Monday, December 28, 2009

Small Group Research--Stuff sociologists never tell us

Probably my last blog of this year but who knows. I've been thinking of one of my favorite students and as usual the story gets confused. Do you remember Alister?....the kid that turned in a messy order form which I threw out because I couldn't read it. Alister did have a lousy turn of the pen and pencil. His penmanship was the worst I even encountered. But that wasn't all with Alister--his dress was always messed up, shirt half out or miss-buttoned. Shoes untied and socks that fell around his ankles. And hair every which way before that style became popular. He was a walking disaster. And no, his mother didn't send him off to school that way because I drove past his house going to school. There would be Alister and his younger sister waiting for the bus. Hair combed, socks pulled up, shoes tied, jacket on and he would be looking very presentable. But what ever walked off the bus was a total disaster.

Now a diversion for the moment. Yes, grade school teachers do notice how the kids dress for school. Some children come to school with hand-me-downs and some not dressed warm enough for the season. More then once I've taken a child down to the Principals office back storeroom and picked out some clothing from last year's heap of clothes that the kids leave behind. Sort of restock some of the poorer kids from our grab bag of clothing.

Another problem I faced was what the girls wore to class. My first year as a fifth grade teacher I was upset that moms were letting their daughters come to school with fairly short skirts. I finally mentioned this to a couple of mothers of girls that were in my class and they looked at each other and sighed. A bit exasperated but with me! "Oh just tell the girls to unroll their skirts." Male teachers do have their problems with the girls in their classrooms. Apparently many of the girls were rolling their skirts up until they were short AFTER they got on the bus. From then on I would tell some of the girls to unroll their skirts and with a sigh and a grimace, they would comply. I don't think the boys ever noticed--it was something that girls of that age just did.

Don't forget Alister, however, I want to talk about sociological research for the moment. At the time I had Alister in class, my wife was working on an advanced degree and was teaching a course about "Small Groups." Apparently the research showed that if people were put into small groups and given a task to do, they would do it "better' then if they had to do that task by themselves. To make her point in the class Lynn had divided the class into pairs and told them they had to present their material together. I found this interesting and read much of what she brought home for her lectures. Small group research is interesting stuff. I pondered, "could I do this in a fifth grade class?" The research showed college age students learning more and quicker in a group then by themselves. Would it work as well with grade school kids.

Finally we come to my main point for today. It was between Christmas and New Years and I went up to my classroom and moved the kid's desks all around. I normally did this to their desks to break up little cliques, to give the room a new flavor, to let some kids in the back get closer to the front, a lot of different reasons for changing the desks in a room. But this time I did it a bit differently. I took my grade book which had all the children's names in it and then I took my statistics book with a table of random numbers and I started through it. Every time I got a number in the range of my class I moved a desk. After four numbers I placed the desks in a square with the kids facing each other. I kept doing this until I had the room in groups of four or five students. Probably about eight groups of desks. It was different. And then when I looked at the names of the kids at each group of desks I almost lost my resolve. At one group I had four of my liveliest boys--all loud talkers. Another group was composed of two girls and two boys both of which despised the other sex. There were other combinations I don't think I would have done had I made the choices. One group was comprised of three girls and Alister. Interesting. So the scene was set. Monday when the kids came back to school I would try a new learning style--that of each group having to agree on the assignment and turning one assignment in for the whole group at that group of desks. The students would have to decide who would write it down and they would ALL have to sign it. I could hear some parents already picking up the phone.

To be truthful it did what the research said it would do even at the fifth grade. I'd give some sort of a reading assignment and they would read it and argue at their desks what some words meant. The learning of my kids IMPROVED. And we COVERED MORE MATERIAL in less time. But it was harder work for me. I had to be on my toes to move around the room a lot seeing what was going on. My four lively boys--much less talk. They seemed to neutralize each other. They worked well together. The whole girl groups also did excellent work. Years later I read an excellent book on how women learn and in groups was a preferred style.

But I need to tell you about Alister and his three girls. Or was it the three girls and Alister. He would do some work on paper and they would make him do it over until it was halfway neat. I think each day they had him clean his desk. And they straighten him up every chance they got. "Tuck in your shirt." "Tie your left shoe lace." "Fix your belt loop." I give Alister much credit--he never came to me and asked to be switched to another group. He was smart as a whip, just messy and the girls made him toe the line. I felt sorry for him but his mother told me a bit later that she thought it was good for him--he was working on improving. We just didn't know what he was improving on. I still have an image of Alister and his desk turned over to dump out all his books and things with the three girls making him put things back "properly." Poor Alister.

But back to the groupings. Yes, I would do it again and earlier on in the school year. What I saw was many instances where one child would help another. "Here, let me show you how to diagram that sentence." OR, "read the picture--does it say anything about what we're reading?" Many of what I saw were things I might have done in a normal single desk setting as I went around the room but in this instance a desk mate did it for me.....and without the wait time for me to get around to each child. Learning did speed up. And I only had to grade eight or nine papers but I had to work harder at the evaluation. I had to know what each child did in that group--that was my responsibility. But as the groups continued their work got better and I believe my slower kids learned the most. Some of them learned how the smarter kids studied and they emulated them.

Another surprise was that after a month or two into this grouping arrangement the kids themselves said they really enjoy this way of learning. They could see themselves learning more then under the more traditional single desk system. They would "nag" each other so they could turn in the work on time. I was surprised when my wife's class at the university said they really didn't like being in pairs. It limited their independence when they HAD to study with another person. So the college students learned more like my kids and both groups really got better grades but the college students didn't like the constraints while the grade school kids thought the process was "cool."

And Alister? He endured and the girls were on him for neatness the entire time. I don't remember if he improved in that department--I don't think neatness was in his genes. But I still remember him--one of my favorite kids.

Did a teacher ever make you do a paper over for neatness? Better say a silent prayer of thanks for teaching you some culture.... Hhmmmmm, I wonder if any of those three girls ever became teachers.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Twas the day before.....

By now school is out for the holidays before starting again in January of the new year. The last couple of weeks is hard on all teachers no matter what grade they teach. Just last Saturday, a high school show group from the music department showed up at my yacht club. An outstanding group, the come by every year and do a short presentation of song and dance. Called the Show Stoppers they prepare some holiday songs in the manner of a Broadway show and sing and dance around the city at a number of presentations. The music teacher was there along with an intern from my local university.....learning the ropes so to speak. The music teacher does a good job with about twenty young adults. Who knows maybe one or two will actually make it to Broadway in New York. I hope so.

Some years ago I was teaching fifth grade between bouts of teaching grade school music. I had a good class and wondered what I might do for the kids in my room as a gift. There were some district wide regulations as to what teachers could do, primarily limiting the amount of money one could spend. Most teachers in my school did nothing, perhaps a Christmas card to each child so I didn't want to rock the boat.

So my wife and I and some neighbors made gingerbread boys and girls for my kids. I hadn't realized how heavy gingerbread dough was--very hard to roll out and to mix. I needed all the muscle of several of my male neighbors to mix the dough. However, it became a party and we baked gingerbread kids until there were cooling in the kitchen, dining room and living room. We had gingerbread boys and girls all over the place. The I added some icing for facial and design and wrote each child's name on a gingerbread cookie. Hey, it was a lot of work. Near the end, someone asked what would happen if a new child arrived on that last day before the holidays. Ain't gonna happen. But it worried me enough that I decorated two cookies and wrote "favorite" on each of them. I figured I could eat them.

Then all the cookies were wrapped in cellophane and carefully placed in a box.

The last day of class arrived and I had let the students in my class exchange holiday cards. And surprise, one of my girls brought her little sister from home. A special treat. It was fine with me and the mother had sent a little note saying if it was not okay, please call her and she would come to pick her up. Not a problem Some of the children brought cookies and I would be forced to admit that little learning really got done that day. Some house keeping chores like cleaning out their desks and making folders to take home all the finished homework.....things like that. We cleaned off the bulletin boards and got them ready for the new year by putting up big numbers for the year--probably 1967 or 1968. Near the end, I got my boxes out and handed each child their Gingerbread boy or girl. The class was delighted. Everyone enjoy showing them off--a few wanted to eat them but their peers really stopped them. "Take it home and put it on the tree!" And I am glad I had made a gingerbread cookie with favorite on it and could give it to the little sister. You have to hang loose when you are a grade school teacher.

There was a district wide policy that parents were not suppose to give gifts to the teachers. Probably a wise move. But in spite of that policy I did receive a number of gifts, mostly ties. We male teachers were still required to wear ties and jackets......although most of us hung our suit coats and jackets up once we got into our classroom. So ties were a popular gift. I'm sorry I didn't save any of them--it was obvious that the kids did the choosing. And I can guarantee they did not come from the Bon Marche or Nordstroms. I did in the coming year wear each tie at least once. You had too. Women teachers mostly got perfume. Some of the kids would say, "Look how much I got for a dollar!" Right. I wonder if the women teachers wore the perfume like we guys wore the ties.

Each year at least one of my room mothers would come up to me and ask for my car keys. Being a native New Yorker I always locked my car frustrating some of my kids' parents. And after school, I would return to my car (yes, my little bug) and there would be a pie or cake--homemade and wonderful. As I said earlier, I really loved my parents.

Well, the gingerbread cookies were a hit. A couple of the parents talked to me and said how much their child enjoyed getting that cookie. It was probably near the end of March of that next year and I was watching one of my boy's looking into his desk and then putting his hand in. I just watched but couldn't figure out what was going on. He was still doing his work, writing or reading with his hand in the desk. Odd behavior. I had learned not to move too quickly when strange behavior became apparent....but after several days I had to ask Bobby, "Is there something wrong with your left hand? You tend to rest it in your desk." Bobby looked embarrassed and then pulled out his cellophane wrapped gingerbread boy. He then told me that he liked holding it when he did his homework--it make him feel good. I told him to put it back in his desk and don't worry. You can hold him all you want. I was sort of surprised to note that it was still looking good. But Bobby had his teddy bear so to speak.

Happy holidays to all and to all a good night. May the dreams of some of your best teachers keep you warm and happy in the coming year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How Kids Surprise You...

I was going to rant about how a newspaper in this state hasn't the foggiest idea of how the K-12 educational system works. You know the old saying, "Keep your mouth shut so that no one will know you're a fool." They wrote an editorial that shows they have no idea of what the problems facing public (and private for that matter) education in this state. Sloppy work, editorial board.

But instead, given the fact that this is the holiday season, I decided to write about some efforts on my part to teach fifth graders how arithmetic was important to them personally......and how I learned about giving.

My school at the time probably would have been classified as a low economics area school. People were struggling to make ends meet. Hard workers, many of them working at Boeings in various jobs but not management. But good people all. I really admired and had a lot of respect for my kids' parents. So with that in the back of my head, I wanted my class to understand the use of money as well as the importance of being accurate. Most of my kids could add, subtract, divide and multiply but there were times when they got lazy. I wanted to increase their perfection ratio. More "A's" thank you.

So how could I show the importance of accuracy, money and numbers--let's throw in neatness as well. One afternoon in October I came home after school was out to find the latest Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog at my door. Back in those days this massive catalog would be delivered and families would pour over it making a wish list for Christmas. You could still fill out forms in the middle of the catalog and with a check send in your order....and within weeks your order would arrive. Kids in my class were always talking about something in the Sears catalog.

Well, if we were getting the newest catalogs, old ones must be surplused. On a whim I called the Sears main office in our state and asked if I could have 35 of the old catalogs for use in my classroom. "Hey, not a problem--just come over to South Seattle and pick them up. Happy to help out." So I did. One slight problem. I at that time drove a Volkswagen Bug--one of the early ones in my neighborhood. It didn't have a big engine in those days and when we put 35 plus Sears large catalogs in the Bug, it took a while to get up to speed and it looked like it was about to break an axle or two. People pointed at me as I drove slowly by. I did get all those catalogs to the school the next day and the kids enjoyed unloading my car. I never did know if I had done it any damage.

So now everyone had a catalog and I could give out the assignment. I wanted them to fill out an order form and attach the correct amount of money to the top of the form. WHAT MONEY? Aha! I had that figured out. I had designed on a ditto "Blackwell Money, Room 6. I had one's, five's and ten's on the sheet. I think there must of been maybe twenty five dollars on a sheet and I cranked out two sheets of money for each student. I had drawn a boarder around the money and a circle in the center with what I though was a drawing of a person. Much discussion as to what was in the center of the circle on the money. Anyway, every student in my class got a certain amount of money so they could "buy" something in the catalog. I was proud of myself. Great assignment--concret teaching going on here.

I think it was Alister who first turn in his order form--he always wanted to be first. I looked at it and took the "money" off and chucked the form into the waste paper can. "Why did you do that? Mr. Blackwell." "I can't read it. This is so sloppy that the Sears office would just put it in a lost file." My how that got the rest of the class' attention. I could see erasers flying all over the place. Suddenly neat handwriting and printing became important. Hot damn. Those that were neat but didn't have the correct amount of money (we had all agreed to round off which was a skill I wanted to work on anyway) I put the entire form in the lost file. Accuracy shot up. To say I had a big head might be an understatement.

I do remember going down to the teachers room during recess and spouting off how good the arithmetic assignment was going. Smirk, smirk. But on my way back to my room I came around the corner to see some of the kids with the ditto machine cranking out more money. Whoa up here. You just don't print money when you need it. Still it just made sense to the kids that if you didn't have enough money to get more..... "Someone took money off my desk, Mr. Blackwell!" Another problem. Suddenly, I was teaching things I hadn't planned on like you can't steal money--it's wrong and you can't just print money. It's also wrong. We did have some good discussions about right and wrong that was never in the state curriculum guide.

I solved the printing of money by getting an out of date embossing device from the school library. Then I embossed all the money. Soon we had so much money going around that I decided to teach the kids how to write checks. So we printed out checks for each person. They could write a check as long as they had enough money in their desk. I was surprised how much this excited my kids. Not sure why, but they enjoyed and took an effort to write a proper check. We also had a discussion about banks and savings. Overall I was pleased with them and myself.

But there was a surprise in the works for me. The assignment was to fill out an order form, attached the correct amount of money (or check during the latter part of the project) and turn it in to me--the big kahuna of the ordering department. It was either approved, or put in the lost box and sent back. Pretty soon they had the assignment down pat.

And I was in for a surprise as I read the forms. I had suspected that the kids would order toys, air rifles, go carts, dolls, toy stoves, etc. all from the children's section of the catalog. But no, that is not what they ordered. There were forms fill out for new refrigerators, new couches or a recliner chair for Mom or Dad. New dishes were on a couple of the orders. Tools for Dad was also popular. By and large those kids ordered things for the family. I was surprised and to some degree humbled. I had underestimated those children. Ten to twelve year olds with a maturity much older. They and I knew that this was a big make believe assignment but I wished so much that I could have been like Oprah and make their dreams come true. That would have been fun.

Some of the kids never wanted to get rid of their catalogs when we moved on to other arithmetic assignments. But I will admit their penmanship improved. I was pleased with that result especially, except for Alister. Alister's penmanship was always terrible. I never knew why. Someday I'll tell you what I did to that poor kid.

Did you have a teacher that encourage you to be better? In your penmanship? Or with money? If so, you need to thank that teacher for going beyond the state and local curriculum guidelines.

Happy holidays to you all. And to Mr. Fransham. Thanks for encouraging me in music.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ideas of gifts for students for the holidays.....

Everyone seems to be talking about what to get fill in the name. Be it the mail delivery person, your niece or nephew (s), your sons or daughters or perhaps a colleague or friend. No, I don't have the magical list but I do have some suggestions for children to young adults--grade school to high school. After that, you are your own.

So here is my list, not necessarily in any order of importance. I think for any student, a mini camcorder would be exciting to have. These are small camcorders that can record just about anything. I think it is time for kids to learn how to put together clips to make movies. In fact, many kids already know how to do this--the evidence is on YouTube. What we teachers need to do much like we teach writing is to give the kids assignments that show the student how they can take advantage of this new medium. [for those not normally involved with technology, the word medium (means to come between) is singular while the word media is plural--you okay with that?] For example, if I were once again a fifth grade teacher I might assign to those who have mini camcorders to video someone or someones doing something nice. Then we might talk about...."did you get that person permission or release?" "Did they know you were filming them?" A host of discussion questions come to mind. Fun stuff. If I were an upper level teacher, perhaps saying to students in a civics class, video a problem in our community and write a one page paper as to how the problem can be solved. A stop sign being blocked by trees or a cross walk not easily seen. So--a mini camcorder would be a good gift.

What you say you don't want your kids to be able to sexting--showing themselves naked on the web. I agree but what a chance now to talk to your children and say what is acceptable behavior, perhaps what consequences might happen if they did. As usual, I think talking to them is a good form of educating your child. They will love you for it at some point in their lives.

Cell phones are another gift suggestion. I think the cell phone has changed our society in a quantum leap. Instant communications. If I were a parent today I would want to know I could reach my child whenever it was necessary. Yes, I know this is going to be hard on the teachers. We can't have ringing going on throughout the class day but I think we can say to put all the phones on vibrate and solve that problem. "And no texting except at lunch time!" I think the cell phone is a good device for kids to have.

I have a quandary with my next suggestion. I think an e-reader would be a great idea except there several are still being developed. The Kindle has been out and it is an excellent device. You can put over a thousand books on it. This may get some children to increase their reading. And here is a weird idea--if the child (no matter what age) has dyslexia, they MAY be able to read "better" on a e-reader. I've had a number of students (including myself) who read better of an electronic screen then with ink on paper. No we haven't figured out why yet. But I think the e-readers are a great innovation. has the Kindle, Sony has one on the market and so does Barnes and Noble. Apple is supposed to have a device the first of the year (2010). There is the quandary. Which one?

It goes without saying that I would recommend computers for students. Yes, we have them at school but it is a necessary item for doing homework these days. Many teachers will give assignments that include web addresses. Learning how to search on the web is a present day skill--sorta like looking up words in the dictionary. It was one of my students who taught me how to look up the spelling of a word on Google--she typed a misspelled word in the search box and Google came back and said, "Did you mean" and then spelled the word correctly. I never thought of doing I do it all the time.

However, if you have all the computers that you need in your family, do you have back-up devices for those computers? Hhhhmmmmm? It may not be the most exciting gift but having your computer back up your work every fifteen minutes or so is.....wonderful, particularly if you just erased something and didn't mean to do it. Back up storage devices have come down in price--look them up.

For the youngest child I would want to get them some CDs and DVDs of stories of yore. Yes, there are plenty of the same stuff on television these days but the ability to put in a disc and play it over and over is important in the development of a small child. Along with such discs I would want to get small children books of all types. Even books that may be a bit advance for them--like clothing, they will grow into them.

I wish you all the best for the coming holidays. May you find everything that you want to give and may your stress level remain stable. And don't forget to send a card to your child's let's them know you appreciate them. At the high school level, pick your child's favorite and thank them. We teachers will really appreciate your thoughts.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

More on Educational Reform...

One of the sub themes of this blog is to support the improvement of our school systems. Notice I didn't say to reform education. Just to improve what we are doing. The main theme of this blog is to support and tell what the classroom teachers are doing right now in teaching our education population from pre-school to graduate school. My last blog was a short story on how my major professor got me to learn about computers in the investigative mode. Remember, there are only three ways to learn: 1) Expository mode in which the message is transmitted primarily by voice or print by the learner or the teacher, 2) Investigative mode in which the learner tries things out and makes decisions as to what is important (in my case playing with an IBM-360-40), and finally the performance mode in which the learner performs in front of an audience and learns an insight into the message. Remember all that from a previous blog? Test on the modes this Friday, eh?

One of the stressful buttons you can push on me is the Educational Reform button. Tell me that some major company has been hired to lead some school district and I'll blow a cork. Tell me that some school district is going to eliminate summer vacations and increase the time that kids have to spend in class and you will view steam coming from my ears. But the worst thing that I can't stand is when someone places non-education administrators who have never spent a day in the classroom in charge of school districts. It really frosts my cupcakes! Well, it appears the latter has happened. Or will happen.

In a well written editorial piece for the New York Times, (December 5th, 2009) Bob Herbert has written an article, entitled, In Search of Education Leaders. He reports that Harvard University is planning a new doctoral degree in "Leadership in Education." While I applaud Harvard for this step (it is the first new doctoral degree in 74 years) it should be noted that there are a number of schools that have this type of degree already in their curriculum. For example Seattle University has had this degree for almost twenty-five years--an excellent program (a disclosure: My wife is a graduate of this program and I have participated by sending students to the program and serving on doctoral committees) I think Seattle University does an excellent job of providing educators with leadership capabilities.

But still, one needs to keep in mind what Harvard is up to. My big disappointment with the Harvard news as reported by Bob Herbert is that the faculty for this new doctoral program will be staff by faculty from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Oh dear, here we go again. And because it will be coming from Harvard, many folks will believe this will produce top school administrators.

I do wish some university would gather it's resources and do a large scale survey of teachers from across the nation and have them list the things they see that would promote better education. What do our teachers need? Less kids in a classroom? More books or more up to date textbooks? More Smart Boards or White Boards? Clearer objectives for each grade or subject matter? More computers? More or less time with the kids? I suspect but am not sure that some teachers would want their students to have a good breakfast in the morning, or a safe place to go after school is done for the day. I don't think anyone has ever done a large scale study of what teachers think. What would improve their teaching from the teachers' point of view?

I do think that many teachers--it doesn't matter which level or grade--would ask for a clearer curriculum. Most teachers want to know what is it you want me to teach your chid or teenager. But our school curriculum has become chaotic with many different requirements. The American Legion wants the schools to patriotism, the legislature has passed a law requiring all students to study the holocaust. There are literally hundreds of different learning objectives now required in our school curriculum. To some degree I understand why some teachers prefer to teach to the test--at least the test questions are clear and insightful. But still, I suspect many teachers become burdened with curricular requirements. [an aside to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Here is a worthy cause for you to consider--compile a curriculum for a K-12 school district and make it available to all districts.] What should the modern curriculum be? Here we are once again, "What knowledge is of most worth?"

Once again, the New York Times article that set me off was, "In Search of Education Leaders," by Bob Herbert. A well written article: I thank Mr. Herbert for writing it. And you should be thanking your teachers for giving you the knowledge to be able to read all this and make your own decisions as to what is a good education. Thank a teacher today.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How I learned to live with a Computer.....

There are two distinctions that I have that I think about from time to time. First, I can remember traveling across Snoqualmie Pass (major mountain pass between Seattle and the east side of the State of Washington) BEFORE there were freeways. It was a two lane road quite often blocked in the winter by either rocks and boulders or just heaps of snow. Hours of long waits while they cleared the road. In todays world it is rare to be held up going over the pass.

But my second distinction that I claim is that I taught before there were computers. In fact for much of my younger life, there were no computers. Zip. Nada. Zero. With the advent of the resistor, all sorts of change was initiated in the world. What a wonderful invention--the resistor.

But early computers did not use resistors....they used tubes. The United States began to invent and build computers during World War II primarily to figure out the trajectory of shells shot from large guns. Battle ships needed to know how high to raise their turrets in order to lob the shells on the enemy. These early computers were large affairs which you could walk through--indeed you had to from time to time to replace tubes that were burnt out.

One of my favorite early computer gurus was Commander Grace Hopper, USN. She started her professional career at a small New England university as a Mathematics professor. That in itself was interesting since that was at a time when women were not considered very good at mathematics. But the Navy "drafted her out of the college" and she took over the computer to do trajectory calculations.

Here is a story that I really treasure. After WWII, Commander Hopper felt that she should be promoted to being an Admiral. Other male Commanders were being promoted--why not her? It turns out that the Navy had a policy that no female would be promoted to the rank of Admiral. So they told her "No." Fine with her, she would turn in her commission and resign from the Navy. As she told the story to me, she went to her home in Washington, DC to do some needed reading and some house cleaning. She figured it would take the Navy about three days to see the error of their ways. She was right. It took an emergency act of congress to promote Commander Hopper to Admiral and the reason? No one knew how to operate the computer. And that is the story of how Grace Hopper became the first woman admiral in the U.S. Navy.

But this was the beginning of the era of large computers--ones that took up entire floors of buildings and mandated air conditioning. About this time IBM executives said that they were pretty positive that only seven of these large computers would ever be needed in the world. They have long regretted that statement. Another aside: Did you know that in 1939 World's Fair in New York, IBM passed out letter openers that said IBM would cut your expenses and that they were the purveyors of "...meat choppers and slicers, coffee mills and electric tabulating and accounting machines." Interesting, eh?

It was shortly after the infamous seven computer statement that large universities started to acquire these large computers for scientific research. Indeed, my own Western Washington University built a multi story brick building just to house an IBM 360-40 computer. This would be in the early to mid 1960s.

It was at that time I was a doctoral student working in the new area of Instructional Technology. The name had not solidified as yet--College of Education with a Technology department. Heaven forbid. I think it was then called Instructional Media. We had lots of technology like 16 mm projectors, cameras, opaque projectors, and the ubiquitous Kodak carousel slide projector. We also had a variety of tape recorders. Did I mention the overhead projector? Of course if you had all these projectors, recorders and such you had to be able to teach how to make the media that went along. That was our job in the department--to teach undergraduate education students how to use all these equipment. I can remember more then one student muttering as they left the learning laboratory of all this stuff, that once they passed the test they would never touch this equipment again. I suspect some teachers-to-be never did.

Remember my three objectives? Cognition or knowledge of technology was one area. Another objective was Psychomotor or muscular skills such as threading a 16 mm film projector. Our students were good at these was the affective domain that we did not do a good job at; getting students to see the value of using this technology in the classroom.

One day my department head and major professor told me he was going to put a computer in my office and would I study it and give a report to the department at a future date. A computer in my office? I had the smallest office of anybody on that floor--no one was going to put a computer in THAT office. It only had one wall outlet and I was using half of that one for my desk lamp.

But a few days later a large teletype machines was set up next to my desk. Teletype machines were used mostly in news rooms by the AP (Associated Press) to transmit news from around the country. You can see one once in awhile in an old movie either in a newsroom or a police station. Noisy critters--they chatter away banging out print on a roll of cheap paper. A day or so after this was established in my office someone from the local IBM office joined me for a lesson on how this worked. He showed me how to load paper, how to turn the machine on and off and then told me it was connected by phone to an IBM 360-40 computer in Palo Alto. Then he said "have fun" and left. Oh yes, he also said it was programmed in BASIC. I had no idea what BASIC was but some phone calls and I had a general drift of what I should do. I really think that the IBM guy had no idea was this teletype was for. He could turn it on and off--that was it.

After turning it on, I would manually type: MENU and it would clatter to life and type out of fairly long menu of programs it could do. I don't remember most of them and if memory serves me correctly I think many were Mathematics programs designed for engineering students. But one program caught my eye--it was called, "Statpak." It would do statistics. I was taking an advanced stat course--could I use this program to do some of my homework assignments? Ah, let's give it a try.

By now I had a little understanding of BASIC . It only had at that time twelve commands. I could handle that. So I typed, "Load Statpak" and the teletype machine started clattering right away. It was a noisy machine--very much so. The first thing it would print was, "Are you an Expert?" There was no welcoming paragraph like welcome to IBM, or "we're glad you are using our machine." Just, "Are you an Expert?" I typed, "NO." and then it came to life. Explaining this was a computer statistical program able to do the following things and then it printed up another menu of statistical procedures. Holy Sh*t! I couldn't believe it. I happened to have a Chi Square problem to do and decided to try it out. Load Chi Square. And then it typed for awhile telling me what Chi Square could do, how to interpret the data and how to enter the data. I did that and within seconds the teletype was printing out my Chi Square program with my numbers in the correct spaces and at the end it even suggested that this conclusion was not reliable and that I ought to do some other calculation. "Would I like the program to do that?"

I sat back stunned. What I expected me to do in several hours with an electric Marchant calculator was completed in about three seconds. I didn't even have to go to my textbook to figure out what those numbers meant. To say I was overwhelmed would probably be the understatement of the year. In the following weeks each time I received a statistical project in class to formulate, I would amble back to my office, then excitedly type in the new data and say "RUN." It would and it did--the work for me. I probably was the only one in that stat class that was not stressed.

But now I had an ethical problem. Do I tell my statistical professor about the device (computer) I was using? Do I tell the rest of my colleagues in class? There was no question in my mind that this computer in Palo Alto would change the way we teach statistics. As it turned out, I decided to tell the professor. He was new (some of you will remember the overhead transparencies that I did for his class--snow job) and I though I should let him know what I was doing. He made it easy on me by brushing me off so to speak, saying, "I don't care how you do it as long as you complete the assignment." I really don't think I conveyed to him what the computer was doing. I don't think his concept of a computer had even been composed in his brain.

But the computer was my friend--dearly beloved. I'd pat it as I came to my desk in the morning. And yes, I did finally give a report to the rest of the department on what it could do. We spent several departmental meetings discussing what the future would hold with computers and I am afraid we were all off of the mark. Predicting the future is difficult at best and making decisions today is probably the best way to ascertain the future. In this case I have to give all the credit to my department head for getting us into the computer life early on.

So thanks, Dr. T. for providing me with my own IBM main frame computer to play with. What a way to learn. And thanks to all those teachers who help their students learn.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Potpourri of Thoughts on Teaching before Thanksgiving

The time from just before Thanksgiving to after the first of the new year is inescapably one of the hardest to teach children. I don't know about high school--perhaps the older children can keep it in check better but the elementary school child begins to get excited about the coming holidays. I don't want to get into a discussion as to what the holiday season should mean but just deal with the reality that the kids are getting excited and looking forward to something different in their lives for the moment.

It is rather hard to keep their attention at times and if a few, and I do mean just a few snow flakes fall outside the window of the classroom, learning breaks down entirely. More then once I've had to let my class go to the window and watch and get excited. Only then could I get them back to their seats and back to what we were studying. My school was in an area that rarely got snow--I wonder what it is like to have a pile of the white stuff outside your school, like in Boston or Sugar Hill, NH. Do you say, "NO snowballs!" That must be an unenforceable rule at best.

But back to the holiday season. If you can't keep the excitement down then you might as well go with the flow. Each year I would teach my class some popular holiday song for us to sing as a class. One year I did " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," arranged by Fred Wearing. I re-arranged it for my kids and found a mom who would play piano for us. It was fun and I still remember with great fondness the bright eyes, the happiness, and the enthusiasm of the kids. That year I went up to the high school and retrieved some risers that they were not using and brought them back to my school. The kids helped me set them up and it added to the atmosphere when they could stand three deep with all the kids being able to see me. I dearly loved those children.

One of my kids, named Tommy, really wasn't much of a singer. The thought of singing out loud sort of scared him even if he was just part of the thirty eigh or nine kids that I had. He really wasn't up for all of this. So I decided that I would help Tommy out. I got a base drum from the music storeroom and set it up behind the risers. Then I stationed Tommy on the top riser with the drum right behind him. In the song, 'Twas the Night......, there is a passage where the kids are singing about Santa..... "coming down, down, down doooowwwn with a boooouuunnnd." The kids really liked that part and would do it with more enthusiasm then I probably really wanted but..... My idea was that when the class sang that last bound, I would point to Tommy and he would hit the drum. Boom! Santa would be down. Properly.

So it was time for a practice run. My classroom mom came and she did the intro to the song on the piano and off we went. Not bad, there still were a number of things to work out but the class was singing with gusto and having a good time. We sang the part where Santa comes down with a bound and I pointed to where Tommy was--nothing! Not even a little tap on the drum. Absolutely quiet. I stopped the kids and looked at Tommy. The poor guy was in a total sweat--I mean he was dripping. And shaking. If there was ever a kid close to terror it was Tommy. I don't know why but he was totally scared.

Now I am in a quandary--do I give the part to someone else? I remember saying something like, "Hey, Tommy, you did good, but I need it a little louder." I don't think he heard me at all. He was still shaking. Now here is the problem--if I give that part to someone else, I have ruined Tommy's confidence for ever. I can't do that. So I had him practice hitting the drum. "Okay, when I point at you, hit it!" He did but very lightly. And I thought, maybe he doesn't like me to point at him. "Tommy. Would it be better if I just nodded at you?" He nodded--I'm not sure what he wanted but we tried that a couple of times. I felt a little bit like a fool. Nod, boom. Nod, Boom. But it was working. "Okay, class, let's take it from......." and we did the section on coming down the chimney. Tommy came through. It was light but you could hear it. I suggested a bit more umph but I didn't want to push him too far. He just might faint on me. When we got finished with that practice, Tommy was exhausted. And dripping in sweat. I really didn't know what to do for him. The class and I (and Tommy) just went back to our classroom to continue our studies. Maybe that was for the best--I didn't make a scene about Tommy and the drum.

Well, we practiced that song a number of times in the coming weeks and Tommy slowly and I do mean slowly gained some confidence in hitting the bass drum and got a little louder. We were selected by the principal to sing our song at the Christmas PTA meeting just before the holiday vacation. I worried about Tommy. How would he react with a large gym of parents all looking at him. AND the school would get a hundred to two hundred parents for this program.

PTA night came. I had talked to my class that singing the song was just a part of showmanship. How we acted before and after was also part of the song. The kids talked about this and they decided that they would come in their pajamas with coats covering them. Then I decided that they should sit with their parents until it was our time to sing and they would remove their coats and wander up to the risers and get in place. Some would yawn and some would stretch like they might do at home. It was cute and the parents applauded on our "entrance." My home room mom started on the intro and the class started to sing. I still remember how well they did--big mouths like I asked them, say the words carefully so that everyone could understand and listen! Listen to each other! They did. It was good and I was feeling a bit of relief and totally forgot about Tommy. Santa come down with a bound and I remember nodding at Tommy and he really hit that sucker. It was the loudest bound that we had heard throughout our practices. I mean he really walloped that drum. The class and I sort of jumped and I could hear the parents laughing. They thought it was an act. It wasn't. We hadn't expected Tommy to come through with such volume.

We finished the song and it was a big hit. After the meeting I think every parent came up and said what a great delight it was to hear my class sing. Somewhere in the mass of confusion, Tommy came up to me and said, "I did alright, didn't I?" I knelt down and gave him the biggest hug and told him he was perfect. His smile said it all. He must have been practicing in his mind for weeks. And he came through. I know the class really gave him an "attaboy" the next day in class. I think his confidence improved greatly.

Some schools do not have a holiday program--I think it is a bit sad. It is a nice break in the learning year for the kids. But is also a difficult time for teachers to continue with the lessons. Perhaps just learning in spite of all the excitement is a learning adventure in itself.

So for all my teacher friends who are beginning to work hard at keeping the children at their learning tasks, my thanks to you. May Santa who comes down with a bound bring you happiness and a moment to sit and relax.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Setting the Atmosphere....

One of the things teachers have to do is to establish a learning atmosphere in the classroom be it high school mathematics or first grade reading. Because we normally have a number of students in each classroom, the teacher automatically has to deal with setting the climate for learning. How to do that is what each teacher learns to do in the internship and during the first few years of teaching. How you say, "Good Morning, Group," or "Okay, let's get started on today's lessons," are just the beginning of classroom atmosphere.

This was brought to my attention in one school where I had a student teacher. The cooperating teacher was a little thing, perhaps five feet tall--very petite. AND very quiet in speaking. The first time I was introduced to her I had to lean over to hear her. She apologized for being so quiet but said it was her nature to be that way. I was fascinated.

Mrs. Case (not real names as usual) was a first grade teacher who had the quietest class I had ever been in. About thirty or so first graders, she started class with the her very soft voice, "Okay, boys and girls, let's stand for the pledge of allegiance." And the kids would stand besides their desks and recite the pledge.....hand over their heart. Typical start for most first grade classes except I almost missed. I had to crank my listening up several notches. The kids would start doing things and I would realize Mrs. Case had given some instructions and I had not heard it.

I remember asking the student teacher, one of our best from my university, how did she do in listening and she admitted that she had to at first pay close attention but that after the first week, she was doing okay. She as well as the rest of the first graders were well sensitized to Mrs. Case's voice. And you also had to keep her in your vision being that she wasn't really much taller then some of her charges. "Let's see, where is Mrs. Case now?" was my theme much of the time. If she sat at a student's desk she blended right in.

One day I was in the back of the room talking to my student teacher and going over some of her lesson plans. The lesson plans were good; she had had good training on lessons. But I had notice that at the end of the section on which she was going to teach, there were no tests to see how she had done with the children. I always liked to see some sort of a measurement device even in first grade. Perhaps something that the children could use check marks to verbal questions by the teacher. But my student teacher said that she had something like that in the lesson plans but Mrs. Case had told her, "no tests in this classroom." None? None!

Later on when Mrs. Case and I were able to get together and talk about my student teacher and how she was doing (fine), I enquired about this no test policy. Mrs Case had thought this all out and from her answer had already delivered it a number of times. She did not want her children tensing up unnecessarily in the classroom. There would be time enough for that in later grades. But in her classroom there would be NO tests...or hint of tests. Mrs. Case was quite strong on this point. If she was a good enough teacher then she ought to know how each of her charges were doing at any time in her classroom. And she did. At a later date she pulled a couple of files from her desk and showed them to me. She knew where each of her children were in reading, which child was having problems with syllables, which ones had the consonants under their command and which book and story each child was working on. Every afternoon after the kids had gone home, she would update her files.

Quite frankly I was very impressed with her work. If I had been younger and had a first grade child this would be one of the teachers I would have liked to start my child on the learning adventure. Mrs. Case's kids were eager to learn, worked hard and I believe were ahead of the curve. My student teacher took on the same behavior and had her own files on the children as she worked with them. Mrs. Case's classroom was a delight, very quiet and learning was the focus of her atmosphere.

As I write of Mrs. Case's techniques I am reminded of fifth grade teacher on the opposite side of the town--same school district however. I remember having a student teacher in that room but I can't remember much about that person. But what I do remember was another technique in creating a good learning environment. I remember sitting in the back of the room, more to get a feel of the class before my student teacher was to take over. Kids were working on projects and at the fifth grade level not everyone was working on the same learning task. But something wasn't quite right in my mind. The teacher, Mrs. Whitehall was walking around helping the kids, but there were no raised hands to get her attention. Now in the majority of the rooms I use to visit, when a student was having a problem they would raise their hand. If the teacher was helping someone else, they would just leave their hand in the air. Some kids, when tired would take the other hand to support it at the elbow. A few would hold their hand up but put their head down. Under these situations, learning mostly came to a stop. That was what I was use to seeing. But here in Mrs. Whitehall's class NO hands were showing. Interesting.

So I watched. Both Mrs. Whitehall and my student teacher spend much of that hour going from desk to desk helping those that needed some assistance. But I never saw a child who seemed to need assistants. After school was out I went back to the classroom and asked Jane what she was doing.

She smirked (it was always a delight to pull one over the ol' college professor) and showed me her system. She went to one of the desks and pulled out a paper folded box with different colors on the sides, red, yellow and green. Some sort of origami type small box folded out of kraft paper. During study times the boxes were to be on the desk in the corner and if everything was fine, green would be showing toward the ceiling. If they need some help, then yellow was suppose to be pointing upward. Big problems--big red pointing upward. But there was another catch to all of this. If they were totally stumped and had put the red pointing upward, the student couldn't just quit work, they had to do something positive such as reading their library book, working on spelling words, finishing other assignments, whatever. Jane mentioned that she was just tired of seeing children who were stuck and that she could not get to them right away. Hence, they had to keep working on something. And eventually, she would get there to help them.

What a technique! No hands waving in the air, no students just sitting there waiting for the teacher's help. No, you wouldn't see this if you were measuring for Merit pay....just test scores for that. But if I had a child I would have wanted them to be in Mrs. Whitehall's class learning how to make good use of their time.

No tests in one class and no hand waving in another class. Thanks, Mrs. Case and Mrs. Whitehall for being the excellent teachers you were. You have my admiration.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A well thought out article on education

Let me admit that I am not a very good writer. Dyslexics tend to have problems in sentence structure--I'm not sure why. I have read several books written about being a dyslexic person and they are not at the top of the journalistic heap as well. It is sad--I would have like to have been a writer. I like to observe people and would have enjoyed writing about what I had watched and noticed about kids and learning. At best you get my stories and thoughts.

And as a few of you have noticed I have foamed at the mouth allowing steam to emit from my ears and have cried rivers of tears about those who want Educational Reform. I do not always use mellowed phrases or articulate logic. Most of the time I rant off at the mouth. I have been in this profession for forty-five years and have watched the reformers come and go. I apologize but I am passionate about our school systems and protective of our teachers. As I have stated a number of times, I cannot think of a profession that is so dedicated to the education of children and young adults as the teachers in this country of ours. In spite of being named the cause of all the problems in education, the teachers go on day in and day out teaching our kids and doing the best in spite of bureaucratic garbage such as "No Child Left Behind."

I have reframed in recent weeks about writing anything about the push to reform our educational systems.....although there have certainly been enough journalistic reports about this administration will push their ideas of educational reform. Yes, it does take a degree or two of restraint on my part and I am glad I have done so. My wife sent me a web address of someone who wrote far more articulate then I can or have. His name is Marian Brady and he has taught and written almost as long as I have. Before I proceed here is that web address: Please read it. If you are interested in improving education, this article points out some pitfalls from the past and does it a much more academic manner then I could do. Mr. Brady deserves our applause.

Mr. Brady includes in his article, 10 false assumptions about our educational systems. For example, in false assumption No. 1 he has a great line of which I wish I had written. "While it's true teachers can't choose their students, textbooks, working conditions, curricula, tests or the bureaucracies that circumscribe and limit their autonomy, they should be held fully accountable for poor student test scores." I can't tell you how many parents and critics of our educational system have blamed the teachers for unsatisfactory results. It is sad.

Somewhere in his article Mr. Brady contends that only those who have had 10,000 hours with students should be allowed to comment on how to improve our educational systems. YEEEESSSSSSS! Let's see now, at six hours a day for one hundred and let's say, twenty five days comes to seven hundred and fifty hours. That is for one year of teaching. Divide that into ten thousand hours and you get something along the lines of thirteen years. Now I could go along with that. People who have spend thirteen years in front of students I suspect know how to teach.

But the other big problem facing teachers is...."what should we be teaching our kids?" As Mr. Brady summed it up, this is where the rubber meets the road with the curriculum. So as a reader of this blog, let me give you an assignment--are you ready for this? What do you want a high school graduate (either male or female) to look like when they leave the k-12 system with their high school diploma. Okay parents, tell me what should your children learn. What of the affective domain (values) should they be responsible for at the end of twelve years? What of the cognitive domain (knowledge) should they be able to comprehend at the end of their schooling? And what of the psychomotor skills (physical skills) should they be able to perform twelve years from the beginning of school.

I'd like to see at least one school district put together a fairly large group of parents with a number of teachers for consultation and have them design the curriculum. As Marian says, no generals, no mayors, no CEOs with management skills, no one use to running a tight ship ought to be allowed in the room with these people. Let them come up with the end goal. "This is what we want our children to look like when they graduate from secondary school." Then let the professionals do their job.

Well, Mr. Brady. You wrote an excellent article on the problems facing our schools. I thank you. You're a real teacher.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Buying into Learning

I have been accused by some of overly simplifying aspects of education. I suspect there is an element of truth in that although I do think the work of a philosopher is to seek the truth and find out what is important and what isn't important If that be true then I submit I am guilty.

One of the educational "facts" that I firmly believe (you don't have to agree with me--it could be a fascinating discussion if you didn't) is that buying in to the learning activity enhances that learning. Do you remember the three ways of learning that I wrote about much earlier in this blog? There was the expository function which included but not limited to reading, writing, talking and listening. The performance function included such things as dance, singing, acting, and all sorts of doing. The investigative function was just that--learning from your experiences.

One of my contentions is that the performance and investigative provide more "learning" power then does just the expository. Having a teacher tell you something is good but figuring it out on your own is better. Hence the big debate in mathematics on whether we should teach by the expository mode (teacher tells, shows and the students do problems) or the investigative mode (teacher provides a problem and the students seek an answer), [an aside to my favorite math teacher--yes I know I overly simplified this explanation. Sorry.] will probably continue beyond my lifetime.

But let me give you an example of "buying into the learning" that I tried and failed miserably only to be successful in the end. I was teaching fourth grade in a suburban school district and we were suppose to "do" the Western Movement in the United States. I could at that time just tell my class to get out their Social Studies books and we would continue to read how the pioneers started on the east coast, then moved into the central part of the nation and finally through the Rockies and into the Pacific coast area. I was lucky--I didn't have to worry about Alaska and Hawaii not states at that time. Let's face it listening to a student in the class read three or four paragraphs about pioneers of which the kids had little inkling of what they were was boring. REALLY boring. It was an easy way to cover the material, notice I said cover not necessarily teach the material.

So I came up with what I thought was a smarter way of teaching the Western Movement. I asked the kids if they could bring in pieces of quarter inch plywood about 12 by 18 inches in size. My plan called for putting a map of the United States in the opaque projector and have them trace the outline of the United States on their piece of plywood. Then we would nail some small strips of wood for the east coast mountains and a slightly larger piece of wood for the Rockies. Then as a class we would take Paper Mache and cover the plywood maps with appropriate mountains, plans and coastlines. Where could I go wrong with this lesson plan? Let me tell you the ways....

First, getting the plywood was almost the end of the project. I had told the children we wanted scrap plywood, nothing good. And although I told them the approximate size, like many children they thought that if that size was good maybe something bigger would be better. So they brought three feet by five feet pieces of plywood. I finally said it had to go back--we had no place in the classroom to store all these larger pieces. Eventually we had the thirty six pieces of plywood and even then it took up a lot of space. We also needed the small fairing strips for the mountain ranges but since the sizes of the plywood varied, we needed different sizes of strips. One dad must have taken piety of a dumb teacher for he brought in four or five foot size pieces of wood suitable for using as support for the mountains.

I asked around about how does one make paper mache? I was given all sorts of advice but basically it was two parts flour to one part water. "Okay gang, we need to have you bring from home enough flour for your maps." My mistake was not to tell them how much flour. And I'm not sure all the kids asked mom for the flour--they just brought in bags. Open bags of flour. I had white colored kids, ghost, clothing and all for a couple of the children. They thought it was tremendous--"Mr. Blackwell had never done anything this good before."

One of my colleagues did mention that if I used paper strips, the paper mache was easier to work and I wouldn't need as much flour. So back to my kids--we need some newspaper. I think there were several families who didn't see the morning news--it ended up in my classroom.

Finally the big day. On a Friday before a long weekend (Monday was a holiday) we started first thing after lunch count. No spelling. That in itself was worthy of a holiday as far as the class was concerned. We started with each child with their plywood outlining the map of the united states with the opaque projector. Only a few had to turn the plywood over and start over. Some wanted to include Canada and some wanted Mexico. "No, just the United States-now pay attention!" Then I had several of the boys cutting the six foot strips into proper lengths. "You need TWO pieces of wood for the mountain support." "And don't forget to nail them." I remember going around the room having some of the children removing the strips--they were either in the Atlantic or the Pacific--talk about staying within the lines.

I also had children cutting up the newspaper into thin strips. After lunch we mixed flour and water and newspaper. As far as the kids were concerned this probably was the best part of the day. I had buckets ready for this part of the project and the kids mixed, "more water please" and "more flour quick," from all parts of the room. I have to admit even after all these years this was a low point for me. This was not going well. Not at all.

I eventually got all the strips nailed in the correct places and the paper mache was soon being put on their maps. A few had the Appalachian mountains larger then the Rockies. And there were a few mountains added for good measure here and there. "I wanted mountains there, Mr. Blackwell." I remember saying don't forget the Mississippi river and someone saying "I have to start all over." Oh dear. With thirty six kids it was a mad house to say the least. I spent much of the time just keeping control and the noise down to a pitch battle. The paper mache was all over the place, on the desks, the floors, some windows and definitely on every kid. But the kids were happy--this had been a great school day. I was not happy.

We cleaned up the room the best we could and left our maps drying on each desk. Tuesday when class would start, we'd colored our maps and draw the wagon trains tracks on our paper mache maps.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. Tuesday morning, after being told by the principal that the janitors were very upset with me, I headed for my room. I was several rooms away when I began to smell something. And it got stronger as I got closer to my room. I opened the door and the smell nearly knocked me over. It seems that no one had told me that you need salt in the paper mache mix to keep it from moulding. As I walked around the room holding my nose I saw several really good topographical maps with a nice coating of growing green on the mountains.....and in the plains as well. But the smell was overwhelming.

I was surprised that most of the kids were not that disappointed that we had to scrap all the paper mache stuff into the garbage--some even threw the plywood in as well. With the windows all open we soon cleaned the air. I will admit I was very unhappy with myself and the project. It just wasn't worth it. We'd go back to reading the textbook for social studies. Bummer.

So when social studies time came about I said, "Get your social studies books out--don't forget to clear your desks of other work." They were a good bunch of kids and they did just that. We opened to the appropriate page and started reading. EXCEPT, we didn't get a paragraph into the reading when someone wanted to know exactly where were the Blue Mountains--were they part of Appalachian mountains? "St. Louis was near the Mississippi river so they were already across part of the United States." I sat back and was amazed at the discussion that the class had on the western movement. Somehow all that paper mache had garnered more learning then I was expecting. Indeed, in the weeks to come more good discussions came out of the western movement for the class. "How far can you walk in a day?" "How much food can you take?" "There is no refrigerators on a covered wagon!" Somehow the kids knew more then what was just in our textbooks. Whether it was from discussions around the dinner table, from outside reading I'm not sure. But the kids were up to standards when it came to knowing about the western movement. I was pleased with them. All they wanted to know was when were we going to do another project like that one--that was fun!

I still think kids need to "buy" into the learning to learn. Doing is better then being talked to...or at. And my final word on this. DON'T FORGET TO ADD SALT TO THE PAPER MACHE!

And don't forget to thank a teacher. Their lesson plan might have gone awry and they need a pick me up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's The Principal of the thing....

I was thinking the last few days of a friend of mine who is ill with cancer. A really nice guy who years ago got me started into playing the bagpipes. At the time he was a principal of an elementary school and I had invited him to my house for an evening with a few teacher friends of mine and a bunch of student teachers. My intent was for the teachers and Mr. H, the principal to talk about teaching and answer questions from the student teachers. And that is precisely what was a worthwhile exercise.

The reason I asked Mr. H. was, in my opinion, that he was one of the good guys in the principal ranks. Not that there are good and bad but one can sense the atmosphere of a school soon after entering the front doors and by and large it is the principal that sets the tone. I have met a number of principals that I have admired and respected. There was no question in my mind that Mr. H. was in charge of the school but he remained in the background much like a coach might act with a sports team. He was a very gentle man and in all the years, I never heard him raise his voice or get upset. A genuine nice guy.

I remember a number of times when Mr. H. and I would go over the list of new student teachers coming to this school and we would discuss how we thought the personalities of the cooperating teacher would work with the new incoming student teachers. Most of the time, we would enjoy a successful cooperating/student teacher pairing.

Before I continue, another sidebar for you to consider. Colleges of Educations have an interesting dilemma. They are required by state law to provide an internship for wannabe K-12 school teachers-- BUT the school districts don't have to accept them. IF the college does a good job of preparation of the new student teacher, most school districts will look favorably on accepting them into the schools. It means more adults to help children and young adults learn. But there can be problems that exist for both the college and the school district. Foremost, it is hard work for the teacher to take on another person to teach what is going on, i.e., the student teacher. And the cooperating teacher has to "give up" to a degree his/her class loosing some control. And if the student teacher has problems, it is the cooperating teacher that really has to take charge with the class. The students in the classroom are the most important product; the student teacher is further down the importance list. Then the cooperating teacher has to work with the college instructor who is doing the supervision. Most of us supervisors try to be in the classroom for a period of time at least once a week to observe. But we also have to make arrangements to talk to the cooperating teacher about what is happening when the supervisor is not available, take that into account and then make time to talk and instruct the student teacher. This is not efficient by college standards--my college dean would much prefer that I teach a class of fifty students rather then supervise five student teachers. A good cooperating teacher is pure gold.

Anyway, Mr. H. always took time to try to figure out the best pairing of student teacher to experience teacher. He was correct most of the time. And that is why he came to my house that one night. Now retired, Mr. H was one of the best.

There was an elementary principal in Seattle some years ago that I also thought was pretty sharp. I never had student teachers in Seattle but I did meet with teachers and through the grapevine heard positive comments about him....from teachers. So I called to make an appointment to visit the school. Certainly I could come but not on Fridays. So I made some time available and went to visit the school. Let me be upfront about one thing--I have my elementary
administrative (read: principal) credentials but I have never been a principal. After I got my credentials, I decided I didn't want to leave teaching. Maybe if I had visited this one school earlier I would maybe have gone another route in my career. When I got to this south side Seattle school and as I walked up the front door, children came over and welcomed me to the school. From a quick look it was a mixed population of African-Americans, Asian and Asian-Americans, Polynesians, Hispanics and white Americans. Whites were the minority here.

But it was easy to see that the atmosphere was positive--my first impressions was it was a happy school. The building was old (most school building are) and it had one of those cement playgrounds. I dislike that but they are in abundance around the state. Hard on kids who run and fall. My first stop in any school is the office to let them know what strangers are in the school. They were expecting me...and the principal, Mr. S. was waiting for me. Quite a difference from schools in which I have to wait a while to see the principal. Sort of letting me know who is in charge.

Mr. S. and I immediately took a tour of the building, almost a difficult feat. As we walked the halls, every child said hello to Mr. S. and some even hugged him. AND he knew every child's name. So what do we have--maybe 300 children with ten grades and two kindergartens. You with me so far? And this principal seemed to know each child. "How's your math doing?" or "Is your mom feeling better?" or "I heard you did well on your spelling test, nice going." Our progress was slow. And then when we entered a classroom, everyone's face would light up--including the teacher. Everyone loved this guy.

It turn out that when he was made principal of this school three years earlier, the school was down, not a good feeling about it. The first thing he did was to say to the teachers that he, the principal would take one of their classrooms each Friday for the whole day and they would be allowed to do whatever they wanted that would help them with their teaching--make lesson plans, visit libraries, go to other schools and watch what they were doing--whatever they wanted to do. Then he and the teachers set up the schedule for the year. Each teacher knew when their Friday was coming and could make plans.

But the flip side of all this is that he got to learn the kids in his school. There wasn't a child who didn't love Mr. S. from kindergarten to fifth grade. The parents loved him as well; he told me that many of the parents spoke poor English and he wished that he could speak some of their languages. What I found out was that this school went from one of the poorest in Seattle to one of the better ones in only four years. No teachers requested a transfer even though it was a "tough" school to teach at. But the administration was not overly pleased with the "Friday Off" policy that Mr. S. had started. I'm not sure why. It was one school where I could see the teachers were excited and looking forward to teaching their children.

I have a method of evaluating principals, rather simplistic in nature. I ask myself if I would like to teach in the school I'm visiting. Mr. H who always took our student teachers and Mr. S. were two of the best. Yes, I would like to have taught in those schools.

Have you thanked a teacher lately for teaching our children? We need to thank more of them any chance we get.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


I don't care if the class is a high school class or if it is a first grade group of students, the teacher is responsible for the atmosphere with that class. At the high school level, it may only be for fifty minutes, but then again it could be an extended period and the teacher has the class for two hours. This is great for the band teacher or the drama instructor.

However, the elementary teacher is in charge of the kids for approximately six hours a day. A lot of learning can take place but it is tiring work.......for the kids. So most elementary teachers arrange their lesson plans in a way that the subject matters are relatively different from one subject to another. For example, the first subject of the day might be spelling where the kids work independently in their spelling workbooks while the teacher is collecting lunch money. Blessings on the school that has a lunch system where the kids turn in their money before school starts.

The next subject might be reading where the teacher sits with small groups for about five to ten minutes and works with five or six children. The rest of the class can continue with their spelling books and when done take out their reading textbooks. Smooth transition from one subject to another--a sign of an experience teacher.

A sidebar: One way to evaluate a student teacher is to measure how long it takes them to get their students from one subject, say math, to another subject, for example, social studies. This is what I would look for--did she tell the students what they had learned in math today? Summarizing? Did she praise how they worked and got a lot accomplished? Success breeds success. And then did she give clear instructions on what to do with their math books (and homework?). And then to get their social studies books out on their desks. Okay, for me I want to know did that little scenario take five minutes, six minutes, more? How much confusion took place as the subject matter was changed. Did children ask questions of each other if they were not sure what was happening? With an experienced classroom teacher, these things seem to happen effortlessly.

And so the school day continues from one subject to another. Hopefully until the end of the school day in which everyone, student and teacher knew what was happening and what was expected of them along the way. Cool.

But once in a while, DISASTER. An announcement carried by a student from the office telling you that "there is a special assembly on school safety in thirty minutes in the multi-purpose gym. Gym classes will be cancelled and please bring your class to the gym when a runner comes to your class." Sometimes you get this announcement by way of the inter-school speaker system. In any event, the teacher's lesson plans are kaput and he/she is already thinking of how to catch up the next day.

The announcement said the assembly would be in thirty minutes but from experience you know as a teacher getting ten or twelve classes into the gym and seated will take time. The problem facing the teacher is now what to do! The kids are excited about a change in the schedule--something new to happen. An experience teacher will probably take some time to remind the class how they are to act at the assembly. "How do we applaud? Let me hear the girls applaud. Good, now the boys." You correct a couple of kids that were showing off--they knew it and all you needed to do was say something to them. "How are we going to sit in the gym?" Particularly important if there will be no chairs. So as the teacher you remind them how they are going to sit and how they are going to behave. I also added a gimmick of the secret word. I'd remind them I might use the secret word and that meant no talking, not even to another teacher or the principal. We'd practice that for the moment but my kids were pretty good and just looked forward to something new in their day.

The problem then facing the teacher is what do you do with the twenty to forty minutes left before going to the gym.... You can't start another subject--no time to really get involved. Not the best time to read the book you were reading--that was always after lunch break. What to do? Some teachers of the primary grades quite often use this time for show and tell. There are always children that want to show something to the rest of the class. Good time to practice speaking in front of the class. "Speak up, Annabelle, we can't hear you back here in the class." The rest of the class is interested but not intently.

What I stumbled upon was story telling. My first stories were what librarians call American Indian "WHY" stories. Why does the male ducks have beautiful markings and the female ducks are so plain. (girls really like this story) Or, Why are their so many snakes in the world? One great thing about storytelling is that you can extend the story and make it as long as you want or you can shorten it to meet your needs. So I would tell some story as we waited for our call to the gym.

Storytelling also worked for me when I was on bus duty. Bus 5 was always breaking down and we had to wait with Bus 5 kids until the replacement showed up. Safety was paramount and I would have fifteen kids or so, so we would move under the rain roof and I would tell a story.

Let me be clear--storytelling is just that--you, the story teller, tells the story from memory. You are not reading from a book. I did that also but always after lunch break--it was a tradition in my classroom.

But telling a story to fill in time had several advantages. I didn't realize it at first, but by listening to my story my kids were already getting into the listening mode which many of our assemblies seem to consist of.... The storytelling also brought some other culture into the classroom--if not only for enjoyment but to let them think about things. I do know that the children enjoyed storytelling. They would do most anything to have a story told to them. Behaving in an assembly was part of their blackmail plan to get another story. "We were good, Mr. Blackwel, can we have another story?"

Later on in my career when I was a professor of education, I would go out to mostly elementary schools (I did a few middle schools and one high school) and would do Scottish folk tales. I'd wear my kilt and jacket and all the trimmings and I would also bring my bagpipes both the parlor pipes as well as the great Highland bagpipes. I'd tell a story, play a tune, tell another story and sometimes answer questions about the pipes and what I was wearing.

Sometimes I would have one class and then another depending upon how the teachers wanted to set up the performance. Other times I might have all the fifth grades in the library, then the fourth grades and so on.

Another aside: There was some criticism the other day on a TV news show from three school reformers about how School of Educations were staffed with professors who have never seen the inside of a public school and who don't know how to teach. Not true. I had one colleague who was at an elementary school at eight every morning of the week helping kids at that school how to read. Teachers would select children from their class, get permission from the parents to bring their child in early and Dr. B would work with them. I know of a lot of other examples.
Trust me, wearing a kilt into a first grade class and keeping control is a skill that I still treasure.

Funny story. I was in a first grade room with my pipes and was telling a Scottish folk tale about a magic bagpipe. I was well into the story with the little ones all sitting on a rug in the front of the room. All the little faces were watching and listening tome intently along with their teacher. I always got a kick that the adults would get into the mood along with the kids. Anyway, I had CONTROL. Things were going good--I was really getting into the story when I heard a strange sound. Sorta a zip, zip. More zip, zip. I look around the room--I saw no child not paying attention. So I scanned the room--any animals that might be running around a cage? Nope. So I intensified my story a little more. More zip, zip, zip, zip. What was going on? I had every child in the classroom and the teacher hanging on to my every word. The sound didn't really bother me but I was curious. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere in the bunch of children sitting in front of me.

Well, I got through the performance--played the pipes, had a couple of the kids come up and try to blow them as well. That was always fun. And then I thank the teacher for having me. In parting I mentioned the sound, zip, zip. "Oh," she exclaimed. "I'm sorry, I should have had Dennis take off his shoes. They are velcroed instead of tied and he sometimes forgets and pulls them apart and back again while he is concentrating." She again apologized. No problem and now I know the sound of small shoes that are velcroed, being open and shut. Funny think, I now have a pair of velcro laced shoes and it is very relaxing to open and shut them. Got to watch myself.

Did you have a teacher that told you stories? Better make sure you thank someone for that person--storytellers are a rarity.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Homework--How much, how little

I have struggled with the homework problem since I became an education major many years ago. At the college level it is a standard procedure--"read the next two chapters for Thursday lecture," or "Complete the lab exercise No. 115 and write up your findings." At the college level one does not measure the time or the quality of the homework required. But the college makes an assessment that the recipient of the assignment is an adult and can plan their time well. Perhaps.

At the grade school level I first encountered the homework problem during my first year as a fifth grade teacher. Music teachers give homework assignments--"PRACTICE. We have a concert coming up." But there was no written work and I could tell at the next band practice whether my assignment had been accomplished or not. Simple. However, in a fifth grade class of thirty-eight students if I assigned a page of arithmetic problems to do or to write two paragraphs of at least three sentences each on the subject of VALUES, I would have to read and grade those papers at some time in the coming week. That was a selfish point of view for me as far as I was concerned. Grading homework papers was either done after school or at home after dinner.

And to complicate things some parents wanted homework for their child and others were against it. It was about fifty-fifty for and against. As a new grade school teacher I wasn't sure what to do so I quizzed my colleagues. About fifty percent thought that children should have homework and an equal number were against it. Oh dear! As is my style I went to the library to check on the research. Equally confusing.

Before I proceed, let's look at some questions and puzzlements about homework. What do we want to know?

  1. Do children who do homework score higher on tests then children who do not do homework?
  2. Which is better, homework for grade school children, middle school children or high school children?
  3. Are the results of homework the same for low income schools as compared with upper income schools? (single moms and dads vs full families)
  4. How much time is effective for homework? Ten minutes? An hour?
  5. What do teachers think of homework?
  6. What is the reason for the homework?
I have a few other questions that I didn't have to be concerned about when I first started teaching like, Does the homework require a computer? Is there a family member at home that can help? Will the kids tweet their answers to each other? Fun stuff.

What follows are my opinions which have not been influenced by research. I haven't Googled these questions to see what the latest thinking is. In fact, I suspect I have mellowed a bit over the years but it has given me time to think about all this.

As one grows older the question, "Which knowledge is of most worth," which probably precedes Plato's thinking becomes more pressing. Cognition I learned as a child become in some instances useless while other learnings stand by me. I write this at the moment reflecting that I can type (keyboarding in the modern vernacular) but all those hours "learning" spelling seems to have gone by the wayside as my computer checks my spelling as I go. Actually, I seem to have become a better speller with the advent of the computer and spell checkers. Interesting. I wonder why? Writing with a quill pen is forgotten as I write with a ballpoint. So as John Dewey said long ago, "Change Happens."

So the question on homework is what homework is important. And why? We have two possibilities. One possibility is to cram more stuff in the young mind. That is what is done at the college level--"read the next two chapters." OR is it to firmly fix it into the young mind as in do the even number arithmetic problems on page 79. The material has been taught in class and now the teacher wants to have the students do enough to ensure that they know how to do the problems. This is called putting it into long term memory. A good example in the elementary school might be the time tables. Get them into memory.

What we know over the years is that home work seems to have little effect on test scores although that research has always been purely limited. We never measured how long that homework lasted or if the value of the subject was improved or lessened. And homework in the grade school seems to be a bit more effective then homework in the middle school and the high school.

Again, this is my opinion--cognition learning is a left brain activity while enjoying that learning is a right brain activity. Actually that is highly simplistic and a number of you will be letting me know, however, my point that I am trying to make is that we need time to learn which allows the two parts of the brain to work together. I think grade school children would learn more efficiently if allowed to play at home after school. And I think high school kids have a need to interact and present themselves to others in extra curricular theater, sports, music, service clubs. Yes, we need right brain activity for the left brain to work effectively.

Just my thoughts. However, but let me inject some politics at this time. Yes, I know I promised you I would not make this into a political forum. But here is my question--what if we extend the school day and the school year? Should we still have homework? And when will there be time for right brain activities?

I'm against longer school days, a longer school year and I'm against most home work. Except where I want the student to put something into long term memory. I am for more play, but even that term is under scrutiny.

So I have a homework assignment for you. Go find a teacher and thank him or her for what they do with students. Once you thanked them, find out how they feel. One page double spaced due next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

For a change I agree with the White House

Well, surprise! Yesterday the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan announced that he was quite concerned with Teacher Education and he wanted to improve the education and training of approximately 200,000 teachers who will be entering the profession in the coming year.

Actually he said something like... the College of Education is a cash cow for the university which takes the monies generated and gives it to the rest of the departments. Ahhh, yes, maybe. First, a disclosure--I was a professor of education in the College of Education and happen to have enough experiences to think this is partially true. In essence, I do have some biases in this subject so take what I write with a grain of salt.

There is no question that the Colleges and Schools of Education attract both undergraduate and graduate students. Hence, this brings tuition money to the university. And no, the College of Education dose not get all that tuition money back. Some of it does go to other colleges and departments.....for specific reasons. For example, the English department teaches several classes on how to teach English, literature, poetry, writing, creative writing, etc. Some of these professors are members of both Education and English departments. The mathematics department has a cadre of faculty who specialize in "How to Teach Mathematics" from Arithmetic to High School math. I won't bore you with a long list of classes as you probably can see the thread--there are "educational" courses in chemistry, geology, psychology, and a popular area, history of....... Oh, and don't forget Physical Education. The list goes on.

So, yes some monies generated by education majors and graduate studies does go to other departments. If I have any concerns about this sharing of monies is that the College of Education is held responsible for the quality of our product, i.e., the teacher of tomorrow but we have little or no powers over those courses taught in other departments. Some of those courses are taught by faculty (and sometimes graduate assistants learning how to teach!!) who have never taught in a public or private school. This bothers me.

I once had a course within one of my department called "children's literature." A standard course found in most colleges and universities. It was a good course for those planing on becoming an elementary teacher. However, this course was removed from our catalog and given to the English department for a faculty member who had never had an interest in the elementary school or in children's literature. That happened over thirty years ago and I am still bugged by what happened. I was a young professor then and didn't understand the politics of the situation, thereby losing the course. It still ticks me off.

So I agree with Secretary of Education Duncan that universities need to appreciate the colleges of education for what they are--an important learning center for those that will take an important role in our society. I'm proud of my Woodring College of Education. We have in the past turned out a good product. I suspect they are still doing just that, although I have not been to a college meeting in some time. Universities take long to change. And this university was a college of education before it became a university....all for the better.

But another concern is that funds from the Secretary of Education will come to my university for educational programs and the university administration will hand much of that money out to other departments...with the announcement that those funds will provide labs and technology.....which will also be used by the regular students in that department. Are you following me? I hope there will be a carrot as the feds hand out money--better educational control over the the College of Education. I have no problem with Arne Duncan wanting better trained teachers-to-be. I do too. But let those who have taught do the improving. Okay?

[the following is an emotional diatribe by me and for me] Wherever I lived as I grew up as a child during World War II, there was a school and a teacher for me. We moved a lot--for me, eight times by the eighth grade. New town and my mom would give me a folder and tell me to go to the school and enroll myself. She would be unpacking from the latest move. And I did. And there was always a teacher to help me. I didn't get the greatest education through all of this. You begin to learn one system of math...or....penmenship.....or..history, and then move. It was a montage, sort of like putting together a picture puzzle. Which part fits here. And being a dyslexic didn't help either--but there were teachers. Some I like, some were wonderful and others really bothered me. I now know of things I didn't learn well because of all those moves. On the other hand, I still remember a teacher in my second or third grade in Harrison, NY, that would take me out of class; she specifically taught me how to read. For a dyslexic this was a great thing and I still enjoy reading.

But the constant that I see in our society is that I am most comfortable in the presence of teachers. My wife and I went out for dinner one night this past summer and as we were seated I watched the one waiter helping people to decide on what they would like, helping newly arrivals to some tables and chairs, making sure those with a meal had all that they needed. It was my opinion that this person was not a professional waiter and as he came by to take our order, I asked him if he was a teacher? A look of amazement appeared on his face as well as my wife's. "How did you know?" he asked. It was just his style--of helping, assisting, making sure all was well. He taught Drama, theater, and one other course at the local high school but didn't make enough so took the waiters job to help out. There is no question in my mind that teachers are special people. For those of you who have taught even for a short time, please accept my thanks. For those who are still teaching, you have my respect and admiration.