towel.

            Houston, we have a problem.  This is what happens when we hover.  This is what happens when we see learning as an information dump.  This is what happens when children aren’t given the freedom or opportunity to think for themselves. 
            Phrases like “critical thinking” get tossed around a lot, but actually pinning down what the heck that means is more complicated than you might think.  Critical thinking encompasses a wide range of skills that vary somewhat depending the field being examined.  I consider critical thinking to include:

·     problem solving
·     creating and analyzing both written and visual rhetoric
·     considering issues from multiple perspectives
·     deductive and inductive reasoning
·     identifying logical fallacies
·     applying knowledge to new situations
·     thinking about thinking
·     considering ethics in decision making
·     creating, testing, and evaluating theories

So, what does this look like in the classroom?   Well for one, all coursework should provide the opportunity for debate and collaboration.  And, across the curriculum, students should be required to write evaluations of their own work.

Middle school students should take classes on leadership and be required to complete service projects during school hours.  This is different than the community service requirements some school have, as those can be filled completing random tasks that while helpful to the community, don’t actually require critical thinking.  Middle school students should also be required to write one research paper a year (not a report) with a thesis statement (rather than a topic sentence) that includes rebuttals against alternative viewpoints. English and social studies classes should teach students how to evaluate visuals and articles for bias and non-rational appeals.

In high school students should be required to take classes on ethics and logic. Science classes should require students to design and conduct their own experiments, and high school students should study current events through a historical lens.
       In a classroom centered on critical thinking, students are actively engaged and teachers facilitate learning by asking questions and guiding students rather than lecturing.  Content is learned more deeply, but probably less broadly.  However, unless you’re training for a spot on Jeopardy, this likely doesn’t matter.

       Many school systems offer gifted students experiences like those I’ve outlined above, but I’d argue that non-gifted students should be given similar opportunities.  Gifted students might be developmentally ready earlier than other students and might be able to take their thinking to another level, but a person with average intelligence is capable of more than we give them credit for and deserves not be overlooked because basic reading, writing, and math skills are not enough anymore.  The future needs thinkers, not laborers.

A Book a Day

Monday, April 23, 2012

            Many of my posts center around the classroom, but I don’t think learning is limited to what goes on in the schoolhouse.  The impact on life outside the classroom should not be overlooked.   And so occasionally Mary, the parent “educator,” will pop in here to say her piece…
I love to read.  I’ve always loved to read.  I have a degree in children’s literature for landsakes.  So I’m sure you can imagine that it is very important to me that my children love to read.  My two-year-old will “read” just about anything.   One of her favorites is Machievelli’s The Prince (don’t ask).   My four-year-old son is much more difficult to please.  He’d rather have my husband or me make up a story, any day.  The budding writer in me would like to think that that’s because our stories are amazing, but the truth is that I’m not all that good at thinking on my creative feet.
            Over the years, I’ve worked to instill a love of books in him.  We have bookcases full of them, we go to story times at the library, we read at bedtime, my husband and I model a love for reading, but my son hasn’t really embraced these efforts.  He hasn’t rejected them, but I wouldn’t say books are something he’s passionate about.  For many parents this might be okay, but I’ve got hang-ups and reading is one of them. 
            For one, I love the armchair escapism that reading allows. What better way to relieve stress than by seeping myself in someone else’s reality?  Also, I believe that to some degree books kept me out of trouble as a teenager by allowing me to experiment vicariously.  Reading fiction teaches empathy and opens minds to multiple perspectives and differing worldviews.  Reading non-fiction exposes people to complex thoughts, ideas, and information.  The very act of reading forces the brain to work, to think, and to strengthen. As an educator, I’ve seen firsthand that strong reading skills are essential to success in every core subject area.  And the only way I know to get strong reading skills is to read. If reading is joyful, then we’ve already won 2/3 of the battle.
            A few months ago, a major opening presented itself as I was leaving for my monthly book club meeting when my son asked, “Why don’t I get to go to book club with my friends?”  
Picture the smile that erupted across my face.  “You want to have a book club?  You got it.”  And so it was born.  And he loves it.   And I love it.  If you want an example, check out this former blog post.
            More recently, I discovered another idea that’s spurred reading in our home from this classroom blog.  Basically, everyone in my family earns a colored paper clip for each book they read.  Both of my children are excited about the crazy decoration they are creating and feel pride in picking out their paper clips.
            The essential key, though, has been finding books my son likes.  When I try books that are beautifully written and stunningly illustrated, he is indifferent.   When I search Best Books for Kids lists created by experts (librarians and teachers), they fall under a similar category (except you can add didactic to the description).  My son does not measure a book by the same standards that adults do.  Instead our treasure trove for suggestions is on-line forums with parents of reluctant boy readers recommending books to one another.  Often these books are, well, crap, but he loves them and so I love them (sort of).  They are stories of adventure, dragons, knights, pirates, superheroes…
            If you have any suggestions either of books you think he’d like or ideas to encourage reading, I’m always grateful to hear from you.

Gotta Start Somewhere: Goal setting

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

     As I sat down to write this blog enumerating the goals of education, I quickly dashed out a list of 15 goals and then reconsidered—that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Somehow the education system has become the catchall, everything students don’t learn at home, at church, in sports, wherever, they are supposed to learn at school, and not only that but somehow education is supposed to be the great equalizer, even though we all know it isn’t.   The thing is that a school can’t be everything to everyone.  The next generation will be raised by families, friends, religious groups, coaches, neighbors, and teachers.   Hillary Clinton said it, “It takes a village.”
    Okay, so having said that I’m still left with fifteen goals, and I feel it’s necessary to weed them out, group them, do something to streamline a rather wieldy agenda.  So here goes:
1.    Basic skills:  reading, writing, arithmetic, collaboration, and technology
2.    Citizenship:  to include, but not limited to, responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy, leadership, and work ethic
3.    Practical skills:  to include, but not limited to, vocational education, personal economics, and health
4.    Critical thinking
5.    Creativity
      Most assessments center around basic skills, and thus though many schools recognize the value of goals #2-5, the current climate of “accountability” and budget cuts forces them to focus on goal #1. Unfortunately, this is even truer in school systems that support children from families who are the least likely to be able to afford supplements in, for example, the arts.
       Though I’m an advocate for some system wide changes, I live in the same world that you do, so until those changes occur what can we do to make sure that we’re preparing our students for the future reality given the current reality?  How can I teach basic skills, without losing sight of goals #2-5, which in my mind are equally important?
       So there you have it…the focus of my page In the Classroom—intertwining goals #2-5 into #1 in a conscious fashion, such that every unit of study, if not every lesson, touches on each goal.  Let’s prepare a generation of students who can, not only read, write, and add, but also graduate active, thinking, working, and creating citizens.  Imagine a future with young adults who graduate with both roots and wings.

Sh*t Out of Luck

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

           In Virginia we have the Standards of Learning, commonly referred to as the SOL’s.  Either the committee who named these had a terrific sense of humor or were a bunch of idiots or were realists.  I’m not sure.  I’m going to speak to these specifically, however most states have their own versions of SOL’s (hopefully better named) and I suspect that the other states standards/processes share many of the same problems.  If you have any insight as to similarities and differences among states feel free to comment below.

            Like NCLB (see previous post) the intentions of the standards are admirable.  No longer will kids say, like we did as children, “we never got past World War 2 in history class.”  Also, children who move within the state are likely to find the curriculum similar from school to school and so in our mobile society there will be less gaps in learning.  And finally, there is a way to collect data and measure student mastery of the curriculum and teacher and school effectiveness.  All are noble goals that have been achieved to a certain extent, but at what cost?
            When I was in the classroom, I balked at claims that SOL’s squash teachers’ ability to be creative and to make learning engaging.  This is not true; many teachers are wonderfully creative.  However, now that I have time and space to consider the outlets for said creativity, it seems wasted.   Many of the standards require the memorization of facts.  If teachers merely handed the students a list of facts and told them to memorize them, the students would be bored.  A few would be successful, but many would not.  And so, instead teachers give the facts context.  This is good and important.  But we also create fun games and “dog and pony shows” to make the memorization fun.  An example, when I used to teach about the Great Plains I’d print out pictures of buffalo, write questions on the back, hang them on the walls, and let the students throw balls at them.  If they hit one, I’d read the question on the back.  Creative?  Yes.  Fun?  Yes. But my creative energy was being spent encouraging the consumption of information rather than the production of it.

Having students memorize a body of knowledge, even with context, has little merit. First, long term retention of this information is weak.  How many of you remember the three types of rocks (a fifth grade science SOL)?  See answer at bottom.  The show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? demonstrated that most adults have forgotten the information they learned in elementary school.  And other than losing money in a game show, who cares?  I have a full life without knowing anything about Mali (a current third grade SOL).  I’m sure Mali is interesting, but I don’t believe that a third grader needs to know about it.   Finally, if I want/need to know anything about Mali or rocks, I can find the information instantly on the Internet.  What’s the value in memorizing it?
              I have less of a problem with skill based SOLs (particularly in reading, writing, and math), but even these have issues.  By pairing the standards with certain grades rather than mastery, some students aren’t being challenged and other students are left behind.  This is obvious as early as kindergarten.  Here is one SOL:

K. 7 The student will develop an understanding of basic phonetic principles.
a)  Identify and name the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
b)  Match consonant and short vowel sounds to appropriate letters.
c)  Identify beginning consonant sounds in single-syllable words.

I know quite a few preschoolers that have achieved these, and for them to spend valuable classroom time practicing these skills when they are ready to go further is wasteful.  Attempts to differentiate will result in teachers naturally spending more time with children who are struggling and leave the more developmentally advanced children to their own devices.  They tend to give them more work, rather than more challenging work because they don’t have the time to guide them through the more challenging work when they are busy helping struggling students.
            SOL’s impose an artificial pace and superficial mastery.  And while they’ve successfully ensured that all educators state-wide are on the same page, it isn’t a very impressive page.  

Answer:  The three types of rocks are sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.

"No Child Left Behind" Leaves Behind Thinking

Sunday, January 15, 2012

            I’ve had over a decade of classroom experience.  I’ve taught fourth, fifth, and seventh grades, college, and even done some corporate training.  When I was working full-time in a classroom, I was so busy planning lessons, grading papers, meeting parents, etc. that the limited time I had left for reflection was usually spent dealing with the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, in the trenches sort of stuff. Since I became a mother, I’ve been able to swing some part-time gigs, which keep my feet wet, but also allow me the luxury to reflect on my practices, curriculum standards, classroom methodology, and educational outcomes.  And I’m concluding that our education model is out-dated.  That we are in fact training a generation for success in the 20th Century and then tossing them into the 21st Century. 
            Today, I’d like to take on a few of the unintended realities of No Child Left Behind.  First, over time the standards themselves have been revised and watered down, and even more blatantly the tests have been “dumbed” down. Several years ago, I served on a committee that put together one of the state tests.  In that role I was privy to conversations where committee members would reject questions that required higher-level thinking.  They argued that the test was supposed to be a basic competency test, that too many students wouldn’t be able to answer such questions, and that schools shouldn’t be held accountable for a student’s inability to think.  So, the exam evolved into in a basic recall test that the committee felt reflected the standards, and fairly assessed whether teachers had covered the curriculum and students had memorized the content.  Whoopie-do-dah.  Tests scores went up.  But not, I argue because teachers were doing a better job, but because they’d learned to teach to the test.  And the classroom became a place where random information is jammed down throats and then regurgitated by students.  And multiple guess tests became the determiners of success.

            I think a brief segway is in order here.  I don’t mean to imply that I think all teachers are doing a bad job.  Like any other profession, some teachers are all-stars and some should find a new line of work.  My point here is that I don’t think that testing encourages teachers to do a better job.  In fact, I’d argue that it forces them to focus on an out-dated skill set (more on that in another post).
However, I do mean to say that the inordinate amount of time spent taking multiple-choice tests to assess student growth, would be better spent fostering creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking.  Multiple-choice is perhaps the worst format for assessing real knowledge or thinking processes.  Its appeal is in the ease of grading and the equity of evaluation.  Unfortunately, if the state tests are multiple-choice, then the teacher tests will be too.  Why?  Because NCLB encourages educators to teach to the test.
            In teaching to the test or the standards (however, you choose to phrase it), I found myself focusing on the curriculum rather than the students.  The result of which is a teacher-centered classroom with an artificial pace.  Weak students are in fact “left behind” and the strong ones are bored. The teacher is the holder of all knowledge and the student is the vessel.  This model allows for too much passive learning, but ensures the curriculum is covered.  Most (not all) attempts I’ve seen at differentiating are bogus. Attempts to track students into smaller groups in one classroom often fail because most teachers don’t have the training, time, and/or skill base to manage such a scope in a teacher-centered classroom in any way that makes in real difference.  Separating the students results in some improvements, but if the teachers are still expected to teach the spectrum in separate classes, then the teachers are still not able to specialize.  When I worked in public schools, I taught regular students, gifted students, ESL students, and special education students.  I did not have the time, resources, or expertise to truly differentiate for all of these needs.  So I took a lesson, added a component for the gifted students, structured it differently for the special education students, and added visuals and a more accessible vocabulary for the ESL students.  That sort of modification took time and thought and helped, but in the end no one really got what they should have because I was pulled in too many directions. I wish now that I had worked to create more of a student-centered classroom, but that is scary in a climate in which my competence was measured on students’ ability to spit back specific facts, rather than to find information, evaluate it, and then use it to create new relevant learning.
            Finally, NCLB encourages schools to focus on the bottom rung.  When a school’s success is based on passing a test, the curriculum, the methodology, and teaching practices center around helping “at-risk” students pass.  This is good for “at-risk” students, but it means that high achievers are often ignored.  One school administrator suggested to me that he didn’t care which teachers taught the advanced classes because those students were going to pass the state tests anyway.  If our brightest students are left to fend for themselves, instead of pushed to excel, create, and think, what does that suggest about our future?
            The intentions of NCLB are good, and I’m certain that the program has led to some real improvements in some schools.  However, it would be foolish not to look past the intentions of the bill and address some of the unintentional problems it has created. 
            So dear readers, do my observations ring to true with your reality in the current educational climate?  I’d love your comments.