Monday, December 28, 2009

Small Group Research--Stuff sociologists never tell us

Probably my last blog of this year but who knows. I've been thinking of one of my favorite students and as usual the story gets confused. Do you remember Alister?....the kid that turned in a messy order form which I threw out because I couldn't read it. Alister did have a lousy turn of the pen and pencil. His penmanship was the worst I even encountered. But that wasn't all with Alister--his dress was always messed up, shirt half out or miss-buttoned. Shoes untied and socks that fell around his ankles. And hair every which way before that style became popular. He was a walking disaster. And no, his mother didn't send him off to school that way because I drove past his house going to school. There would be Alister and his younger sister waiting for the bus. Hair combed, socks pulled up, shoes tied, jacket on and he would be looking very presentable. But what ever walked off the bus was a total disaster.

Now a diversion for the moment. Yes, grade school teachers do notice how the kids dress for school. Some children come to school with hand-me-downs and some not dressed warm enough for the season. More then once I've taken a child down to the Principals office back storeroom and picked out some clothing from last year's heap of clothes that the kids leave behind. Sort of restock some of the poorer kids from our grab bag of clothing.

Another problem I faced was what the girls wore to class. My first year as a fifth grade teacher I was upset that moms were letting their daughters come to school with fairly short skirts. I finally mentioned this to a couple of mothers of girls that were in my class and they looked at each other and sighed. A bit exasperated but with me! "Oh just tell the girls to unroll their skirts." Male teachers do have their problems with the girls in their classrooms. Apparently many of the girls were rolling their skirts up until they were short AFTER they got on the bus. From then on I would tell some of the girls to unroll their skirts and with a sigh and a grimace, they would comply. I don't think the boys ever noticed--it was something that girls of that age just did.

Don't forget Alister, however, I want to talk about sociological research for the moment. At the time I had Alister in class, my wife was working on an advanced degree and was teaching a course about "Small Groups." Apparently the research showed that if people were put into small groups and given a task to do, they would do it "better' then if they had to do that task by themselves. To make her point in the class Lynn had divided the class into pairs and told them they had to present their material together. I found this interesting and read much of what she brought home for her lectures. Small group research is interesting stuff. I pondered, "could I do this in a fifth grade class?" The research showed college age students learning more and quicker in a group then by themselves. Would it work as well with grade school kids.

Finally we come to my main point for today. It was between Christmas and New Years and I went up to my classroom and moved the kid's desks all around. I normally did this to their desks to break up little cliques, to give the room a new flavor, to let some kids in the back get closer to the front, a lot of different reasons for changing the desks in a room. But this time I did it a bit differently. I took my grade book which had all the children's names in it and then I took my statistics book with a table of random numbers and I started through it. Every time I got a number in the range of my class I moved a desk. After four numbers I placed the desks in a square with the kids facing each other. I kept doing this until I had the room in groups of four or five students. Probably about eight groups of desks. It was different. And then when I looked at the names of the kids at each group of desks I almost lost my resolve. At one group I had four of my liveliest boys--all loud talkers. Another group was composed of two girls and two boys both of which despised the other sex. There were other combinations I don't think I would have done had I made the choices. One group was comprised of three girls and Alister. Interesting. So the scene was set. Monday when the kids came back to school I would try a new learning style--that of each group having to agree on the assignment and turning one assignment in for the whole group at that group of desks. The students would have to decide who would write it down and they would ALL have to sign it. I could hear some parents already picking up the phone.

To be truthful it did what the research said it would do even at the fifth grade. I'd give some sort of a reading assignment and they would read it and argue at their desks what some words meant. The learning of my kids IMPROVED. And we COVERED MORE MATERIAL in less time. But it was harder work for me. I had to be on my toes to move around the room a lot seeing what was going on. My four lively boys--much less talk. They seemed to neutralize each other. They worked well together. The whole girl groups also did excellent work. Years later I read an excellent book on how women learn and in groups was a preferred style.

But I need to tell you about Alister and his three girls. Or was it the three girls and Alister. He would do some work on paper and they would make him do it over until it was halfway neat. I think each day they had him clean his desk. And they straighten him up every chance they got. "Tuck in your shirt." "Tie your left shoe lace." "Fix your belt loop." I give Alister much credit--he never came to me and asked to be switched to another group. He was smart as a whip, just messy and the girls made him toe the line. I felt sorry for him but his mother told me a bit later that she thought it was good for him--he was working on improving. We just didn't know what he was improving on. I still have an image of Alister and his desk turned over to dump out all his books and things with the three girls making him put things back "properly." Poor Alister.

But back to the groupings. Yes, I would do it again and earlier on in the school year. What I saw was many instances where one child would help another. "Here, let me show you how to diagram that sentence." OR, "read the picture--does it say anything about what we're reading?" Many of what I saw were things I might have done in a normal single desk setting as I went around the room but in this instance a desk mate did it for me.....and without the wait time for me to get around to each child. Learning did speed up. And I only had to grade eight or nine papers but I had to work harder at the evaluation. I had to know what each child did in that group--that was my responsibility. But as the groups continued their work got better and I believe my slower kids learned the most. Some of them learned how the smarter kids studied and they emulated them.

Another surprise was that after a month or two into this grouping arrangement the kids themselves said they really enjoy this way of learning. They could see themselves learning more then under the more traditional single desk system. They would "nag" each other so they could turn in the work on time. I was surprised when my wife's class at the university said they really didn't like being in pairs. It limited their independence when they HAD to study with another person. So the college students learned more like my kids and both groups really got better grades but the college students didn't like the constraints while the grade school kids thought the process was "cool."

And Alister? He endured and the girls were on him for neatness the entire time. I don't remember if he improved in that department--I don't think neatness was in his genes. But I still remember him--one of my favorite kids.

Did a teacher ever make you do a paper over for neatness? Better say a silent prayer of thanks for teaching you some culture.... Hhmmmmm, I wonder if any of those three girls ever became teachers.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Twas the day before.....

By now school is out for the holidays before starting again in January of the new year. The last couple of weeks is hard on all teachers no matter what grade they teach. Just last Saturday, a high school show group from the music department showed up at my yacht club. An outstanding group, the come by every year and do a short presentation of song and dance. Called the Show Stoppers they prepare some holiday songs in the manner of a Broadway show and sing and dance around the city at a number of presentations. The music teacher was there along with an intern from my local university.....learning the ropes so to speak. The music teacher does a good job with about twenty young adults. Who knows maybe one or two will actually make it to Broadway in New York. I hope so.

Some years ago I was teaching fifth grade between bouts of teaching grade school music. I had a good class and wondered what I might do for the kids in my room as a gift. There were some district wide regulations as to what teachers could do, primarily limiting the amount of money one could spend. Most teachers in my school did nothing, perhaps a Christmas card to each child so I didn't want to rock the boat.

So my wife and I and some neighbors made gingerbread boys and girls for my kids. I hadn't realized how heavy gingerbread dough was--very hard to roll out and to mix. I needed all the muscle of several of my male neighbors to mix the dough. However, it became a party and we baked gingerbread kids until there were cooling in the kitchen, dining room and living room. We had gingerbread boys and girls all over the place. The I added some icing for facial and design and wrote each child's name on a gingerbread cookie. Hey, it was a lot of work. Near the end, someone asked what would happen if a new child arrived on that last day before the holidays. Ain't gonna happen. But it worried me enough that I decorated two cookies and wrote "favorite" on each of them. I figured I could eat them.

Then all the cookies were wrapped in cellophane and carefully placed in a box.

The last day of class arrived and I had let the students in my class exchange holiday cards. And surprise, one of my girls brought her little sister from home. A special treat. It was fine with me and the mother had sent a little note saying if it was not okay, please call her and she would come to pick her up. Not a problem Some of the children brought cookies and I would be forced to admit that little learning really got done that day. Some house keeping chores like cleaning out their desks and making folders to take home all the finished homework.....things like that. We cleaned off the bulletin boards and got them ready for the new year by putting up big numbers for the year--probably 1967 or 1968. Near the end, I got my boxes out and handed each child their Gingerbread boy or girl. The class was delighted. Everyone enjoy showing them off--a few wanted to eat them but their peers really stopped them. "Take it home and put it on the tree!" And I am glad I had made a gingerbread cookie with favorite on it and could give it to the little sister. You have to hang loose when you are a grade school teacher.

There was a district wide policy that parents were not suppose to give gifts to the teachers. Probably a wise move. But in spite of that policy I did receive a number of gifts, mostly ties. We male teachers were still required to wear ties and jackets......although most of us hung our suit coats and jackets up once we got into our classroom. So ties were a popular gift. I'm sorry I didn't save any of them--it was obvious that the kids did the choosing. And I can guarantee they did not come from the Bon Marche or Nordstroms. I did in the coming year wear each tie at least once. You had too. Women teachers mostly got perfume. Some of the kids would say, "Look how much I got for a dollar!" Right. I wonder if the women teachers wore the perfume like we guys wore the ties.

Each year at least one of my room mothers would come up to me and ask for my car keys. Being a native New Yorker I always locked my car frustrating some of my kids' parents. And after school, I would return to my car (yes, my little bug) and there would be a pie or cake--homemade and wonderful. As I said earlier, I really loved my parents.

Well, the gingerbread cookies were a hit. A couple of the parents talked to me and said how much their child enjoyed getting that cookie. It was probably near the end of March of that next year and I was watching one of my boy's looking into his desk and then putting his hand in. I just watched but couldn't figure out what was going on. He was still doing his work, writing or reading with his hand in the desk. Odd behavior. I had learned not to move too quickly when strange behavior became apparent....but after several days I had to ask Bobby, "Is there something wrong with your left hand? You tend to rest it in your desk." Bobby looked embarrassed and then pulled out his cellophane wrapped gingerbread boy. He then told me that he liked holding it when he did his homework--it make him feel good. I told him to put it back in his desk and don't worry. You can hold him all you want. I was sort of surprised to note that it was still looking good. But Bobby had his teddy bear so to speak.

Happy holidays to all and to all a good night. May the dreams of some of your best teachers keep you warm and happy in the coming year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How Kids Surprise You...

I was going to rant about how a newspaper in this state hasn't the foggiest idea of how the K-12 educational system works. You know the old saying, "Keep your mouth shut so that no one will know you're a fool." They wrote an editorial that shows they have no idea of what the problems facing public (and private for that matter) education in this state. Sloppy work, editorial board.

But instead, given the fact that this is the holiday season, I decided to write about some efforts on my part to teach fifth graders how arithmetic was important to them personally......and how I learned about giving.

My school at the time probably would have been classified as a low economics area school. People were struggling to make ends meet. Hard workers, many of them working at Boeings in various jobs but not management. But good people all. I really admired and had a lot of respect for my kids' parents. So with that in the back of my head, I wanted my class to understand the use of money as well as the importance of being accurate. Most of my kids could add, subtract, divide and multiply but there were times when they got lazy. I wanted to increase their perfection ratio. More "A's" thank you.

So how could I show the importance of accuracy, money and numbers--let's throw in neatness as well. One afternoon in October I came home after school was out to find the latest Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog at my door. Back in those days this massive catalog would be delivered and families would pour over it making a wish list for Christmas. You could still fill out forms in the middle of the catalog and with a check send in your order....and within weeks your order would arrive. Kids in my class were always talking about something in the Sears catalog.

Well, if we were getting the newest catalogs, old ones must be surplused. On a whim I called the Sears main office in our state and asked if I could have 35 of the old catalogs for use in my classroom. "Hey, not a problem--just come over to South Seattle and pick them up. Happy to help out." So I did. One slight problem. I at that time drove a Volkswagen Bug--one of the early ones in my neighborhood. It didn't have a big engine in those days and when we put 35 plus Sears large catalogs in the Bug, it took a while to get up to speed and it looked like it was about to break an axle or two. People pointed at me as I drove slowly by. I did get all those catalogs to the school the next day and the kids enjoyed unloading my car. I never did know if I had done it any damage.

So now everyone had a catalog and I could give out the assignment. I wanted them to fill out an order form and attach the correct amount of money to the top of the form. WHAT MONEY? Aha! I had that figured out. I had designed on a ditto "Blackwell Money, Room 6. I had one's, five's and ten's on the sheet. I think there must of been maybe twenty five dollars on a sheet and I cranked out two sheets of money for each student. I had drawn a boarder around the money and a circle in the center with what I though was a drawing of a person. Much discussion as to what was in the center of the circle on the money. Anyway, every student in my class got a certain amount of money so they could "buy" something in the catalog. I was proud of myself. Great assignment--concret teaching going on here.

I think it was Alister who first turn in his order form--he always wanted to be first. I looked at it and took the "money" off and chucked the form into the waste paper can. "Why did you do that? Mr. Blackwell." "I can't read it. This is so sloppy that the Sears office would just put it in a lost file." My how that got the rest of the class' attention. I could see erasers flying all over the place. Suddenly neat handwriting and printing became important. Hot damn. Those that were neat but didn't have the correct amount of money (we had all agreed to round off which was a skill I wanted to work on anyway) I put the entire form in the lost file. Accuracy shot up. To say I had a big head might be an understatement.

I do remember going down to the teachers room during recess and spouting off how good the arithmetic assignment was going. Smirk, smirk. But on my way back to my room I came around the corner to see some of the kids with the ditto machine cranking out more money. Whoa up here. You just don't print money when you need it. Still it just made sense to the kids that if you didn't have enough money to get more..... "Someone took money off my desk, Mr. Blackwell!" Another problem. Suddenly, I was teaching things I hadn't planned on like you can't steal money--it's wrong and you can't just print money. It's also wrong. We did have some good discussions about right and wrong that was never in the state curriculum guide.

I solved the printing of money by getting an out of date embossing device from the school library. Then I embossed all the money. Soon we had so much money going around that I decided to teach the kids how to write checks. So we printed out checks for each person. They could write a check as long as they had enough money in their desk. I was surprised how much this excited my kids. Not sure why, but they enjoyed and took an effort to write a proper check. We also had a discussion about banks and savings. Overall I was pleased with them and myself.

But there was a surprise in the works for me. The assignment was to fill out an order form, attached the correct amount of money (or check during the latter part of the project) and turn it in to me--the big kahuna of the ordering department. It was either approved, or put in the lost box and sent back. Pretty soon they had the assignment down pat.

And I was in for a surprise as I read the forms. I had suspected that the kids would order toys, air rifles, go carts, dolls, toy stoves, etc. all from the children's section of the catalog. But no, that is not what they ordered. There were forms fill out for new refrigerators, new couches or a recliner chair for Mom or Dad. New dishes were on a couple of the orders. Tools for Dad was also popular. By and large those kids ordered things for the family. I was surprised and to some degree humbled. I had underestimated those children. Ten to twelve year olds with a maturity much older. They and I knew that this was a big make believe assignment but I wished so much that I could have been like Oprah and make their dreams come true. That would have been fun.

Some of the kids never wanted to get rid of their catalogs when we moved on to other arithmetic assignments. But I will admit their penmanship improved. I was pleased with that result especially, except for Alister. Alister's penmanship was always terrible. I never knew why. Someday I'll tell you what I did to that poor kid.

Did you have a teacher that encourage you to be better? In your penmanship? Or with money? If so, you need to thank that teacher for going beyond the state and local curriculum guidelines.

Happy holidays to you all. And to Mr. Fransham. Thanks for encouraging me in music.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ideas of gifts for students for the holidays.....

Everyone seems to be talking about what to get fill in the name. Be it the mail delivery person, your niece or nephew (s), your sons or daughters or perhaps a colleague or friend. No, I don't have the magical list but I do have some suggestions for children to young adults--grade school to high school. After that, you are your own.

So here is my list, not necessarily in any order of importance. I think for any student, a mini camcorder would be exciting to have. These are small camcorders that can record just about anything. I think it is time for kids to learn how to put together clips to make movies. In fact, many kids already know how to do this--the evidence is on YouTube. What we teachers need to do much like we teach writing is to give the kids assignments that show the student how they can take advantage of this new medium. [for those not normally involved with technology, the word medium (means to come between) is singular while the word media is plural--you okay with that?] For example, if I were once again a fifth grade teacher I might assign to those who have mini camcorders to video someone or someones doing something nice. Then we might talk about...."did you get that person permission or release?" "Did they know you were filming them?" A host of discussion questions come to mind. Fun stuff. If I were an upper level teacher, perhaps saying to students in a civics class, video a problem in our community and write a one page paper as to how the problem can be solved. A stop sign being blocked by trees or a cross walk not easily seen. So--a mini camcorder would be a good gift.

What you say you don't want your kids to be able to sexting--showing themselves naked on the web. I agree but what a chance now to talk to your children and say what is acceptable behavior, perhaps what consequences might happen if they did. As usual, I think talking to them is a good form of educating your child. They will love you for it at some point in their lives.

Cell phones are another gift suggestion. I think the cell phone has changed our society in a quantum leap. Instant communications. If I were a parent today I would want to know I could reach my child whenever it was necessary. Yes, I know this is going to be hard on the teachers. We can't have ringing going on throughout the class day but I think we can say to put all the phones on vibrate and solve that problem. "And no texting except at lunch time!" I think the cell phone is a good device for kids to have.

I have a quandary with my next suggestion. I think an e-reader would be a great idea except there several are still being developed. The Kindle has been out and it is an excellent device. You can put over a thousand books on it. This may get some children to increase their reading. And here is a weird idea--if the child (no matter what age) has dyslexia, they MAY be able to read "better" on a e-reader. I've had a number of students (including myself) who read better of an electronic screen then with ink on paper. No we haven't figured out why yet. But I think the e-readers are a great innovation. has the Kindle, Sony has one on the market and so does Barnes and Noble. Apple is supposed to have a device the first of the year (2010). There is the quandary. Which one?

It goes without saying that I would recommend computers for students. Yes, we have them at school but it is a necessary item for doing homework these days. Many teachers will give assignments that include web addresses. Learning how to search on the web is a present day skill--sorta like looking up words in the dictionary. It was one of my students who taught me how to look up the spelling of a word on Google--she typed a misspelled word in the search box and Google came back and said, "Did you mean" and then spelled the word correctly. I never thought of doing I do it all the time.

However, if you have all the computers that you need in your family, do you have back-up devices for those computers? Hhhhmmmmm? It may not be the most exciting gift but having your computer back up your work every fifteen minutes or so is.....wonderful, particularly if you just erased something and didn't mean to do it. Back up storage devices have come down in price--look them up.

For the youngest child I would want to get them some CDs and DVDs of stories of yore. Yes, there are plenty of the same stuff on television these days but the ability to put in a disc and play it over and over is important in the development of a small child. Along with such discs I would want to get small children books of all types. Even books that may be a bit advance for them--like clothing, they will grow into them.

I wish you all the best for the coming holidays. May you find everything that you want to give and may your stress level remain stable. And don't forget to send a card to your child's let's them know you appreciate them. At the high school level, pick your child's favorite and thank them. We teachers will really appreciate your thoughts.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

More on Educational Reform...

One of the sub themes of this blog is to support the improvement of our school systems. Notice I didn't say to reform education. Just to improve what we are doing. The main theme of this blog is to support and tell what the classroom teachers are doing right now in teaching our education population from pre-school to graduate school. My last blog was a short story on how my major professor got me to learn about computers in the investigative mode. Remember, there are only three ways to learn: 1) Expository mode in which the message is transmitted primarily by voice or print by the learner or the teacher, 2) Investigative mode in which the learner tries things out and makes decisions as to what is important (in my case playing with an IBM-360-40), and finally the performance mode in which the learner performs in front of an audience and learns an insight into the message. Remember all that from a previous blog? Test on the modes this Friday, eh?

One of the stressful buttons you can push on me is the Educational Reform button. Tell me that some major company has been hired to lead some school district and I'll blow a cork. Tell me that some school district is going to eliminate summer vacations and increase the time that kids have to spend in class and you will view steam coming from my ears. But the worst thing that I can't stand is when someone places non-education administrators who have never spent a day in the classroom in charge of school districts. It really frosts my cupcakes! Well, it appears the latter has happened. Or will happen.

In a well written editorial piece for the New York Times, (December 5th, 2009) Bob Herbert has written an article, entitled, In Search of Education Leaders. He reports that Harvard University is planning a new doctoral degree in "Leadership in Education." While I applaud Harvard for this step (it is the first new doctoral degree in 74 years) it should be noted that there are a number of schools that have this type of degree already in their curriculum. For example Seattle University has had this degree for almost twenty-five years--an excellent program (a disclosure: My wife is a graduate of this program and I have participated by sending students to the program and serving on doctoral committees) I think Seattle University does an excellent job of providing educators with leadership capabilities.

But still, one needs to keep in mind what Harvard is up to. My big disappointment with the Harvard news as reported by Bob Herbert is that the faculty for this new doctoral program will be staff by faculty from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Oh dear, here we go again. And because it will be coming from Harvard, many folks will believe this will produce top school administrators.

I do wish some university would gather it's resources and do a large scale survey of teachers from across the nation and have them list the things they see that would promote better education. What do our teachers need? Less kids in a classroom? More books or more up to date textbooks? More Smart Boards or White Boards? Clearer objectives for each grade or subject matter? More computers? More or less time with the kids? I suspect but am not sure that some teachers would want their students to have a good breakfast in the morning, or a safe place to go after school is done for the day. I don't think anyone has ever done a large scale study of what teachers think. What would improve their teaching from the teachers' point of view?

I do think that many teachers--it doesn't matter which level or grade--would ask for a clearer curriculum. Most teachers want to know what is it you want me to teach your chid or teenager. But our school curriculum has become chaotic with many different requirements. The American Legion wants the schools to patriotism, the legislature has passed a law requiring all students to study the holocaust. There are literally hundreds of different learning objectives now required in our school curriculum. To some degree I understand why some teachers prefer to teach to the test--at least the test questions are clear and insightful. But still, I suspect many teachers become burdened with curricular requirements. [an aside to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Here is a worthy cause for you to consider--compile a curriculum for a K-12 school district and make it available to all districts.] What should the modern curriculum be? Here we are once again, "What knowledge is of most worth?"

Once again, the New York Times article that set me off was, "In Search of Education Leaders," by Bob Herbert. A well written article: I thank Mr. Herbert for writing it. And you should be thanking your teachers for giving you the knowledge to be able to read all this and make your own decisions as to what is a good education. Thank a teacher today.