Saturday, May 30, 2009

Strange problems that teachers face

There are times when problems arise in a class that the college of education   have not prepared you for.  What should a teacher do when a kid gets sick in class--all over his desk!  Or the parent that comes mid morning to take his boy for a haircut.  Really.  Little problems like this are just not discussed in college classes on how to teach.  Behavior problems, yes, we do a good job of behavior modification training and we can teach reading to just about anyone.  But sometimes you get a problem that just wasn't in the books.

I had a fifth grade--a really nice bunch of kids.  Pretty evenly divided between boys and girls.  That's always nice as it seems to keep the goofiness index low.  I had my room arranged with the individual student's desk in rows but we did move them around.  I found that I would change the desk arrangements about every six weeks.  It seemed to help the kids from getting into cliques or groups that would then exclude someone.  I wanted a friendly class.  Sometimes I would put the desks into groups of four or five.  Interestingly enough I found this to assist the kids to help each other and learning increased.

But as I said, at the moment I had the desks and chairs in rows by and large.  I always kept my desk in the back of the room--hardly every used it but it was a good place to send a kid who was behaving poorly to do his/her school work at my desk.  In the parlance of today's kids, "it was cool to work at Mr. Blackwell's desk."

I remember walking into my class one morning before school started and walking around.  I always like to have ten minutes or so just to look at my classroom and get a feel for it.  Sometimes I'd see a desk that needed cleaning (inside) or someone had left a lunch pail somewheres and I would want to remind that student to take it home.  However on this morning as I walked around I seem to smell an oder  that didn't see quite right.  I sniffed here and there but couldn't quite put my finger....or nose on it.

But life goes on in a classroom and we got through the day.  The next morning I went through my usual procedure and going around the room and still I smelled something not quite right.  I remember opening the coat closet doors and sniffing in there.  There were always an extra jacket or two.  One day I remembered a dress hanging in there as well.  How and why?  I have no idea.  The dress was probably to be taken home from one girl's house to another.   Best for me not to go there.

The next day the smell was a bit stronger.  I remember asking the janitor if he was using a new cleaning agent but he said he wasn't.  However, he hadn't noticed anything yet.  He keep his eyes open or nose.......

On Friday of that week the problem was getting to me.  I could smell something but I could not place it.  So doing the day when we were between this subject and that, I told the class that we were going to clean out our desks.  Always an exciting time for the kids and too much noise for me.  Some of the boys would actually pick up their desks and dump the contents onto the floor.  But most students just took everything out and placed it on the top of the desks.  I had rags available for them to wipe out their desks and then they could put back things in some sort of neatness however they would like.  It was always amazing what the kids would find in their desks.  Always a permission slip that was suppose to be turned it weeks earlier, lunch bags that were never taken  home, someone else's textbook that had been missing and of course at least four or five overdue library books.  

As I walked around the room guiding the kids and looking at what they were doing, I noticed one boy who had four milk cartons that he appeared to be saving.  As I got closer to his desk the smell was stronger.  Aha! I had found the source of the strange smell.  It was in Samuel's desk.  Now Samuel was a good student--very bright and somewhat popular.  Not athletic and he didn't run around with any one peer.  But the kids liked him and he was a happy kid.  I enjoyed having him in class and he was always asking interesting questions.  I suspect he would have won the award for being sent to the encyclopedia  the most to look something up--he enjoyed that activity.

So I asked Samuel--"What are those milk cartons for?"  "Oh, Mr. Blackwell, this is my wormatorium.  I am growing worms."  And then he proceeded to tell me how many worms he had and where he had gotten them.  He also mentioned that they didn't need sunlight so it was good to keep them in his desk.  But as I leaned closer to his "wormatorium" I recognize the smell--old milk.  Only milk can make that smell.  Ugh!  He had not rinsed his lunch milk cartons out before putting in some dirt from the playground and finding some worms to keep him company.

I found Samuel a brown bag and had him take home his wormatorium with the promise that I would ask him to tell the class how things went.  That suited him well and he remained happy.  And the room had a much better.....and normal smell to it after that. 

If you had a happy classroom and the room smelled nice when you were growing up, be sure to thank a teacher for taking time to make sure that happened for you.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Teacher's innovation

I've been reading a lot about autism lately.  What a challenging problem for parents...and for teaches.  How do we teach these children?  Before World War II, most challenged children were kept at home.  If the parents were financially secure, they could hire a private teacher or tutor.  But the lower the economic level of the family the less likely that would happen.

After World War II,  a division of the public schools elected to take on the challenge of dealing with children with different learning and behavior styles. This division is now called "Special Education."   Note that I did not write that these were mentally challenged children, rather they have a style of learning for which we have yet to gain some knowledge.  Before anyone writes me to challenge my knowledge of such children (which indeed is limited and I admit that fact) let me state that one of my family is....different.  But let me also state that she is a lovely lady and is smart in her own way.  She has taught me much over the years and I love her dearly.  She knows that she is different from others but she refuses to let that bother her or change her course of direction in life.  She gets up each day and looks forward to helping and taking care of others.  She has increased my knowledge of what is "smartness."

However my main focus today was to write about a special education teacher I met one time in a local high school.  Although I had some student teachers in the school at that time, I became aware of a special education teacher who was using technology to help his children learn.  I asked if I could watch and he agreed.

Robert Gibbs (not real names as usual) had a special education class of about eight or nine students of high school age but of primary grade aptitude.  The kids also had some behavior problems as well.  It must have been a challenging class for Robert.  But he was an innovating teacher and managed to use an early Radio Shack computer to help him with his students.

One objective for these students was number recognition.  They weren't ready to add or subtract yet--merely knowing that the number was a "1" or an "8" was what Robert wanted his kids to achieve.  So Robert on his own learned "Basic", a early programming language for the computer.  He spent nights practicing on a computer at home and soon developed a simple program that was perfect for his use.

He would sit one of his students at the computer and load the program.  The program's first activity was to ask what was the student's name using a speaking program that was available at that time.  Robert's student would type in their name and the program would say to them, "Welcome Tom" or Jim or whoever it might be in the class.  Robert said that his students were so delighted with the computer saying their name that they wanted to go back and back and back......  Robert rewrote the program so that the students could hear it over and over and Robert reported to me that he became slightly dazed after hearing "Welcome Tom" over a hundred times one morning.  So he added ear phones for his own sanity.  Smart teacher...

Once the student got by the name recognition segment, the program would place numbers between zero and nine on the screen in different locations. Then the program would ask "Tom" where is the number "six?"  Tom was suppose to place the curser on the number six and click return.  Then the computer would redo the screen with new numbers and ask for the curser to be placed on a new number.  If Tom did not select "six" the program would say, "No, find six."  It would continue this answer until Tom would eventually find six.

However Robert's students quickly realized that if they did everything right, the program would end but if they made mistakes the program would continue.  So I watched Tom place his curser on every number on the screen except the one requested until there were none left for him to pick except the correct number.  They he would look up at me and smile a big smile.  He had learned his number recognition and a little bit more.

Robert told me that he wasn't upset with this behavior that indeed the deliberate picking of the wrong numbers was actually good practice for his students.  It was like, "I am fooling this computer."  

Robert's computer program on number recognition was one of the more innovating ways of teaching special education children that I saw.  However, it was the beginning of my notion that the interaction between students (no matter what their age) and the computer had a decidedly valuable contribution to education.  The kids of today navigating the web are light years ahead of children who grew up in the fifties, sixties and seventies.  (Hi Moms and Dads of that era.  Makes you feel old, doesn't it?)  Like Louis Armstrong sang in his popular song, "It's a Small, Small World," the children of today know more then we did back then.  And that's good.

If you know how, why not write an e-mail thanking a teacher for all they do....  Or get your child to help you..

Monday, May 18, 2009

The mathematics debate continues

There is an advantage to being old(er).  In this case I have seen this math argument several times during my teaching career.  Back in the seventies, there was the push in my school district to use something called SMSG Mathematics.  It had rods, and lesson plans that were designed to help students "discover" the relationships between numbers.  SMSG stood for "School Mathematics Study Group" although many of us called it "Some math, some garbage."   I am amused to see that some of the SMSG learning materials on now housed at the archives of American Mathematics at the University of Texas.  Now that does make me feel old.  Some of my students really liked it--others sort of blew it off.

I note in my local newspaper (The Bellingham Herald. 5/18/09)an article that reports that the local school district has been using a sub-standard mathematics in the schools.  I'm not sure what sub-standard means as it was not fully explained in the article.  I suspect the school district will return to the more direct and rote method of instructions in mathematics.  I have mixed emotions however.  I suspect somewhere in the research and other articles that students in other lands are scoring higher then our children in mathematics.  It is a pretty standard commentary that is made from time to time.

The problem that I see is that, at least in my local town, we were teaching the children how to discover mathematics and then we test for straight learning of numbers.  You teach the children to do one thing but you test for another.  And then you get upset because the kids don't do well on your test.  

I want to digress for a moment.  I taught for thirty two years at my field of study and research was Instructional Technology.  Basically it was how to use technology in the teaching/learning situations.  This was at a time when computers were just coming into prominence in education.  

I had students of all types who were interested on how to use computers in teaching....both undergraduate students and graduate students wanted to know more about how to use computers.  Not only did I have both undergraduates and graduates in class, I also had students from foreign countries.....India, Canada, Lithuania, and Indonesia and a few countries I have forgotten.  Let me say at the onset that Canada has an excellent educational system.  They train their teachers well.  And those teachers do a good job.  In some areas they do a better job of teaching then we do in the United States....but then I think we do better in a few areas as well.  It's a mixed bag.   

But excluding Canada, it is my opinion that the foreign students that I had were very bright, intelligent and wonderful people but they did not work well on problem solving.  If I gave an assignment, they wanted to know each step of the way.  I did more "hand holding" with foreign students then with American students.  The American student was able to think through the steps to the solution of the assignment and carry them out.  Most of my foreign students could not.

For one class I wanted students to make color lift transparencies for use in teaching a class.  I had several Indian grad students who wanted to know what they were going to teach, which overhead transparencies they would need and how to start.  I remember telling them to pick something they would be teaching and this left them in a quandry.  Their ability to imagine themselves teaching a subject was very difficult.

My Indonesian students were even more of a problem to teach.  They were so use to working in a group that they could not study a subject and bring a report to class to share with the others.  They had to do it all together.  Now I am not unhappy with my Indonesian students--it was a cultural style of learning an I had to adjust my assignments so they could work together.  Margaret Mead, the great sociologist and anthropologist would have loved to study this differences.

My Indian students were very, very bright.  They could memorize entire pages of information.  With multiple choice and fill in the blanks, they would beat the American students time after time.  But when I asked on a test of how they would use something in an educational setting, they couldn't do it.  

Returning to my original theme, American students are much better at analyzing the situation, deciding upon some action and then completing the task.  Many foreign students are not up to this type of learning.

So when we compare our American students in mathematics with foreign students one has to know what the test are testing.  Rote knowledge or problem solving?   It is my gut feeling that our students can hold their own quite well in Mathematics.....they might not score well, but they will understand what the goal is and how to get there.

The mathematical argument goes on.  If your checkbook is close to coming out correct, be sure to thank your math teacher in your prayers. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Mathematics conundrum...

As I write the Seattle School Board is debating on how they will address mathematics in their schools for the coming year.  The television news have reported on it and I suspect if I check we would find that the newspaper and the blogs have also made comments as to what is happening.  But before you think you are on top of all this, let me explain that this problem of how to present mathematics to our students has been around since slightly after world war II.  And we still haven't solved the issue.

I hope you remembered my simplistic explanation of the three philosophies of education some blogs back, the one involving circles.  Let me explain the math problem from that point of view.  There are two basic methods in teaching mathematic.  One is from top down--the idealistic method.  You start by explaining what numbers are and how to manipulate those numbers.  You work from the simple to the complex, from adding of small numbers to the big bang theory and quantum physics.  It is primarily a rote method of instruction. 

The other method (note that I did not say the second method as that might imply the 1st being better then the 2nd--see how numbers can be viewed?) is the realistic method of teaching where the students have a problem to solve and use numbers in a way to "discover" or "own" the solution to the problem.  They may actually use something else besides the numbering system we now use but in essence they then understanding "numbers" as well as the solution to their problem.  

So what we have then is the "rote" method vs. the "ownership" method.  Which is best?  In spite of studying the mathematics curriculum problem for most of forty years, I still haven't the foggiest idea which method is right.  And if you think "politics" or "religion" are super sensitive subjects, try asking the Mathematics Department at your university as to which is best and watch the fur fly.  A hot question to ask any math prof is...."How much mathematics does a K-12 teacher need to know to be able to teach?"  And....."how should they teach mathematics?"  This is one of the more perplexing problems of the educational system.

I have a sense after teaching all these years that the answer to this question of learning mathematics is in our genes.  Some children seem to understand the abstraction of numbers and enjoy manipulating them.  Other children see no fascination in arithmetic and are bored with the subject.  It seems to last throughout one's lifetime.  But I have no proof (pun intended).  

I wonder what the Seattle School Board decided?  [blogger's update]  Seattle decided last night to forego the discovery approach to mathematics and by a 4 to 3 vote picked a more top down approach.  Many reasons for the change, many people unhappy.  You can read Seattle P.I. article about it at:  [May 7, 2009]

Do you know how to count and make change?  Remember to thank a teacher for that skill.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

A mixed bag of thinking...

There is so much happening in education that I'm somewhat confused as to where I should begin.  The absolutely sad news is that so many of our state teachers have been given either pink slips meaning they will not be hired again next year or letters indicating that there is a strong possibility that they will not be rehired.  

Amidst all this downturn, the New York Times has an article detailing news about the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal test designed to check long range progress of mathematics and reading achievement of our kids.  They report pretty much that it has been flat with little progress for a number of years.  Yes, you guess it--there are those after reading the results of this testing suggest strongly that we need educational reform.  You know what?  Maybe we don't need reform but rather we need to de-clutter our educational system.  Throw out all sorts of curricula that is out dated.  Maybe like a good Bonsai artist, we need some pruning of the curriculum.  Just an idea.

Another idea is to sit down and define some terms.  What do we mean by "science?"  Is science a subject or a way of thinking.  There are those who say we need more science....and I suspect they mean more chemistry, more biology, more botony, more astronomy, etc.  They are enamored with the subjects.  But science can be a way of thinking too.

Okay, for those parents and a few teachers that are willing to try some science--here is a project for you.  You will need an old turntable (for those who are young, it is a device to play 33 and a 3rd records (records were a way to play music.....)).  The turntable doesn't need the arm if yours is broken.  You'll need some playclay, three grow pots, six inch size will do and some string bean seeds.  Plant the seeds in the pots, water them and let them sit in the sun.  After a day or two, place the pots on the turntable with the playclay holding the pots on.  With me so far?  Put the turntable on a table near a sunny window and each day turn the turntable on and forget about it until evening.  Water the pots every so often to keep a damp soil.  If you have intermediate or upper grade level children, they should do all this work.

Then sit back a watch.  And ask questions--that is what science is all about.  Asking questions.  Will the seeds germinate?  If so, will they grow straight up?  Will they be twisted?  Have your kids write down their predictions--you too.  Be an example.  Write on a tablet what you think the string bean plants will do if they are moving around on the turn table.   In about three months, maybe sooner, you'll have your answer.  Write to me and tell me what happened.  

This is science.  I did this experiment in a fifth grade class.  Every student had to write and predict what they thought would happen.  When we had some results of what the plants were doing I asked why this phenomenon was happening.  We had more discussions in class about this then I needed.  I had parents come visit to see what was going on.  A few duplicated the experiment at home.  This was science, a way of thinking and trying out our thoughts.  And it was fun.  The best part was that the kids in my class "owned" their learning from this.  Then when I read to them about Galileo and his telescopes, they saw the similarities of what they were doing and what he was doing.

So don't forget, tell me how your experiment turned out.

Mathematics is another long term problem in education.  The lower grades do well but as we approach middle school and secondary school our math instruction seems to get stuck in the mud.  College and university math professors have been telling K-12 teachers what they should be teaching for some time with mixed results.  This kaleidoscope of suggestions has resulted with much confusion both of teaching and of objectives.  I don't have an answer--but we teachers are trying to do right by the mathematics goals.  Who should say what our kids ought to learn?  The mathematics scholars?  Industry?  The parents?  Maybe it's time for teachers to step in and make some suggestions.

We'll continue this discussion in the coming weeks.  Meanwhile be sure you thank a teacher for helping you learn about numbers.