Friday, February 27, 2009

Some thoughts on how to teach reading

How to teach reading has been the subject of discourse for years.  Books are written about it from every point of view.  And yet, grade school teachers year after year teach little children how to read using their own techniques they have learned over the years.  

I have great admiration for first and second grade teachers who do the grunt work of reading.  They unlock the code so that little children can make sense of those odd markings on a page.  I wish everyone could see a young child when they first read their whole complete sentence.  Their eyes light up, a smile to brighten the world comes across their face.  "I can read."

It really helps the teachers if parents would read to their children at home.  After dinner, sitting with your young one and picking out of book to read does more to motivate a child then just about anything we teachers can do.  While your young one hears you interpret those markings on the page into a story, part of their brain is saying, "I want to be able to do that."  No, first and second grade teachers really are the tops in my view.

When you get to the upper grades, most children can already read.  But some are still struggling with seeing the words and transforming them into sounds of reading aloud.  Of course there are those children who will say to Mom who is trying to get dinner, "Can I read to you?  And there isn't a parent alive that hasn't heard the same story over and over again.  To the young reader the story becomes a friend that they enjoy [reading].  But the upper grade teacher is charged with getting his/her class reading at full voice and knowing the meaning of the words.  And I can attest, words change in meaning over the years--take "cool" for instance.  To us old timers it means something less then warm.  To the young of our society it means something good.  So the struggle to educate our young goes on.

Our many high school English teachers do their share of teaching reading, this time to understand the nuances, the subtle meanings, the sarcasm of anger and the delicacy of joy from those same obscure letters of knowledge.  This is done at a time when young teenagers have the feeling they know it all.  I love high school English teachers....they must feel like salmon going upstream at times.

I was a fifth grade teacher who was charged with improving the children's reading skills.  They all knew how to read but some better then others.  The standard in those days was to have the children take out their reading books and each children would get to read a page or so until the teacher, me in this case, would say something like, "That's good, Charles.  Mary will you continue?"  

The problem however was enormous.  First some children read with such a quiet voice that no one in the room could hear them.  So I'd say, "Could you read louder, please?"  Perhaps it was a bit louder but in most cases, whoever was reading just kept mumbling away.  Boredom was the setting in the classroom.  Okay, so what to do?  My first step was to make each child stand up when they were to read.  This only produced a heads down, nose in the book and that quiet voice as they read their page or so.  Day dreaming by much of the rest of the class was the order of the day.  By the way, most of the kids had already read the story even though I said not to read ahead.  That was like putting hard candy on my desk and saying, don't take the candy.  Right!

So my next step was to have the students go to the front of the room.  Now this was very difficult for some students.  They did not want to be in front of the class.   "Do I hafta, Mr. Blackwell?"  I probably wasted more time getting kids to the front of the room then they did reading.  There was some improvement, not much, and most, if not all of the children kept their noses in the book and the back of the room could hardly hear some of those who were reading.

One day I was going through the school store room when I spotted my old podium that I used when I had taught band.  No one was using it at the time so I got a bunch of the kids to help me and we "repositioned" it in my room, up front in the classroom.  Now when it was time for someone to read, they had to go and stand on the podium.  Some of the kids thought that was cool but others thought I had invented "hell."  "Everyone can see me!"  And that was still the problem--they could be seen but not heard.  

It was the book that was getting in the way I surmised. So I purloined one of the good music stands from the Band Room and put it in front of the podium.  I then had the children put their books on the music stand and stand on the podium and read to the class.  By gosh, a number of the kids got better at their reading.  And more of the class started to pay attention to whoever was up at the podium.  

But still it was not smooth reading.  How could I improve their style?  I don't remember exactly how it came about but one day I said to the class I want you to look up at the class for the last three words of each sentence.  Okay?  Well, this was a new kettle of fish to fry.  And the class decided that this could be a good game--catching whoever was reading when they didn't look up the last three words.  Which meant......they also had to be reading along with whoever was reading up in front to know when they didn't look up at the right time.  Catching the other was a hot game.  Hands were flying in the air.  

But one of those strange happenings that happen in a class happen (I'm sorry Mrs. Jenson, I know you don't like that sentence)(Mrs. Jenson was my high school English teacher).  Many of the kids reading skills got better--really better--as good as me.  And the funny thing was when I read to the class after lunch they jumped all over me when I didn't look up at the end of each sentence.  The class really improved in their reading skills.  Some of the kids would look up for much of the sentence.  And a few could practically memorize the entire page.  Talk about kids feeling good about themselves.  And it still was a game--it was fun to read.  Even my poorest readers were improving.  Now here is a funny bit.  Several of the kids would ask me if they could stay in at recess and practice their reading.  They didn't practice at their desk, they wanted to use the podium and the music stand.  Their friends would sit in the front rows and make constructive comments.  

It is strange how little things can change how a child learns.  What I had was expository learning coupled with the performance mode--remember the nine functions of teaching/learning that I wrote about previously?  And then we added the speed bump of the last three words which worked on their phycho-motor skills--motor skills for the eye.  I think looking away from the printed page gave them confidence and confidence is what it is all about.  "Success breeds success."

At the end of the year my kids were reading about a year or more ahead of the other classes.  Although I was asked how I did it no other teachers asked for a podium for their classroom.

A number of years later I worked with a student teacher in a fourth grade classroom with this technique although we tweaked it a bit.  In this case we added a camcorder and monitor and the children could record their reading and then watch it.  Instant results and the same quick improvement in reading.  So if you're a parent and have a little one at home learning to read--set up your camcorder and let them read into it.  Keep track if you can on how much they improve.

Hmmmmmmm.  I wonder.  What if we put that on YouTube????

If you know how to read, don't forget to thank a teacher.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How To Look at What Teachers Do

Before we talk more about teachers and teaching we need to have a quick overview of teaching philosophy.  No, this won't be a long dissertation debating what words mean or how the world is perceived.  I love educational philosophy but I'm not good at it--sort of like being a poor amateur golfer.  I can barely stay in the fairways of thought.  We're going to look at three major philosophies of education--none being better then the others.  Consider them more like driving instructions on how to get from here to there.  Each of the three philosophies will get you there.

If you have a piece of paper nearby and a quarter and a penny I want you to circle around the quarter making a circle and then place the penny inside that circle and draw another circle in the center.  Got a doughnut?  Okay then, in the center circle write the capital "I".  Now from the outer circle draw arrows toward the inner circle.  Four or five will do for this illustration. Remember neatness counts--put your pencils down.  [I'm teasing]

Once you have this illustration completed you have a good representation of Idealism in Education.  The outside forces, i.e., adults are at work on the Individual, in this case the student.  The teacher tells the student what to learn and how to learn it.  A good example of an Idealistic school system is the Catholic schools in which the Pope tells the Cardinals who tell the Bishops who...... and finally it gets to the teachers and nuns who tell the student what to learn.  A good example of the curriculum are the Great Books.  Someone in charge has figured out what is important to learn.  The objectives or Truth are chosen by someone higher up.

In the early days of learning it was a simple curriculum--how to read, write and do simple math.  Health, science, geography had yet to be invented.  In today's society the state (society) mandates a minimum curriculum to the school districts by way of the WASL or NCLB tests.  Knowledge that we can count on, so to speak.  

So now, draw the same circles once again with the penny circle inside the quarter circle.  Good. This time draw arrows going from the inner circle to the outside circle.  Then place an "I", representing the individual, in the center circle.  You now have a good illustration of Realism in Education.  Here the individual decides what they want to learn and the objectives are chosen by the individual. Of course skilled teachers can guide the learning.  Do you remember Mrs. Donnelly who asked her first grade class what did they want to tell the person that was walking on their blackboards?  She was letting them decide and they were deciding they wanted to communicate, hence, they had to learn how to read and write.

There are many fine secondary teachers who use this philosophy.  There is a private school, Lakeside School, in Seattle that uses this approach to learning.  By buying a used, refurbished IBM 360 computer years ago, two of their students learned how to program it, play with it, and then they started Microsoft.  Well, maybe a few years later....but you get my point.

The world is their curriculum.  What interests the student?  How should they proceed?  Truth is the world

Once again into the fray--draw those two circles once again.  And again but an "I" in the inner circle.  Good.  This time have three arrows going from the outer circle to the inner circle and three going from the inner circle to the outer circle.  In essence, we have arrows of intention going both ways.  In the Pragmatism of Education philosophy we have the student deciding upon objectives and the outside world acts upon those objectives.  Change is the curriculum for it is always different.  One of the more difficult parts of Pragmatism is the question of "which knowledge is of most worth?" What should we learn?  A good example of a pragmatic learning system may well be the Boeings Learning Center which some employees learn today how to do something on a plane and then in a few months learn something different for a different plane.  Truth is validated by if what you learn works.

Again I reiterate that all three philosophies are viable, useable in the classroom.  Neither one nor the other is preferred although some school districts will favor one of the philosophies.  In recent years given the "No Child Left Behind" tests, districts have favored the idealistic philosophy to some degree as it was convenient to set the curriculum to fit the tests--teach to the tests.  

In the coming weeks I will be writing about more teachers I have known and will try to point out their philosophy as it relates to their teaching style.  However, not all that goes on in the classroom can be attributed to philosophy--sometime it is just chaotic pure and simple.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What Is That Grade Worth?

I noticed this morning that there were several references to No Child Left Behind tests in the national media.  The test scores of one school in one state that would indicate that school's failure might well be a passing score in another state.  This is the problem with tests--what do the scores (and grades) mean?  And who makes that judgement?  

I've always had a thing with tests since I was a little kid myself.  For example, "if a road is twenty feet wide and a forty foot tree falls across the road, how much of the tree is not on the road?"  If memory serves me correctly this was a question in a New York Regency examination.  As a kid I wanted to know if the tree fell ninety degrees across the road or did it fall in a diagonal manner of say, forty-five degrees.  Another thing that I wondered about was if the road was crowned or curved in such a way that would produce less tree on the road.  Well, it could also be more if the tree was thin.....  Of course you could not ask questions like this.  "Pencils in hand?  Turn test over and proceed."  "Times up, put your pencils down."  Oh lordy how I hate those words.....and the tests.

I taught tests and measurements for teachers at the local university.  In the graduate class whether I wanted it or not they always seem to be a section on horrors of tests.  "A kid transfered into my class yesterday and had to take the test today and it counts against me!"  Or, "we had a major outbreak of lice and the children and I could not keep our minds on the test."  There are so many variables to consider.  Testers have two things to consider--one is validity, that is, does the question measure what you are trying to find out and the other is reliability, does it always measure the same thing with different subjects.  Those are very difficult to achieve.

And no, I am not going to write a lecture on tests and measurements.  And I'm not going to point out the flaws in NCLB and WASL, at least not now.  Rather I need to tell you about my early grading practices.  I was a new fifth grade teacher and all of a sudden it seemed to me I was required to send home grade report cards for the first quarter.   I don't remember any of my undergraduate education courses even touching on this subject of grading students and none of my new colleagues ever warned me that the report cards were about to be due.

Talk about the rubber meeting the road, I was just this side of panic. I hadn't collected enough work from each student to made a diagnoses for a grade and I didn't have enough grades in my grade book to do any sort of averaging.  Talk about being up a creek.......

My first grades were purely subjective, that is, I would think about the student, do a zen bit and then come up with a grade.  How accurate I was I have no idea.  Let's say it was a bad job at least from my point of view.  I signed all the cards and sent them home.  Most of the kids in my class thought I was pretty "easy" and several parents thought I had done good--they agreed with my assessment of their child.  Amazing.  But probably more amazing was the fact that very few parents came to talk about their child's work.  I was the teacher and must know what I was doing.

But there was one couple waiting at my classroom door the morning after I had sent home the report cards.  Jenna (not real name) was a very quiet slightly overweight student in my class that was about as average as one can get.  She always got a "C" on her papers. If you had asked me to pick the most average child in my class I would have picked Jenna.   She even dressed average.  It was probably the one report card I was comfortable with.....

As I said, the Mr. and Mrs were waiting for me along with Jenna and her younger sister.  Mr. C was about my height but looked like he had twice the muscle and his facial expression indicated he'd like to use a few on me.  He was upset.  Very upset.  His daughter was NOT average--she was an "A" student and I was an ass not to see this.  He thought I was the worst teacher he had ever met (this was our first encounter).  He let me have it for a length of time and suggested I learn how to teach.  The family left without me saying much.  I didn't get a chance.  But it was a scary experience for me.  

So for the next few weeks I watch Jenna and her work carefully.  She was average.  I was by then collecting more work from the students so that I would not be blindsided by the next report card session.  And I compared Jenna to others in my class.  She was average.  Jeeeez, what to do.

The next report card date approached and I was better prepared--not well prepared but I was learning.  I filled out the report cards with a bit more confidence but when I cam to Jenna I really didn't know what to do.  I did not want a repeat of the last session with Mr. C and the family.  Trust me I ponder this one for quite a while.  Finally, I threw honor to the winds and gave Jenna "B's" in all of her subjects.  There was no basis for this reporting except that Mr. C scared me.  

As I walked around the edge of my building the next morning after I had sent report cards home for the second grade report, there were the four of them waiting for me.  Mr. and Mrs and the two girls......He didn't even wait for me to unlock my classroom--he started in.  While he acknowledge I was doing better, Jenna was an "A" student and I should know better.  When Mr. C talked, muscles rippled and I didn't say much.  Talk about grade rage, this was it.  I manage to survive the talking to and they finally left.  

But a strange thing happened in the days to come.  As now was the norm I kept students work in a folder for grading purposes and I watched more carefully what each student was doing on their assignments.  Jenna was doing "B" work!  Really!  I even got out old work of hers and compare it.  She was obvious doing better work.  I asked her, "Is your Dad helping you at home?"  "No, Mr. Blackwell, I'm doing it all myself." I complemented her and she was pleased.  I thought about sending a note home praising her but I also sense the less said the better.

The third report card session was approaching and I thought hard and long about Jenna.  By now she was doing solid "B" work and I had data to support her grades.  But when it came to her report card I threw caution to the winds and gave her all "A's".  Yes, Mr. C scared me and it influenced my decision.  I signed the report card and sent it home.  I hated grading.

The next morning I almost danced to my classroom until I saw......Mr. and Mrs. C and the two daughters.  Gee, what had I done?  But this time they greeted me as an old friend.  Mr. C. said something like he knew I could be an excellent teacher if I tried.  They were pleased with me and I will admit the meeting went well.  My blood pressure didn't rise as it had in the past.

Well, this could be the end of the story except for one minor little point.  As I collected work from the students for the fourth and final report card session, I noticed that Jenna was doing "A" work and was helping other kids in the class.  She still was terrible quiet, almost shy but she was still helping some of the other girls.  She was an "A" student.  I had data to back this statement up.  What was going on?

Jenna was one of my first students who worked at their school work up to, in this case, my expectations.  At first I thought she was average and perhaps I treated her as such so she did average work.  When I "gave" her "A's", she did "A" work.  Some kids I found out can be motivated by a lower grade and they work harder.  But some children see the expectations of them and do that type of work.  Jenna responded to me and I responded to her.  We became good friends.

Did her Dad really know that Jenna was capable of doing "A" work?  I don't think so.  He and his wife were hard working Boeing people (I think he lifted up the whole plane with his muscles) but knew that education was necessary for being successful and he wanted his daughters to be successful.  He wanted the best for his daughter.  I can't fault him on this--I would want the same thing.  But I hadn't ever seen this phenomenon before.  I wonder how many other children are out there in the schools that only need a positive report card.

Not the end of the story.  Some of my fellow teachers were teasing me the next year as school started.  Apparently, the principal had placed Jenna's little sister in a different classroom and Mr. C. was doing his thing in the office. He wanted the "best teacher in the school" for his youngest daughter.  He would accept nothing less.  Yup, Jenna's sister was moved into my class. And, yes, I gave Janet all "A's" the first report card session.  Just like her sister, she did "A" work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two Tough Softhearted Teachers

Although the two teachers I want to write about have the same first name (we'll call each of them Susan K and Susan J) they were not alike in any way--well, perhaps in one way. 

 Susan K taught in an urban elementary school--fifth grade.  A professional seasoned veteran teacher she was not very tall, maybe 5 foot 3 inches or so but wiry--and she moved around the classroom like a cat.  If a fifth grader started to day dream she was beside him or her in a moment softly reminding them what they were suppose to be doing.  Learning was important to Susan and she did not want her class to be wasting time.  Learning started at nine o'clock sharp and continued to noon with a short recess about 10:30.  And learning started at 10:31.

Although I had known Susan from earlier times, this time I had a student teacher in her room.  The student teacher showed much potential and I knew she would be picking up valuable techniques with Susan.  Indeed, if there were to be problems it would be that Susan would be forever coaching Janet right in front of the class.  "No, don't do it that way--try going over and showing him how you want the paper."  This really didn't bother the fifth graders--they were already used to being told how to do something or to re-do it for the fifth time.  This was life in Mrs. K's room but I wanted Janet to gain some experience on her own.

Mrs. K believed that being on time was a virtue.  When she told the class to open their textbook to page 89, the kids did it.  If someone dilly dallied or was slow putting the last subject material away. Susan would glide over and supervise the child's behavior.  As I said she moved around the room like a cat and no child went unnoticed.  Some university professors like to measure the efficiency of a classroom by "time on task."  If so, Susan K's classroom was highly efficient.  Very efficient.  Everybody working.

Except.   Except.......  After sitting in the back of the room several days I noticed a girl come into the classroom maybe twenty minutes after school had started.  She hung up her coat and went over to her desk.  I was expecting Susan to send her to the office or ask her in front of the class why she was late.  But it didn't happen.  Susan went over to the girl, helped her find where they were in the subject and helped her catch up a bit.  Strange behavior for Mrs. K.  I'd have to say that if Mrs. K had a favorite student it was this child.  I'm always interested in a good mystery and it was several weeks later after this had happen several times along with other special help for this girl that I finally asked Susan to perhaps bring me into the loop.

It turned out that the girl's mother had died about a year and half ago and Megan (the girl) was preparing lunches for younger brother and sister as well as making a lunch for her Dad.  He worked in construction and left early in the morning leaving this chore to his oldest daughter.  Megan also had to walk several blocks to buy groceries and bring them home after school.  As Susan said, 'this child has lost her childhood and it bothers me."  "In the morning she makes the breakfast and lunches for the two younger ones and for her Dad and then cleans up the kitchen before coming to school after getting her siblings off."  Susan also told me that she occasionally puts a twenty dollar bill in an envelope and gives it to Megan.  Megan was in fifth grade which made her about eleven or twelve years old.  

I saw a side of Susan K that she really didn't want the world to know.  This hard boiled teacher with a soft heart.  

A few blocks south and hang a right was a modern urban high school with one of the better libraries I knew at that time.  The librarian, Susan J was a big woman with a commanding presence.  She ran the library--trust me.  High school students did not go to the library to chat with their friends.  Several students could work together but only in certain areas and it HAD to be on a school project.  Susan J moved around the library asking students what they were working on and then would make suggestions as to where material could be found.  Students knew she was a valuable resource and they did like her.  Many would seek her out and explain their school work and ask for advice which was freely given.  She spent much of her day helping students find the material and then compose what they wanted to say.  She also taught proper formatting of material.  What always intrigued me was she always seem to be one step ahead of the students request.  She would have books and materials ready to go when they would initially come up to her for assistance.  Very intelligent librarian.  I admired her greatly.

One of the rules of her library was that you HAD to be working on a school project or homework.  No chatting and NO sleeping or dozing.  Except (you knew there would be an "except", didn't you) for one pretty girl (Alisha) who was one of Mrs. J's student assistants.  Occasionally I would see Alisha in Mrs. J's office with her head down taking a nap.  Mrs. J noticed that I had notice and told me of the situation.

Alisha was a bright student but had been having problems at home with a step-father.  She had run away from home and was found sleeping at the back of the high school when she was only a sophomore.  She did not want to go to a foster home and had found an after school job as well as a job at the mall on weekends. And she found her own place to rent.    That was when Mrs. J caught up with her.  Susan watched out for Alisha and I suspect, slipped her some money from time to time--I don't know that for sure.  But I know that Alisha was watched over carefully.  A new prom dress provided by Susan.  

One day I wandered up to the library.  Susan was on point--she was working on her own project looking for colleges with full scholarships for some of her students....I have no reason not to believe that Alisha was one of those students.  Computers and the web being relatively new at the time I was not surprised to hear, "Les, do you know how to work this computer?"  And Susan started me looking up grant and scholarship information.

A number of years later I saw Susan and her husband (an equally provocative teacher in the middle grades--I'll tell you about him someday--shop teacher) on their boat and I inquired about Alisha.  Susan told me with quiet pride that Alisha had completed college and was entering law school in order to work with children who had been molested.  Susan would not agree but I think I saw a wet eye or two but you definitely could understand the pride in her protege.  Another teacher who went out of her way to help students--and one in particular.

All over this country as you read this there is a teacher helping some student achieve and accomplish the skills necessary to be successful in life.  They have to help--it is the way life is for teachers.

Did a teacher help you?  Don't forget to say "thanks for what you did."  It is how teachers get paid.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Worst Teacher I knew who was Teacher of the Year!

I said I would tell about the worst teacher I ever knew who was "Teacher of the Year."  Really.  I had just returned from "my" war and my military duty and was back in the classroom.  Fifth grade in a new school.  I was happy but wanted to do more in my profession so I volunteered to serve in a WEA (Washington Education Association)(trust me it was a different organization in those days comprised of teachers, principals and superintendents) committee.  They put me on the TEPS commission.  TEPS stood for Teacher Education and Professional Standards and our main task was to look out for teachers who perhaps might have been unfairly let go of their jobs.  There were a couple of superintendents who routinely fired teachers after five years and hired new ones to keep his budget in order.  Some teachers were fired for religious practices (in the classroom) and a few were released because of alcohol problems.  No, the TEPS commission didn't always back up the teacher after reviews.

I was going through some old files to get myself familiar with what the commission had done and came across a file that was obvious a teacher who had been in our district.  Even more startling, she had been the teacher I replaced when I returned from the Army. Probably shouldn't have perused it but I did.  It appears she was a terror.

According to the files, she was quite disliked by everyone, teachers, parents, administration, janitors, kitchen staff--anyone who came near the school.  One entry was that after lunch when the children returned to the classroom she would have them read silently and she would put her head down on her desk and take a ten minute or longer nap.  

In another case she sent a bottle of cheap cologne home with a child with a note stating that if they couldn't bath their child more often would they please use some of the this.  The note was in the files.    I guess the final straw was when she held back about a third of the class saying they weren't learning and needed to repeat the grade.  She apparently had data to support this conclusion.  

The district released her and she hired a lawyer and contacted the WEA TEPS commission for support.  The commission denied her support and suggested she look to another profession away from children.   She then promptly sued the WEA!  But before either of the cases could go to court, she dropped both cases and left the district.  It turned out that the superintendent did not want a prolong court case that would take lots of money and instead offered her a letter of recommendation if she would just leave.  I suspect she thought this might be the better road to take.  Was the superintendent ethical?  One could make a case for either side.

By the way, I went back to the school and asked about Ms. G and nobody would talk about her.  They really hated her.  It was like a bad dream and no one wanted to remember it.  So okay, end of story?  Yes.  It was the end. No more Ms. G.

Some years later I had just been selected to teach at a School of Education at a regional university, a position I looked forward to as a new professor of education.  Being one of the newest on the staff I was informed that all new professors of education were required to go about the state in the spring and interview first year teachers who had just graduated from this institution.  The task was a bit of a pain--several days on the road, cheap motels, cheap foods (per diem or the cost of travel was severely limited), but the long hours on the road were good for thinking.  For me it was a mixed bag.  I was assigned an area that I had grown to know through my work with the WEA.  Almost old home week for me with the six teachers I would be interviewing.  

I tried to interview a new teacher in the morning and then travel and get to another of the new teachers in the afternoon.  Questions were pretty standard--what courses have been the most help to you in your first year?   What has been your biggest problem?  What courses could we have offered that you would have been helpful to you.   I'd also got to watch them teach a bit and get a feel for the school and their classroom.  Good data for my colleagues and me back at the college for future planning (didn't know we did that did you?).  My first year teachers were five women and one guy, all at the elementary levels.  And all were in suburban districts of Seattle.  

One of my first year teachers when asked what she would like to tell us went on a forty minute tirade non stop.  According to her we were the poorest school of education with no professors who knew how to teach--and that was the good part.  It went downhill after that.  I could hardly keep up with her in taking notes and in the back of my mind was silently gratified that she had never taken a class from me for she would have surely put me in my place.  When she finally got done, she sat back and said, "you know, the university is really a nice place." Apparently she just had to unload a lot of thoughts and feelings.  And thank heavens for my training in guidance and counseling.  In subsequent years she came back to the college and finished her master's degree and we became good friends.  But the initial blast was something to behold.

On Friday I finished early with my morning interview and looked forward to seeing my afternoon first year teacher and then hitting the road to get home for the weekend.  One more school district to go!  It was further out in the county not your suburban type community.  Most were "stump farmers";  had ten or twenty acres, cut the trees and were farming or grazing between the stumps.  These folk probably moved to this area right after WWII and wanted to be left alone.  Friendly people but don't tell us what to do.  Some of the men probably commuted into Boeings as well as worked their farms.  Hard working community. Off the beaten path.

I found the elementary school just outside of town--a typical brick "L" shape single floor building that was popular right after the war with a "gym" backing up one wing and a lunchroom backing up the other wing.  The office was right at the apex for both wings.  To the left was the primary grades and to the right were the intermediate grades.

As I entered the school I noticed it was extremely clean with nothing on the walls of the halls.  Some schools have the children's work posted but not this school.  Shall we say, "cleanliness next to Godliness?"  I introduced myself to the secretary, gave her my card and she had me sit down.  "The principal will be with you in a moment."  I waited and waited--it was a long moment in my mind.  Most principals in the schools I had visited were quite prompt in greeting me, would invite me in and discuss the school and our new teacher.  I had gone to graduate school with one of the principals and we had a good gab fest about old times. 

But this principal was letting me know he was a busy man and although he knew ahead of time I was coming kept me waiting for about a half hour.  It took him a while before he could get to me.  He was a big man, not fat, but very imposing--I remember him being bald.  Why do I remember that?  But he was certainly someone I would not argue with.  He was in charge.  I mentioned I wanted to watch my teacher teach if possible and then interview her--I showed him the form of questions to somewhat let him know I wasn't here to under mind the school.

Still he wasn't ready to let me go.  Okay! now to small talk as far as I was concerned.  Since I was interested in "audio-visual" area of education I asked if his teachers ever showed movies in the classroom.  "Oh, yes.  When they do want a film  I wheel the projector down to the classroom and show it for them." "The teachers don't touch the projector."   As an aside about a year later I interviewed the media person with the Intermediate school district and found out this school had one of the lowest film rentals of any school in the county.  I wonder why?!!!!

Finally he asked if I would like a tour of the school--he really wanted to show it off.  We started at the office and went down the primary wing.  Typical classrooms all in neat shape.  All women teachers in the primary wing.  Next we headed to the intermediate wing and before we looked into the different classrooms he wanted me to see the library.  Obviously an addition to the school building in recent years, it was a large library for an elementary school.  On this they got extra points from me.  It was, like the classrooms, very neat, and for what I could see, no children were in it at the time.  A small woman came to meet us and the principal introduced me to Ms. G.  Ms. G?  Where had I heard that name before.  Come on brain, do you thing.

Somewhere in the opening remarks I mentioned that I had taught a library course or two at the local university and off Ms. G went with how poor the library department was......I am grateful for the earlier first year teacher who had blasted me and the college with her then negative remarks for it gave me some practice for what was coming from Ms. G.  It was the same woman that I had read about in the TEPS report.  Holy smokes was she something!  While she was telling me a whole lot of stuff, the principal wanted me to see that 'this teacher had been selected as teacher of the year' in the district.  Parents voted her the very best teacher in the district.  There were signs in the library attesting to this fact and indeed as we listened to her some parents came in with cookies and cakes for an event right after the school.  I remember shaking her hand and congratulating her--however I was in shock.  Really.  I do remember the principal saying that they had 'more' books at the end of the year then when the school year started.  I'm sure of it....I suspect there were a few children that were too afraid to go back and get their own book.

To this day I cannot remember seeing the teacher I came to visit.  This is amazing.  Did I watch her teach?  Did I do the interview?  Did she make suggestions to the college?  Was she seeking another position.  I can't remember.  All I can think Ms. G. being selected Teacher of the Year.   She had no love for college professors so I didn't stay for the ceremonies.  My brain was in turbo mode on the drive home--I really don't remember much.

Why?  Why does a teacher who is really disliked in one district become the Teacher of the Year in another district?  What did the first district do to bring out the worst in a teacher and what did the second district do to bring out her best?  I don't know how many hours I have pondered these questions.  I would have agreed with the TEPS commission that Ms. G should have gone into another profession......the army, lion training, anything not around children.

But then you have to think of the community.  They liked black and white.  They like right and wrong.  There was no gray, no in between.  They wanted a clean, neat school where children came to learn.  If you didn't learn something was wrong with you.  First grade went on to second grade which went on to third.......  Life was predictable.  Monday followed Sunday.  You didn't need movies in the classroom, you were there to learn.  And books were meant to be brought back when you were done with them.  I am sure there were others in the community that were just like Ms. G.  There were things in the world that just wasn't right.....and they would tell you about them.  

So there!  The worst teacher I've ever knew....and met who was the Teacher of the Year.  True story.  

And if you had a "tough" teacher that made you sure to take time and thank them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

School Reform--a four lettered word.

Actually, I had outlined another post for today but several items all related to the same subject has pressed my buttons.  Some cuss words have been expressed albeit privately.  I am ticked and disgusted.  Did I say upset?  Fuming? And a few other words I learned in the Army.

I have been involved with teachers and teaching since 1956 when I first started teaching in a suburb of Seattle.  If you wish we can add  four more years of taking education classes during my undergraduate days.  And I worked for two summers as a certified New York State recreation director (read playground leader).  I have been in more public and private schools then most people.  

So what has set me off?  In recent weeks there have been a spat of op-ed pieces, editor's comments, letters to the editor, as well as full fledged articles alluding to "Educational Reform."  "With the coming stimulus package aimed at education and a new school house cabinet chief, it is time for "educational reform."    Sub divisions of this subject include, "Perhaps now we can get rid of all those bad and inefficient teachers like they did in Washington, D.C."  "Get rid of the teachers' union!"  "It's time to get back to basics." And my favorite, "We didn't do it that way when I went to school."  "Schools ought be run like a business."

Pardon me while I run off in several directions all at the same time.  What journalist or newspaper editor has been in a school recently beyond a parent/teacher conference.  Spent at least a whole day in the school.  Talked to teachers, teacher aids, staff and the administration.  Practically none at all.  I have a friend who constantly says, "get rid of the bad teachers and I'll vote for the schools."  Yet, he hasn't been in a school in recent memory.  What makes those journalist experts on the schools? [an aside:  I wonder what the publisher of a newspaper would say if I suggested in this blog how to improve or reform the paper--I know how to read.  Or maybe we ought to reform the medical profession--I've been sick before.]

And what do they mean by educational reform?  The same old ideas are thrown at us:  we need merit pay, we need to teach mathematics and science, we need discipline in the schools, we need better teacher training, we need contract schools.  I can attest personally that some of these ideas were being thrown around right after World War the late forties.

Have you noticed that all this talk about educational reform comes from the non-educational world.  You rarely if at all hear of desires for educational reform coming from school teachers themselves.  They know what they have to do and they will do their best to teach the students.  Just get out of their way.

Change of tone and direction.........

Let's go over some of the problems facing our educational system right now.  The basics--we have school buildings that are over a hundred years old.  President Obama mentioned one in his speech that was build in the 1850s and when the train ran by that school you had to stop teaching.  And the auditorium was not safe to use anymore.  This is not uncommon.  We have old school buildings and many of them are two small to be efficient.  You cannot run a four or six room school anymore. Take the cost of heating, repairing, maintain that school.  Add up the cost of the teachers salary, custodial salary, principal and secretary, phone, lunchroom staff salary, insurance (on an old building).  I've left off some givens like books, papers, equipment.  Add those all up for a year, then divide by the number of students.  It cost more per student to run a small older school.  Ask any Education Administration professor--they have been teaching this for years.  It is a fact.

If new schools to replace the old are part of the school reform package, then I am for it.  

Another major problem facing schools, teachers and learning is the "No Child Left Behind" and in this state the WASL (Washington Assessment of School Learning).  These are tests that measure to see if children are learning.  Not just anything but specific information.  It doesn't matter if the student has just arrived from a foreign country or comes from a poor neighborhood (like sections of  New Orleans?) they are required to show "learning".  If enough classes do not score well, then the school is judged "Not up to standard."  Needs to be punished.  I intend to write more in depth about these tests at a later date.  They are abominable. 

I will admit up front that I am from the school of thought that if you want good schools then this is going to cost you money.  And I have data to support my thinking.  What high schools in the State of Washington are always (yes, alway!) listed in the 100 top high schools in the United States by US News and World Reports.  Always!  Newport High and Bellevue High.  Two other of the Bellevue school districts high schools also make the list from time to time.  They are the only high schools in the state listed.  And guess who pays the most per student in the State of Washington--Bellevue.  

Guess what three school districts always scored well on the WASL tests?  Mercer Island, Bellevue and the Lake Washington (Kirkland) School Districts.  Guess where the money is? An interesting phenomenon is that there are no private schools or academies on the list.  Why?  I asked the administrator of one school and he mentioned that they 1) didn't need anymore students and 2) didn't want any publicity.  They just don't fill out the forms.

Let me also cite the fact that the 1st offspring, i.e., the President's daughters are going to a private school and the known tuition per child is $35,000 per year.  Got two kids and $70,000 per year? Have I got a school for you--several in fact and they are all good.  Excellent.

But here lies an interesting fact which I can't change.  Most young marrieds have children and most young marrieds don't have a lot of money.  The people who want to disable the public school system in favor of private schools are all grumpy old men....who have money.

Another problem facing the public schools is the state legislatures.  Yes, all of them.  They micro-manage the schools by passing a law saying that the schools have to teach this or that.   In this state we have to teach about the holocaust.  Required.  Also we have to teach about African American History month.  Why just one month?  I know a number of teachers that teach about black Americans all year long (have you wondered what an Asian American child feels when there is no Asian American month?).  But a law is a law.  There are so many interest groups that come before the state legislatures that the easy way out is to pass another law that says teachers ought......  you fill in the blanks.

You know (one of my English teachers is turning over for that start of a sentence) we really don't need educational reform (unless it is to improve the school buildings).  Teachers know how to teach--we need to get out of their way and support their teaching behavior.  It is a bit like learning--you can punish, hit, yell at a student and he/she will improve at whatever you want them to learn (maybe).  But praise and encourage and the students learn even more.  The same holds for teachers.  

I'm finally running out of steam and anger.  I expect that this subject is far from closed and more will be said.  My next post will be about the worst teacher I ever met....and how she was teacher of the year.  Really.  I also intend to write about old school buildings, merit pay, and some other areas that people are concerned with--but the next one is about bad teachers. 

Meanwhile, if you're not upset with me, go thank a teacher who taught you how to think.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

One Fine School

I've lost count as to how many schools I have visited or supervised student teachers within the walls.  Mostly elementary schools, but a number of middle schools and a few high schools.  I've have also done storytelling in a number of these schools since for a time I was a registered storyteller with the American Storytelling Association.  I would tell Scottish stories and play the pipes and talk about culture.  Fun times.  More on this in another blog later on.  Remind me to tell you of the nylons and pantyhose at one school.

But I was supervising a couple of student teachers in this one elementary school located in an urban middle class, maybe upper middle class neighborhood.  Like many schools in our nation there was the old part of the school, probably built in the 1920s and then a new part built in the late 1950s and finally the newest part built in the 1980s.  It never really fit together in terms of architecture and heating was a bear for the custodian.  But still to this day I think this was my favorite school to visit because of the teachers....and the principal.

I still remember my first day there.  The office was in the oldest part, pretty standard type.  Reception area and principal's office.  A very gracious lady greeted me and like most school secretaries I came to know that Mrs. Nordstrom knew everything about every child, teacher, family, bus and bus driver AND principal.  She was a sweetheart with blackmail material.  The perfect school secretary.  The principal came right out to greet me (some principals use to make me wait for a time--probably to let me know they were busy or something) and Mr. Roberts and I had a great talk.  He was happy with the two student teachers--would help me in whatever I suggested, and even made some suggestions as to how we could improve their teaching experiences.  And what else could he do for me?  It was a very warm welcome.  And as usual I asked if there was anything I could or should do while I was in the building besides check in each time.  "No, just stay out of the teachers' way and watch some good teaching going on--I'm proud of this school."  "You'll notice that I also try to stay out of their way."

And that was that.  No rules. And enjoy myself.  It wasn't long before I fell in love with the school.  About sixteen teaching stations, a new library and a new covered play area.  Not enough parking (very typical) and a teachers room down in the basement next to the furnace with one long table, a refrigerator and if I remember correctly a copy machine.  It was almost hard to get to.....

But it was the teachers that made this school.  All of them.  Mostly young and middle aged seasoned veterans--they all knew how to teach.  And they all wanted to teach.  Oh, yes, all women except for one man at the fourth grade level.  He was an anomaly.  While all the women was vivacious and active, Anthony was quiet, somewhat plodding in nature and a very traditional type of teacher.  Desks all lined up in his room, not much on the walls and assignments for each student which he meticulously went over with a red pen and corrected, handed it back and had the students correct it or re-do it.   It was in my mind a dull classroom.  You could almost predict what was going to happen in his room, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day.  I didn't think if I had children that I would want them in his room

On the other hand in the teachers' room, Anthony was continuously picked upon by the women teachers.  He being a middle aged bachelor he was fair game.  "Anthony, how was your sex life this weekend?"  Or, "How many days in a row are you going to wear that shirt?"  He took all the ribbing in stride, just smiled and would then finish his lunch.  A few times he would join in on the conversation but it was a rare thing.

On the other hand the women teachers were all the time planning new ideas for their classrooms and a lot of joint teaching was going on where two classes would get together to learned something, see a movie, or hear a speaker.  I remember two primary teachers talking about a student:  "I can't get Jason going on his reading this year.  You had him last year.  What did you do?"  "You're right, he was a slow started.  How about you sending him into my room when you have reading and I'll work with him.  We might get his attention between the two of us."  They would share students to be sure that they learned.

But one of my favorite things was Wednesday.  Every Wednesday was declared a different subject day like..... mushroom day.... or bug day...  or rain day.  The entire school would have assignment, reading, demonstration or whatever on the subject of the day.  I spent mushroom day in the school and learned as much as the children.  Parents would join sometimes being the speaker(s) and sometimes helping out on the days' projects.  In many cases, it was sheer chaos but my oh my did a lot of learning take place.  Not all of it in the state or distric curriculum guidelines.  Can you imagine arithmetic assignments about mushrooms?  Or raindrops?  Wednesday became a special day at this school.  Children anticipated it each week and remembered it the last two days of the week.  You could sense it in the children coming off the bus each day eager to see what was going to happen or to tell their class something at home that related to the latest Wednesday special day.  Big time excitement in all grades.

What many visitors to this school never saw was all the extra work teachers did to accomplish these special Wednesdays.  Calling people to find speakers, asking museums to bring collections,  checking with the district office as to the availability of films or displays-----   And not the least, planning reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps science assignments for their children....and in some cases individualized for each child.  Every teacher in the school was involved.  Even the principal and custodian (and in a number of cases including me) would get involved in changing tables, or setting up displays or whatever moving and arranging needed to be done.  It was a wonderful school.

Except!      For Anthony's class which would join in on the Wednesday's excitement but Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday it was back to doing assignments, turning them in and correcting them.  In some cases it was read, answer questions and take it up to Mr. G's desk.  I felt sorry for his kids.  

So I went to visit Mr. Roberts.  I said, "Explain to me why you haven't gotten rid of Mr. G--he just doesn't fit the mold of the rest of this school."  He smiled and said, "we need him."  Pulling out some charts he showed me reports from third grade teachers who had evaluated the previous year students.  They were good reports, very professional.  This child doesn't know how to do assignments, or this child can't summarize the learning, or.....  In some cases there were initial diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  All were children who needed more structural learning--more classical learning situations.  And guess what--Mr. G was the perfect teacher for these children.  He was very patient with his students and they would go over and over and over.... and over until they got the learning or behavior in hand.  Mr. Roberts also showed me data on fifth grade students who had been in Mr. G's class who were now doing well.

It was a brilliant operation of a whole school working together to help children learn.   I understood why Mr. Roberts had said to me, "just stay out of their way."  He was right.  And I became good friends with Anthony.  He had a number of surprises in him--and he would just smile in the teachers' room.  I was also in love with all the women teachers.  They were terrific, everyone of them.  I loved to watch them teach.  More then once one of them would say, "Les, would you take this student and help them learn......" or "listen to this one read and help them."

They treated me as a teacher and I was honored.  

I need to make a political point here.  I observed this school back in time--before "No Child Left Behind."    NCLB would have destroyed this school as it then functioned.  And I suspect WASL might have done the same.  I watch this school in its golden age.  Thanks to all those great teachers who showed me what good teaching was all about.  And thanks also to a principal who taught me how it ought to be done.  What a great school.

And don't you forget to thank a teacher today too.


Monday, February 2, 2009

A surprise of consequences...

Sometimes things happen in the classroom that are beyond the comprehension of the teacher.  Children learn things that were not in the class objective or something sparks a group of high school students and they do something positive that was never in the mind of the teacher.  Life is complicated and we teachers don't always see the results of our just being in the classroom.

The reason for this introduction is something that happened in one of my early fourth grade classes that I can take no credit for--it just came to be.  Our building(s) were large circles and each quarter of the pie so to speak was a full size classroom.  If I remember correctly, there were six of these "pies" with no hallways, just covered walkways around and between the "pies."  My classroom was one facing a hill behind the school and we had to walk around the pie on the outside and then down the walkway and stairs before we got to the area around the multi-purpose room where the buses came to pick up the kids.  Missing a bus was one of the worst things a teacher could do and once this happened you had to get the kids home yourself....or call parents to come pick them up.  I only did this once or twice.  I never knew why the bus drivers couldn't just make a quick count to see if they had all the kids they normally had.

Regardless, at about three ten in the afternoon I would tell the kids to clean up around their desks, settle arguments as to whose piece of paper was nearer whose desk and remind some to be sure to take home some announcement or paper for their parents to see.  Those activities settled, I'd say "put your chairs up" and the kids would stand and place their chairs upside down on top of their desks.  This facilitated the custodian in sweeping our room at night.  However the resulting noise of thirty five chairs being deposited on the desks was very annoying to me.  In most cases I had had a hard day and the noise was too much.  I almost always said, "Put your chairs up quiety,"  but the kids were happy to be heading home and almost always never listened to me.  The bang of chairs was my undoing.  It kept getting to me until I decided something--anything had to be done.

So one day I started the "getting ready to go home" procedure earlier.  At about three I told the kids to clean up the area and line up their desks.  They looked at the clock and wondered what was about to happen.  Nothing special, but what I had decided was to let one by one put their chairs up.  To do this I asked the first student in one of the rows, "What one thing did you learn today?"  A reply was given: how to spell a new word, learned a new city in social studies, how to draw a tree, etc.  "Good.  Put you chair up quietly and get your coat and stuff."  Next person--same routine.  What did you learn.......  Put you chair up and .......  It Worked.   Chairs were being placed quietly so that they could hear what the next person said that they had learned.  Of course, some quick thinking student of mine would say, "I learned the same as Jack."   And I would say, you sit there and remember what Jack had learned.  Oops, that quickly stopped.  But most of the kids were good at deciding what they had learned.  

The procedure took longer but it was much, much quieter and my disposition was greatly improved.  I was pleased with myself.  And the kids were quieter so our walk to the buses was much more civilized.  Damn, I had really pulled one off.

I kept this procedure up until I quit teaching at the grade school level but not because it made me feel good--which of course it did.  After doing this for four or five weeks, the students and I fine tuned the process and it was a good way to end the school day.  Shortly after this new "going home", we had a PTA meeting.  Teachers were required to come to the meeting and this school was in an area where a goodly number of parents would show up.  After the meetings teachers would rush to their rooms, open them up and greet whatever parent might want to see you.  It was usually "how is Jane or Bobby doing?"  And of course you can't answer with every other parent standing right beside you.  So I would get them to sit down and I'd tell some of the things the class and I had been doing lately.  Then an announcement that I would stand by my desk and talk to parents without the others around.  Take turns so to speak.  It worked well.  Many of the parents that came quite often would say nice things about how their child was feeling about school.  A good time was had by all.

But this one PTA meeting, I seemed to get a much larger number of parents.  Some waved at the meeting and I wonder what had I done that got the parents concerned.  Stress time for Blackwell.  When the meeting was over I raced to my classroom, turned the lights on and waited.  Here came a crowd of moms and dads.  Some I recognized, some I didn't.  Something had gotten my parents going.

As per usual, I sat them down and told about some of the things we were doing.  They all knew what was going on and in fact, interrupted to say how much Johnny or Mary were learning this year.  Much agreement and nodding of heads.  "My kid has learned more this year so far then the last three years!"  Probably not true but that was the theme for the night.  Much praise from my parents.  My oh my.  

I remember going home and talking to my wife and remarking that I have been doing something that pleases the parents--I wonder what it is?  We talked about it for awhile.  This was my fourth or fifth year of teaching grade school--maybe I was finally becoming a teacher.  I thought about this episode for a couple of days and then it hit me.  I went home and called a mother of one of my students.  "Molly, does your daughter tell you what we do all the time in the classroom?  "Oh my yes.  We have dinner each night and Paul, my husband always asks the kids what they have learned in school today and Mary just babbles forth with all the stuff you been teaching them.  You can hardly shut her up!"  "We're so pleased that she is excited about school."  

I tried another one of the parents that I knew and essentially the same story came out.  "What did you learn in school today?"  And my students couldn't wait to tell.  The funny part is that they would also say they had learned stuff that their best friend had learned omitting the part that someone else learned it.  In essence I had been prepping the kids answers by having them "put their chairs up and telling me one thing they had learned."

But their is another part of this story--a bit deeper.  A number of weeks after I started this activity, several of the students during the day had said to me, "we're learning a lot this year, aren't we?  I said yes they were.  And several mentioned they were pleased with themselves as they thought the learning was getting easier.  One child said, "We're a pretty smart class and can learn anything."  Now, remember this is a fourth grade class.  Age range about nine to twelve years old.  And they like learning!  They are not afraid of it.  Do you know what that means?  I tell the class, "I've got something that is difficult to learn--"improper fractions" and we're going to learn about those today."  And the kids lean forward with bright eyes and say "good, we can learn this."

Remember a few blogs back about the three types of objectives?  How about the Affective domain?  Feeling and attitudes.  What I had stumbled upon was jacking up the affective domain in my class by making the children feel good about learning.  And they knew that the others around them were learning too.  It was catching.  An attitude.

In education classes at colleges, you are taught to tell the students what they were going to learn, now teach them what you want them to learn and then finally summarize what they have learned.  A three stage process.  But I had never done a good job of summarizing what we had learn.  I have to admit I stumbled upon this process and it proved to be highly effective.  It never worked quite so well at the college level but I never tweaked it to see how good it might be.

A process that is never taught in education classes and it was created to save my aching head.  And I learned from it.  I'm the one who got the most learning......

Remember putting your chairs on your desk?  Go tell a teacher how much you learned that day.  And thank them.