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.