Sunday, June 28, 2009

It takes a community to have a good school

First, my apologies. I took a small holiday and hoped that I could continue my blogging on the road as I went--but time and the use of an old fashion modem dictated other activities. My oh my is a modem slow when you've been using cable. Probably should have tried to find a Wifi spot every now and then.

But back to teachers and teaching. I've meet some wonderful teachers in my travels--many of them happy to take a summer breather from classroom duties. I met one teacher still going back to her classroom.....she told me that she was getting things ready for "next year" organizing the textbooks, designing and planning new bulletin boards and sorting and throwing out stuff. Not on the payroll for the summer but still she was working away to get her room ready for the next "batch of kids." I love teachers--they are a work of art.

The sad news is that many beginning teachers in the state are getting pink slips indicating they have no job next fall. Cut backs in budgets impose such happenings. I worry about them. Idealistic and excited to have done their first year with success, now they have to find another position. This will be tough.

But during the past few weeks, U.S. News and World Reports listed the top 100 high schools in the United States. I'm fascinated by this. How do you go about deciding which criteria is the most valuable. What makes a good high school? Many of the chosen schools were private--I'm not surprised. And a few I recognize from previous year's listings.

What I don't find as a surprise is that five of the top high schools in the State of Washington are from one school district. Bellevue. No other high schools in the state made the top 100 list. You wonder why. What is one school district doing to achieve this honor? What do their teachers do that other district teachers are not doing?

I have watched Bellevue grow from a small community to a major urban city in this state. It has always had the attitude that "we're good and going to get better." The citizens of the area have always wanted the best and schools were included in that arena. I can attest that I have been in many of their schools and everyone is well run. Their teachers are all excellent teachers who want to teach.

There was a time some years back when I was the president of a neighboring education association--a branch of the Washington Education Association. The presidents of the different educational association in the county would get together once a month to exchange ideas, have legislators speak and figure out ways to improve things for teachers. I became good friends with the president of the Bellevue Education Association and Boyd and I are still good friends after all these years. I saw him recently at the age of 85 and he is still passionate about teaching. I remember at one meeting where the majority of the local association presidents were wonder how to get pay raises for our districts and Boyd was asking "how can we improve our schools?" It was the way Bellevue was. They wanted to be the best. And have the best for their kids.

Over the years parents have continued to vote extra school bonds so that new programs could be started. Music and art were always a mainstay of the curriculum on the grounds that children who had music and art did better in other subjects. It appears they were correct in their thinking. Money does buy quality and that is what Bellevue schools have--quality. I'm tired of listening to politicians who want to reform our public schools but do not want to add taxes to pay for the reformatting of the schools. Bellevue doesn't need reformatting--it just continues to improve bit by bit, child by child. The goal is always for the better.

I would also like to add that Bellevue has also kept its school buildings in good shape. The environment in which children learn is important--it adds to the montage of learning. It is the framework in which learning takes place. It appears that the better the physical plant the better the overall learning that can be accomplished. Bellevue has done well with its schools and it shows. Well designed and well landscaped, they are all inviting to the learning community.

An interesting aside. I started my teaching career back in the fifties and in Rye, New York. Rye high school also made the list again this year of being one of the best 100 hundred high school lis. t Rye is another community that takes education seriously and they fund their school districts so that their schools are among the best in the nation. Before I could get into the school of education at my university I had to do a two week intro observation in a school during the fall opening. I applied at Rye High School and they were generous in letting me observe. This was in the early 1950s and this high school already had a reputation of being one of the best.

I remember going to the principals office to introduce myself and the principal made me feel quite welcomed. She also asked if I minded doing a task while I was there observing the classroom. It appears they had a young girl who could not attend classes but was bed ridden at home. However, the district had set up a microphone and speakers in her bedroom and had wired the high school with plug ins. I was to carry a small speaker around and plug Ann in in the classes she would be taking. Although I did not meet Ann in person we quickly became good friends. I would pick up the speaker in the office, first plugging her in and checking to see if she was "on." She always was. For a person who was handicapped she had a very cheerful manner and I enjoyed talking to her. Then off to a classroom where I would plug in the speaker in the front of the room and then check to see if she could hear me. If I heard her reply we knew the system was working both ways. Then I would go to back of the room to observe.

Most of the teachers if I remember correctly would welcome Ann and she would say hi to the class as well. Then teaching and learning would commence. If it was a discussion that was to take place in class the high school kids would raise their hand to enter the discussion. Every so often there would be an "ahem" and the kids would say, let Ann say something. She was always right on--very smart. As I mentioned I did this for two weeks and was truly sorry to have to leave Ann to others when I left.

This was back in the early fifties and this high school was already making adjustments to its student population. Rye high school will always be one of the best.

The question really ought to be...."why don't other communities in this state have high schools that rank in the top 100 list. I'm not sure why. You have to have a upper class majority that is willing to vote extra taxes beyond what the state allocates to the schools. Some districts just can't do that sort of thing. I know several school districts that are comprised of mostly farms and the farmers are barely holding on to their life styles as it is. Raising taxes in that sort of district just can't be done. The state is hard pressed in its budget. I really don't know the answer however, the problem exists.

But in any event, Bellevue deserves our applause. They know how to run top flight high schools for their children. Interesting.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Let's talk some education philosophy...

Philosophy!  Thinking, thought and reasoning.  Well, maybe thinking is present and thought is past but you get the idea.  For some philosophy is what you believe.  In the last few years the term "core values" has come to mean someone's philosophy.  I like the term for it has given me much enjoyment of thinking what might not be a core value.  Do we have level of values?  

I'm not a great philosopher but I do derive great satisfaction of thinking about things, especially education.  How do we learn?  I've basically have reduced that thinking into three ways:  Expository, Performance and Investigative.  And I think we do these learning styles from the moment we are born.  When do we learn?  All the time.  Nonstop.  And yes, I do believe us old timers keep on learning too.  I don't believe in the old dog can't learn stuff.  

One of the first courses we have college of education students take when they declare that education is their major is Philosophy of Education, sometimes called Foundations of Education.  Great course--fun to teach but we teach it at the wrong end.  It ought to be the last course in getting one's teaching certificate.   After all is said and done we ought to ask the education student "what do you now believe about education?"  This after taking all the courses we mandate and after they have done so many hours of volunteering in the schools and after they have successfully finished their student teaching or internship whatever it is called now.

But better yet, maybe we ought to ask teachers after they have taught for at least five years what do you now believe education is all about.  And we college of education professors probably ought to listen "real good." We might learn something.  No, I know we would learn something.  I've learned much from teachers even when I wasn't in their classes.

As an aside, did you know that if a beginning teacher makes it through their third year the probability rises that they will become a career teacher.  Research shows that the first year for a beginning teacher is the most tense.  Figures.  They see their colleagues relaxed and getting kids to learn and they are up the walls with trying to get it all done.  It's normal.  The second year is the sickest (of the early years).  The moment a beginning teacher starts to relax, they catch just about every bug the kids bring to school.....every cold, flue, rash  and yes, lice. Ugh.

The third year is the hardest.   Now the new teacher is finally beginning to figure out what she/he wants to do, what the children/young adults need to learn.  But this is also the moment the young teacher begins to analyze their actions.  And they ask the question, "do I really want to be a teacher?"  As I've mentioned, if they make it past the third year, they are probably going to be a career teacher.  

Actually the next dangerous time for teachers remaining on the job is somewhere between the twelfth and sixteenth year.  The research is clear on this.  Why so?  Look at it this way, you are a teacher and you've been teaching the same class or level for the past number of years.  No one supervisors you--you in the classroom with the kids teaching the same subjects each year.  It doesn't matter if you're a grade school, middle school or high school teacher--it has become a grind.  But here is also a contributing factor.  You've gotten cost of living increases, perhaps a pay scale bump (but you still bring home a small paycheck as compared with your neighbors).  Now listen to this:  You've never been given a promotion! No change in title--you're a teacher.  Some in the high school may become a department head but all that means is that you have some administrative work and in many cases, everyone takes turns being the chairman of the department.  And so the experienced teacher begins to ask themselves, "Is this all that is?"  "Twenty more years of this?"  The research appears to suggest that this is a time for some depression.  I think school districts need to be aware of this and do some in house activities that pat the teachers on the back in some manner.  

So back to philosophy....   What do I believe?  It has taken me over fifty years to come to this meager bit of thinking.  I think the first question one needs to ask oneself is "Are we humans a social animal or individual persons?"  "Do we do better in a group or by ourselves?"  Any variation on this theme is a good start for someone's thinking.  I happen to have decided  that we are happier in groups, we survive in numbers--we are a social animal.  If we were strictly an individual, we wouldn't need schools or hospitals or......  

Now what motivates us humans?  I have wrestled a long time with this question.  My answer is "anticipation."  We anticipate growing up, completing school, climbing a mountain, driving somewhere.  We can see it in our mind.  We see ourselves as happy or successful or powerful or loved.  Anticipation is the driving force behind our activities.

But we're also an active being.  We're not an organism that can sit for long.  We have to be doing something.  Perhaps that is why art and music are so popular--it occupies the mind.  But the mind at rest is a rare thing even when we sleep.  

Keeping to this theme, we humans are active and we choose to go to the more complex.  Given a choice of something simple to more complex, we tend to choose the complex task, job, or activity.  Complexity stimulates the mind which is active.  With me so far.

One of my more perplexing thoughts is about right and wrong.  I haven't solved this question yet.  You can advise me if you wish.  I've been told this is the right way to teach spelling and I find some kids learn a different way.  I'm also told we need to teach something that I find is out of date, not needed, old fashioned.  What is right?  

Most teachers have answered questions similar to the ones I've raised.  Dealing with kids makes you think.  Perhaps that is why teachers love their job....they are forced to think each day as to what they need to do to help students.  It isn't just "expositorying" information or giving tests to measure whatever.  It is thinking in your own mind what can I do to assist, help, encourage this unique student who needs my help, drives me crazy, hasn't heard me in weeks, whom I love.......  That is a teacher's philosophy.

Did a teacher help you when you were growing up?  How about thanking an experienced teacher this coming week.  My best to you.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Becoming a Teacher

"How did you decide to become a teacher?"  I asked this question for many years of my students and of the experienced teachers that I had contact with.  One of the more prevalent answers was because "I had this exceptionally (good or bad) teacher in school."  Students grade teachers as much as teachers grade students.  I can remember in my high school days having both an  outstanding (for me) teacher and a teacher that was just this side of terrible.  Strangely enough the terrible teacher was very popular with most of my high school peers.  I guess I just didn't fit in with his teaching styles. 

So based on those meager experiences I thought to myself that given what I had seen of teachers I could become one.  I liked people.  The pay was low but it was steady.  All I had to do was get into college and learn how to teach.  No sweat.  No problem.  Remembering all this makes me embarrassed today.  How arrogant I was in my youth.  I suppose idealistic in my thinking.

But that same answer was given to me by scores of entering education students at my university.  "I wanted to be like my fourth grade teacher" or "my high school coach really turned me around" or "I had this horrible civic teacher and I knew I could do better."

For me my arrogance or idealism was brought to reality the summer of my sophomore year in college.  I returned home to the New York suburbs to be with my folks.  And of course I looked for a summer job to help with the finances.  I remember applying to the local city recreation department but was turned down. They had a full slate of playground supervisors.  "But we can use some volunteers during the summer."  I signed up.

It was a day or two later that phone rang and a lady asked if I would be will to accompany some children to the Bronx zoo the next day.  Yes, of course. I'd be delighted.

We met at the recreation headquarters and the adults that were volunteering were introduced--there were a number of us.  And a number of busses and hordes  of over excited kids. We loaded the busses and headed for the Bronx zoo.  Upon arriving, each adult was given about ten children and told be back at the busses by a certain time.  That was it.  And off I went with my ten kids.

They were good kids and excited.  Age ranged from about seven to maybe thirteen.  I got all boys.  I found out later that if you got half boys and half girls in your group you had an easier time of it.....but what was I to know.  All I remember is that we started out and keeping the kids in a group was my main challenge.  Also finding the rest rooms was important.  It seemed that everyone in my group was on a different schedule for this activity.  But we scampered from this exhibition to the next....  The kids and I were having a good time.

At noon I found a grassy area and we had our lunch and then back to seeing EVERYTHING!  By early afternoon, some of my little kids, the seven year olds were getting tired.  So I picked the first one up and put him on my shoulders....and on we went.   Soon I put him down and picked up the next small child.  

Somewhere along our meanderings we saw a child crying--I remember one of the bigger kids recognized him as being with our busses.  He was lost and I said, not to worry, come with us.  Shortly afterwards another lost one was spotted and told to get into line. My kids from the original group were somewhat smug that we hadn't lost anyone.....yet.  Soon after we spotted another crying and lost child from our recreation tour group.  "Come along, you belong to us now."  And I was getting tired--really beat.  Hauling a kid on your shoulders for much of the afternoon was tiring.  But it also gave my group a way of always knowing where I was--just look into the crowd and see someone on someone's shoulders--that would be our group.

I do think we visited just about every exhibit at the zoo.....and just about every rest room.  I was concerned as we headed back to the bus area.  The kids were dragging their tail ends and had slowed down considerably.  I was dragging as well but concerned that we would make the busses late.  

Around the corner and into the bus area.  There were our busses and there was a bunch of concerned adults.  It turns out that I had the answer to their concern--the missing three kids.  Everybody was happy.  And I felt good.  I had successfully herded ten plus kids around a zoo and no one got hurt or lost.  And I was  bushed.  

The next day there was a phone call from the recreation office.  Would I please come down and fill out some papers.  They had a job for me.  I was to be the recreation supervisor (with an assistant) for a city playground.  Cool.

But I instinctively knew that teaching would not be as easy as I first thought.  I had good success with the playground and I gained much confidence.  I learned that I didn't have to know everything but respecting the kids was important.  I could see in myself the growth of understanding that first summer working with the kids on the playground.  And I could see the same growth of understanding in my student teachers as they began their career in teaching.

Teaching is a complex and demanding profession that is not meant for everyone.  Most teachers could do other jobs and a few do leave the teaching profession (more about this in another blog).  But most HAVE to teach.  Low pay and long hours does not deter those that need to be a teacher.  

[A sidebar]  Recently on local and national news a high school student from the east side of the Lake Washington was given the assignment to find and look at different types of human cells.  This high school girl had been quite ill, hurting at times.  She obtained cells from her intestines  from her doctor and while looking at the slides discovered the cause of her illness which the medical labs had not seen.  She is well now and plans to become a medical doctor--thanks to her science teacher.

I'm glad I went into teaching and I thank all those kids who taught me much at the Bronx zoo that one day long ago.  Don't forget to thank a teacher for helping  you.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

$125,000 salary for some teachers

It has been in the news, on the web and on television--a report about eight teachers being selected to teach at a charter school in New York.  They were selected from all over the country and will be paid $125,000 dollars per year.

Two of you have written and asked that I comment about this story.  I have several thoughts that have been raging through my mind in the last few days.  Let's first look at the obvious.  These teachers can't fail.  They are all good.....already.  A puzzlement in my mind is why did the CEO of this project go all over the country.  I suspect one could find just as good teachers in the New York area.   But that is the theme of this blog--that teachers in general are pretty terrific people.  Most could do many other jobs but prefer to teach.

Here is something else to consider.  These selected teachers will be teaching at a charter schools.  Charter schools are ones that get a little extra attention.  The administration will talk up their charter schools--like souping up a car or giving a restaurant four stars.  What does this do then?  Parents hear about this and want their children to go to that school.  Right there we have a variable that is important for success--parental involvement. Any time you can get the parents to come to your school, interact with the teacher, even help out in the classroom, then you will have a successful school.  Consider private secular schools that charge large tuitions.  Already you have de-selected your students.  You have students who already know that they will be successful.  I suspect that is why so many parents want to place their children in a private school if they can afford it.  Bill Gates and Paul Allen graduated from private schools.

I'm not knocking private schools--most are very very good.  And they have great teachers. What they don't have are students with single parents and students who come from a stressful environment.  What they do have is a homogenous student body.....that thinks alike.  I saw this in Norway schools--very few minorities.  And the parents were involved with the school.

I do give this project higher scores in one area.  They will hold a raffle to see what students will be admitted.  But given the fact that the parents will have had to fill out forms and submit them to the project already means a certain type of parent.  I see success written all over this school already. 

Also given the fact that this is a charter school with well paid teachers I suspect there are some other factors coming into play.  I suspect they will have enough textbooks for everyone, enough desks (and the proper size) for each child, and that the physical plant, the school building itself will be in good shape.  But I wonder--will they have blackboards or white boards or the new technology, Smart Boards (  I also figure they will have enough computers for all the children.  Why pay large salaries for a number of teachers and not give them the necessary tools to accomplish the task.  So it is not just large salaries that will make a difference--but it will promote a better environment for learning.

I do have another concern however.  The articles reporting about these teachers do not mention other teachers--how are they going to be paid?  Studies have been done in which a few teachers were paid a larger salary and interaction between the better paid and the lower paid teachers decreased.  If I were one of the lower paid and wanted to get a pay raise why would I share my ideas of teaching the kids with other teachers?  It just doesn't compute in my mind.
If I were a principal today, I would want my faculty to be a team--not individual stars.  

So I am delighted to see eight teachers getting a decent salary.  I wish we could do that for all the teachers in this country.  But I hope at the end of the first year we try to compare this charter school against other schools in the area.  We will be comparing apples and lemons...and you can't do that.

If you've read all this and are pondering what your education might have been with higher paid teachers, be sure to thank a teacher because you are doing the thinking that they wanted you to do.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Television and learning

I don't know what most teachers think about television--I suspect that they resemble much of this country and have mixed emotions about the so-called boob tube.  I happened to grow up with this new medium so that it and I seem comfortable with each other.  When I see something that I am not interested in I either switch channels or turn it off.  In recent years I have become quite happy with the ability to set up my computer or my television to record programs that I can view at a latter date.  Cool!

But I read on the web and in some newspapers that there are those who are concerned about the use of television and children's learning.  Some researchers suggest that it retards the learning of children's speech--some authors even suggest that no television will improve SAT scores.  I can hear a number of parents applauding now across this continent.   However I suspect even in those homes of cheering parents one would find at least one if not more television sets.  It is a medium that is hard to ignore.

I once had a graduate assistant who said in a class one day that her family did not have a television.  Here she was in an instructional technology course learning about media and she did not have a television set.  Amazing!  On closer questioning from me she did admit that her family (husband, wife and two kids of school age) did have a television but it was under the bed that she and her husband used.  So I asked, is it then just stored there?  "Oh no, it is hooked up and useable but it is kept under the bed."  Not sure where this was going I asked if her husband watched football on the television?  "Yes, on Sunday's he watches the Seahawks."  So I asked, do you bring it out and set it up in the room somewhere?  "No, he lies on the floor and watches the game."  "In fact when ever someone needs to watch something, they turn on the tv and lie on the floor watching under our bed."  To this day I'm not sure I understand their use of the television in their family.

Still, the TV is a part of our society.  I'm always fascinated with the public television and its relationship to the children.  From Kermit the Frog to reruns of being Welcomed to my neighborhood children have learned.  But someone has to make sure those channels are on and that the children have to watch.  Actually, they have to learn to watch......

Let me switch subjects just for a moment.  How do children learned to read?  Optimally, Mom or Dad sits down with their child and says let me read you a story and then proceeds to read a simple story to their child pointing out the pictures and turning the page.  "Turning the Page!"  That is how children learn to use a book.  Then we read them another book and pretty soon they begin to see a relationship between those strange markings on the bottom of the page and what the parent is saying.  And as they become familiar with the story the child may ask to please read the story again.  There isn't a parent today that hasn't been bored with a child's beloved story being read to them for the nth time.  Indeed, some parents have reported changing the story and having their child say, "No, that is not what you read last night!"  "Read it like you did before."  Oh Happy Days.

But how many of you parents have helped your children to "learn" television.  How to watch and how to listen.  Very few I suspect.  In the early seventies, I found some parents who would work with me and their children.  I'd have them put in a tape (before DVDs), then tell the child what the tape was about (mostly Disney's short films).  Getting a sense of what is to come is important to children's learning, sorta like setting goals.  Then the parent and the child watch....together.  In fact the parent needs to say things like, "that is funny" or "Oh no, he's going to be caught."  Reacting to the TV is good.

After the tape or DVD is over, the parent needs to ask questions like--"who was your favorite person, animal, whatever, in the show?" " What was the best part?"  "Did you know what was going to happen?"  Questions like this help the child learn to interpret the television signal much like learning to decipher those strange marks on a page of a book.  

Now a warning to parents who do this with their children.  Those kids will want to watch that show over and over.  And they will want to tell you what is coming in the next scene.  Boredom city for the parent but a delight for a child.  They even begin to memorize the lines in the movie.  Which indeed is learning to speak in longer sentences as they grow older.  It is a learning situation.

Parents can't always watch with their children.  But after initial watching of some shows, parents can set up a movie and then proceed to get dinner ready, e-mails answered and so on.  When the child is finished with the tape, Mom or Dad need to sit down for a short moment and ask, "what was the show about?  "Did it have good parts that you enjoyed?"  "Would you like to watch it sometime again?"  All of these types of questions leads the child to watching with more intensity and not just being a passive receiver of the message.  

Hey Teachers-you too can help in "teaching" television.  When showing a movie (I use tape, DVD, film, movie and shows interchangeable in this type of writing) teachers ought to put special words on the blackboard, ask the students to look for certain activities or findings.  In essence, get the students to look actively for something rather then passively watching and trying to recall.  In the movie "Hemo, the Magnificent" I learned to put scientific words on the board early in the day and the kids could either look them up or just think about them.  When they were said in the film, hands would go up.  This is important--it made them successful in watching a movie.

I have one more major point I want to make about using television in your home or school but it will wait until next time.  I use to do this with my kids.  Show them a movie about a kid breaking the glass on a greenhouse and just as he is about to be caught turn off the TV.  Tell them they can see it tomorrow.....after they write me an ending.  Writing an ending for TV?  What a thought.  I got some of my best writing from the kids doing this trick.  Learning English and Television.  My oh my.

So what do you think this major point will be?  Any idea?  If you do have some thoughts, write me.....OR go thank a teacher who taught you to anticipate.