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…