Monday, November 30, 2009

How I learned to live with a Computer.....

There are two distinctions that I have that I think about from time to time. First, I can remember traveling across Snoqualmie Pass (major mountain pass between Seattle and the east side of the State of Washington) BEFORE there were freeways. It was a two lane road quite often blocked in the winter by either rocks and boulders or just heaps of snow. Hours of long waits while they cleared the road. In todays world it is rare to be held up going over the pass.

But my second distinction that I claim is that I taught before there were computers. In fact for much of my younger life, there were no computers. Zip. Nada. Zero. With the advent of the resistor, all sorts of change was initiated in the world. What a wonderful invention--the resistor.

But early computers did not use resistors....they used tubes. The United States began to invent and build computers during World War II primarily to figure out the trajectory of shells shot from large guns. Battle ships needed to know how high to raise their turrets in order to lob the shells on the enemy. These early computers were large affairs which you could walk through--indeed you had to from time to time to replace tubes that were burnt out.

One of my favorite early computer gurus was Commander Grace Hopper, USN. She started her professional career at a small New England university as a Mathematics professor. That in itself was interesting since that was at a time when women were not considered very good at mathematics. But the Navy "drafted her out of the college" and she took over the computer to do trajectory calculations.

Here is a story that I really treasure. After WWII, Commander Hopper felt that she should be promoted to being an Admiral. Other male Commanders were being promoted--why not her? It turns out that the Navy had a policy that no female would be promoted to the rank of Admiral. So they told her "No." Fine with her, she would turn in her commission and resign from the Navy. As she told the story to me, she went to her home in Washington, DC to do some needed reading and some house cleaning. She figured it would take the Navy about three days to see the error of their ways. She was right. It took an emergency act of congress to promote Commander Hopper to Admiral and the reason? No one knew how to operate the computer. And that is the story of how Grace Hopper became the first woman admiral in the U.S. Navy.

But this was the beginning of the era of large computers--ones that took up entire floors of buildings and mandated air conditioning. About this time IBM executives said that they were pretty positive that only seven of these large computers would ever be needed in the world. They have long regretted that statement. Another aside: Did you know that in 1939 World's Fair in New York, IBM passed out letter openers that said IBM would cut your expenses and that they were the purveyors of "...meat choppers and slicers, coffee mills and electric tabulating and accounting machines." Interesting, eh?

It was shortly after the infamous seven computer statement that large universities started to acquire these large computers for scientific research. Indeed, my own Western Washington University built a multi story brick building just to house an IBM 360-40 computer. This would be in the early to mid 1960s.

It was at that time I was a doctoral student working in the new area of Instructional Technology. The name had not solidified as yet--College of Education with a Technology department. Heaven forbid. I think it was then called Instructional Media. We had lots of technology like 16 mm projectors, cameras, opaque projectors, and the ubiquitous Kodak carousel slide projector. We also had a variety of tape recorders. Did I mention the overhead projector? Of course if you had all these projectors, recorders and such you had to be able to teach how to make the media that went along. That was our job in the department--to teach undergraduate education students how to use all these equipment. I can remember more then one student muttering as they left the learning laboratory of all this stuff, that once they passed the test they would never touch this equipment again. I suspect some teachers-to-be never did.

Remember my three objectives? Cognition or knowledge of technology was one area. Another objective was Psychomotor or muscular skills such as threading a 16 mm film projector. Our students were good at these was the affective domain that we did not do a good job at; getting students to see the value of using this technology in the classroom.

One day my department head and major professor told me he was going to put a computer in my office and would I study it and give a report to the department at a future date. A computer in my office? I had the smallest office of anybody on that floor--no one was going to put a computer in THAT office. It only had one wall outlet and I was using half of that one for my desk lamp.

But a few days later a large teletype machines was set up next to my desk. Teletype machines were used mostly in news rooms by the AP (Associated Press) to transmit news from around the country. You can see one once in awhile in an old movie either in a newsroom or a police station. Noisy critters--they chatter away banging out print on a roll of cheap paper. A day or so after this was established in my office someone from the local IBM office joined me for a lesson on how this worked. He showed me how to load paper, how to turn the machine on and off and then told me it was connected by phone to an IBM 360-40 computer in Palo Alto. Then he said "have fun" and left. Oh yes, he also said it was programmed in BASIC. I had no idea what BASIC was but some phone calls and I had a general drift of what I should do. I really think that the IBM guy had no idea was this teletype was for. He could turn it on and off--that was it.

After turning it on, I would manually type: MENU and it would clatter to life and type out of fairly long menu of programs it could do. I don't remember most of them and if memory serves me correctly I think many were Mathematics programs designed for engineering students. But one program caught my eye--it was called, "Statpak." It would do statistics. I was taking an advanced stat course--could I use this program to do some of my homework assignments? Ah, let's give it a try.

By now I had a little understanding of BASIC . It only had at that time twelve commands. I could handle that. So I typed, "Load Statpak" and the teletype machine started clattering right away. It was a noisy machine--very much so. The first thing it would print was, "Are you an Expert?" There was no welcoming paragraph like welcome to IBM, or "we're glad you are using our machine." Just, "Are you an Expert?" I typed, "NO." and then it came to life. Explaining this was a computer statistical program able to do the following things and then it printed up another menu of statistical procedures. Holy Sh*t! I couldn't believe it. I happened to have a Chi Square problem to do and decided to try it out. Load Chi Square. And then it typed for awhile telling me what Chi Square could do, how to interpret the data and how to enter the data. I did that and within seconds the teletype was printing out my Chi Square program with my numbers in the correct spaces and at the end it even suggested that this conclusion was not reliable and that I ought to do some other calculation. "Would I like the program to do that?"

I sat back stunned. What I expected me to do in several hours with an electric Marchant calculator was completed in about three seconds. I didn't even have to go to my textbook to figure out what those numbers meant. To say I was overwhelmed would probably be the understatement of the year. In the following weeks each time I received a statistical project in class to formulate, I would amble back to my office, then excitedly type in the new data and say "RUN." It would and it did--the work for me. I probably was the only one in that stat class that was not stressed.

But now I had an ethical problem. Do I tell my statistical professor about the device (computer) I was using? Do I tell the rest of my colleagues in class? There was no question in my mind that this computer in Palo Alto would change the way we teach statistics. As it turned out, I decided to tell the professor. He was new (some of you will remember the overhead transparencies that I did for his class--snow job) and I though I should let him know what I was doing. He made it easy on me by brushing me off so to speak, saying, "I don't care how you do it as long as you complete the assignment." I really don't think I conveyed to him what the computer was doing. I don't think his concept of a computer had even been composed in his brain.

But the computer was my friend--dearly beloved. I'd pat it as I came to my desk in the morning. And yes, I did finally give a report to the rest of the department on what it could do. We spent several departmental meetings discussing what the future would hold with computers and I am afraid we were all off of the mark. Predicting the future is difficult at best and making decisions today is probably the best way to ascertain the future. In this case I have to give all the credit to my department head for getting us into the computer life early on.

So thanks, Dr. T. for providing me with my own IBM main frame computer to play with. What a way to learn. And thanks to all those teachers who help their students learn.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Potpourri of Thoughts on Teaching before Thanksgiving

The time from just before Thanksgiving to after the first of the new year is inescapably one of the hardest to teach children. I don't know about high school--perhaps the older children can keep it in check better but the elementary school child begins to get excited about the coming holidays. I don't want to get into a discussion as to what the holiday season should mean but just deal with the reality that the kids are getting excited and looking forward to something different in their lives for the moment.

It is rather hard to keep their attention at times and if a few, and I do mean just a few snow flakes fall outside the window of the classroom, learning breaks down entirely. More then once I've had to let my class go to the window and watch and get excited. Only then could I get them back to their seats and back to what we were studying. My school was in an area that rarely got snow--I wonder what it is like to have a pile of the white stuff outside your school, like in Boston or Sugar Hill, NH. Do you say, "NO snowballs!" That must be an unenforceable rule at best.

But back to the holiday season. If you can't keep the excitement down then you might as well go with the flow. Each year I would teach my class some popular holiday song for us to sing as a class. One year I did " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas," arranged by Fred Wearing. I re-arranged it for my kids and found a mom who would play piano for us. It was fun and I still remember with great fondness the bright eyes, the happiness, and the enthusiasm of the kids. That year I went up to the high school and retrieved some risers that they were not using and brought them back to my school. The kids helped me set them up and it added to the atmosphere when they could stand three deep with all the kids being able to see me. I dearly loved those children.

One of my kids, named Tommy, really wasn't much of a singer. The thought of singing out loud sort of scared him even if he was just part of the thirty eigh or nine kids that I had. He really wasn't up for all of this. So I decided that I would help Tommy out. I got a base drum from the music storeroom and set it up behind the risers. Then I stationed Tommy on the top riser with the drum right behind him. In the song, 'Twas the Night......, there is a passage where the kids are singing about Santa..... "coming down, down, down doooowwwn with a boooouuunnnd." The kids really liked that part and would do it with more enthusiasm then I probably really wanted but..... My idea was that when the class sang that last bound, I would point to Tommy and he would hit the drum. Boom! Santa would be down. Properly.

So it was time for a practice run. My classroom mom came and she did the intro to the song on the piano and off we went. Not bad, there still were a number of things to work out but the class was singing with gusto and having a good time. We sang the part where Santa comes down with a bound and I pointed to where Tommy was--nothing! Not even a little tap on the drum. Absolutely quiet. I stopped the kids and looked at Tommy. The poor guy was in a total sweat--I mean he was dripping. And shaking. If there was ever a kid close to terror it was Tommy. I don't know why but he was totally scared.

Now I am in a quandary--do I give the part to someone else? I remember saying something like, "Hey, Tommy, you did good, but I need it a little louder." I don't think he heard me at all. He was still shaking. Now here is the problem--if I give that part to someone else, I have ruined Tommy's confidence for ever. I can't do that. So I had him practice hitting the drum. "Okay, when I point at you, hit it!" He did but very lightly. And I thought, maybe he doesn't like me to point at him. "Tommy. Would it be better if I just nodded at you?" He nodded--I'm not sure what he wanted but we tried that a couple of times. I felt a little bit like a fool. Nod, boom. Nod, Boom. But it was working. "Okay, class, let's take it from......." and we did the section on coming down the chimney. Tommy came through. It was light but you could hear it. I suggested a bit more umph but I didn't want to push him too far. He just might faint on me. When we got finished with that practice, Tommy was exhausted. And dripping in sweat. I really didn't know what to do for him. The class and I (and Tommy) just went back to our classroom to continue our studies. Maybe that was for the best--I didn't make a scene about Tommy and the drum.

Well, we practiced that song a number of times in the coming weeks and Tommy slowly and I do mean slowly gained some confidence in hitting the bass drum and got a little louder. We were selected by the principal to sing our song at the Christmas PTA meeting just before the holiday vacation. I worried about Tommy. How would he react with a large gym of parents all looking at him. AND the school would get a hundred to two hundred parents for this program.

PTA night came. I had talked to my class that singing the song was just a part of showmanship. How we acted before and after was also part of the song. The kids talked about this and they decided that they would come in their pajamas with coats covering them. Then I decided that they should sit with their parents until it was our time to sing and they would remove their coats and wander up to the risers and get in place. Some would yawn and some would stretch like they might do at home. It was cute and the parents applauded on our "entrance." My home room mom started on the intro and the class started to sing. I still remember how well they did--big mouths like I asked them, say the words carefully so that everyone could understand and listen! Listen to each other! They did. It was good and I was feeling a bit of relief and totally forgot about Tommy. Santa come down with a bound and I remember nodding at Tommy and he really hit that sucker. It was the loudest bound that we had heard throughout our practices. I mean he really walloped that drum. The class and I sort of jumped and I could hear the parents laughing. They thought it was an act. It wasn't. We hadn't expected Tommy to come through with such volume.

We finished the song and it was a big hit. After the meeting I think every parent came up and said what a great delight it was to hear my class sing. Somewhere in the mass of confusion, Tommy came up to me and said, "I did alright, didn't I?" I knelt down and gave him the biggest hug and told him he was perfect. His smile said it all. He must have been practicing in his mind for weeks. And he came through. I know the class really gave him an "attaboy" the next day in class. I think his confidence improved greatly.

Some schools do not have a holiday program--I think it is a bit sad. It is a nice break in the learning year for the kids. But is also a difficult time for teachers to continue with the lessons. Perhaps just learning in spite of all the excitement is a learning adventure in itself.

So for all my teacher friends who are beginning to work hard at keeping the children at their learning tasks, my thanks to you. May Santa who comes down with a bound bring you happiness and a moment to sit and relax.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Setting the Atmosphere....

One of the things teachers have to do is to establish a learning atmosphere in the classroom be it high school mathematics or first grade reading. Because we normally have a number of students in each classroom, the teacher automatically has to deal with setting the climate for learning. How to do that is what each teacher learns to do in the internship and during the first few years of teaching. How you say, "Good Morning, Group," or "Okay, let's get started on today's lessons," are just the beginning of classroom atmosphere.

This was brought to my attention in one school where I had a student teacher. The cooperating teacher was a little thing, perhaps five feet tall--very petite. AND very quiet in speaking. The first time I was introduced to her I had to lean over to hear her. She apologized for being so quiet but said it was her nature to be that way. I was fascinated.

Mrs. Case (not real names as usual) was a first grade teacher who had the quietest class I had ever been in. About thirty or so first graders, she started class with the her very soft voice, "Okay, boys and girls, let's stand for the pledge of allegiance." And the kids would stand besides their desks and recite the pledge.....hand over their heart. Typical start for most first grade classes except I almost missed. I had to crank my listening up several notches. The kids would start doing things and I would realize Mrs. Case had given some instructions and I had not heard it.

I remember asking the student teacher, one of our best from my university, how did she do in listening and she admitted that she had to at first pay close attention but that after the first week, she was doing okay. She as well as the rest of the first graders were well sensitized to Mrs. Case's voice. And you also had to keep her in your vision being that she wasn't really much taller then some of her charges. "Let's see, where is Mrs. Case now?" was my theme much of the time. If she sat at a student's desk she blended right in.

One day I was in the back of the room talking to my student teacher and going over some of her lesson plans. The lesson plans were good; she had had good training on lessons. But I had notice that at the end of the section on which she was going to teach, there were no tests to see how she had done with the children. I always liked to see some sort of a measurement device even in first grade. Perhaps something that the children could use check marks to verbal questions by the teacher. But my student teacher said that she had something like that in the lesson plans but Mrs. Case had told her, "no tests in this classroom." None? None!

Later on when Mrs. Case and I were able to get together and talk about my student teacher and how she was doing (fine), I enquired about this no test policy. Mrs Case had thought this all out and from her answer had already delivered it a number of times. She did not want her children tensing up unnecessarily in the classroom. There would be time enough for that in later grades. But in her classroom there would be NO tests...or hint of tests. Mrs. Case was quite strong on this point. If she was a good enough teacher then she ought to know how each of her charges were doing at any time in her classroom. And she did. At a later date she pulled a couple of files from her desk and showed them to me. She knew where each of her children were in reading, which child was having problems with syllables, which ones had the consonants under their command and which book and story each child was working on. Every afternoon after the kids had gone home, she would update her files.

Quite frankly I was very impressed with her work. If I had been younger and had a first grade child this would be one of the teachers I would have liked to start my child on the learning adventure. Mrs. Case's kids were eager to learn, worked hard and I believe were ahead of the curve. My student teacher took on the same behavior and had her own files on the children as she worked with them. Mrs. Case's classroom was a delight, very quiet and learning was the focus of her atmosphere.

As I write of Mrs. Case's techniques I am reminded of fifth grade teacher on the opposite side of the town--same school district however. I remember having a student teacher in that room but I can't remember much about that person. But what I do remember was another technique in creating a good learning environment. I remember sitting in the back of the room, more to get a feel of the class before my student teacher was to take over. Kids were working on projects and at the fifth grade level not everyone was working on the same learning task. But something wasn't quite right in my mind. The teacher, Mrs. Whitehall was walking around helping the kids, but there were no raised hands to get her attention. Now in the majority of the rooms I use to visit, when a student was having a problem they would raise their hand. If the teacher was helping someone else, they would just leave their hand in the air. Some kids, when tired would take the other hand to support it at the elbow. A few would hold their hand up but put their head down. Under these situations, learning mostly came to a stop. That was what I was use to seeing. But here in Mrs. Whitehall's class NO hands were showing. Interesting.

So I watched. Both Mrs. Whitehall and my student teacher spend much of that hour going from desk to desk helping those that needed some assistance. But I never saw a child who seemed to need assistants. After school was out I went back to the classroom and asked Jane what she was doing.

She smirked (it was always a delight to pull one over the ol' college professor) and showed me her system. She went to one of the desks and pulled out a paper folded box with different colors on the sides, red, yellow and green. Some sort of origami type small box folded out of kraft paper. During study times the boxes were to be on the desk in the corner and if everything was fine, green would be showing toward the ceiling. If they need some help, then yellow was suppose to be pointing upward. Big problems--big red pointing upward. But there was another catch to all of this. If they were totally stumped and had put the red pointing upward, the student couldn't just quit work, they had to do something positive such as reading their library book, working on spelling words, finishing other assignments, whatever. Jane mentioned that she was just tired of seeing children who were stuck and that she could not get to them right away. Hence, they had to keep working on something. And eventually, she would get there to help them.

What a technique! No hands waving in the air, no students just sitting there waiting for the teacher's help. No, you wouldn't see this if you were measuring for Merit pay....just test scores for that. But if I had a child I would have wanted them to be in Mrs. Whitehall's class learning how to make good use of their time.

No tests in one class and no hand waving in another class. Thanks, Mrs. Case and Mrs. Whitehall for being the excellent teachers you were. You have my admiration.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A well thought out article on education

Let me admit that I am not a very good writer. Dyslexics tend to have problems in sentence structure--I'm not sure why. I have read several books written about being a dyslexic person and they are not at the top of the journalistic heap as well. It is sad--I would have like to have been a writer. I like to observe people and would have enjoyed writing about what I had watched and noticed about kids and learning. At best you get my stories and thoughts.

And as a few of you have noticed I have foamed at the mouth allowing steam to emit from my ears and have cried rivers of tears about those who want Educational Reform. I do not always use mellowed phrases or articulate logic. Most of the time I rant off at the mouth. I have been in this profession for forty-five years and have watched the reformers come and go. I apologize but I am passionate about our school systems and protective of our teachers. As I have stated a number of times, I cannot think of a profession that is so dedicated to the education of children and young adults as the teachers in this country of ours. In spite of being named the cause of all the problems in education, the teachers go on day in and day out teaching our kids and doing the best in spite of bureaucratic garbage such as "No Child Left Behind."

I have reframed in recent weeks about writing anything about the push to reform our educational systems.....although there have certainly been enough journalistic reports about this administration will push their ideas of educational reform. Yes, it does take a degree or two of restraint on my part and I am glad I have done so. My wife sent me a web address of someone who wrote far more articulate then I can or have. His name is Marian Brady and he has taught and written almost as long as I have. Before I proceed here is that web address: Please read it. If you are interested in improving education, this article points out some pitfalls from the past and does it a much more academic manner then I could do. Mr. Brady deserves our applause.

Mr. Brady includes in his article, 10 false assumptions about our educational systems. For example, in false assumption No. 1 he has a great line of which I wish I had written. "While it's true teachers can't choose their students, textbooks, working conditions, curricula, tests or the bureaucracies that circumscribe and limit their autonomy, they should be held fully accountable for poor student test scores." I can't tell you how many parents and critics of our educational system have blamed the teachers for unsatisfactory results. It is sad.

Somewhere in his article Mr. Brady contends that only those who have had 10,000 hours with students should be allowed to comment on how to improve our educational systems. YEEEESSSSSSS! Let's see now, at six hours a day for one hundred and let's say, twenty five days comes to seven hundred and fifty hours. That is for one year of teaching. Divide that into ten thousand hours and you get something along the lines of thirteen years. Now I could go along with that. People who have spend thirteen years in front of students I suspect know how to teach.

But the other big problem facing teachers is...."what should we be teaching our kids?" As Mr. Brady summed it up, this is where the rubber meets the road with the curriculum. So as a reader of this blog, let me give you an assignment--are you ready for this? What do you want a high school graduate (either male or female) to look like when they leave the k-12 system with their high school diploma. Okay parents, tell me what should your children learn. What of the affective domain (values) should they be responsible for at the end of twelve years? What of the cognitive domain (knowledge) should they be able to comprehend at the end of their schooling? And what of the psychomotor skills (physical skills) should they be able to perform twelve years from the beginning of school.

I'd like to see at least one school district put together a fairly large group of parents with a number of teachers for consultation and have them design the curriculum. As Marian says, no generals, no mayors, no CEOs with management skills, no one use to running a tight ship ought to be allowed in the room with these people. Let them come up with the end goal. "This is what we want our children to look like when they graduate from secondary school." Then let the professionals do their job.

Well, Mr. Brady. You wrote an excellent article on the problems facing our schools. I thank you. You're a real teacher.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Buying into Learning

I have been accused by some of overly simplifying aspects of education. I suspect there is an element of truth in that although I do think the work of a philosopher is to seek the truth and find out what is important and what isn't important If that be true then I submit I am guilty.

One of the educational "facts" that I firmly believe (you don't have to agree with me--it could be a fascinating discussion if you didn't) is that buying in to the learning activity enhances that learning. Do you remember the three ways of learning that I wrote about much earlier in this blog? There was the expository function which included but not limited to reading, writing, talking and listening. The performance function included such things as dance, singing, acting, and all sorts of doing. The investigative function was just that--learning from your experiences.

One of my contentions is that the performance and investigative provide more "learning" power then does just the expository. Having a teacher tell you something is good but figuring it out on your own is better. Hence the big debate in mathematics on whether we should teach by the expository mode (teacher tells, shows and the students do problems) or the investigative mode (teacher provides a problem and the students seek an answer), [an aside to my favorite math teacher--yes I know I overly simplified this explanation. Sorry.] will probably continue beyond my lifetime.

But let me give you an example of "buying into the learning" that I tried and failed miserably only to be successful in the end. I was teaching fourth grade in a suburban school district and we were suppose to "do" the Western Movement in the United States. I could at that time just tell my class to get out their Social Studies books and we would continue to read how the pioneers started on the east coast, then moved into the central part of the nation and finally through the Rockies and into the Pacific coast area. I was lucky--I didn't have to worry about Alaska and Hawaii not states at that time. Let's face it listening to a student in the class read three or four paragraphs about pioneers of which the kids had little inkling of what they were was boring. REALLY boring. It was an easy way to cover the material, notice I said cover not necessarily teach the material.

So I came up with what I thought was a smarter way of teaching the Western Movement. I asked the kids if they could bring in pieces of quarter inch plywood about 12 by 18 inches in size. My plan called for putting a map of the United States in the opaque projector and have them trace the outline of the United States on their piece of plywood. Then we would nail some small strips of wood for the east coast mountains and a slightly larger piece of wood for the Rockies. Then as a class we would take Paper Mache and cover the plywood maps with appropriate mountains, plans and coastlines. Where could I go wrong with this lesson plan? Let me tell you the ways....

First, getting the plywood was almost the end of the project. I had told the children we wanted scrap plywood, nothing good. And although I told them the approximate size, like many children they thought that if that size was good maybe something bigger would be better. So they brought three feet by five feet pieces of plywood. I finally said it had to go back--we had no place in the classroom to store all these larger pieces. Eventually we had the thirty six pieces of plywood and even then it took up a lot of space. We also needed the small fairing strips for the mountain ranges but since the sizes of the plywood varied, we needed different sizes of strips. One dad must have taken piety of a dumb teacher for he brought in four or five foot size pieces of wood suitable for using as support for the mountains.

I asked around about how does one make paper mache? I was given all sorts of advice but basically it was two parts flour to one part water. "Okay gang, we need to have you bring from home enough flour for your maps." My mistake was not to tell them how much flour. And I'm not sure all the kids asked mom for the flour--they just brought in bags. Open bags of flour. I had white colored kids, ghost, clothing and all for a couple of the children. They thought it was tremendous--"Mr. Blackwell had never done anything this good before."

One of my colleagues did mention that if I used paper strips, the paper mache was easier to work and I wouldn't need as much flour. So back to my kids--we need some newspaper. I think there were several families who didn't see the morning news--it ended up in my classroom.

Finally the big day. On a Friday before a long weekend (Monday was a holiday) we started first thing after lunch count. No spelling. That in itself was worthy of a holiday as far as the class was concerned. We started with each child with their plywood outlining the map of the united states with the opaque projector. Only a few had to turn the plywood over and start over. Some wanted to include Canada and some wanted Mexico. "No, just the United States-now pay attention!" Then I had several of the boys cutting the six foot strips into proper lengths. "You need TWO pieces of wood for the mountain support." "And don't forget to nail them." I remember going around the room having some of the children removing the strips--they were either in the Atlantic or the Pacific--talk about staying within the lines.

I also had children cutting up the newspaper into thin strips. After lunch we mixed flour and water and newspaper. As far as the kids were concerned this probably was the best part of the day. I had buckets ready for this part of the project and the kids mixed, "more water please" and "more flour quick," from all parts of the room. I have to admit even after all these years this was a low point for me. This was not going well. Not at all.

I eventually got all the strips nailed in the correct places and the paper mache was soon being put on their maps. A few had the Appalachian mountains larger then the Rockies. And there were a few mountains added for good measure here and there. "I wanted mountains there, Mr. Blackwell." I remember saying don't forget the Mississippi river and someone saying "I have to start all over." Oh dear. With thirty six kids it was a mad house to say the least. I spent much of the time just keeping control and the noise down to a pitch battle. The paper mache was all over the place, on the desks, the floors, some windows and definitely on every kid. But the kids were happy--this had been a great school day. I was not happy.

We cleaned up the room the best we could and left our maps drying on each desk. Tuesday when class would start, we'd colored our maps and draw the wagon trains tracks on our paper mache maps.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. Tuesday morning, after being told by the principal that the janitors were very upset with me, I headed for my room. I was several rooms away when I began to smell something. And it got stronger as I got closer to my room. I opened the door and the smell nearly knocked me over. It seems that no one had told me that you need salt in the paper mache mix to keep it from moulding. As I walked around the room holding my nose I saw several really good topographical maps with a nice coating of growing green on the mountains.....and in the plains as well. But the smell was overwhelming.

I was surprised that most of the kids were not that disappointed that we had to scrap all the paper mache stuff into the garbage--some even threw the plywood in as well. With the windows all open we soon cleaned the air. I will admit I was very unhappy with myself and the project. It just wasn't worth it. We'd go back to reading the textbook for social studies. Bummer.

So when social studies time came about I said, "Get your social studies books out--don't forget to clear your desks of other work." They were a good bunch of kids and they did just that. We opened to the appropriate page and started reading. EXCEPT, we didn't get a paragraph into the reading when someone wanted to know exactly where were the Blue Mountains--were they part of Appalachian mountains? "St. Louis was near the Mississippi river so they were already across part of the United States." I sat back and was amazed at the discussion that the class had on the western movement. Somehow all that paper mache had garnered more learning then I was expecting. Indeed, in the weeks to come more good discussions came out of the western movement for the class. "How far can you walk in a day?" "How much food can you take?" "There is no refrigerators on a covered wagon!" Somehow the kids knew more then what was just in our textbooks. Whether it was from discussions around the dinner table, from outside reading I'm not sure. But the kids were up to standards when it came to knowing about the western movement. I was pleased with them. All they wanted to know was when were we going to do another project like that one--that was fun!

I still think kids need to "buy" into the learning to learn. Doing is better then being talked to...or at. And my final word on this. DON'T FORGET TO ADD SALT TO THE PAPER MACHE!

And don't forget to thank a teacher. Their lesson plan might have gone awry and they need a pick me up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's The Principal of the thing....

I was thinking the last few days of a friend of mine who is ill with cancer. A really nice guy who years ago got me started into playing the bagpipes. At the time he was a principal of an elementary school and I had invited him to my house for an evening with a few teacher friends of mine and a bunch of student teachers. My intent was for the teachers and Mr. H, the principal to talk about teaching and answer questions from the student teachers. And that is precisely what was a worthwhile exercise.

The reason I asked Mr. H. was, in my opinion, that he was one of the good guys in the principal ranks. Not that there are good and bad but one can sense the atmosphere of a school soon after entering the front doors and by and large it is the principal that sets the tone. I have met a number of principals that I have admired and respected. There was no question in my mind that Mr. H. was in charge of the school but he remained in the background much like a coach might act with a sports team. He was a very gentle man and in all the years, I never heard him raise his voice or get upset. A genuine nice guy.

I remember a number of times when Mr. H. and I would go over the list of new student teachers coming to this school and we would discuss how we thought the personalities of the cooperating teacher would work with the new incoming student teachers. Most of the time, we would enjoy a successful cooperating/student teacher pairing.

Before I continue, another sidebar for you to consider. Colleges of Educations have an interesting dilemma. They are required by state law to provide an internship for wannabe K-12 school teachers-- BUT the school districts don't have to accept them. IF the college does a good job of preparation of the new student teacher, most school districts will look favorably on accepting them into the schools. It means more adults to help children and young adults learn. But there can be problems that exist for both the college and the school district. Foremost, it is hard work for the teacher to take on another person to teach what is going on, i.e., the student teacher. And the cooperating teacher has to "give up" to a degree his/her class loosing some control. And if the student teacher has problems, it is the cooperating teacher that really has to take charge with the class. The students in the classroom are the most important product; the student teacher is further down the importance list. Then the cooperating teacher has to work with the college instructor who is doing the supervision. Most of us supervisors try to be in the classroom for a period of time at least once a week to observe. But we also have to make arrangements to talk to the cooperating teacher about what is happening when the supervisor is not available, take that into account and then make time to talk and instruct the student teacher. This is not efficient by college standards--my college dean would much prefer that I teach a class of fifty students rather then supervise five student teachers. A good cooperating teacher is pure gold.

Anyway, Mr. H. always took time to try to figure out the best pairing of student teacher to experience teacher. He was correct most of the time. And that is why he came to my house that one night. Now retired, Mr. H was one of the best.

There was an elementary principal in Seattle some years ago that I also thought was pretty sharp. I never had student teachers in Seattle but I did meet with teachers and through the grapevine heard positive comments about him....from teachers. So I called to make an appointment to visit the school. Certainly I could come but not on Fridays. So I made some time available and went to visit the school. Let me be upfront about one thing--I have my elementary
administrative (read: principal) credentials but I have never been a principal. After I got my credentials, I decided I didn't want to leave teaching. Maybe if I had visited this one school earlier I would maybe have gone another route in my career. When I got to this south side Seattle school and as I walked up the front door, children came over and welcomed me to the school. From a quick look it was a mixed population of African-Americans, Asian and Asian-Americans, Polynesians, Hispanics and white Americans. Whites were the minority here.

But it was easy to see that the atmosphere was positive--my first impressions was it was a happy school. The building was old (most school building are) and it had one of those cement playgrounds. I dislike that but they are in abundance around the state. Hard on kids who run and fall. My first stop in any school is the office to let them know what strangers are in the school. They were expecting me...and the principal, Mr. S. was waiting for me. Quite a difference from schools in which I have to wait a while to see the principal. Sort of letting me know who is in charge.

Mr. S. and I immediately took a tour of the building, almost a difficult feat. As we walked the halls, every child said hello to Mr. S. and some even hugged him. AND he knew every child's name. So what do we have--maybe 300 children with ten grades and two kindergartens. You with me so far? And this principal seemed to know each child. "How's your math doing?" or "Is your mom feeling better?" or "I heard you did well on your spelling test, nice going." Our progress was slow. And then when we entered a classroom, everyone's face would light up--including the teacher. Everyone loved this guy.

It turn out that when he was made principal of this school three years earlier, the school was down, not a good feeling about it. The first thing he did was to say to the teachers that he, the principal would take one of their classrooms each Friday for the whole day and they would be allowed to do whatever they wanted that would help them with their teaching--make lesson plans, visit libraries, go to other schools and watch what they were doing--whatever they wanted to do. Then he and the teachers set up the schedule for the year. Each teacher knew when their Friday was coming and could make plans.

But the flip side of all this is that he got to learn the kids in his school. There wasn't a child who didn't love Mr. S. from kindergarten to fifth grade. The parents loved him as well; he told me that many of the parents spoke poor English and he wished that he could speak some of their languages. What I found out was that this school went from one of the poorest in Seattle to one of the better ones in only four years. No teachers requested a transfer even though it was a "tough" school to teach at. But the administration was not overly pleased with the "Friday Off" policy that Mr. S. had started. I'm not sure why. It was one school where I could see the teachers were excited and looking forward to teaching their children.

I have a method of evaluating principals, rather simplistic in nature. I ask myself if I would like to teach in the school I'm visiting. Mr. H who always took our student teachers and Mr. S. were two of the best. Yes, I would like to have taught in those schools.

Have you thanked a teacher lately for teaching our children? We need to thank more of them any chance we get.