Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Technology to the Rescue

One of the problems facing school administrators is preparing for the regular flu season along with the N1A1 swine flue. Questions that administrators ponder are when do we close the schools and for how long? What happens if a number of teachers get the flue? How many substitute teachers will we need. If we close some schools how do we make up those days (state law requires public education for so many days a year--be there snow, earthquakes, flu, etc.) Most school districts have some sort of plan ready to go and perhaps in your district you may have already received a letter stating if and when such a plan will go into effect.

These school closures are a big problem to parents....particularly those that are the sole bread winner in the family. How do you get your children to day care, even where shall I leave my child? Do I take sick leave to care for my kids? PITA decision time for parents. I also note that Michigan's Department of Social Welfare has warned one mother about her voluntarily watching some of her neighbor's kids before school until they get on the bus. Apparently they think she is acting as a day care center and needs to get a license. The problems we get into for our kids, eh?

I note that one private school has a plan that if child gets the flu to have them stay at home but to continue to interact with the class via the internet. The school has developed a interactive web site that allows the children to continue along with the instruction in the class. I don't know much about it and will attempt to find out and let you know. Maybe they are using one of my favorite software internet programs called Blackboard which I used at my university before I retired. A great program.

I like this technological answer to a problem but unfortunately it would not work in some of the public schools as it mandates that the child has a computer at home. Not all kids do. But there is another problem that this technology doesn't address--at least for me when I get the flu I really don't want to sit in front of a computer screen. Kids who are sick are not in a learning mode. They just need to be put to bed and let sleep help restore their health.

But by and large I see web sites as a means to improve parent/teacher communications whether the child is sick or healthy. It does mean someone is going to have to keep the web site up to date. I find going to a web site that is totally out of date and behind times almost insulting to say the least. There is one business that I check regularly and I think they must up date their site once a year.

Okay, so here is my plan. I'm on a roll. Each school should have one format for telling parents (and students) what is happening in each class, what assignments are due, what subjects are being presented, what dates are available for parent/teacher conferences, and so on. The format needs to be the same so that parents get use to looking for information in the same spot as their child(s) proceeds through the school. Then each school should have one person (volunteer, administrative intern, or paid position) who is continually up grading each class site. I like the administrative intern idea as it would give that principal to be much insight as to what is happening in that school. Plus it would also give him/her some needed technology skills. Hey, the principal could also have his/her own web site (in the same format perhaps) to tell about new things happening in the school.

The downside to all this is that not all children have computers at home. There are a number of excellent studies where kids got to check out a computer to take home for a period of time--not just overnight. Most of the findings were positive--very little breakage or problems. One of the results was that the kids taught their parents how to use the computer and find things. Cool! Sort of like early research on Sesame Street television where the researchers noted that the children did learn to read BUT so did the parent. A twofer. Mom's were watching along with their child and were learning to read.

I applaud those districts that are getting ready for the flu season even if it does not materialize. And I also like the private school east of Seattle that already has a web site system in place for sick children. I want to know more. Long live technology.

A negative closure, however. I read lately that the Education Secretary is about to propose longer school days and a longer school year. You can count on me to comment about this in the near future--like tomorrow. Don't the feds read the research? Damn!

So if your school has a web site to tell you what is happening in your child's school--if you can be sure to thank a teacher for all they do. You'll make that teacher smile a bit more.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The first day of class...

Here it is fall and school has started. What does a teacher do on the first day of class? For the moment let us leave out Kindergarten as that is a special deal--most kindergarten teachers have to deal with parents leaving off their kids--lots of tears, both from the kids and the mothers. As I said, it is a different scene.

The high school (secondary school in Canada) is cool. The entering class be it ninth grade (Freshmen) or tenth grade (Sophomore) probably would be scheduled to an assembly where they are given a pep talk plus rules on how to behave, what offices to go to if having a problem, hours for lunch and going home in the afternoon, maybe bus information as well. And of course they would be given their "home room" assignment. Do you remember your home room? I don't but I know I had one--I think it was the band room. Meanwhile, upper grade high school students were probably going about their classes getting textbooks and finding out what the goals for the class would be for that semester. Seniors are the cool ones; they know all the ins and outs of school behavior. They even know where their locker is.

But the elementary teacher probably has his/her hands full. Perhaps in the gym or maybe out under the covered play area, the kids gather as they get off the bus. Intermediate grade children (fourth, fifth and maybe sixth) might even see their name on a list and head for that room--mostly to see who else is in the class. But the first and second grades are probably being put in a group for each primary teacher.

It goes like this. "Hi, what is your name?" "MarySue? That is a nice name. Do you know your last name too?" "Smith." Good, you go over to that nice teacher next to that wall--that will be your teacher this year. Her name is Mrs. Gray. Have a nice year." "And what is your name dear?" And so it goes until the grades are sorted out. In some cases the children know from a letter that has been sent home who their teacher is and what room number they have. It takes a couple of hours but soon everyone is in their correct classroom with the correct teacher.

There are exceptions. I remember twin girls who kept exchanging classes at recess and at lunch. No one could tell them apart. They didn't like to be separated so they shared as much as they could. And no, I don't know why some school policies say that twins should be separated. I should look up the research on that subject some day.

Another exception to calmness on the first day of class was when an Italian family moved into the school district. I think there were six kids, one for each grade. But it was the first grader who drove everyone nuts. He couldn't speak English so he yelled and I do mean yelled bloody murder until someone would go get an other child who could speak a little English and and would come to the first grade to see what the matter was. He finally was sent to the principal's office and when he yelled there as well, the secretary who had several of her own children, knelt down in from of the child and gave him a stern talking to in English. Maybe it was the mother in her that he recognized but he immediately settled down. But it was a rough go for several hours until she talked to him.

So now we're in the new classroom with thirty one? Twenty nine?" Hopefully under twenty five children all looking big eyed at the teacher. A few of the children may have already said something like, "my brother had you last year." But I suspect the teacher has already said that they would be able to talk a little later on--"we need to get our coats and lunches stowed away first." And I suspect for the most part many teachers would have the children sit on a rug while she would go over the list in her hand of the children she would have this year. Charles Brown? Does your family call you Charles or Charlie or Chuck? Then on to the next child. It takes time and for sure someone will need to go to the bathroom. Stress seems to make bladders smaller for some reason. Do you ask the child to wait until you show them all where the rest rooms are and which one is for boys and which one is for girls? Flip a coin. Once the teacher knows who the children are and that the correct kids are in the class, then the desks and chairs can be assigned.

To a non-teacher, the question probably is why not alphabetical? For most teachers you want to put some of your smaller children in the front while some of the taller children may be in the back rows. If the teacher has some children who don't speak English as a first language you may also want to put them closer to the front. Also, desk height is important as the children will be learning to write and draw this year with more precision then in kindergarten. Chairs size is also important. This chore also takes time. And thank heavens for those children who sense that the teacher needs some assistance. There is always four or five who know how to help. Must be in their genes although I have observed that the country school children are more helpful then the city kids. In some cases the teacher has to write a quick note and have one of these children take it to the office. "I need three more desks and chairs! Mrs. Smith, Rm 12."

So we have the desks and chairs taken care of. It's probably time for the bathroom tours. I remember telling the girls that I would give them privacy but if I heard giggling or yelling or shouting, I would come in the girls room. Much twittering from the girls. Did they want to test me? Always a question of should they.

Recess time is a good time to explore the play area outside. How far to go on the playground, what slides to use and in some cases what classrooms to stay away from (upper grades who may be still studying). Also this is a time to introduce the playground supervisor (teacher assistant or volunteer mom or dad) if the school has such a position.

Lunch time is another major informational time for first graders. In some schools the children go to a lunch room--in others the lunch comes to the classroom. Either way it is a new behavior for the children to learn about.

Maybe by the afternoon, textbooks, writing materials, rulers, whatever the school supplies are passed out and if the teacher is on the ball, a sticky as to whose desk is whose. Later after the kids have gone for the day, I would make a large name tag to put on the front of each desk with the child's name. Big enough for me to read it from the front of the room. It would take me a week or longer to learn everyone's name and even then I sometimes would have to ask once again.

By the end of the day I would read a small story to the class. It was almost time for the busses and the children had been on great behavior all day, excited, in some cases so excited that they would actually wiggle like a puppy. What teachers want is to keep that excitement for the rest of the year.

Oh dear, as I once did, I forgot to say that early on in the morning a teacher has to do the lunch count. Some kids will say they want lunch although they brought their lunch from home. Others have no idea what they are to do--they didn't have a lunch to bring and they didn't have any money to bring. What to do? And now in some schools that are children who are helped with their lunch costs. I even forgot the breakfast bunch who get a subsidized breakfast in the morning. Regardless of your political philosophy, from a teachers point of view, children who have food in their stomach learn better and more. And they don't fall asleep. I had one child who would fall asleep at her desk. I don't know why--I remember calling the mom by phone and she told me Beth got plenty of sleep at night. I was a young teacher so I didn't say anything about seeing the doctor. Perhaps I should have. I don't know and I've worried all these years what I should have done.

One more chore for the first grade teacher--getting the kids on the right school bus. In some cases older brothers or sisters made sure their sibling is on the right bus. But probably that clip board with all the children's names will have a number near it--the right bus number; bus 12 or 5, whatever. When all the kids are gone all you want to do is go back to your desk and sit down. Maybe a bit of cold coffee from lunch will help. It is a tiring day to be sure. And tomorrow the lessons start. Time to start putting names in the grade book.

Do you remember your first grade? Probably not. So be sure to thank a teacher the next time you meet one--that person might have been a first grade teacher at one time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Beginning of the School Year

Hey, I'm back from vacation. Sorry for the drought of words about teachers but I was at a place with limited (for me) web access.

On the flip side this is a cool time in education--the beginning of school for most children and young adults, teachers getting classrooms ready, new schools opening up and a big problem, new bus routes. At the college level freshmen are arriving, somewhat scared but excited, getting their dorm rooms decorated and finding their way around campus and town......all the time twittering Mom back home.

But the big news in this part of the world has been the strike by teachers in a suburban school district. They wanted more then the district was willing to give. Or should I say less then the district was willing to agree to. The strike was not about money but rather class size.

I have a good friend who keeps saying that we need to outlaw teacher unions because they are always asking for more money. Sorry, old friend but this time it was not about money. As I have repeatedly written on this blog, teachers teach because they want to teach--they have to teach--they need to teach. If they wanted more of a salary they would go work in a different profession. I know of two teachers who are retired who have been tutoring young adults for free. But my main point is that the teachers who were striking were asking for smaller class sizes so they COULD DO A BETTER JOB OF TEACHING THEIR STUDENTS. It is difficult to teach first grades how to read when you have a class of thirty-four children. Let's even make this example an easy one by saying we have only one child who is hyperactive and two who don't speak English at home.

So how does a first grade teacher start the year? The first thing is to find out who can read already. I would guess that about six to eight students will have some understanding of how to read. So that makes one group of readers. There may be another group that is ready to read, is excited and will constitute a second reading group. The teacher still has over half the class to test and decide how to start the remainder of the children into reading groups. And for you non-teachers, consider working with a first grade reading group and still have the rest of the class doing something positive--not just wasting time. That is a management task of great skill. A fourth grade teacher can say to the rest of the class, do your homework, your math problems or even read your library book while I work with this reading group. Yup, first grade teachers in the fall are a special breed. I luv ya!

But I got sidetracked--sorry. The teachers on strike wanted smaller classes which they eventually got--twenty-four kids in the primary grades. Some class caps in the intermediate grades but the middle and high schools didn't get the cap on classroom enrollment as they wanted. I heard one high school teacher say she would agree to this because if the primary teachers could do a better job of getting children to read and write, her job would be easier later on. Smart lady.

So the strike is over. I was amused by the court who was going to fine each teacher who didn't go back to work two hundred dollars a day. I suspect that some of the beginning teachers with medical and tax deductions don't make that much.

Just another point for you to ponder. In Bellevue, a city east of Seattle and close to Microsoft's main campus, there are several private schools who advertise that their class limits do not exceed ten students per teacher. Ten students per teacher. Now take a wild guess which students are going to learn more, the ones in the twenty-four students classroom or the ones in the ten limit classroom.

I'm truly glad the strike is over. I know it was hard on the teachers. The decision to break a law probably bothered most of them but it was a matter of being between the rock and the hard place. As far as I could tell, the teachers just wanted to be able to do a better job of teaching.

My mind wanders into puzzlement. Can you imagine any other profession that would strike to do a better job? I'm serious. Would Boeing engineers go on strike to build a better airplane? Or Microsoft workers strike to do better coding. It is absurd at the extreme. Interesting thought.

Drive carefully--the kids are back at school.... Several children wandered in the street yesterday in front of me. So be careful. And be sure to thank the teacher on duty in front of the school when you drop your kids off.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Elephant in the Room.

I've tried to ignore it--that elephant sitting on my morning paper. You know the story. It is about the teachers' strike in Kent, Washington. They have been on strike for a number of days and the district sued to get them back to their classrooms. The court ruled that they were in violation of their contracts and had to go back to class.

So they voted last evening as to what to do and according to the Seattle Times morning paper, they voted 74 percent to remain on strike. I can hear it now from some of my friends. "Get rid of the unions." "Put their leaders into jail for a couple of days--that will learn 'em." I'm always amazed by my friends reactions to strikes.

But first a disclosure. I was a fairly young teacher in a Seattle suburban school district when I was elected president of the local Teachers' Association. No, it wasn't a union. Then after a couple of years I became the president of the state teachers association. So I know a little about teacher organizations. There are teacher unions but they are not viable in the State of Washington. They are found mostly in the tech schools and some community colleges. Most K-12 school districts have an Educational Association of which teachers can join or not join. As far as I know it is still not mandatory to be a member. Most if not all do not have paid officers and only a few have some sort of office. Some have a paid staff member to do paper work and printing, etc. Most do not.

Most of the education associations have an agreement with the state educational association that when you pay dues locally, you also become a member of the state association. But not all teachers belong to the state group. The state EA does have a building with offices with an executive secretary. But not a lot of power. The main function of the state association is to monitor the state legislature as to education bills and teacher requirements.

Years ago when I was the state president, I would go to Olympia to testify for or against some proposed education bill. We had a simple decision point--if it was good for kids, then we were for it. Simple as that. Did we ask for more money for teachers? Certainly. But so were just about everyone else asking for money. Some years we would do better and other years we would do worse. But our main objectives were to improve the education system of the state.

I find it interesting that the Kent Teachers Association is striking for smaller class sizes as one of its primary goals. The KEA and the school administration have already agreed to the pay raise.....3 percent if I remember correctly. What teachers really want are smaller classes to do a better job of teaching the kids.

Okay, let's do some simple math here. Let's say that school starts at 9 in the morning and the kids go home at 3 pm. Six hours divided by 60 gives us 360 minutes. Take away 15 minutes for recess and another 30 minutes for lunch and another 15 minutes for slippage.....going to and from classes, going to the busses...etc. So let's say we have 300 minutes for teaching. Divide that by the number of children in your class--let's say 40 kids (I had 42 one year in a fifth grade) and you get seven and a half minutes per child. Not a lot of time. In todays world as a teacher you may have five kids who do not speak English as a main language, three kids who have a learning disability (like Dyslexia), and four kids who are hyperactive. You may also have a child who is handicapped in some way--has had brain aneurisms. This is not uncommon. I do not find it surprising that the Kent teachers want more time with their students in a smaller class.

Now take that 300 minutes and divide by 27 students. What do you get? Eleven plus minutes. Do you see why some private K-12 schools will keep their class sizes to ten or twelve students?

So we have teachers striking. Will the courts put them into jail? Who knows. I do know it bothers teachers greatly if they are breaking the law. But many think they are between the rock and the hard place-what to do.

As an aside and not on this subject for the moment. For all of you who want merit pay for teachers, how are you going to do it with large class sizes? Just asking....

If you see a teacher out on strike, give them a fist bump for me. They are there for your kids.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Technologies and the Classroom Teacher

Oh my, it is fall and there is so much to write about--the beginning of school, teacher strikes, class size, high school football, back to school shopping, and H1N1 flu. No wonder some parents get stressed.

But I want to write about something different--nay, I need to wrtie about something different in education. For years, we in education have been opening schools, welcoming students, passing out textbooks, and preparing classes for another year of learning. But today's teachers have a bit more on their plate.....facebook, twitter, web pages, and cell phones......among other technologies to hit the classrooms. In some ways I am envious of what is available.

So let's start with cell phones or mobile phones. Should kids have them? If I were a parent I would want my kids to have the phones. "I won't call you during class but I want to hear from you when class is over." I love the comic strip, Zits (by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman) where the teenager texts his Mom who is in the same room with him. I wonder what the fifth grades will be texting home during class time.... But still I think having a communication system with home is a good thing. The challenge for the teacher will be to get the kids to put the cell phones away during classes. I suspect it will be a major job for teachers to devise some way to put the phones on hold.

Facebook could be another challenge. I'm sure the upper elementary and middle school students will be telling all about their classes on facebook. Hmmm. Sounds like a good sociology project for some graduate student. I remember telling my fifth grade parents at the first PTA of the year that "...I promise not to believe half of what I hear about your family life if you promise not to believe half of what goes on in my classroom." While my kids' parents and I laughed it was a good bargin. At the moment I don't know what to say about my students and facebook. Maybe a up-to-date active teacher could tell us what they are doing....

But then we have some technologies in the classroom that I wish I had had. I would have loved to have had a "Smart Board" (See: I've already mentioned this device--an interactive white board which can be hooked to a computer for presenting and saving of learning material. Instead of the teacher spending valuable time writing on the blackboard (or regular white boards) to present material, the teacher can type it on the computer and the material will appear on the board for the class to see. Not only is it a saving of time but it is easier for the kids to see. I think the best part of this new technology is that when we are at a stopping point in the lesson and need to go on to something else, I can save the material for tomorrow and I won't have to repeat writing on the board the same material once again. Having a Smart Board must be a delight to have. I find it interesting that Bellevue schools (rated in US News and World Affairs for the top high schools in the State of Washington) have these devices in the classroom. Oh my I was born too soon. By the way, you can also project clips of movies on this board, for example, a clip of Hamlet's soliloguy rather then having someone in class read it aloud. I never understood the beauty of Shakespeare until I was in college. Well, the Smart Board would be a device I would want in my classroom.

Another device would not exactly be in my classroom but on the school web server. It would be the software program, BLACKBOARD. This is a classroom management software program that allows the teacher to put the handout, the assignments and the homework schedule so that kids can access it from home or elsewhere. One of my graduate students once developed a program much like this for a high school math class so that the parents could sign in (their code word only) and see how their child was doing.....and what grades he/she was getting. Some parents liked it and some didn't want to know. But it was available. The Blackboard program does that to a sense--keeps the parents informed as well as the student. The problem here is that all students need to have computer access and not all do.

What else would I like. I would really like to have a computer/video projector, particularly if I did not have a Smartboard. I could do lesson plans to project on the board for all to see--to some degree the same as a Smartboard but it does not have the capabilities that that device has such as saving of writing on the board. But still, a video projector would be cool.

So of course I would want several small camcorders. I have used camcorders before and they are phenomenal. For example, you can hand a camcorder to a middle school science student and say, "Show me three examples of erosion." OR to a high school civics class, you can ask them to show you a problem in the town and how would they fix it. Letting the students use the camcorder can be a learning experience for not only those that record something but for those that watch as well. Okay, so I want two or three camcorders in my classroom....along with the vidco projector.

And I want a web page of what my class is doing....done by the students but with my supervision. So many parents work at times not condusive to coming to parent/teacher conferences. If I couldn't have the Blackboard software program then I think a web page would help parents know what is going on in the classroom. What are we studying and what are the assignments. I think communications with parents is critical for student success. Parents and teachers have to be on the same page for success to happen.

There are a number of software learning programs I would like to have in my classroom for the elementary and some tuning devices for my high school band. Playing in tune can be fun when you're watching it on a computer screen. Yeah, there are a number of technologies now on the market that are amazing. But if a mechanic needs certain tools to repair or fix a car, or if those building a Boeing plane need a device to accomplish the task, why can't we teachers have tools that help us teach the chidlren and young adults. The new technologies will help those learn more in a more effieicent manner. I want 'em--the new tools of the trade.

Can you tweet? Then twitter a teacher and thank them for the help they gave your child.