Saturday, October 31, 2009


I don't care if the class is a high school class or if it is a first grade group of students, the teacher is responsible for the atmosphere with that class. At the high school level, it may only be for fifty minutes, but then again it could be an extended period and the teacher has the class for two hours. This is great for the band teacher or the drama instructor.

However, the elementary teacher is in charge of the kids for approximately six hours a day. A lot of learning can take place but it is tiring work.......for the kids. So most elementary teachers arrange their lesson plans in a way that the subject matters are relatively different from one subject to another. For example, the first subject of the day might be spelling where the kids work independently in their spelling workbooks while the teacher is collecting lunch money. Blessings on the school that has a lunch system where the kids turn in their money before school starts.

The next subject might be reading where the teacher sits with small groups for about five to ten minutes and works with five or six children. The rest of the class can continue with their spelling books and when done take out their reading textbooks. Smooth transition from one subject to another--a sign of an experience teacher.

A sidebar: One way to evaluate a student teacher is to measure how long it takes them to get their students from one subject, say math, to another subject, for example, social studies. This is what I would look for--did she tell the students what they had learned in math today? Summarizing? Did she praise how they worked and got a lot accomplished? Success breeds success. And then did she give clear instructions on what to do with their math books (and homework?). And then to get their social studies books out on their desks. Okay, for me I want to know did that little scenario take five minutes, six minutes, more? How much confusion took place as the subject matter was changed. Did children ask questions of each other if they were not sure what was happening? With an experienced classroom teacher, these things seem to happen effortlessly.

And so the school day continues from one subject to another. Hopefully until the end of the school day in which everyone, student and teacher knew what was happening and what was expected of them along the way. Cool.

But once in a while, DISASTER. An announcement carried by a student from the office telling you that "there is a special assembly on school safety in thirty minutes in the multi-purpose gym. Gym classes will be cancelled and please bring your class to the gym when a runner comes to your class." Sometimes you get this announcement by way of the inter-school speaker system. In any event, the teacher's lesson plans are kaput and he/she is already thinking of how to catch up the next day.

The announcement said the assembly would be in thirty minutes but from experience you know as a teacher getting ten or twelve classes into the gym and seated will take time. The problem facing the teacher is now what to do! The kids are excited about a change in the schedule--something new to happen. An experience teacher will probably take some time to remind the class how they are to act at the assembly. "How do we applaud? Let me hear the girls applaud. Good, now the boys." You correct a couple of kids that were showing off--they knew it and all you needed to do was say something to them. "How are we going to sit in the gym?" Particularly important if there will be no chairs. So as the teacher you remind them how they are going to sit and how they are going to behave. I also added a gimmick of the secret word. I'd remind them I might use the secret word and that meant no talking, not even to another teacher or the principal. We'd practice that for the moment but my kids were pretty good and just looked forward to something new in their day.

The problem then facing the teacher is what do you do with the twenty to forty minutes left before going to the gym.... You can't start another subject--no time to really get involved. Not the best time to read the book you were reading--that was always after lunch break. What to do? Some teachers of the primary grades quite often use this time for show and tell. There are always children that want to show something to the rest of the class. Good time to practice speaking in front of the class. "Speak up, Annabelle, we can't hear you back here in the class." The rest of the class is interested but not intently.

What I stumbled upon was story telling. My first stories were what librarians call American Indian "WHY" stories. Why does the male ducks have beautiful markings and the female ducks are so plain. (girls really like this story) Or, Why are their so many snakes in the world? One great thing about storytelling is that you can extend the story and make it as long as you want or you can shorten it to meet your needs. So I would tell some story as we waited for our call to the gym.

Storytelling also worked for me when I was on bus duty. Bus 5 was always breaking down and we had to wait with Bus 5 kids until the replacement showed up. Safety was paramount and I would have fifteen kids or so, so we would move under the rain roof and I would tell a story.

Let me be clear--storytelling is just that--you, the story teller, tells the story from memory. You are not reading from a book. I did that also but always after lunch break--it was a tradition in my classroom.

But telling a story to fill in time had several advantages. I didn't realize it at first, but by listening to my story my kids were already getting into the listening mode which many of our assemblies seem to consist of.... The storytelling also brought some other culture into the classroom--if not only for enjoyment but to let them think about things. I do know that the children enjoyed storytelling. They would do most anything to have a story told to them. Behaving in an assembly was part of their blackmail plan to get another story. "We were good, Mr. Blackwel, can we have another story?"

Later on in my career when I was a professor of education, I would go out to mostly elementary schools (I did a few middle schools and one high school) and would do Scottish folk tales. I'd wear my kilt and jacket and all the trimmings and I would also bring my bagpipes both the parlor pipes as well as the great Highland bagpipes. I'd tell a story, play a tune, tell another story and sometimes answer questions about the pipes and what I was wearing.

Sometimes I would have one class and then another depending upon how the teachers wanted to set up the performance. Other times I might have all the fifth grades in the library, then the fourth grades and so on.

Another aside: There was some criticism the other day on a TV news show from three school reformers about how School of Educations were staffed with professors who have never seen the inside of a public school and who don't know how to teach. Not true. I had one colleague who was at an elementary school at eight every morning of the week helping kids at that school how to read. Teachers would select children from their class, get permission from the parents to bring their child in early and Dr. B would work with them. I know of a lot of other examples.
Trust me, wearing a kilt into a first grade class and keeping control is a skill that I still treasure.

Funny story. I was in a first grade room with my pipes and was telling a Scottish folk tale about a magic bagpipe. I was well into the story with the little ones all sitting on a rug in the front of the room. All the little faces were watching and listening tome intently along with their teacher. I always got a kick that the adults would get into the mood along with the kids. Anyway, I had CONTROL. Things were going good--I was really getting into the story when I heard a strange sound. Sorta a zip, zip. More zip, zip. I look around the room--I saw no child not paying attention. So I scanned the room--any animals that might be running around a cage? Nope. So I intensified my story a little more. More zip, zip, zip, zip. What was going on? I had every child in the classroom and the teacher hanging on to my every word. The sound didn't really bother me but I was curious. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere in the bunch of children sitting in front of me.

Well, I got through the performance--played the pipes, had a couple of the kids come up and try to blow them as well. That was always fun. And then I thank the teacher for having me. In parting I mentioned the sound, zip, zip. "Oh," she exclaimed. "I'm sorry, I should have had Dennis take off his shoes. They are velcroed instead of tied and he sometimes forgets and pulls them apart and back again while he is concentrating." She again apologized. No problem and now I know the sound of small shoes that are velcroed, being open and shut. Funny think, I now have a pair of velcro laced shoes and it is very relaxing to open and shut them. Got to watch myself.

Did you have a teacher that told you stories? Better make sure you thank someone for that person--storytellers are a rarity.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Homework--How much, how little

I have struggled with the homework problem since I became an education major many years ago. At the college level it is a standard procedure--"read the next two chapters for Thursday lecture," or "Complete the lab exercise No. 115 and write up your findings." At the college level one does not measure the time or the quality of the homework required. But the college makes an assessment that the recipient of the assignment is an adult and can plan their time well. Perhaps.

At the grade school level I first encountered the homework problem during my first year as a fifth grade teacher. Music teachers give homework assignments--"PRACTICE. We have a concert coming up." But there was no written work and I could tell at the next band practice whether my assignment had been accomplished or not. Simple. However, in a fifth grade class of thirty-eight students if I assigned a page of arithmetic problems to do or to write two paragraphs of at least three sentences each on the subject of VALUES, I would have to read and grade those papers at some time in the coming week. That was a selfish point of view for me as far as I was concerned. Grading homework papers was either done after school or at home after dinner.

And to complicate things some parents wanted homework for their child and others were against it. It was about fifty-fifty for and against. As a new grade school teacher I wasn't sure what to do so I quizzed my colleagues. About fifty percent thought that children should have homework and an equal number were against it. Oh dear! As is my style I went to the library to check on the research. Equally confusing.

Before I proceed, let's look at some questions and puzzlements about homework. What do we want to know?

  1. Do children who do homework score higher on tests then children who do not do homework?
  2. Which is better, homework for grade school children, middle school children or high school children?
  3. Are the results of homework the same for low income schools as compared with upper income schools? (single moms and dads vs full families)
  4. How much time is effective for homework? Ten minutes? An hour?
  5. What do teachers think of homework?
  6. What is the reason for the homework?
I have a few other questions that I didn't have to be concerned about when I first started teaching like, Does the homework require a computer? Is there a family member at home that can help? Will the kids tweet their answers to each other? Fun stuff.

What follows are my opinions which have not been influenced by research. I haven't Googled these questions to see what the latest thinking is. In fact, I suspect I have mellowed a bit over the years but it has given me time to think about all this.

As one grows older the question, "Which knowledge is of most worth," which probably precedes Plato's thinking becomes more pressing. Cognition I learned as a child become in some instances useless while other learnings stand by me. I write this at the moment reflecting that I can type (keyboarding in the modern vernacular) but all those hours "learning" spelling seems to have gone by the wayside as my computer checks my spelling as I go. Actually, I seem to have become a better speller with the advent of the computer and spell checkers. Interesting. I wonder why? Writing with a quill pen is forgotten as I write with a ballpoint. So as John Dewey said long ago, "Change Happens."

So the question on homework is what homework is important. And why? We have two possibilities. One possibility is to cram more stuff in the young mind. That is what is done at the college level--"read the next two chapters." OR is it to firmly fix it into the young mind as in do the even number arithmetic problems on page 79. The material has been taught in class and now the teacher wants to have the students do enough to ensure that they know how to do the problems. This is called putting it into long term memory. A good example in the elementary school might be the time tables. Get them into memory.

What we know over the years is that home work seems to have little effect on test scores although that research has always been purely limited. We never measured how long that homework lasted or if the value of the subject was improved or lessened. And homework in the grade school seems to be a bit more effective then homework in the middle school and the high school.

Again, this is my opinion--cognition learning is a left brain activity while enjoying that learning is a right brain activity. Actually that is highly simplistic and a number of you will be letting me know, however, my point that I am trying to make is that we need time to learn which allows the two parts of the brain to work together. I think grade school children would learn more efficiently if allowed to play at home after school. And I think high school kids have a need to interact and present themselves to others in extra curricular theater, sports, music, service clubs. Yes, we need right brain activity for the left brain to work effectively.

Just my thoughts. However, but let me inject some politics at this time. Yes, I know I promised you I would not make this into a political forum. But here is my question--what if we extend the school day and the school year? Should we still have homework? And when will there be time for right brain activities?

I'm against longer school days, a longer school year and I'm against most home work. Except where I want the student to put something into long term memory. I am for more play, but even that term is under scrutiny.

So I have a homework assignment for you. Go find a teacher and thank him or her for what they do with students. Once you thanked them, find out how they feel. One page double spaced due next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

For a change I agree with the White House

Well, surprise! Yesterday the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan announced that he was quite concerned with Teacher Education and he wanted to improve the education and training of approximately 200,000 teachers who will be entering the profession in the coming year.

Actually he said something like... the College of Education is a cash cow for the university which takes the monies generated and gives it to the rest of the departments. Ahhh, yes, maybe. First, a disclosure--I was a professor of education in the College of Education and happen to have enough experiences to think this is partially true. In essence, I do have some biases in this subject so take what I write with a grain of salt.

There is no question that the Colleges and Schools of Education attract both undergraduate and graduate students. Hence, this brings tuition money to the university. And no, the College of Education dose not get all that tuition money back. Some of it does go to other colleges and departments.....for specific reasons. For example, the English department teaches several classes on how to teach English, literature, poetry, writing, creative writing, etc. Some of these professors are members of both Education and English departments. The mathematics department has a cadre of faculty who specialize in "How to Teach Mathematics" from Arithmetic to High School math. I won't bore you with a long list of classes as you probably can see the thread--there are "educational" courses in chemistry, geology, psychology, and a popular area, history of....... Oh, and don't forget Physical Education. The list goes on.

So, yes some monies generated by education majors and graduate studies does go to other departments. If I have any concerns about this sharing of monies is that the College of Education is held responsible for the quality of our product, i.e., the teacher of tomorrow but we have little or no powers over those courses taught in other departments. Some of those courses are taught by faculty (and sometimes graduate assistants learning how to teach!!) who have never taught in a public or private school. This bothers me.

I once had a course within one of my department called "children's literature." A standard course found in most colleges and universities. It was a good course for those planing on becoming an elementary teacher. However, this course was removed from our catalog and given to the English department for a faculty member who had never had an interest in the elementary school or in children's literature. That happened over thirty years ago and I am still bugged by what happened. I was a young professor then and didn't understand the politics of the situation, thereby losing the course. It still ticks me off.

So I agree with Secretary of Education Duncan that universities need to appreciate the colleges of education for what they are--an important learning center for those that will take an important role in our society. I'm proud of my Woodring College of Education. We have in the past turned out a good product. I suspect they are still doing just that, although I have not been to a college meeting in some time. Universities take long to change. And this university was a college of education before it became a university....all for the better.

But another concern is that funds from the Secretary of Education will come to my university for educational programs and the university administration will hand much of that money out to other departments...with the announcement that those funds will provide labs and technology.....which will also be used by the regular students in that department. Are you following me? I hope there will be a carrot as the feds hand out money--better educational control over the the College of Education. I have no problem with Arne Duncan wanting better trained teachers-to-be. I do too. But let those who have taught do the improving. Okay?

[the following is an emotional diatribe by me and for me] Wherever I lived as I grew up as a child during World War II, there was a school and a teacher for me. We moved a lot--for me, eight times by the eighth grade. New town and my mom would give me a folder and tell me to go to the school and enroll myself. She would be unpacking from the latest move. And I did. And there was always a teacher to help me. I didn't get the greatest education through all of this. You begin to learn one system of math...or....penmenship.....or..history, and then move. It was a montage, sort of like putting together a picture puzzle. Which part fits here. And being a dyslexic didn't help either--but there were teachers. Some I like, some were wonderful and others really bothered me. I now know of things I didn't learn well because of all those moves. On the other hand, I still remember a teacher in my second or third grade in Harrison, NY, that would take me out of class; she specifically taught me how to read. For a dyslexic this was a great thing and I still enjoy reading.

But the constant that I see in our society is that I am most comfortable in the presence of teachers. My wife and I went out for dinner one night this past summer and as we were seated I watched the one waiter helping people to decide on what they would like, helping newly arrivals to some tables and chairs, making sure those with a meal had all that they needed. It was my opinion that this person was not a professional waiter and as he came by to take our order, I asked him if he was a teacher? A look of amazement appeared on his face as well as my wife's. "How did you know?" he asked. It was just his style--of helping, assisting, making sure all was well. He taught Drama, theater, and one other course at the local high school but didn't make enough so took the waiters job to help out. There is no question in my mind that teachers are special people. For those of you who have taught even for a short time, please accept my thanks. For those who are still teaching, you have my respect and admiration.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is a grade for...or worth?

I was a teacher for forty-five years--a bit longer if you add my few years as charter boat skipper where I taught cruising and seamanship and piloting. And probably the hardest part of teaching was grading students. It didn't make any difference if it were kindergarten children or graduate students in advance classes. How do you judge the worth of an individual?

For those who haven't taught, many would say, just figure out the percentage of the work submitted and if they got over seventy percent--they got a "C". If they got over eighty percent they got a "B". And over ninety percent is an "A". Nothing simpler. And I wish it was that simple.

For those of you who have read much of these blogs about teachers and teaching, you will recall the little girl in my grade school class who when given a "C" grade did "C" work, but when given a higher grade like an "A" did "A" work. She responded to what I thought she could do. Strange little girl but I really liked her.

I also had a colleague at the university level who did what was first suggested in this blog. All her assignments had so many points and a student in her class was given points for the assignment. Get over seventy percent of the points and you got a "C" now you know the drill. So you would think that by the end of the quarter it would be a snap to add all the points and do a quick calculation and award a grade. But my colleague, Mary, who had an office next to mine would be fuming and fussing at grade time. She was adding up the points and then being very subjective--I could hear her say, "Damn, I know she did better then that." or "He doesn't deserve an "A"--where did I go wrong here."

I would talk to Mary and she was genuinely concerned and upset about some of the grades that she was awarding. And she was taking in account all those things she did in class that was not given points for the class like discussions.....being on time.....making sure all assignments were turned in on time....etc. Although Mary had designed her grading to be objective, i.e., doing it by points, in the end she wanted to be subjective, i.e., her feelings and opinions to take charge.

Grading in schools is the biggest quicksand problem we have. What does an "A" stand for? And all the other grades? What is average? What if I had a class of all "A" students, then what is average? What if the school district says I have to give so many "C" grades and I have all those "A" students. Big problem.

And how do I tell my parents when they come to a parent/teacher conference that their child is an average child? No parent wants to hear that! No parent has average children--they are all special and bright and loving and creative......

One way some think to solve this problem is to make the courses (at least at the university level) harder. Make them really tough so that only a few students can get all the work done correctly. I once had a colleague in another department (no, not mathematics or education or English) who routinely flunked (an "F") up to half of his class. They would just have to take the class again. Except a lot of those students really did understand the subject, they just didn't know how to answer his question which he had to make more obtuse as the years when on. My colleague thought he was very bright because so few understood what he was teaching. Sad.

On the other hand I had a colleague in my department who routinely passed out the grade forms and told the students in his class to put in their own grade--whatever they thought they deserved. Of course his classes were mostly all "A"s. I was the department chair at the time and he drove me crazy. He really believed that each student should be responsible to their own self and he believed this would. force them to look inwardly. I still think to this day there were a number of students who took his class to get an "easy 'A'." Graduate level, too.

And in some cases he may have a point. I have taught graduate classes in Instructional Technology for K-12 teachers who want to become an Instructional Technology specialist. These people are coming at night once a week to attend class. They have paid good money for this class. They work hard. The class goes from 7 to 10 and they spend the entire time working on computers, programs, presentations..... Why shouldn't they all (just 10 in the class) get an "A"?

So how do you grade students? Right now, Seattle Public Schools have put aside a proposal to make a "D" the average grade to combat grade inflation. Parents complained and it was dropped for now. But the question remains, how do you grade students? I do know that if you give a child enough "D"s and "F"s, they will shortly decide they do not like learning in school. And they will say "They are dumb." You have destroyed their will to learn. I don't think that path is right either. On the other hand what subjects that you studied did you liked? Those subjects in which you excelled or got a good grade--right? What a complex issue grading is....

In an effort to look at how we grade students, I went to Boings in Kent, WA, where they have a training facility. I thought maybe I could learn how they do it. One of my ex students was in charge and gave me a tour of the facilities. They don't grade people with "A, B, C, D, and F"s mode like the public schools. It is either you do it correctly or you get fired. Simple as that. There is no gradation. Yes or No. Correct or not correct. Not much help to me and my problem of grading.

So then I went north a short distance to Microsoft. I talked to one of their teachers (who had never been in the college of education) who told me that they set up learning and invite Microsoft employees to the class... And by mid-term most of the students in the class understand the material and have dropped out. They are very smart and self disciplined.

Of all the tasks a teacher has to do, I find that grading students to be the hardest part. I don't like it and never did. I've been a "hard grader" and an "easy grader." Doesn't make much difference--I still do not like it. Maybe that is why I enjoyed teaching sailing so much--I didn't have to give grades.

So here is your assignment for next week. How would you grade this blog and what criteria did you use? Ten page maximum on standard paper. Double spaced and 12 font. Date and sign. Worth a gazillion points.

So a teacher once graded you higher then you thought you deserved? Better go thank her--she liked you. And she wanted you to succeed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Demise of the Library--Kindle anyone?

With that title I can hear the arguments, the shaking of fists, the unhappiness of those who love much as I love books. I have a bookshelf with a broken shelf because I put too many books on it. So why is this damn fool making such a pronouncement?

It all started with my first understanding of Dyslexia. Some suggest that about five percent have dyslexia, a learning disability that affects primarily reading and spelling and math. Looking at numbers and letters. And it has nothing to do with intelligence. It does appear to be gene related meaning it could run in a family line. I have dyslexia. Didn't know I had it until I went to a workshop on it when I was first teaching and took the test. Further testing appears to support the fact that I do have dyslexia.

So it probably would not be a surprise that some of my research at the university was on how students cope with dyslexia. Since it is primarily a perception problem, I surveyed college students and asked how they read. Some read better with less light, some read better using a gray or blue transparency over the page of the book. Some literally had someone else read the book to them. Coping skills for the college student with dyslexia.

One day my wife and I bought home a Apple Macintosh plus computer--the little one with a gray screen. I notice right away that I could read better with it then I could with books and paper. So I tried it on several of my students. All could read more successful on the screen. One girl did her math and the numbers didn't move about. She was elated. She could read rows of numbers correctly on the Mac Plus. I was on to something.

So, hold that thought. Okay? Now for my second point. There are those who will say that they like holding a book. It feels good. I agree somewhat. There are even those who say that "you will have to pry the book out of these cold hands...." Some say "I like reading in bed." And among my friends there are several who say they like to curl up with the cat on their lap and read a good book. I have read many books in my lifetime. But holding them is not my cup of tea. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is eight hundred and seventy pages. Oh come now, Blackwell, you're picking certain books to stack the statistics. You right, you right. It is the biggest of the series. I had to read it at the dining room table. I got tired holding it. Have you read the young adult book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Sellznick (Caldecott Award book). Five hundred and thirty three pages. Great kids book. Let me stack the deck one more time. One of my favorite books (although I have been know to fall asleep reading it) is Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Seven hundred fifty five pages NOT counting about a hundred pages of notes. These are heavy books, not intellectually, but physically. Read one of these in bed and my arms would quit in five minutes.

So years ago I wanted a screen placed over my bed where I could read digitized books. And I envisioned a camera watching my eyes and when they closed for sleep, it would mark where I had left off and turn the screen off. I thought my idea was cool. A librarian friend of mine thought I was crazy. It is also not surprising that I like paperbacks. Cheaper and lighter.

But in the last year or so, something has come on the market that has taken my fancy.....and imagination. The Kindle. It is 8 inches by 5 and a half inches and less then a half inch thick. it weighs about ten ounces. Good lord, Doris Goodwin's notes alone weight more then that. And this device hold 1500 books. No, I'm not kidding. Fifteen Hundred! It is from Amazon.

I can't wait until I get my hands on a Kindle. Except, that Apple is probably coming out with their version called for the moment, a Tablet. And I'm a Mac user.

But my point is that it is easier to hold one of these reading devices (in bed or elsewhere) then to hold the real object, the book. I watch kids going to school in the morning and their backpacks are full. Homework? Probably. Books? Youbetcher. And do you know how much it cost a school district to buy books? Lots and lots. I haven't check on school budgets lately but I'll bet it is one of the bigger items after teacher salaries, school buses, and building maintenance.

Here is another point. Checking out a book from a library includes driving to the facility, finding parking, finding change to feed the meter, then going in and finding the book. It is not my finest hour by any means. I want the Kindle, look up the book on the New York Times reading list and hit the button. I get it in sixty seconds for about ten dollars. If and when the Apple device shows up on the market I suspect the price of a book may go down a bit.

I once had a conversation with the noted author Mitchell Smith. He said he would prefer getting a penny or two every time someone read his book rather then being paid for it in a lump sum by the publisher. A more steady flow of income and less taxes to pay. I think he would applaud the Kindle and device like it.

However, I do envision a time when all you need to do is decide on what book you need or want. Perhaps even sections of books. Stanford University's the Digital Michelangelo Project is digitizing most books which are not copyrighted. Eventually they will have digitized most of the great books of the world for anyone to use. Just download it.

What really prompted me to follow down this primrose path is a book written several years ago by Bill Gates. Yes, the Gates of Microsoft fame. Quite frankly it was one of the best books that I read. But I didn't read the book! Inside the book was a CD and when you placed it in computer (Window's version) you got the book and then some. First the book was well written. Gates is very perceptive and he saw the future better then most of us. But he also had resources to back up his thinking of which when you read the CD version of his book, those resources were highlighted and if you clicked your mouse on them, they would take you into information that was not available in the hard bound version of the book. It was one of the most enjoyable, intellectual and wondrous moments in my reading career. And remember, I'm a dyslexic. It was easier to read on screen then to read the pages of his book.

I could go into costs of book production, book storage (read libraries), book damage, book life (how long does a book last for a library) and book availability (Is it on the shelf?). I've taught Library Science (part time at the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington) and at my own university. But I really think the golden age of libraries is starting to crumble. It may take two to three hundred years and then again it may happen sooner. I do not know but I think the digital age of books has arrived. I see children of all ages reading books from their book reader and enjoying it more. That's what we want don't we? I want a Kindle.

Do you read a lot? Do you like books? Be sure to thank a teacher for helping you learn to read. And for providing you with books, thank a librarian.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Librarian who thought outside the box....

A while back I had a graduate student in an advance Instructional Technology course, the objectives which were to examine how we use resources in the schools. Anna (not her real name) was an American who worked and lived across the border in British Columbia (Canada). She had been a fourth grade teacher and wanted to be the new librarian. She knew that the present librarian was about to retire.

Anna was one who challenged my thinking at every level--indeed she challenged her own thinking as well. She was more then a delight to have in class. College instructors can be invigorated by the type of students one has in class. And Anna certainly took the opportunity to invigorate the class. "What makes a good library? How many electrical outlets is optimum in a class? Why can't the library have a door to the playground? Why can't the school have a greenhouse so that children can check out plants?" Anna found the textbook that I had chosen boring so she checked out several other textbooks on school resources but she didn't care for those as well. At least she gave me credit for picking probably the best of the bunch.....but that wasn't saying much in her mind. I remember taking her and the rest of the class on a field trip to Bellevue Community College to look at resources. I think for the first time she understood where I was headed and agreed with me. Bellevue Community College was at the time probably one of the best in the country with Chester, their phone in tape source, an advanced television studio(s), a very modern library system, and classrooms that were optimized for the teacher and the subject. Their lecture series was televised and on the cable shortly after the presentation. Anna was in her element.

Shortly afterwards, Anna got the position of librarian at her school. Because the elementary school was just over the border I had the opportunity and good fortune to visit it on several occasions. I think the school was built in the eighties to service the local community which was blooming with new houses and communities. It was a time of growth in the lower BC delta area and new schools were going in fast.

When I first went up to see Anna in her new position she was in the library helping kids. She gave me a quick tour of the school with kids asking her questions most of the time. Anna was unhappy with the size of the library and the fact that it had no storage space and no working area. But never mind, she said to me, I take care of it. The principal had already said that expanding the library was not in the future. There was a kid crunch and they needed all the space for students.

About a month, if I remember correctly, I stopped by to see how things were progressing. Progressing they were as Anna had taken all the furniture out of the library including the check out desk, all the tables and all the chairs. No furniture at all. And she had book piles where new shelving was going to be placed.

Wait, I forgot. There was one small table in the corner covered with a cloth. Underneath it was the opaque projector and a hard bulletin board. The kids would find a picture they wanted to copy from a book, crawl under the table, put the book in the opaque projector and tape a piece of paper to the bulletin board and copy away. Colored felt pens were kept in a box under the table as well. Anna said this worked well...she didn't have to turn the lights off and the kids could keep working on their projects. There always seemed to be two or three kids working on tracing something out of a book.

But I also asked about how she checked out all those books without a card catalog and a check out desk. Not a problem, she had the children write the name of the book and their name on a clip board by the door. She would help the first graders but it was not hard to see that the little ones could soon print their names. I asked if she knew where most of the books were? And typical Anna response..... "Most of the books are in the classrooms and the children are reading them. When they are done most of the time, one of their friends wants the book too and it is just handed over. Most trained librarians would be aghast at this system but it worked for Anna. I also asked Anna if the kids were really reading the books or were they just keeping them in their desks. "Good question. I'll work on that."

The next time I visited the school I didn't see Anna at first--I don't know where she was. But the library was busy with kids. Some were putting books back on the shelves and others were checking them out. As usual the opaque was busy with a waiting line to use it. I found Anna down one of the two halls putting stars on some charts. Anna had decided that if a child read a book and verbally reported it to Anna, she would give that child a star. After so many stars after the child's name, that child could give a book to the library.

What! GIVE a book to the library? Anna explained that first she knew most of the books in the library--she had cataloged them and at the time skimmed them. If a student could tell her enough about the book she would give them a star. When that student had accumulated enough stars (I forget what the number was) a bookplate was pasted in the front of the book with that student's name...This book was earned for the school library by ...and the students name. Already she had a number of books with "earned bookplates."

But here is the kicker. It turns out that the district office had sent out a memo (a paper before e-mail) with the policy that all library books would have a sticker of some sort in the front of the book indicating it belong to which school and the school district. Anna was just making use of that policy and using it for the kids.

About a year after Anna took over I went back to the school and children were showing me what books they were reading. A number of them pointed out that their big sister or brother had earned the book for the library. Cool, eh?

Another interesting tale. Apparently Anna found out that this school had a significant less number of books then other schools in the region. She went to the district meeting and requested more books which the district agreed to. They agreed to bring the school up to date with the number of books. However Anna had a plan. She ordered all the expensive books like atlases, coffee table books, and picture books. The district reported to me that it was one of the most expensive book purchases they had ever made. But that school could now say they had the right number of books available for the kids.

There was one book on motorcycles that was a favorite with the boys. It was never check in for almost a year. One boy would get done with it and then someone else would take it and go down to the library to check it out. One day when talking to Anna some young boy wanted to know where the motorcycle book was? "Go down to Mrs. Blyth's class--Tommy has it." Anna knew pretty much where all her books were most of the time.

Oh yes, Anna's office. When the school was built a workroom and small office was built for the librarian. As usual, Anna declared it too small for an office and not needed anyway--she was always out with the children getting books to read. So she made it into a storage space for the teachers. She went down to a local men's clothing store and bought two dozen boxes in which new suits were sent home. About three feet by two in size, Anna labeled them with subject areas that the teachers wanted and used every year. Barn yard animals, Spain, Canadian railroads, lumbering....what ever the teachers studied in their classroom year after year, Anna collected the material and stored in these boxes. They held pictures, maps, books and booklets, overhead transparencies, even lesson plans. When the time came the teacher would asked Anna for the box on........ Over the years, Anna kept adding material and keeping them up to date. The teachers loved her. I know I would had I been teaching there. Here is an interesting point--the books that were in these boxes were not part of the collection so that when they were made available in the classroom, children had not seen them as yet. New material in a way.

By the way, for some reason, student reading scores jumped after Anna was hired as librarian and continued to rise. It was too small a library but Anna had her ways. After being at this school for about six years, Anna was hired by a district in the eastern part of the province as an Assistant Superintendent in charge of Instructional Technology. The last I heard of Anna was that her school district had bought out a local print shop and was printing material for the teachers.

Anna, thanks for teaching me in my class. You were a delight and you certainly pushed the envelope on how to teach kids. Thanks my dear.....

Saturday, October 3, 2009

No to longer school days and to longer school years....

A few days ago I read that the Federal government, more specifically the Department of Education was proposing that schools have a longer school day and that summer vacations be eliminated. Since reading the article I have tried to get some information about this strategy from the DOE (Department of Education). I haven't been successful. But it is interesting how irrational I become just thinking about this course of action being suggested for our schools.

Let's review. Ever since President Bush proposed the "No Child Left Behind" school program, our public schools have, in my opinion, been going down a slippery slope. Fast! But don't rely on my opinion--read the book, "Tested." It was written by Linda Perlstein, a respected journalist who before researching and writing this book covered education for The Washington Post. She is an excellent journalist and an even better researcher. This book pretty much tells what happens in a school trying its best to score well on the tests for "No Child Left Behind" programs. That program proposed by Bush was a disaster. Many states opted out.

So what is happening today. If my sources are correct, the present administration (Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan) wants the schools to have longer school days and to eliminate summer vacation. I even read that the need for summer vacation was not justified as children were not needed to harvest crops anymore. Good lord, I wonder who thought of that old chestnut.

So what is happening. We are apparently not doing well teaching our children when compared to other nations (mostly European countries like Norway, France, England but also Japan and New Zealand), the industrial type countries. The reports suggest that we are (the U.S.) pretty much down at the bottom of the pile. But hold on here. Let's examine this just a bit. Most European countries end their secondary schooling at the tenth grade (for us the sophomore year). Those that pass certain tests go on to college while many go on to work in the trades. We're comparing our high school graduates to college kids and the cream of the crop so to speak. Of course we don't look that good. Let me pick the upper decile of students in some of our best high schools and let's then redo the comparison. I think we would look a lot better.

But I'm also concerned as to what we're measuring. Rules? Rote information? Passages from literature? My point is that I have had undergraduate students from Indonesian, Japan and China. And some Canadian India teachers. I had two students from a Balkan country and for the life of me I can't remember which one. All...., no, ALL these students were wonderful people, very bright and intelligent but pretty much devoid of problem solving skills. American students by and large are better at problem solving. We're not good on memorization stuff. Perhaps we need to work on that but I like having our students be able to solve problems and think outside the box.

You've read it here before--I really like the statement, "we need to teach our children to walk down paths that we have never traveled on ourselves."

So I think the first thing we need to do is decide what we want our children to learn. How much history? Teach ALL the wars from the War of Independence to the Gulf Wars? Do we teach how the white man pretty much took all the land from the Native Americans? How much mathematics should we teach (yes, I know we've been down this road before)? Here is a hot topic--how much sex education should we be teaching? Do we teach penmanship and/or keyboarding (typing for your older readers)? Should we teach politics in the schools? The road to a successful curriculum is paved with speed bumps, pot holes, and washouts. It is a tough row. Once we decide what we want our schools to teach then we can start teaching. Only then can we begin to test to see how we're doing. And given our multi-cultural background of this country, we cannot test our school children and compare them to each other. I am so tired of hearing that the country schools tested better then the city schools or that the inner city schools showed an improvement compared with the suburban schools. No, no, no, and no. There are too many variables in this type of comparison.

First, set the curriculum, test the kids, then teach the curriculum, the re-test the kids and subtract the scores of the first test from the second test. That is how much you have taught these specific children.

If we are not teaching the students in our schools well, how is having a longer school day and a longer school year going to improve their education? For the life of me I don't understand. There are several of you who say I simplify things too much. Perhaps I do but in this case I'd like someone to show me where I am wrong. I have not seen any research that supports this notion of more teaching of material to our students.

If you had a teacher(s) that made learning fun and you were happy in how you learned, but sure to say a silent thank you to that teacher. I say a silent "thank you" to one of my professors most every day.