Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The secret word is.......

Writing about kindergarten teachers reminded me of a "trick" one of them taught me about classroom management.  You see, teachers have to plan their lessons, sometimes doing some research to formulate the plan, then they have to prepare for the lesson and then do the actual teaching.  To accomplish this they have to "manage" the kids.  "Get you books out," or, "line up for going to the library," or perhaps, "clear your desks for a test."  Management stuff.  The better the manager the more time for teaching and learning.

A kindergarten teacher once taught me about the "secret word."  As a music teacher going from class to class it was interesting how the classes would receive me.  Some teachers would look up from their teaching and say, "Oh, boys and girls, I forgot we have music today.  Put your stuff away and get ready for music."  It would be a time while this took place and I could start with the class.  On the other hand, I would go into some classes and the children would be sitting at their desks ready to go--some would even applaud.  And I could start.  The kindergarten class was always ready and very quiet.  I asked her how she got these little wiggle worms to be so quiet?  "The secret word!"  And she explained, early in the year she taught the class a word she would not normally use in the classroom, like, scintillating.  Once the children heard the word, they couldn't speak.  Later on she would let them know they could talk again.  She only used it for certain occasions.   I filed the idea away.

Later when I was a fourth grade teacher (I even used this idea with my elementary school band) I introduce my kids to the secret word.  Indeed, I used the word, "scintillating" as I hardly ever used it in sentences.  So I told the class, when you hear this word--no talking!  Not even a grunt.  Then we practiced.  During reading class I would say something like....my you are reading in a scintillating way.  At first only half of the class quit talking but as we practice we got better.  One day the principal walked into the room and I greeted him with, "Hi, Mr. Williams, you're seeing my class at their scintillating best."  The class went quiet but kept working.  He talked to a student and that student remained mum.  He soon left and the class and I praised ourselves on how good we were.  They were.  

I didn't use this technique very often--only for emergencies like a parent coming into the class during the day or the superintendent showing up unexpectedly.  The class and I had other tricks that we did--but this one was a staple.

Every year the school district would in cooperation with the county health department have an immunization day where most of the kids would get "shots."  It really screwed up the day for teaching but it had to be done.  Several weeks beforehand, permission papers would be sent home, checked off, signed and brought back.  Some parent had to be called but by and large each teacher would get most of his/her class forms ready to go.  

For me it was a good chance to go over some health lesson plans and get the kids to think about their bodies and how it works.  I probably showed that movie, "Hemo, the Magnificent" as a lead in for this day.  But it was quite apparent, the kids did not like getting shots.  I could talk to them until I was blue in the face that it really didn't hurt much and it was good for them and.....  As a group they didn't like it.  And of course I always had a trouble maker in the room that would say to the class how his brother passed out last year.  And I'd say, "Tom, you don't have a brother."  "Oh, yeah."  But the damage was done.  Shots were not at the bottom of things disliked but probably close to it.

The office would send out a schedule for when each class was to go to the multi-purpose gym and as that time approached, my class got more and more nervous.  I finally started reading to the class from their favorite story but it was not much of a distraction.  And then it was time to go.  So I talked to the kids one more time.  And I told them I was going to use the secret word just before they went into the gym.  Quick review--"What do you do when you hear the word?"  "Close your mouth and speak to no one."  "Okay, lets go."

Down to the gym, a few tears--one year one of my girls got out of line and held my hand.  It was a scary time for them.  We reached the door and I just said, "scintillation."  Inside the door was a receptionist checking the paperwork that each child had.  "How are you today?" she asked brightly.  Not a response.  "You can talk to me."  Not a response.  By now she had checked the paperwork and sent each child to a station with a doctor and nurse.  The nurse job was to talk to the child while the doctor gave the shots.  And the nurses had interesting questions for the each child.  Not a response.  The harder the nurses tried to get my kids to speak the tighter the lips became.  It became a game of who get one of the children to say anything and the kids fought back silently.  The kids won.  Hands down.

We got back to the room and I released them from the secret word and the words tumbled forth.  "We were good, weren't we?"  "I never felt the shot!"  "She couldn't make me speak."  "No one passed out."  I praised them--they really had done magnificently and I told them so.  Talk about big heads.  But you know when you've done something well, you need to speak about it for it to become part of your memory bank.  I let them go on on how they got through all the shots.  The stories got better, the needles longer and sharper as the moments progressed.  

Since we were one of the upper grades, it was close to the time for us to start preparation for going home.  The kids were excited.  Then around the corner of the building by our windows came the principal, all the doctors and nurses and the receptionist.  I teased the kids and said maybe we have to do it all over again.  Wrong thing to say.  You could see the worried looks.  "I'm teasing you" but it didn't help.

In our door came the group--the principal coming up to me but not saying anything.  I had no idea what was going on.  Someone in the health group started speaking.  Essentially, they had been in many schools giving shots over the past several weeks.  They had been in other school districts and other elementary schools.  And this class stood out and did so well they just had to come by and tell them how good they were.  Indeed, not one person cried, passed out or yelled. And as a group they applauded the class.  My principal was still giving me the evil eye wondering how we did it.  And my kids were elated.  I was afraid they might blow the whole scene but they kept it under control.

Yes, we talked about this experience for several weeks.  I'm sure it was discussed over the dinner table in most of the children's homes as well.  It made the class proud of what they had accomplished and I think I saw improvement in all their learning-----but then I was biased.  I did think the kids did well.  

There was a lot of learning that took place before and after the "shots".  I really doubt if you would find anything about this in the WASL tests or The No Child Left Behind tests but in my mind this was much more important.  The kids learned something about themselves--each one did their own learning.

My thanks to the kindergarten teacher who passed on the "secret word" to me.  And to those kids, grown ups that you now are,  "you were magnificent."   

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Which teacher has the hardest job? OR, I quit!

For years I have pondered which grade level or classroom subject is the hardest to teach.  Was it the high school music teacher who had to know all the instruments, form a musical unit and do parades and concerts?  Perhaps it might be the chemistry teachers who has to order certain amounts of chemicals as well as know all the rules for disposing of said chemicals.  Maybe it was the first and second grade teacher who had to get the children to understand these strange letters and make them into words and sentences.  And then again it could easily be the mathematics teacher at the high school teaching advance mathematics--all those strange formulas and proofs--a total abstraction. Indeed, it could easily be that math teacher who had the hardest job in teaching.

But, no.  Over the years I really considered the middle school teacher who taught the grades  sixth, seventh and eighth grades.  Those kids, ranging from eleven to thirteen or fourteen were just experiencing their new hormones.  Voices change in the boys, girls begin to blossom and both sexes take great excitement in developing their personalities.  Yes, it had to be the middle school teacher who has the hardest job in education. 

I have an interesting story about a middle school teacher.  Jack was well liked by colleagues and the students--a solid teacher who worked hard to get his kids to learn about themselves and the world around them.  I had a student teacher in his class--don't remember much of the student teacher but I always remembered Jack. One day I was standing at the back of the room talking to Jack about how things were going in the class with my student teacher.  He interrupted me,  "Hold on, look at the kid over at the reading machine--he is smiling."  The machine was a 3M sort of a tape recorder/player.  It had cards with tape at the bottom and the teacher could write a word on the card, say the word.  Then a student could insert the card, listen to the teacher say the word, then the student would say the word.  Finally the student could hit a button to hear the teacher say the word again and compare it to what he/she had just said.  The machine was good for saying medical terminology, science words and just new English vocabulary.  But as Jack had noted, it wasn't a device in which kids would smile.  Something was up.

It turned out that the kids had found the button that the teacher could use and were adding digs at others in the classroom, at the teacher and at the student teacher.  We found this out when the kids went to another class and we could insert a card and found the mischief that was being added to the cards.  I asked Jack if he was going to address the class about this problem....that is what I would have done.  "Oh, no. Got something better."  He then took a number of the cards and added a word or two of his own...."I heard that!"  or "Hmmmm."  He probably did only about ten cards out of the hundred or so the kids were suppose to review.  

When the kids came back into the classroom, the next student to use the 3M recorded went back to the desk, inserted a card.  For several cards, he just smiled.   All of a sudden, he sat up straight and looked over at Jack....eyes wide.  I couldn't stay to see the finish of this but heard from student teacher that several of the students in the class voluntarily went through the cards and "cleaned them up."  Jack told me later that talking to the kids would have been alright but getting them to made the behavior correction to correct the cards was much better.  Kids of this age he said need to learn how to correct their behavior on their own.  They won't always have an adult following them around to tell them what to do.  Brilliant.  So for a time I thought middle school teachers had the hardest job.

But I have picked a different grade as the hardest to teach--kindergarten.  During my brief grade school music teaching career, I was at a school three days after it had opened in September. Early on the morning of the first full week of school,  the principal was looking harried and he grabbed me and said, "please go look after the kindergarten--the teacher just called me and quit."  Apparently, she had decided on this Monday morning that she didn't want to be a teacher.  So I walked up to the kindergarten room at the far end of the building.  By now there were no mothers to contend with and the children were playing, yelling, running around the room.  I walked in and most of the children began to cry.  Apparently the teacher who had just quit had told them if they didn't behave the principal would come to the room and the children thought I was the principal.  Band teachers really don't have the skill to deal with this type of crises and crises it was.  

I finally got the kids to sit on the rug in front of the classroom--not enough chairs and desks.  Did you know you have to teach kids how to sit together, not hit each other, feet tucked under themselves, not taking up all the space, hands in the laps, not hitting the kid next to you.  It must have taken me a good half hour getting the children to settle down.  And quiet enough for me to talk. Oh lordy, how they could talk--all at the same time.  That is what kindergarten teachers do--teach taking turns, sitting quietly together on a rug, raising their hands to say something (children don't raise their hands at home to speak)--and my oh my did they wiggle and squirm.  Once they knew I was not the principal, one little girl came up and gave me a hug.  Then everyone on the rug wanted to do the same thing.  I was behind the curve on this one.

I do remember telling them a story and during the story one little boy raised his hand (I was making progress) and asked if he could go to the bathroom.  Now this kindergarten room had two bathrooms at one side of the classroom--one for boys and one for girls with appropriate icons on the door as well as the proper word.  I gave the little guy permission to go and he went into the girls bathroom.  A few kids twittered and I turned around and said, "go use the other bathroom, please."  "Why?"  I didn't have an answer so decided to let it be.  But then he didn't close the door and proceeded to drop his pants.  I said, "close the door."  And his reply was, "My mother said to never close the bathroom door."  I continued on with my storytelling.

Kindergarten teachers teach so many things that we grade school teachers take for granted.  How to share, how to get along, how not to fight, and an important skill, how to line up.  Every time I line up at a bank or grocery store I think of kindergarten teachers.  I wonder how they do it  

So I nominate the kindergarten teachers as having one of the hardest jobs in education.  My hat is off to them.

If you know a kindergarten teacher, be sure to give her a hug for me too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

For the President of the United States....

I have been writing on this cyber blackboard about teachers and their teaching since January.  It is primarily for teachers--meant to be a pat on the back.  As I said initially I like teachers, even though I may disagree with some and I have yet to find a bad teacher.  Let's face it, for the salary that most teachers get, if they didn't like to teach they would get out of education and do something else.

Actually, the research backs this up.  The first year of teaching is the most stressful.  Makes sense.  You don't know what you are doing and you have a class claiming your attention 100 percent of the time.  The second year, according to the research is the sickest.  You begin to relax a bit and catch every known bug the kids have--this holds for all grades through high school.  The third year is the most frustrating.  By now the young teacher knows what he/she wants to accomplish but hasn't got all the tricks and knowledge of how to do it.  If a teacher goes beyond three years they are probably going to stay in the profession.  That is what the research says.  Most people if they are unhappy in their teaching position quit by the third year.  In another blog entry I'll tell you about a kindergarden teacher that quit on the third day.  Yes, day.

But the rest of this blog posting is especially for President Obama.

I am, according to your own e-mails one of the first one hundred thousand who signed up to support you.  And I was with you at the end.  In a sense I was with you at the very beginning for I've been to the Punahau school in Honolulu.  I lived in Hawaii for several years.  I know the school.  While I might disagree with you about somethings, I understand the word "compromise" that goes with give and take in politics.  But I don't compromise when it comes to children and young adults.

I listened to the questions and your answers on the Town Hall segment this morning on television.  I followed closely with your answers.  The lady who asked that nurses be involved in the healthcare issue was right on and your answer which included how many nurses have helped your family through sickness and health was also right on.  And of course, you will have nurses included in the development of the healthcare plan for American.  Right!  

Then someone asked you about what you are going to do about education.  And the first thing you did was asked "How many of you know a teacher that you wouldn't want your child in that classroom--let me see your hands!"  Quite frankly, I am pissed, Mr. Obama.  That wasn't presidential, intelligent or smart.  Can you define to me what a "poor teacher" looks like or acts like?  I doubt it.  Your children go to a private school--I know it to be a good one.  You went to a private school.  I really suspect that if you came home when you were young and told your grandmother that you had a bad teacher, she would have said, "Get to work on your homework."  

Given the fact that we have several million teachers in the United States in the K-12 grades I will accept the fact that there may be some who probably should be in another profession but quite frankly, Mr. Obama, I have yet to met one of them.  And I have been in this business for 53 years.  You ought to be ashamed of yourself.  You should have said something like this.... "I will be asking teachers from around this country for their input and suggestions, yes, I want to hear from them."  Why do nurses get your love and charm and we teachers get the back of your hand.  

Why is it that when a non-teacher such as yourself (I know, I know, you taught constitutional law but that was teaching to adults) speaks about improving education that always, always talk about getting rid of poor teachers (like there were so many), merit pay for the excellent teachers (like you can easily spot them in the classrooms) and higher standards (whatever that means).  Why don't you talk about improving the school buildings so that my teachers don't have ice on the blackboard in the morning, let us have some new up to date textbooks for the boys and girls (and enough for all so they don't have to share), good heating systems so the kids are not putting on or taking off the jackets throughout the day, breakfast and lunch for those that don't get it at home and computer connected to the Internet. 

Damn, I'm mad.  Yesterday you blew off a reporter by saying you didn't say anything for two days because you like to first know what you need to know to make an answer.  So why didn't you do this time?  I've seen private schools like the one that your children are attending.  I've been to Lakeside school in Seattle where Paul Allen and Bill Gates attended.  It must be nice to teach at a school like that--even better to be a student at Lakeside---or the Friends school in Washington, D.C.  The teachers of this nation need an educational President, someone who will listen to them.  We teachers want to do a better then a good job with our students.  We want to be successful, we want our kids to be successful and we want to do without it being stressful.

So here is the plan Mr. Obama.....  You get some teachers who are currently teaching in the classroom (no Education Association presidents, no superintendents, no principals), ones who have chalk on their hands and chalk dust in the hair and get them to tell you what they want to see in your educational plan.  Then you can tell the American people what you are going to do because the rest of us teachers need to get back to our classrooms and do the job we've been doing.

You really ticked me off.

Les Blackwell, Ed.D.
Professor Emeritus
Woodring College of Education (where we educate great teachers to be)
Western Washington University 
Bellingham WA 98225

Monday, March 23, 2009

One of the best teachers I ever knew....but first.

I want to thank those that have written and those that have left comments about Dyslexia.  I tried to respond to the comments in the comment section but for some reason it mandated that I respond in a certain way and I'm not sure how to do that yet.  So for the moment, let me respond here in the blog.  

Ginger--your software sounds intriguing and I look forward to it when it is available for the Macintosh computer.  As I have already mentioned it is interesting, no, make that fascinating that some children and adults can see better on a computer monitor than they can see on a book page.  To me this says the problem could be....optical.  We do know that Dyslexic people take in more light than "normal" people.  I wonder what "normal" is?  Taking in more light may account for those with Dyslexia to prefer darker rooms.  And it may be a follow up to the research of placing a colored transparency over a book page which results in better reading for some of those with Dyslexia.  But, again, only some.  How frustrating.  But Ginger--you present some hope for the rest of us....

Konnie wrote that she appreciated the knowledge that those with Dyslexia can be successful.  Yes, that is true but we have to give the young student positive learning activities.  Too many young children with Dyslexia and other learning problems are overlooked as they are the quiet ones.  That is why I think identification is critical at an early age.  I'm hoping that early childhood classes can develop ways of finding those that may be Dyslexic early on.  Can you imagine being Dyslexic and not be able to see the syllables in a word in a phonics class.  I have colleagues with Ph.D degrees that tell me all the child has to do is look.  Not so, not so.  

Perhaps, Konnie, you would be interested in my opinion (I do not have data to support this point) that many Dyslexic people have a desire to be successful in spite of what life has handed them.  They have, in a way, a learning chip on their shoulder--saying to the world, I am not dumb, I am not lazy and I am not stupid.  So they work harder than others.  As I said earlier, they cope.


I do want to write about one of the best teachers I ever knew.  Quite frankly I have met many, many fine teachers.  As I have said earlier I really never met a poor teacher.  I am in awe of so many of them and I learned from most of them.  But one early on in my career stood out as one of the best teachers I would ever meet.

Jo (short for Josephine) was a fourth grade teacher when I was a fifth grade beginning teacher.  She was short, maybe five feet tall, very thin, with a thin hollow face that could beam at a child. She did have a smile that lit up the room or playground.  For some reason, she would quite often walk about with me on playground duty and we'd talk.  The kids adore her.  And so did the parents.  Every time the district tried to fire her, the parents packed, standing room only, the school board meeting and every time the board backed down.

For as I was to find out, Jo was an ex-first Lieutenant  in the U.S. Army.  One of the first woman officers in the Army in her role.  She was also an ex-nun of the Catholic Church--I forgot which Abby.  But not an ex-Catholic--her faith was very important to her.  But she was one of the best teachers I had ever known--so why did the school district repeatedly try to fire her?  Unfortunately she not an ex alcoholic.  I'm sure her being an ex in the other two professions was the result of drinking and I know that the district quite frankly didn't know what to do about her.  

Teachers at my school were required to be in their classroom at eight o'clock.  Jo generally made it by eight fifty nine and thirty seconds.  When the first school bell rang she would be in her classroom but it was close.  I'm pretty sure she never drank on the school campus but her breakfast I'm sure came out of the bottle and it wasn't milk.

Forget for a moment about her being an alcoholic--she was a teacher.  I will never know how she taught.  I would watch at times when my class was occupied in some other activity and they didn't need me for a short time.  I would stand in the back of the room and watch Jo.  All I ever saw was her walking around the room occasionally bending over to talk to one of her class.  They class was always a bee hive of activity.  Some kids would be reading out loud in a corner with other children listening, some would be doing work on the blackboard and others would be watching, some would be taking a test and the supervision was by a classmate or two.  I rarely saw kids not doing something.  What also impressed me was that children were grading other kids and putting grades in the grade book.  The kids were in charge of the grading!

Jo would tell me you teach everything by Thanksgiving and then all you do is review.  It took me some time to finally understand that what she meant was that you taught "how to learn" by Thanksgiving and then you just plugged in the subjects for the rest of the year.  I think they call it mega-learning now in the academic world.  But Jo had this all worked out in that she would teach her children how to perform and behave in a learning environment and the subject area would take care of itself.  And it worked.  

I can remember starting one fall, first day of my fifth grade and starting by saying, "who are Jo's kids?"  First thing out of the box.  And about five or six children raised their hands.  Then I said, "Okay, can you two get started on the lunch money and the rest of you help me pass out the text books--don't forget to get their names for each book."  And we got started.  Jo's kids.  I tried to continue throughout the year doing it her way but I never had the touch that she did.

I do think one thing she did was that she never, never talked down to a student.  She always treated them as responsible people and they responded that way.  She gave them space to learn.

But there were fun times because of Jo.  When she was ill and that was surely in January or February when she would get phenomena probably because of not eating, the principal would contact a substitute teacher to fill in for Jo.  The rest of us teachers would watch with glee as the sub would try to get control of the class.  The kids knew what to do and they went ahead like Jo was there.  Reading groups over there, math groups over here and the grade book was being passed around.  The sub would say something and the kids would say in return, "That's not how Miss T would do it."  And they go on their merry ways.  It would take a sub at least a week to figure out what was going on.  

But I do know that the kids learned and that the parents really appreciated her.  One other thing that impressed me about Jo--she mention many times that her faith was hers and not the children's.  We (the teachers) should never bring religion into the classroom except in rare occasions if it was about learning.  But I think she would think about it for a long time if she would ever do such a thing.  She was a duelist--faith was over here and teaching was over there and the two never came together.  

As Jo grew more ill from not taking care of herself, the school district became more concern as to what to do.  They finally made her a kindergarten teacher for a year but she became too sick and retired.  She soon passed away to the sadness of many of us.  Alcoholism is a tough racket and she could never beat in spite of her love for children.  

If there are any of Jo's kids out there, say a little prayer and be sure to thank her for what she gave you.  For the rest of us, be sure you thank a teacher for what they do.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dyslexia, a personal story..... Part 2

Dyslexia is a sneaky problem--you don't know you have it until someone else tests you and tells you that you may be Dyslexic.  So as a kid you go through school struggling wondering why you have these problems and others do not.  But in my day there were no tests and no one to tell me that I had this learning problem.  I just lived with it.

How did I find out that I probably was Dyslexic?  You may or may not know but all teachers in the public K-12 system have to take classes or "clock hours" to continue teaching.  In most districts you cannot get a pay raise or cost of living increase unless you complete so many clock hours of in-service training.  Some of those classes are after school from 4 to 6 so many times a month.  Yes, you have to sign in and yes, you are tired after a full day of teaching but it is better then having to take a Saturday or weekend to take the course.  I remember driving down to a middle school in Renton having signed up to learn about a learning problem that children had. 

It was being presented by the Orton Society, a group I had never heard about.  The presenter started off by describing some of the characteristics that these children exhibited.  "They have trouble reading word by word."  Yeah, so what, so did I.  "The quite often have problems with arithmetic and numbers"  So? I did too.  "They like to work on their feet--move around a lot."  I did that all the time.  "They have troubles with right and left."  For heavens sake, me too.

She spoke about how these kids learn to cope and it was almost as if she had read my plan book for my own learning.  This was getting too close to me.  I began to worry.  I remember going home and talking to my wife about the fact that I was probably a Dyslexic person.  If the school district knew about this do you think they may let me go at the end of the school year?  It was a scary time and I remained mum about it all.  But I also tried to study more about this learning problem.  And I think I identified a couple of kids in my class that could have been Dyslexic.  I'm sure they wonder why I was being so nice to them at times...... 

During the following years I read most of everything that came out about Dyslexia but said nothing to anyone except my wife.  I continued on to graduate school to work on my master's degree.  And I did well thanks to my wife correcting my papers.  My typing skills began to pay off--I began to see mistakes that I didn't see when I wrote by hand.  

We need to fast forward to a time when I worked on my doctoral classes.  By now I had some confidence in myself.  I was a graduate assistant and teaching a class in Instructional Technology.  One day my major professor and head of the department said he was going to put a computer in my office and he wanted me to study it and report back to the department at a future date.  I thought he was a bit off.  Computers in those days were large machines that took up entire floors of building.  They also need air conditioning to work well.  Okay, give me the air conditioning but I doubted seriously they could put in a computer in my small office.  

What I did get was a teletype machine that one would find in a newspaper or radio station.  It was connected by phone to an IBM computer in Palo Alto (CA) to which I could access the different programs.  I was fascinated with it.  I could type "menu" and it would clatter to life and print out all the programs that it had in its memory.  Cool!  One of those programs was one entitled, "Statpac".  Well, I was taking statistics--let's see what this thing can do.  I typed, "run" and the first thing it typed was a question, "Are you an expert?"  I typed "no" and off it went.  I saw that it could do "Chi square, " an assignment due in a couple of days in my statistical course so I typed in the numbers from my assignment.  It immediately did the problem and typed them in a proper format.  You would have thought I had found gold.  This assignment was supposed to take a couple of hours and given my troubles with numbers might have taken longer and here it was all done in thirty seconds.  My oh my.  I was besides myself.  

I remember my immediate thinking--what else can a computer do that can help people learn?  The date was January 1967.  I was using the first time shared computer at the University of Washington.  Somehow I intuitively knew that computers and Dyslexia was joined in partners to learning about the world.  

In the late seventies, my wife and I re-mortgaged the house to buy a mini-computer one of the first on the market.  And we learned an important fact--the computer was hardware and you needed software to run it.  We learned about software but it was tough going.. I'm not good at detail and detail is what software is all about.  So we gave it to the university--maybe they could use it.

We then bought an Osborne One, another mini computer that was bundled with software like "WordStar" which could process words.  Then there was "Visacalc" which could manipulate numbers.  Another program was SpellCheck--I became very acquainted with SpellCheck.  To this day I can remember coming home from Seattle where we had just bought the Osborne. We set it up on the coffee table in the living room and as Lynn read the manual I made copies of the software like they told us to do.  

Then the moment of truth.  I started to write a paper on this little computer sitting at our coffee table and saw what I was writing on a monitor next to it.  I started to cry.  I knew, I knew this was an answer to my Dsylexia and my writing problems that Lynn had corrected for me all these years.  Here is an important point to those with Dyslexia--some of us can read better on a computer screen then on paper.  I don't know why but the words stand out and they don't move around.

Then I used the SpellCheck and got angry.  I plugged it in and the first thing it printed on the screen was that I have a fifty two percent error rate in my spelling.  Thanks a lot--I knew that.  Just correct my spelling, damn it.  

Since that time I began to tell people, especially my college students that I have Dyslexia.  I don't know how many students have come into my office, many not even in my classes and all of them just wanted to talk about the problems they have had in the past.  We pooled our experiences and shared.  It is comforting to know there are others who have gone and are going through the same experiences.  

As I've grown older the problems of Dyslexia have begun to fad.  I find I can read books most of the time--only once in a while will the floating words come back to haunt me.  I still have a fear of numbers but I can use a calculator on the computer and do most of the things I have to do.  It is nice to know it is a widget that is very handy.

And I was right!  The computer has been a phenomenal addition to the world and how we learn. The computer hasn't erased the problems of Dyslexia but it has leveled the playing field to a great degree.  But I hope we will continue to do research on this annoying learning problem and found out why some have it and some don't.  How can we identify it earlier on to relieve some children from the stress of learning? Learning ought to be fun.   And how can we teach teachers to identify children in order to teach them differently?  Dyslexic kids will not learn well with phonics no matter what you do in reading.  Perhaps with cat scans we'll learn more on how the brain works.

Somewhere back in Harrison, NY, I need to thank a teacher who taught me how to read, albeit, differently.  That had to be in the early 1940s.  Isn't that amazing?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dyslexia, It is a personal thing.... Part !

I want to write about "Dyslexia", a name for a learning problem in people.  Note that I wrote "people", not children, boys, young adults, or white kids.  It is found throughout our population and around the world.

A disclaimer:  I have Dyslexia and I am not an expert on its cause or a solution.  I have lived with it for over seven decades--what I write in this blog will be my opinion and thought--nothing more.

While Dyslexia has been written about, not necessarily understood since the late 1890s not much has been written for the school teacher.  I do not remember any learning problems being discussed in my undergraduate education classes but I will admit I don't remember much of those classes at all.

My first involvement with this learning problem that I can remember was in early grade school in Harrison, New York, where a special teacher taught me how to read.  Everyday I would go down the hall where I would sit and.....I'm sorry I don't remember more.  All I know is that I learned to read.  It was many years later that I realized that I read differently from most people.  I seem to follow what is now know as Evelyn Woods speed reading methods where my eye scans the paragraph in a circular motion akin to speed reading.

In fact all through school I could out read most of my peers.  I remember a number of teachers checking that I really read the book by asking me questions which I could answer.  From this they assumed I was smart.  I may have been smart but not in everything.  My writing, particularly spelling was atrocious all through school.  I also had problems physically writing because somewhere in the early grades I had to switch from writing with my left hand to writing with my right hand.  There was a time as a young adult I could manage to write with both hands at the same time in different directions.  I find that I cannot do that anymore--age maybe?

I also had a terrible time with numbers.  I disliked arithmetic from the start.  There are some who say this isn't part of Dyslexia but I wonder.  I had problems lining up the numbers to add in my mind.  I could do it on the blackboard as a student but not on paper at my desk.  Why

Let me digress here for a moment.  When I read (not as much as I grow older) the words on either end of the sentence line in a book "float" or move around.  It is sometimes difficult to continue the sentence because when I leave the right hand side of the line I have to find the right place to start again on the left.  If I focus, concentrate, it is a doable thing.  But I have to work at it.  That is why "scanning" the paragraph is so much easier.  I very rarely read word by word.  So if you put a word twice in a row in a sentence I am likely not to have seen it--the sentence looks looks normal.

A number of teachers during my K-12 journey through education told my parents that I was smart but lazy.  That seemed very strange to me as I thought I worked harder then most of the kids in the class.  However, they also said that I was good in music and art.  Interestingly enough now that we know a little bit more about Dyslexia we find many who have it are good in music and art.  Perhaps it is a clue that suggests that this learning problem is neurological.

I do remember one incident that rankles me to this day.  Fourth grade in Richland, WA.  My teacher took us out to the playground to play softball.  I was never very good at athletics and normally was the last one picked for teams.  I remember trying to "hid" so that I wouldn't have to play.  But my teacher made me get up to bat.  It may have been the first time for me to swing a bat......  Someone pitched the ball and for some reason I hit it well.  I stood there quite surprised.  Everyone started to yell, "run, run, run."  So I did.....to third base and then on to second.  I never made second.  The teacher stopped the game and took me by hand and walked me to the first base and then to second and then to third and finally home, all the while my classmates were yelling and laughing at me.  I remember not wanting to go to school the next day but I never told my parent why.  It was humiliating.   To this day I think it was the Dyslexia that reverses things that had me do what I did.  Along with the fact that I had never played softball before.  

Let's see now--P.E., spelling, arithmetic, writing and memorization were things I hated.  HATED!  But as I learned later on students with Dyslexia learned to cope.  They figure ways to get around learning problems.  I had learned how to read.  One problem solved.  I solved arithmetic problems with the invention of the calculator.  I always use a calculator.  Even today, right now, I am wearing a wristwatch that tells time, is a calculator and holds a number of telephone numbers for me.  I used my wrist calculator last evening to figure out 20 percent for a tip after a dinner on the town.  Mathematics people are probably falling to the floor with laughter right now after reading that last sentence.  They are saying "20 percent is so easy you can do it in your head."  But they don't know the fear of screwing up the numbers.  I still have that fear.

Coping.  In high school I took Biology instead of Chemistry.  In chemistry you had to memorize things.  Biology was easier for a kid with Dyslexia.  And I wouldn't take theater because again you had to memorize things so I took an art class where I excelled.  I did poorly in Algebra--letters and numbers.  But I also sat in the very back of the class and didn't see the blackboard very well--it was the beginning of my glasses era which remains with me to today.  Dyslexics learn to cope.

But there is a thread among those that write about having Dyslexia that seems to be a part of each person.  Most want to succeed and most are over achievers.  They do know they are good if not smart but they will acknowledge they are different.  While I can't prove it, many are loners. They don't join a study group because they study differently from others.  Note taking is not a method but a punishment.  

Here is a bit of humor.  A number of us Dyslexic once talked about how we got through college. It turns out when a prof said we would have to write a term paper but that we would write the outline first, the Dyslexics to a person wrote the paper first really struggling to get it done in the early part of the course and THEN we would do the outline.  If we remember correctly we all got good grades because our paper and outlines were seamless.  

Another interesting part of me that I believe Dyslexia had a hand in.....  During my high school years I've already said that I would pick carefully what courses I took.  For some reason, I signed up for beginning typing.  Hey, this was 1949 and guys did not take beginning typing.  It was for girls.  But I sensed that by learning typing I could do better--better than what I don't know....   But I took the course.  I did well.  Because I am ambidextrous I easily did the fifty words per minute.  There was one girl in the class who I could not beat--but she let it be know that no "boy" was going to beat her.  She wouldn't even go out with me on a date.  

I took advanced typing which was mostly formatting and I also took Machine Calculation.  That turn out to be fortuitous.  Until the advent of the computer I excelled (pardon the pun) at calculations.  I was cool.  Dyslexics have a inner sense of who they are and know what they have to do.

I never knew I had Dyslexia.  It wasn't mention in schools and even at my undergraduate college days if you had a learning problem--tough!  Maybe you shouldn't be in college.  Dyslexia affects your personality.  You screwed up.  Do it over.  Plan more time to do the task.  Plan ahead.  You keep trying. But you also get creative.  In one education class I took years ago, we had an assignment to visit a school during a holiday break and bring in a written report of what we found and what we thought.  I visited a new middle school and took a camera with me.  I took two rolls of black and white photographs of the school.  I had them developed and then I basically told what was in each of the photographs that I selected.  I mounted the pictures on cardboard and cut and pasted my typing to fit.  The prof was elated with my report and showed it to the class.  I remember several of my peers asking how I had come to view the assignment that way--now I would say, Dyslexia.  

A SPECIAL NOTE TO PARENTS OF COLLEGE BOUND STUDENTS.  If your child is Dyslexic, seek a college or university that has a Student Services Learning Department where they help students with learning problems.  That department can let professors and instructors know that this person has a reading problem and can request more time on tests.  It's no big deal for most profs.  Some universities still do not have a Student Services department to help students.  Find out which one do.  Remember success breeds success.

There is a special ending to this blog.  I managed to get through undergraduate college and become a music teacher and grade school teacher on my own.  I had struggled in some of the classes but I made it.  I graduated.  And I went on to graduate school.   I also married a woman who for more then fifty years has read my writings and corrected my spelling and punctuation and......even going so far as to challenge my thinking and conclusions.  I would not have gotten through those other courses without her help.  At least not until the computer and spell checkers were invented.  But even today I tried to spell a word  and the spell checker just looked at me blankly--it couldn't even figure out what the word should have been.  "Lynn, how do you spell...," I shouted  and as normal, she helped me out.  It's not easy being a Dyslexic.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Teachers make mistakes...

In the last few days it seems like a great many people are either talking or writing about educational reform -- and not one of them has ever been a teacher.  I guess having a kid or two makes you an expert on how kids should learn.  

And someone asked me if teachers (especially me) have ever made a mistake in the classroom--in front of the class.  Sheeesh--all the time.  Everyday.  Several per hour.  Lets face it, as a grade school teacher you have anywheres from twenty five to thirty five kids all asking questions or wanting to know something--talk about multi-tasking and you are bound to say "yes" when you should have said "no".  More then once I gave a girl permission to use the rest room only to realize later on I had given permission to three or four girls all at the same time, definitely a recipe for disaster at the fifth grade level.  But the high school disasters abound.  I remember one young lad asking to see the councilor only to read later on in my teacher's bulletin that that office would be closed for two days while the staff were at conference.  

Every once in awhile I could do a spectacular mistake.  I had a young boy in my fifth grade one year.  Ted or Teddy as we called him was a tall, angular, thin boy who was very quiet most of the time.  He was smart in busts.  He'd do well for awhile then fall off.  I never figured out the pattern or why it happened.  But he had one characteristic the bugged me.  He seem to always have a story about either himself or his family that was just off the wall. 

"Mr. Blackwell, do you know what happened this weekend?  I was skating on the ice on the lake and fell through the ice and I had to take off my skates and drag myself to the edge using the skates as picks."  Generally with stories like this I would find out that it really didn't happen but that the family discussed what might happen if they went out on the ice that was too thin.  Teddy would just embellish the story a bit from what actually did happen.  I knew that he was seeking some sort of attention and I tried to give that to him in class--make him in charge of something, give him special projects or jobs to help me.  But still the stories kept coming.  Normally all I had to do was look at Teddy and say, "Teddy, did that really happen?"  and he would mumble some answer closer to the truth.  And the day would go on....

One Monday, Teddy rushed into the classroom just bursting to tell me something.  "Mr. Blackwell, you're not going to believe what happened to me this weekend.  We had robbers at our place and my Dad and I got guns and we chased the robbers and we were running through the woods and shooting at the robbers and they were shooting back and I was hiding behind a log so they couldn't hit me and......"  I will have to admit he had more details to this story but I did wonder what ever was the conversation at home that begat this tale.  I began, "Teddy, did that really happen?"  He lowered his face and looked disappointed and mumble something about it really happening but I sort of just brushed him off.  End of story as far as I was concerned.

That evening I got the two Seattle daily papers and turned to the front page.  On both front pages was a large picture of adults showing how they protected their property from robbers on Squawk Mountain, near my school.  It appears that some young adults thought it might be a good place to rob some homes that appeared to be empty but didn't count on the neighbors being on the lookout and also well armed as well.  Shots were fired and the deputy sheriff had to get help to round up the suspects and get the full story.  And the full story was on the front page of each paper and Teddy did figure into the story.  Oh dear, now what.

Well, the next morning the class settled down to our routine while I collected the lunch money.  Then I stopped the class and had Teddy come up to the front of the room.  "Yesterday, class, I listened to Teddy who wanted to tell me and you what happened this past weekend at his house and I didn't let him.  I made a mistake in not doing so. So I want to apologize to Teddy for not paying attention to him and to let him tell you what really did happen.  And here are the pictures from both papers that have him in the story."  "Teddy, my apology."  Eating crow is hard no matter when and where you do it.  Teddy went on to tell about the gun fight on Squawk Mountain and I'll have to admit it was a good tale.  The class asked questions and Teddy was a hero for a number of days.  I also had Teddy autograph the two articles from the papers which I kept in my files for a number of years.  

So teachers do make mistakes.  We do try not to do them over and over however.  Another mistake took several years in the making.  At the grade school level we do try to teach all of the subjects--science was a hard subject for me to teach.  I'd had one class in the teaching of science in my undergraduate days and a lot of that I didn't remember.  But when faced with a problem I head to the books.  I found several books on how to teach science to the intermediate grade child and I tried a number of the suggestions.  

One idea talked about air pressure and it suggested that a teacher can take a glass of water, put a piece of cardboard on top, turn the glass over and pull the cardboard away.  The water would stay in the glass because of the air pressure.  I tried this at home and it work!  Well, I'll be damned.  So the next time we had science time, I moved the kids in the front row back, laid out some plastic tarps, got a dish pan, my glass and my piece of cardboard and proceeded to do my science lesson.  "IF I put water in this glass and put a cover on it and turn it over what do you think will happen?"  I got a ton of answers, mostly that the water will still come out because the cardboard isn't very thick.  My class sat back expectantly--they thought this was going to be good.  It was.  I turned the glass over with the water in it and carefully pulled the cardboard away and the water stayed into the glass.  Whoa! this was different.  How did he do that?  It was a trick.  It wasn't water but clear jello.  To be truthful I don't remember the discussion the class and I had but I suspect even now some of those kids understand a little more about air pressure.  Later on I let them try it over the sink.  Water and kids are a magnet, trust me.  

I did this several years in a row and it was always a good demonstration.  I got a lot of learning from that experiment.  The last year I did it however, we got more entertainment and less learning then was suppose to happen.  By now I had grown rather confident of myself.  I didn't move the front row back, I didn't move the kids out of the way.  But I still used the dish pan.  I filled the glass with water and took a piece of cardboard, placed it over the top of the glass and proceeded to ask all the questions, get the kids to write down their answers like I always did and then I removed the cardboard which for some reason it resulted in drenching the girl sitting in the front seat.  I didn't even hit the dish pan.  She got it all. Splat all over her.  

My class erupted in gales of laughter, some falling to the floor.  This had to be the best thing Mr. Blackwell had ever done.  It was total confusion amid the gales of laughter.  I remember a couple of the kids wanting to exchange places with my girl student and let me do it to them. "Get me wet, Mr. Blackwell."  I finally did it right--the water stayed in the glass but as a whole they all preferred the first way, dumping it all over a classmate.  The hell with science, this was more fun.

I'm sure I was the talk at the dinner tables that night.   The following year I went on to a different level of teaching and never tried that experiment again.  Maybe I should try it one more time by myself for confidence.

Yes, teachers make mistakes but they don't try.  Remember one of your teachers doing something funny?  Don't forget to go thank them for being who they were.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Once more into the battle....

Obama gave his state of education address and by and large I was disappointed.  With the economy he brought to the White House all sorts of experts from all different sides--the pros and cons.  Already with the health insurance concerns he is doing the same thing by having those on both sides of the debate including some folk who do not have health insurance come and discuss what we as a nation ought to be doing.  On all the major issues he has tackled so far he has brought in people with many different views to comment, debate and discuss what the right road ought to be.

But not so the education problem.  He has followed the usual line for those that want to "reform" the schools by wanting merit pay to "reward good teachers," , wanting to get rid of those that don't measure up, as he said,  "stop making excuses for bad ones."  He also wants a longer day for the students and shorter summer vacations.  And then as if it is the fault of the educational system, he wants more math and science teachers.  The one canard that I didn't hear him suggest was vouchers for parents who want to send their children to private schools, a platform for the Republicans.

Let's look at these requests from an educator's point of view.  Let's first start with the longer school day and shorter summer vacation.  If we are not doing a good job teaching our children now, how is more time in the classroom going to help?  Do we have so much more to teach that we need more time?  This leads us to a major educational question that should have been asked before Mr. Obama made his speech--which knowledge is of most worth?  Plato asked that questions long ago.  What do you want our children to learn?  And don't give me that stuff about, "In my day....". The times they are a-changing.  

I finally found the quote from Margaret Mead that seems to fit this discussion.  "we are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knows yet."  What should our curriculum be--what should our children learn to be successful in life.  And how much of the curriculum do we need?  When I was in school I learned about the war of independence, the civil war and WWI.  I lived through WWII--there were no test questions on that war.  Today's students are not only required to learn about WWII, but add the Korean, the Vietnam, the Gulf war and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  How many wars does a child need to know about?  I am reminded by my counterpart in a school of education at a Russian University when he said to me, "our problem is which history do we want our children to learn?"  Do we want a longer day to learn about war?

Let me flail about on the need for science and math teachers.  First off, do we have a shortage?  I haven't heard my local school districts complaining about not having enough science and math teachers.  We could use more of every type of teacher.  But for Pete's sake look at the problem.  IF you were a math teacher making $50,000 (before taxes) a year and could make $150,000 at Boeings or a start up computer software company why wouldn't you change jobs?  If you were a good chemistry teacher making $50,000 and had a job offer from a pharmaceutical company with a salary close to $200,000 what would you do?  

I once had a graduate student working on his master's degree.  He was an experience middle school teacher who wanted to learn more about technology in the classroom--computers and stuff.  He was an excellent teacher and was close to completing his degree from my university when I suggested he do an intern with Microsoft during the summer.  He could make some money and get a wider view of technology in education.  He did so.  And never came back.  One course away from his master's he moved his family to Kirkland, thanked me and never returned to the classroom as a teacher.  Piety. I'm sorry I sent him to Microsoft.

Somewheres in his speech, Mr Obama talked about how our kids rank with other industrialize countries.  Particularly in Europe countries, children are sorted our by the ninth grade as to who is going on to higher education and those that will be interning on the job.  Our students comprise of ALL students, minorities, special education needs, and those drop outs that the president mentioned are compared to the that first group of students in Europe who will go on to advanced education.  We're comparing oranges and grapes.

I've already ranted about merit pay in previous blogs.  In my mind it is one of the dumbest ideas conceived for education.  In all probability if money was the motivating force, those people would not have gone into education.  Let's face it.   You go into education because you want, no, need to be a teacher.  I can attest that most of my undergraduate students wanted to be a teacher.  Remember my student teacher with the motorcycle?  I remember her crying saying she had to be a teacher.  Even in rough times when they were certain that there would be few jobs available, most of my students said they were going to be teachers.  Other professions may have their calling--the military?  "I want to be a warrior."  The medical profession? "I want to help sick people."  Teachers want to teach!  And you know, Mr. President.  If a teacher is not doing an effective job teaching they want to know how to do it better.  I don't know of a single teacher who didn't want to be a better teacher.  You want to get rid of those teachers?

I have mixed emotions of charter schools.  What research I have seen is a mixed bag but the one thing that seems to stand out is that most charter schools are homogeneous--mostly white students.  Perhaps that is why they score well.  One of the things that I remember when I visited a Norwegian elementary school was that it was all white Norwegian students. Remember the phrase from that Seattle Asst. Superintendent?  A disadvantaged student is one who learns something at home that is not reinforced at school and learns something at school that is not reinforced at home.  Ah, you remember it.  Good.  

Last night there were a flock of television talk shows commenting upon the President's speech. "Get rid of the unions."  "Get rid of those bad teachers."  "Close the bad schools."  All sorts of things were being said--I'm glad that most of who were saying it had not been in my classes.  I would have had some certain failure grades to hand out for critical thinking.  But a more amazing thing seem to be taking place no matter which station and which talking host.  There was not a single teacher being interview.  Not one!  Everyone talking and making suggestions was not a teacher. Fascinating.

Well, you better go thank your favorite teacher today for tomorrow they may be released.


Monday, March 9, 2009

What some research tells us...

There were two news items in the media today.  The first is that children need more physical activities.  In fact a couple of days ago, an editorial (somewhere--I'm sorry I forgot to save it) said that we need to keep recess in our schools because of the need to exercise.  Anyway, the research over the past fifty years has been that children who exercise in some manner do better on the 3 Rs.  I think I could write a book reviewing all the research programs about kids and physical play. It pretty much says that if children get enough physical movement that they will do better in the academic subjects.  Okay, let's generalize a bit.  Something about moving about with abandon seems to do something in the brain that allows the transmitters to do more work.  Perhaps more blood is available to the brain, maybe more oxygen.  Whatever, something seems to happen in the brain because of the exercise. That is a generalization so I caution you about the cause and effect stuff.  With me?

The second bit of news is that schools are having a hard time making their budgets.  Although the number of children has not dropped, the budget has.  Therefore what you see happening is that certain teachers will be laid off.   Some staff and perhaps an administrator or two will also go in some school districts.  It is a tough time in our economy and also in the school districts, particularly since they probably will have the same number of students.

And let me tell you now who in the teaching ranks will get released.  Music teachers, particularly the elementary music teachers will be gone from the scene. Also, any art teachers.  We haven't had many art teachers in the past couple of decades but a few schools still had them.  I think the handwriting is on the wall for them.  The third group of teachers to be released will be the librarians.  

A few years ago one school district (north of Seattle) made the announcement that there would be no librarians in the schools except in the high school and high school libraries would be reduced to one person.  The next thing that happened was that the teachers all met (remember those dreaded teacher associations or unions?) and requested that their salaries be reduced in order that a librarian would be able to remain at each school.  Teachers felt that the increased reading derived by the library was essential to good learning.  This decision by the teachers did not make most newspapers.  

And so to my point for today.  What we seem to know about learning is that physical exertion, different types of reading, music and art skills increase student learning.  Take those activities away from the kids and learning goes down.  Now here is a strange juxtaposition.  With the push of "No Child Left Behind,"  in recent years, many schools got rid of the art and music teachers, including a few librarians. The big push was to teach to the test--the reading, writing and Arithmetic that was being measured on those tests.   If our research is correct, those children would have done better had those teachers remained on the staffs.  We want out children to learn more effectively and then we take away those items that would help children achieve those goals. Strange isn't it.  

Being a music teacher turned classroom teacher I use to get my class singing about every other day--maybe every third day or so.  Generally it was to fill up time going from one subject to another or for waiting for the busses to arrive.  I didn't measure the outcome for grades nor did I write a lesson plan.  My principal would have gone nuts trying to evaluate me.  Tough.  This was a time when we didn't have a music teacher--I was it for this one class.

But I do remember one song that I taught the class.  Unfortunately I may never get it out of my mind.  It was an Appalachian folk tune called, "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Willy, dear Willy."  First, I wanted the kids to learn a little bit about the music that our ancestors sang and a bit about music that came west with the wagons.  The problem with the song as I soon learned is that it is a music joke.  Really.  Somebody wants some water but there is a hole in the bucket.  So what to do?  Go get something which begets getting something else which.....after about twenty verses begets getting some water which starts this song all over again.  Well, I thought it was a cute song but my class literally loved it for the humor of singing all those verses and ending up where you started.  Once they learned the song it was on their hit parade just about every time I suggested we sing.  I'm sure it rivaled Ninety-nine bottles of Beer on the Wall..... (which we didn't sing).  I got so sick of that song.  And as we traversed through all those verses, the class would get louder and louder--definitely not better.  In years to come I never taught that song again.  

And yet.  I think it was a release and it did something for their learning.  Appalachia and the western movement had a different ring in my class.  

My wife and I had dinner the other night with good friends and I found out that he had been trained as a music teacher.  Both he and I played the trumpet but he never found a job--schools were laying off when he went looking for a job.  But here is an interesting note (cute, eh? music, note.....sorry), both he and I went into computers with some success--he has more success then I do but still.  I wish some sociologist would do a study of the number of musicians that have gone on in the programming world and have done so successfully.  

I like Margaret Mead's statement which, I'm sorry I will not quote exactly, however, "We need to teach our children to walk down paths that we do not know exist."  It is my opinion that music, art, and PE may well help our children with those new paths that we haven't encountered yet.

If I've made any sense today, please go thank a teacher for making you think.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chicken of the Day

One reason that in the grade school we teachers change subjects from time to time during the morning and afternoon is to help relieve tension and stress in the children.  But high school does essentially the same thing when they have different 'periods'   be it a fifty minutes period or an hour and fifteen minutes block of time to teach.  But there is enough old research that suggests that people run out of steam anywheres from an hour to two hours of studying on a subject.  So we change subjects or start something new.

One of the great motivators of people is anticipation.  We anticipate climbing Mt. Baker,  or we anticipate bowling a three hundred game.  We can also anticipate  just being happy with ourselves.  One task for a teacher is to help their students learn to anticipate those ideas and values that will help them get along in life.  It is the affective domain again that I speak of.  In the grade school classroom this sometimes happens in strange ways.

At one time I had a book entitled, "Free Stuff for the Teachers."  A teacher could write to different companies and they would send stuff to your classroom.  Much of it was advertising pure and simple and not worth much but some of the stuff was well worth the letter sent.  For example, the Disney Company would send an half hour film to my classroom titled, " Hemo, the Magnificent," a very well done film about the blood and what it does in your body.  And no advertising.  I ordered that for several years.  No charge except for mailing.  Another freebee was from the Washington State Dairy Council who would send four live baby laboratory rats to your classroom so that two would get a poor diet without milk and two would get a good diet with milk and after a number of weeks the rats were reversed in their feeding.  This little freebee is worth a whole blog by itself.  But my point being there was tons of material a teacher could request for the classroom.

I remember ordering a "breakfast kit" from Kellogg that was suppose to help intermediate grade children understand the power of a good breakfast.  Sounded good so I sent for it.  Some weeks later it arrived and I spread the material out on a table.  Some posters, individual sheets of paper for the kids to keep track of what they ate that morning, some charts for the wall in which we could record how each student was doing....and some buttons and ribbons I suspect for those that completed the good breakfast routine.  The buttons were rather nice--not too big and had the head of a rooster on it.  But the rest of the material was unfortunately heavy on advertising, especially box cereal of course made by Kellogg.  With lots of sugar...  And it was rigged so that even if a person had eggs and bacon, toast and orange juice, they would not get as many points as the cereal eaters.  So I junked much of the stuff.  The posters were good--we could turn them over and use them for material on the walls.  I also kept the buttons and ribbons--what I was going to do with them hadn't yet crossed my mind. 

Some weeks later I was on playground duty--that time when some teacher had to walk around the playground making sure that fights broke up quickly and if someone got hurt to send them to the office.  It was also a good time to talk to children about things in general.  I'd watch the tether ball kids and sometimes the Four Square games but much of the time is was just a wander about watching the kids.  I also believe it gave a sense of continuity--perhaps a sense of comfortability to the kids.  There was the teacher watching out for them, now they could go ahead a play.

On one of my rounds I watch a child in my class do something nice--I can't remember what.  Maybe send a ball back into a game or help another kid get up from being knocked down.  Whatever it was it registered in my mind.  "Nice going there."  However either I was too far away or I didn't want to interfere but for some reason I just observed.

That afternoon after story time, I told the class I wanted to make a presentation to one of "us" and would David please come up to the front of the room.  David, not sure what was going on sorta slowly came up to the blackboards where I was.  I then made up something about how I saw David do something nice for someone else and I was hereby honoring him as Chicken of the Day.  And then we all applauded.  

[A digression:  Did you know that you have to teach kids how to applaud?  I actually had sessions with my fourth graders before we went to an assembly on how to properly applaud.  And we practiced applauding.  And then my kids at the assembly would tell other kids, "that's not how to applaud."  They were funny.  But you have to teach them.]

Anyway, David got his Chicken of the Day award and I explained that it was in humor but recognition never-the-less.  David went back to his seat pleased.  Of course from that moment on the kids in my class would do something for someone else nearby and then ask for a button. I said they had to do it without thinking and not for getting a button.  Grumble, grumble.  But they understood.

So about every two weeks or so I would see something that I wanted to award and would call up a kid in class and make them Chicken of the Day.  I think with that award they also got to go to the head of all lines...I forget.  I was sure they understood that being a "Chicken" in this case was something just for our class and that it had subtle humor--a chicken is a strange thing to be.   This award was promoting good behavior but also making the class more together.

How important this was to the class became apparent a little later on.  The teacher on playground duty came to me and said my kids had been fighting.  What! my kids fighting--no way.  But I promised to investigate.  So when I got to my classroom I asked, "what was going on?  Was anyone fighting?"  Nods of yes.  "Okay, raise your hand if you were involved in the fighting."  About half the class raised their hands.  I could not believe it--I had the best class in the school.....and they had been fighting?  

Well, it turns out some older fifth grader had seen the button and had asked what it was for and my kids responded that that person was "Chicken of the Day."  So the older student made fun of the button and that was all it took.  My kids leaped into the fray.  There were surely not going to let someone else make fun of "our Chickens."  So the class and I had a talk about how we might handle this the next time.  Maybe next time instead of fighting you could all just "cluck" back.  Now this hadn't cross their minds but now it seemed like a great opportunity.  I think for the next few days those that had won Chicken buttons walked around the playground looking for a confrontation so they could squawk back.  

I hadn't realized how much solidarity my class had and how much they appreciated the Chicken Buttons (some with ribbons).  A few parents told me their child was very pleased with the recognition.  By the end of the year, I made sure all students in the class "earned" a button.  

Remember the Seattle assistant superintendent that told me a  disadvantaged child is one that learns something at school that is not reinforced at home and learns something at home that is not reinforced at school.  Well, I was just reinforcing what my kids were learning at home in good behaviors. 

Maybe you could give one of your teachers a "Chicken of the Day" award.  Be sure to thank them for what they did for you. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Education associations....and reform

I note in the media (newspapers, television and on the web) that much is being said about the Washington, D.C., public school superintendent.  She wants to offer merit pay to teachers that will forego tenure and some reports say that those teachers will earn over $100,000 per year.  Perhaps.  You'll note that I'm not holding my breath.  School reformers always seem to want to do two things--provide merit pay to some teachers and to get rid of the teachers union.

Let's talk about merit pay first.  In the most simplistic form, merit pay is a financial award to those teachers who's students progress the most in selected learning, i.e., getting higher test scores.  How else are you going to measure teacher against teacher?  Well, you might measure teaching behavior.  In this case you have a principal sit in the room and watch the teacher and rate their teaching skills.  I taught in a school where the principal was required to rate the teachers from the top to the bottom except we didn't have a bad teacher in the school.  How can you do that task.  

Okay, so you get teachers from another school district to come and watch you teach.  For how long--an hour, half a day?  All day?  The flu hits your school and a third of your students are absent and the evaluating teachers come to visit.  How do you rank a school teacher under those conditions.  Or suddenly it is head lice in your class.  And you're going to evaluate my class today?

The problem is that we have some teachers who have eighteen children and others who might have thirty six children in their class.  Some classrooms have special needs children while other classrooms have minorities or new foreign students.  The classrooms are not equal.  So how do you measure the teacher.  

Some years ago a study was done in a suburban school district of Seattle.  They deliberately picked a fairly well to do district that had no poor schools and very little minorities.  Upper middle class.  The researchers then decided to pick teachers from another school district to come in and evaluate the teachers in their teaching behaviors.  They also looked at test scores.  No principals were involved nor was the superintendent's office.  The merit pay was something like four thousand dollars added to those that were picked to be the best.

Here are a few things that happened.  First off several of the teaching staff that were already considered top flight teachers in the district sent in their letters of termination.  Because they were good, they were hired by other districts who are always looking for good teachers.  Another factor noted by the research staff (not part of the school district) was that there were less interaction among the teachers in the school, in essence, "why should I share my ideas with my colleagues if they will get the pay off?"  It was noted that there were less teachers in the teacher's lunch room.  Students also noted in the schools that a change in atmosphere--school wasn't as much fun anymore which affected student learning.  Some teachers reported that they were less incline to try new ideas in the classroom in case evaluators were to drop in.  Lessons tended to stick to tried and true.  No innovations.  

Some teachers were awarded merit pay however the negative results in the schools were enough for the district to stop the research.  Parents complained that they did not like what was happening in their schools.  If I remember correctly the research was to go for five years but was discontinued after three years.

Sociology leadership research seems to show that there are different leaders in each school, some teachers are good at one subject while another might be good at a different subject.  By and large teachers tend to support each other and to suggest different approaches to different subjects.  They share ideas.  The teachers I know want children and young adults to learn.  I've never met a teacher that didn't want their students to learn.

The Washington, D.C. school superintendent says she is going to fire inefficient teachers and reward those whose students score well.  Perhaps some of those so-called inefficient teachers have tough classes and they are let go.  So now those students that are hard to manage are now in those classrooms of the merit teachers.  Will they continue to do well with larger classes and harder students to manage.  I doubt it myself.

There was a time when the United States had one of the best educational systems in the world. Parents moved here so their child could go to our public schools.  Not anymore.  We have slid backwards.  We need more teachers and we need better school buildings.  We have good teachers but they have been placed in unattainable situations by having to teach to a test and not teach what a child needs.  There is a saying among educators that if Rip Van Winkle were to wake up after a hundred years sleep the one thing he would recognize is the school house for in all probability it hadn't changed one bit.  Merit pay?  Not on my watch.