Monday, December 27, 2010

How Some Things Change in Education

Many, many years ago, sometime around the late 1940s I was a high school student in Richland, Washington.  As a student of that time I was required to take certain classes and some electives.  Since I was a music student I had taken or was taking most the music classes that were available at that time.  So as an alternative elective, I chose "typing 01".  I was the only boy in an all girls class.  And yes, I did get teased and ribbed about taking a "girls' course."  But my intuition said this was the right thing to do--besides I had all these girls around me, what could be better?

Boys were suppose to take shop and girls were suppose to take secretarial studies (including typing 01 and 02 and machine calculations 01).  It was the way things were right after World War II.   But I learned how to touch type, fix margins, proof read, and eventually got to be a fairly good typist--around fifty five words a minute (I did get faster in the Army but that is another blog perhaps).   We used Underwood typewriters and a variety of calculating machines, mostly with levers you had to pull but we did have a few electronic calculators to work on.

When I went off to college I took the family's old typewriter with me and was able to type all of my homework assignments and papers for my classes.  I was even approached by some fraternity brothers who were willing to pay me to type their papers.  In those day at college you could write with pen a paper and turn it in.  Very few profs mandated a typed paper in those days.

And I remember my first education course one fall.  I enjoyed my ed courses that I remember.  One of the assignments in the course was that during the Thanksgiving break, each of us were to go to a local school and assess the building.  How many classrooms, was there a teacher's room, gym, music rooms?  Pretty much a standard assignment.  

There was a new middle school in Richland and I prevailed upon a good friend who had a camera to accompany me to view the school.  I know the principal was quite proud of the school, one of the first to be built after the war and he took us all around the building.  I do remember that many of the classrooms had aquariums in the walls between the classroom and the hall so that you could peer thought the tank and get a strange view of the classroom.  But it had it's reverse and the students could see distorted faces peering at them from the hall side of the tank.  Some teachers had already put a sheet of paper covering up the aquarium.

Well, we took 36 pictures, had them developed.  Then looking at the photographs, I typed my report leaving space to glue the pictures in place.  A cover page and a folder and I was pleased with my report.  Biggest problem was that the pictures tended to curl and so the report wasn't quite a smooth as I wanted.  But I turned it in anyway.  I was surprised when the professor made positive comments about my report IN class.  That I wasn't expecting.  The idea that I had taken the time to include pictures appeared to make his day.

I learned from that assignment--not about a school building but rather my presentation could influence my final grade on the report.  Okay now!  From then on my trusty Underwood did yeoman work.  I started to use a better grade of paper and I tried hard not to have too much "correction fluids" on a page.  IF you don't know what correction fluids are, don't ask-- you're too young.

Later on while working on my Master's degree at the University of Washington I did a small research project by taking a variety of student assignments in education from a variety of different students, measuring the paper's characteristics, then handing all of them to a professor and asking him to LOOK but not read the paper--then place them in high to low in a pile.  My thinking was that the prof would not want to give an assigned grade to a paper he/she hadn't read but did have a feel for the value of the paper. This was about 1962, before microcomputers. 

Here is what I found out.  The lowest paper in the stack was the easy erase paper (not fluids) which was a waxy type paper which was hard to write on.  Profs did not like this paper.  Poor and dirty typed papers were next to the bottom.  Thin typing paper was lower then thicker paper.  The profs seem to like 24 lb. paper.  Wide margins topped narrow margins.  It seemed that they wanted some space to write comments.  Double space was required.  Single spaced papers didn't stand a chance.  Headings and paragraphs were evaluated much higher then papers with no headings and no paragraphs.  Makes sense.  And for my research, papers in folders were rated higher then papers just stapled with no folder.  My generalization was/is that the presentation had a hand in the grade being earned.  

Some years later after becoming a professor at the Woodring College of Education, my wife and I bought a Osborne 1 home microcomputer.  I remember bringing it home and setting it up on the coffee table in the living room and plugging it in.  Then with my wife instructing me, we made the required copies of the software including "WordStar," a word processing program which included a spell checker.  We tried the new program out and I started to cry.  I knew that this program was going to change the way we produced anything typed.  In fact at that moment the typewriter was essentially obsolete.  

You see, I am a dyslexic.  I'm a poor speller but worse, I don't always see my misspellings.  With a word processor it would flag a misspelled word and I could look it up quickly and make corrections.  No more having to re-type an entire page.  AND.... we could change the size of the font, the space between lines, make headings bigger and bold and italicized which one could not do with a typewriter.  It was the beginning of a new way of presenting papers in a learning environment.  

The reason for all this drivel about the early days is that I received this Christmas the latest copy of iWorks for my Macintosh computer.  Actually, I received the family pack so that all five of our computers can now have the latest in iWorks.  Word processing, number computations and presentations are now possible in a variety of forms and styles.  In the word processing program there are a number of formats designed just for the student--and there are several just for the teacher.  They are beautiful and easy to use.

Strange though I believe that writing papers to turn in to your teacher is on the way out.  Finished.  Kaput.  Done with.  Students will research or do an assignment and then turn it into the teacher by way of Blackboard or other school server software.  

But as i reviewed the word processing software last night I saw my old paper in my mind with the photographs of the Sacajawea Middle School in Richland, Washington.  It would have been better in iWorks.  

Thanks to all those professors who looked over my pile of student papers and re-stacked them in order of value.  You helped me learn a lot.  And thanks to you for all your teaching and helping of students.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

Monday, December 20, 2010

What is the ideal classroom?

I had an interesting conversation with the acting dean of the Woodring College of Education just the other day about the remodeling of the education building.  I move into my office in the fall of 1968--brand new and impressive.  Over the years I had different offices and reception rooms.  None were set up for the use of technology.  That was always the problem.  Not enough wall outlets or table space.  Plenty of book shelves though....

The "old part" of the building was the old campus school and was the defacto classrooms for education classes.  When I first started teaching at this college I asked for a classroom that I could set up with all the technology at that time and make it into a self-instructional classroom.  Hey, I was on the leading edge so I thought.  But the problem was they didn't want to give up any classrooms and the audio-visual department said it didn't have enough equipment to permanently "loan" that much equipment to any one classroom.  Here I was teaching "audio-visual classes" and they wanted me to teach it with lectures.  It took me two years to get up to speed.  Trust me--this was easy compared to asking for a classroom of Apple computers in the late seventies.  

But two years ago the university put it's resources behind getting Miller Hall, the education building into the twenty-first century.  I haven't seen it yet but comments from old colleagues say it is wonderful.  I hope so.  But the best part is that the "old part", i.e.,  the campus school is being remodeled as well.  The old classrooms were really not that good for different types of teaching and for many years, only had two wall outlets, one in the front of the classroom and one in the back.  Let it be said that I had been known to blow a few fuses in my time in which "buildings and maintenance" would have to drive over and reset them.  Yes, I said "fuses."  

So I was delighted to hear from the dean that the classrooms were being "totally" remodeled as well for the faculty.  I asked if the faculty had any input on the remodeling?  Yes, all faculty and departments had been quizzed as to what they might need.  This is a difficult task at best.  Some faculty just want to talk.  Others want to have students "do" things, act out, put on plays, etc.  And, of course, my old department of instructional technology wants to use technology--"where can I plug it in?"  I was really quite glad to hear that the faculty had been asked as to their preferences.  Nice going, administration.

Then I asked if "Smart Boards" were going to be install and had the pleasant response to know that all classrooms except one would have the electronic white boards installed (for an explanation what a Smart Board is, see:  ).  The faculty voted for Smart boards. 

Well........not all faculty voted for Smart Boards.  The Mathematics Department voted for.....holding your breath?  Blackboards!  I wasn't surprised but I think the dean was surprised by my reaction.  No, I wasn't surprised at all.  In fact, in the late 1960s there was an initial research on teachers and what kind of classroom they wanted.  Kindergarten teachers wanted space with sections all around the room for different activities.  Primary teachers wanted a classroom where they could have small tables for reading instruction.  AND they wanted larger blackboards that went lower down so kids could use them.  Unfortunately some school architects just lower regular blackboards and teachers had to bend over to use them.  Some days we just can't get things right.

The rest of the research was not surprising back then.  High school chemistry teachers wanted up to date laboratories with secure storage of chemicals.  Music teachers wanted sound proofing for their classrooms.  I suspect you can figure out most of what was wanted.  Many wanted "light control" so they could show 16mm film.  To this day I am interested in the fact that most light switches are at the back of the room and that a teacher has to go to the back to control the lights.  Sure, she/he can ask a student to do it but I think having a control up front as well would not be too difficult to install.  What do you think?

One of the interesting results in that research, and remember, this is around 1970, is that teachers wanted telephones in their classrooms.  They didn't want to have to go to the office or teacher's room to make a phone call.  Today we don't have that problem, do we, with cell phones so prominent.

Another surprise was that teachers of all sorts wanted "photocopiers" in their classroom.  And principals fought this desire with the knowledge that their paper budget would go sky high.   But later research show that the copier appeared to be linked to increased knowledge.  Someday I'll tell you my thinking on that.

I know you want to know why the Math department is so old fashioned.  And it may surprise you that I am on their side.  Actually during this 1970 research on classroom environments, the math departments came to the same conclusion that they did just this past year.  They may be esoteric  but they are consistent! In the 1970s research the math teachers pretty much around the country wanted a round classroom with swivel chairs for the students with a blackboard that went entirely around the classroom.  Those smart thinking math teachers wanted to be able to present something on one board and then go to another to show something different in comparison.  OR they wanted to start a proof and complete it to the very end.  Such behaviors just can't be done very well with PowerPoint presentation or Smart Boards.  Maybe some day they will make a elongated Smart Boards just for math instructors.  We can hope.

I'm sorry to repeat myself but it is appropriate that Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our bulldings, thereafter they shape us."  Classrooms, too, Winnie.

Thanks to all those teachers that have responded to questionnaires on what they would like in a classroom knowing full well they would never be able to teach in it.  And thanks to all those teachers who have taught in a classroom which limites their abilities.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some musings...

Um, I'm a more relaxed person today.  You see there have been a number of articles, web postings, some blogs and several op-ed pieces in defense of teachers.  A few have even argued against the evaluation of teachers by using student test scores.  A big thank you to all of you.  I thought for awhile that I was the last person to support teachers--I'm not.  And I'm happy.

But teachers are beginning to speak out although for the most part the teachers I have spoken to have by and large ignored the discussions and the blame.  A good friend of mine sent me two pieces of data in this regard.  Both items are from the TED website.  The first item is by Diana Laufenberg, a teacher who makes a number of important points--first, that students need to "own" the learning, no matter what it is.  Second, the teacher needs to allow students to make mistakes (Yesssss!) and third, that failure IS learning.  And I love Diana remarks on "how do you put that in a bubble on a test."  So here is a ten minutes talk by Ms Laufenbert--very close to my emotional core.


I've heard other types of responses over the years that are similar to the next offering by my friend, which is also from a TED web site.  But this one is good and it is emotional--at least for me.  "What do teachers make?" is by Taylor Mali and you know he is a teacher.  View the following:


I share these two items with you as a brief example of some of the responses to the "No Child Left Behind" and the "Race to the Top."  There is no question that we need to improve our educational system here in the United States.  Not because other nations are "ahead" of us but because it is in our nation's future that we must invest.  We have ignored our educational system since the seventies to a great degree as economy has become the focal point.  But we have forgotten that intelligent, inquisitive, confident, and demanding students drive the economy.  Those students are profit!  It's money in the bank for the community.

I really liked Ms Laufenber point in the first television example in that students in an earlier time HAD to go to the school to get the information.  The information was in the teacher's head and in the books that she had.  Today's students are masters at "googling" information.  It is possible that a student today might never leave home and "learn" much of the required information.  Isn't that interesting?  

What we need to teach students is how to learn.  When is a mistake a mistake? And how good can a student be?  Not good good but rather how hard can a student push his/her brains.  What box can they open they didn't know could be opened.  

There was a time in New York City way back in the 1800s when the city fathers worried about what to do with all the horse manure.....i.e., road apples.  As buildings got taller and more people lived in the city, more horses were housed in barns and the amount of manure was getting larger and larger.  I kid you not.  Look it up in New York City history of the early days.  But what happened was that the automobile was invented....and accepted by the populace and the horse manure problem slowly went away.

Well, we have sort of the same problem today but not with manure but rather with information.  An edition of The New York Times (November 13, 1987) was 1,612 pages long, contained about 2 million lines of type (over 12,000,000 words) and weighed a significant 12 pounds.  (Information Anxiety by Richard Wurman) Wurman also points out that this information was more than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England.  

I leave you with the following proposition that today we have information manure--so much information that we don't know what to do with it.  And this information can be had rather easily and quickly at home, or on a street corner, on the bus, on my boat, at a concert WHEREVER AND WHENEVER.  Isn't that fascinating?  I think so.  It sure makes deciding on a curriculum a much tougher chore then in the past.  Which information is of most worth?  Or a translation of that phrase--which learning is of most worth?

I wish you all well, have a satisfying holiday and winter solstice.  Thank you all for writing when you did this past year and adding to the milieu of this blog.  My New Year's resolution?  I'm glad you asked.  To thank teachers for all the work they do (see examples listed in the first of this blog).

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Way We Were...

There was a time in the history of this country when a community would come together to hire a teacher.  Someone would donate some land that was not cultivatable, others might donate lumber and the men would build a school house.  Sometimes it was the preverbal one room building and at times it might be more elaborate...two rooms.

Then a teacher would be hired.  As fas as I can ascertain it was mostly men that were hired--some self taught, others with a bit of schooling from some college.  I do remember one ad that stated that the teacher would have to cut and bring in the wood for the stove, carry out the ashes, clean the building when necessary, teach the children their ABCs, to read and write and do arithmetic.  For all of this the teacher might earn ten dollars a month while room and board would be provided by the parents, one household a month.  After I read all that was required of a school teacher in the country, I decided that playground duty wasn't such a bad thing.  I almost forgot:  in many of these teaching position, it was a requirement that the teacher go to church.  And that teacher could not be married.  I suspect that if they accepted married teachers they would have to pay them more and perhaps provide housing as well.  As late as the early 1950s, the Seattle Public Schools forbid women teachers to be married.  

There were some religious groups in which the elders decreed that there would not be any school or education.  It was this policy that prompted states to require communities to have schools and educate their young.  With this edict one religious group split with part of their members going into Canada, the majority went south to Mexico.

However, public schooling took hold and the beginning of an educational system was born.  To be able to teach, one had to go to a "normal school" for a period of two years.  When that was accomplished the graduate would be given a certificate that indicated this person was a teacher.  I have not found a curriculum that lead to this certificate however I am sure a good historian could find it.

Normal Schools were quite often lead by a minister, indeed, my university started out as a normal school under the auspices of a Methodist leader who forbad drinking of alcohol by students and faculty.  Smoking was permitted only in the basement next to the furnace.  

With a growing population and the burden of educating the young being a state responsibility, some semblance of a curriculum was ordained for all the normal schools and a type of certification was provided.  Indeed, as late as the 1950s one could get a "Life" certificate to teach in any grade or high school if they completed four years of college.  If you had a "life" certificate you were good for life as a teacher.  You didn't need to ever go back to school for more education.  Quant, eh?

But the state(s) decided if one was going to pay teachers that much money (the average salary of an elementary teacher in the mid 1950s was $3500), they wanted to be sure you could teach.  So a Provisional Certificate became the norm and the Life certificate was laid to rest.  A provisional certificate was good for three to five years and your principal had to sign off before a "General" certificate was issued to you.  A General Elementary or a General Secondary certificate became the norm EXCEPT for those that taught Art, Music or Physical Education who received General K-12 certificates.

Shortly after World War II was ended, the public schools started to grow at an amazing rate as our returning military men began to raise families.  We needed teachers and the "Normal Schools" were turned into "Colleges of Education" (My university evolved from being "Western Washington College of Education") with the prime purpose to produce trained teachers.  Probably for the first time an academic discussion began to evolve on what did a good teacher look like?  What did they need to know?  

But a problem that has plagued education for all time began to make itself felt--money.  Districts that had a good tax base could support better schools.  Areas that were primarily agricultural in nature could afford only the basic.  How does society support its schools and be sure that the children in one school is learning the same things as children in other (read, rich) schools.  The State of Washington has long tried to "equalize" the process of teaching by paying more state monies to poorer districts then to the more affluent communities.  I don't think this problem will ever be solved.

Still, no matter what district it might be, teachers had to be paid...and to be paid a fair wage.  So salary schedules were designed; a BA degree was worth so much money and generally was the initial steps in the salary schedule.  Then one could go back to the university in the summer and take classes and a teacher could earn a "Fifth Year" and a salary jump.  A few even took time off and got their "master's degree" and were close to the top of the salary schedule.  Another way to earn a higher salary was to work toward your "Principal Credentials" and move into administration.  Again, a course of study at the local university along with a year internship was required for the principalship.  

Those were the state and district requirement.  But there were unwritten rules as well.  Teachers, if hired, were expected to live in the district.  Actually it was against state law to require this position however, it was understood when interviewing a new candidate for a teaching position to ask, "Where do you intend to live if you get this position?" and the correct answer was, "If I can find suitable housing I'd like to live in the district."

Another such unwritten rule was that a teacher not drink.  Coffee was okay but not alcohol.  In 1955 I was seen buying a bottle of wine in the State Liquor store (yes, yes, I was cooking spaghetti sauce) and was told emphatically to go to another town and buy my wine there.  Teachers did not drink.

Another unwritten rule was that teachers would go to church.  I became a Minister of Music in an Episcopal church and this fact was noted on my records.  A positive point.

The simple fact that paying teachers is a major expense for the state and for the school districts.  And even though teacher salaries are not very high we do have many children and young adults and thereby many teachers.  I note that recently both newspapers and television news have reported that economists are arguing against master's degree pay saying that studies find no link between the master's degree and student achievement.  I wonder.  I'd like to see the studies and what student achievement they were measuring.  

The one constant in my story is that those that are affluent will continue to send their children to private schools who have teachers with master's degrees and, yes, even doctorates.  They want the best education for their children.

Well....when you thank a teacher today, be sure to thank them for bringing in the wood for the stove and sweeping out the building at the end of the day.  Who knows, they may be still doing it in some school districts.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Distance Learning That Changed My Teaching Style.

A friend wrote to me recently and asked about "correspondence courses."  I had forgotten that term and yes, the course I took on Abnormal Psychology while I was in the Army would have been called a correspondence course.  I had forgotten that term.  Universities used to have a department in charge of correspondence courses.  I suspect today that department is renamed "office of Distance Learning.

Today we can deliver a course or lecture by YouTube, computer and DVD and not have to go near a classroom.  But there can be negatives involved.  A student taking a distance course HAS to have high internal motivation.....or some form of external motivation like "I have to pass this course to get credits for a pay raise."

Some years ago I had a chance to teach a Distance Learning Course via the telephone line.  It was fascinating and in the end changed my teaching style.  Let's start at the beginning.  That State of Washington was in one of their "cut back modes" in working on the state budget.  Someone had decided that the legislative members as well as other state workers were traveling too much for committee meetings and such.  So some in our state capitol decided to install a dedicated phone system throughout the state where people would come to the phone station closest to their home and participate in the meeting by phone.  

Because it had a dedicated line, good microphones, fairly large speakers (and a number of them) plus a main unit for dialing in a room had to be almost dedicated as well for its use.  At the time it was decided to locate the one in my area at the university.  As it was, my university was short of classrooms and was not interested in holding our one classroom for this "phone committee system" and so it came to pass that the whole mess was hooked up in one of my learning laboratories.  I had a laboratory where education students came to learn how to thread projectors, focus overhead projectors, play with slide projectors and so on.  It had about fifteen learning stations that they had to complete and when done take a test administered by a graduate student.  We had a bunch of carrels where students could work on the assignment.  Somewhere in the room was a large table with multiple chairs that we used for testing purposes.  The powers to be had decided my table was just the thing for the phone system.  

So for the first month or so, it just sat there.  Not necessarily in the way but just not used.  Every time I looked at it I wondered who else had a setup like this and were?  A bit of nosing around I discovered that in every major city, university and area was one of these setups and that by scheduling it any person in the state could use long as there were others in the state with the same purpose.

So I decided to give it a try.  I got my distance learning department to advertise a three credit class in "Learning Packets."  This was something hot in the K-12 teachers' world where they would make a learning packet for some unit of learning for their class curriculum.  It was so designed as to be pretty much self contained and a teacher could set it up in the corner of the room and students could work on it when they had spare time.  This type of learning packets was pretty popular with the intermediate teachers in a grade school.  One could have a geography unit about their neighborhood, or how to look for something in a reading unit.  I know of one high school chemistry teacher who almost entirely taught her class with learning packets.  Kids could come into her class and do a packet that included tape recorded instructions, materials to get, materials to read, and photographs of the end result so that the student could compare his/her work to the photographs.  Pretty amazing stuff.

So I set up a class on how to design learning packets.  

It turned out that I had enough students sign up--if I remember correctly, around fifty-eight students, mostly fifth year (BA or BS graduates working on a fifth year certification) all around the state of Washington.  I had one experienced teacher in Spokane, two teachers in Walla Walla, about six or seven teachers in the tri-city area of Richland, another eight or nine in Longview down on the Columbia River, and about twelve teachers in Olympia at the Evergreen State College.  There was only one sign up in Seattle. I almost forgot.  I had six students in Bellingham, all undergraduates but major in education.

I had a list of the students in front of me when I first turned the phone system on and my six students had a phone in front of them.  We had two speakers set up around the table.  While the rest of the laboratory functioned as it always had, we started our learning packets class.

The first thing that I did was to introduce myself and tell the objectives of the course, what the requirements would be.  Then I started around the state: "Hi Spokane, tell us about yourself."  And she did but mentioned that she was late getting there because the room that she was using was on the top floor of the Bon Marche, a then great department store in that town.  I teased her about shopping on the way up and she mentioned something like she hoped that we could get out early so she could pick some stuff up.  Nice banter.

I then went to another part of the state--Walla Walla or Richland, I don't remember but this continued for about two hours as we visited each classroom attached to this phone system.   They were talking to me, asking questions, telling other teachers in the class some ideas they had used in the past and so on.  It took the entire two hours of phone time to get most of the distance learners taken care of.  When we shut down the system, I then talked to my six students directly in front of me.  Good kids.

The next week was pretty much a mirror of the first week except that students all had to describe what they had done over the week and where they were with their learning packet.  I liked the way that other teachers would offer suggestions and in a couple of cases actually sent materials to the teacher working on that subject packet.  There appeared to be more give and take among the class members then I would have expected in a classroom of fifty-eight students.  Because it was a phone system, you had to talk to get attention, no raising of your hand here.  And there was lots of give and take.

The course proceeded pretty much as I had planned with the different steps in the completion of a learning packet.  I had to schedule the last two classes pretty much for each person to describe their packet, goals, tasks, materials, etc.

Almost every week someone would be describing what they had done and in telling the rest of the class would say something like, "...then I want my student to go to...oops, I need a section here for the kids to go to.  I'll work on that his week."  It seemed that everyone from time to time would talk to the rest of us and find something that had neglected to take into account.  Or if they didn't find the problem, someone else in class would say, "how are you going to get the learner to this area?"  It was immediate feedback all the time.

The class continued for ten weeks (one afternoon a week for three hours) on the phone system.  I have to say that many of the projects were exemplary.  Outstanding.  I was more than pleased but so were the students.  Several made copies of their packets for others to use.  The final was a descriptive questionnaire that I sent to all students in the class (except the six in Bellingham) that they had to fill out and send back to me.  It would have been too expensive to ship the entire packet in some cases to me to review and then to ship back.  I could foresee the department chair going berserk on the budget.

 Feedback indicated that the students were highly supported of this style of learning.  But coupled with it was the fact that they didn't have to drive far to attend the class.  The dedicated phone system really worked!  They also said that it was one of the more valuable courses they had taken so far in education. Whoa!  Why was this?  It seems that in many education classes a student sits, takes notes, takes tests and that's it.  More likely in upper division courses, students do talk and exchange ideas and philosophy but it is theory.  Certainly necessary.  But in this learning packet class we had much discussion on how a young student learns and what materials might encourage that student to move ahead in learning.  The packets were great but the thinking AND talking were invaluable. 

An interesting aside.  That year at graduation I was walking around the master's degree candidates looking for some of my graduate students and I was stopped several times by someone who would say, "I was in your telephone course."  It was funny--I recognize the voice, not the face.  

EXCEPT for my six undergraduate students at the university who took the course with me in the laboratory.  They all agreed that it was "great" course.  But I realized that I should have had them describe their packets on line to everyone else rather then to me alone.  I think their work would have been even better with the experienced teachers talking to them.  I think all six of the them said they really "...learned how to teach" in this class.  They learned this by listening to experienced teachers....not from me.  

How did it change my teaching?  I made an effort that in my classes I would listen more to the students explaining their work.  Shut up, Les and listen to what they are saying.  As an example, in later work where I was teaching a 'Computers in the Classroom' course with thirty students at computers, I would hand everyone a CD of Time magazine from their beginning to almost the present.  Every issue.  Then I would ask them to find the first person of the year that was not a man.  While there are several ways to seek an answer and there are several answers to the question, I learned to say when a hand went up, "what was your answer and how did you find it?"  While they told me the process they used you could see most of the class banging away following that approach.  Almost always there would be someone who would say, I did it a different way and I'd let them give out their answer.  It seems to me that I got more learning in when I used everyone in class to help teach.  Then it was a logical step to asking (or giving an assignment) "how would you use this in your classroom?"

There is a statement that Winston Churchill once said that I like very much--I repeat myself from time to time so I apologize in advance if I've already told you.  Winnie once said, "We shape our buildings, then they shape us."  How true.  Given the great advance of technology why can't we teach and learn in different ways--why can't we have distance learning for those that need this approach?  We all don't have to be in a classroom.

I'd like to thank all those teachers who took my learning packet course so many years ago on the telephone system.  It was a fun time.  And thanks for teaching my six undergraduates how to teach.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Long Distance Learning

Some say that the best learning is a boy at one end of a log and a teacher at the other end of the log.  The symbolism is that an adult can teach a child important things one on one.  Over the years I've daydreamed about this image of one on one.  Can we make the log longer?  How far away can a teacher be and still be effective?  I've already told you that I enrolled in a University of Michigan course on Abnormal Psychology in which I read a textbook, did assignments after looking at subject (fellow band members) who may have had those characteristics discussed in that chapter.  Then I would send in my assignment and someone at U of M would read, correct, and send it back to me.  Those assignments kept me sane in an insane world at that time.  

Perhaps it was that course that got me interested in "distant education."  Why do we have to always put students together in a room to learn?   Quite frankly, it is economics--it's cheaper to do it that way.  But the evidence is out there.  People by themselves can learn many things.  We don't always need a classroom.  If we can believe Doris Kern Goodwin, the historian, Abraham Lincoln learned much of his law degree from books reading at night.  Seems feasible to me.  And so given the above data, I have been interested in how we can use "Distant Learning" to assist those that want to learn.  

First, a caveat. There are those that don't want to go to the effort to learn but want the degree and so they "buy" them.  We had a mail house college in this state and I'm glad to say that it was investigated and shut down but not before a number of rather important people bought a degree from them.   Accreditation becomes an important part in this study of distance learning.  There are some sites on the Internet that can recommend universities and colleges that have accredited plans of study....a few stay in touch with this blog and perhaps they will leave a comment as to their web address.

My first experience with distant learning was with a college class dealing with instructional media (films, overhead projection, 35 mm slides, realia, sound recordings, television, etc.).  However, a local commercial television station wanted to air a university course and so I decided to teach my class in Instructional Media in the university's rather small at that time television studio.  I would teach like I always did in front of the classroom, use the media like I always did but the only difference would be two rather large studio television cameras which would roll about the room videoing me and the students in the class. That and some faces looking down at us from a "control" room.  Although the course was scheduled in the catalog as a three hour evening class for ten weeks, I decided to break each evening into two parts thereby presenting the television station with two one hour tapes which they could play as they so wish.  They would play the tapes twice a week, I suspect, at a slow hour.  I then told the class that after the first week they need not come to class but could watch the class on their television station.  They would be required to attend the final exam.

The first weeks class went off pretty much without a problem.  I demo'd some equipment, some learning stuff and the class sat there and watched.  I asked questions and got less then normal responses.  And the student didn't ask questions....why would they?  As soon as they raised a hand, one camera or the other would slowly roll and focus on them.  They could see the monitors around the room--they were on TV!  It was not conducive for teacher/student interaction.

The next week (in which they could have stay home and watched) most of the class returned to the studio classroom.....better dressed.  Although this was the height of the hippy era, some had put aside the acceptable student dress and had chosen more acceptable social dress that adults were wearing.  Interesting.

But like a coach I watched the first two tapes and noted something fascinating.  While I was lecturing or showing something to the class, the director in the booth would have the camera people get "shots" on how the students were reacting to what I was saying.  And nine out of ten of those shots were female students in my class--where were the guys?  So for the second week I demanded that the television camera personnel be female.  As I suspected when viewing the second weeks tapes I found almost the opposite.  More guys were "shot" reacting then the gals.  I had found a problem with my "gate keepers" with the visuals.  I had then to educate the director up in the booth that we had to have equal shots of guys and gals.

But the other interesting thing was that the class continued to "dress up" and even when I challenged them on this subject, they said they weren't dressing up for the class.  

We did ten weeks of video recording of that class and very few, perhaps maybe two, elected to view the course on their television monitor at home. But sometimes they came to class as well.   Course work that the students had to turn in remain fairly high--equally as good as my other section which was not being televised.  Final test grades were also similar.  One thing that I didn't measure was if a person came to class AND then also watched the class on television.

So I concluded that the students in this section of the Instructional Media course (3 credits) learned as much as those in a non-televised sectioned.  But I had to conclude that offering this class as "distant learning" didn't seem to work.  The students kept coming to class when they had the option to stay home.  But there was another interesting piece of data that came to light.

I quite often had my classes evaluate me and the class.  This was done just before the final examination.  These evaluations were not seen by me until the following quarter so that there would be no possible influence on the students' grades.  This time the evaluation was in the cellar.  They didn't like the class, they didn't like me, they thought it was a waste of time....believe me I wouldn't have gotten a pay raise based on this class' evaluations.  It remained to the end of my career the lowest evaluation I ever received.

But there is a strange twist to all of this.  Students who took that course seemed to remember more of what I said and did and to the best of my knowledge "used" the learning in their other classes.  Also, over time I would visit some schools and a teacher would say "they had been in my televised course on media."  They still remembered it.  

My evaluation of the evaluation is that the students really didn't like the television cameras zooming in on them all the time and they really disliked it when I would ask them a question or an opinion.  Damn, here comes that camera again.  But it did keep the class more at attention.  There was no sleeping in this class and no chatting in the back rows.  You stayed alert because you never knew when that camera would catch you.  By the way the ratings at the station were also low although I did receive one letter from up in British Columbia that said I continually mispronounced a word.  Since I don't speak Canadian, I'm sure the letter writer is correct.

I'll write about "forced attention" in a later blog.  And I have more "distant learning" experiences to share with you.  It is, in my opinion, a viable learning opportunity.

If you have had a distant learning class in your background, let me know.  I'd like to hear from you.

I'd like to thank all those teachers who now communicate learning from their computers and their smart phones.  What a task.  Nice going.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bullying--it will always be with us.

Let me start out by being slightly academic.  If one were to go to the dictionary and look up the word, "bullying or bully," you would find a definition close to this one:  A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those that are weaker.  If we look in a Thesaurus  and find out other words that could be substituted for bully or bullying you would find some of the following:

  • oppress
  • tyrannize
  • browbeat
  • harass
  • torment
  • intimidate
  • dominate
  • pressure
  • force
  • badger
  • goad
  • prod
I have been bullied as a kid and as an adult.  Numerous times.  Probably my first exposure to being bullied happened in an Episcopal church choir in Utica, New York when I was probably seven or eight years old.  We younger (and smaller) kids were picked on by the older kids in the choir.  I learned quickly not to use the bath
room off of the choir practice room.  The big kids were waiting.  And as soon as the practice was over, I scooted for the bus stop and the protection of the metro bus.  No, it was not nice or enjoyable.  I've always wondered if my family stayed in Utica and I stayed in the choir would I have bullied the younger kids when I grew older.  I wonder.

Of course I was bullied in the Army.  That is how that institution works--it is a top down bullying factory.  Lieutenants yell at the sergeants who yell at the corporals who yell at the privates.  Each has power over the lesser.

Deans have bullying rights over department chairs.  Don't do it his way and your budget gets cut.  

 I suspect my point at this point is that bullying is in the fabric of our society.  My parents prodded, nagged, goaded and from my point of view, tormented me into studying and doing my homework.  I also had to practice my trumpet and do my chores.  I doubt if the courts would say I had been bullied--rather the court would say that my parents loved me enough to get me to study and do those other things.  So parents bully their kids for a variety of reasons.  But we don't call it that, do we?

Right now there are a number of articles and opinion pieces in the newspapers, the evening news and pretty much all over the web sites dealing with news.  Unfortunately, there have been a number of young people who have committed suicide because of bullying--high schools, colleges and the military have not escaped this sadness.  Why these tragic events?  Because the lesser cannot get away from those in power.

So the next question is why do people bully others?  I suspect the simple answer is because they can.  Bigger kids can push smaller kids around physically.  So they do.  There is research on bullying.  It starts with size and aggression in the kindergarten--taking away play toys from others.  Some research (I don't have the book anymore) suggested that white kids pick on black kids who pick on Hispanic kids who pick on asian kids.  What I do remember of that research book is the kids in school learn to bully, then together with friends, bully others.
That is the beginning of gangs.  One joins a gang so as not to get bullied by others.  It is a learned behavior.

So how do we stop the bullying that is in our classrooms?  (Trick question so be careful with your answer)  My initial answer is that the teachers have to be cognizant of bullying behaviors and to not only stop them but to teach about that behavior.  For the elementary teacher the playground becomes the place to observe who is doing what to who.  In some school districts I think we need some "observers" on the school bus.  The driver has enough to do with picking up and letting off as well as driving safely.  Another adult in the back of the bus would be advantageous.  

At one time I decided to ride all five bus routes home from my elementary school.  I only completed two routes.  The noise and horseplay was too much for me.  It is a breeding grounds for bullying.  So we have to teach what bullying is and how to stop it.

I found that in the intermediate grades I stopped some bullying by talking to the whole class about it.  I didn't use names but said that I had seen enough that it bothered me and I didn't want to see it anymore.  Besides it did not make out class look good.  In a sense I used bullying tactics to stop bullying.  I pulled power over my kids.  "Don't do it anymore, understood?"

But the trick part of my question is that not all bullying happens in a classroom or a hall.  Some gangs are smart enough to not do things on a school campus but wait until they get to a "home" neighborhood.  To keep bullying from becoming an epidemic we need all parts of society to say no to such behavior from parents, to neighbors, to police and at the schools.  

Isn't it parents we bully (prod, command, nag) our kids to do their homework and chores so that they will grow up to be a valuable part of society.  But it has to be carefully done or we might be teaching them how to bully.

This blog is not the end all answer on bullying.  Rather it is meant to be a descriptor of sorts on what is bullying and where does it happen.  Unfortunately it is always around us and we need to be diligent in recognizing what it is and where it is.

Now I want you to get busy and thank your teacher right now!  Do you hear me?  If you don't do it now, you will get no recess!  For the whole week!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Time to Remember....

The eleventh month, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour and the eleventh minute we revisit those that have served this country in war and peace.  For the most part as I see it, we spend little time remember those who have served.  Perhaps that is the way it ought to be.  I am a veteran, drafted into the Korean War.  I was teaching elementary music in a Seattle suburb and I didn't want to go.  I didn't want to leave my kids.  I got my draft notice in January and my district was able to get them to hold off until the end of the school year in June.

I also got married in June and we had a month together before I had to go for basic training.  I remember a little kid in one of my classes that I taught wanting to know if getting married and getting drafted were the same thing.  Smart little sucker.  I still don't know the answer to that one.

I write about this today not to memorialize those who served but to write about the teachers I had in the military.  No, they weren't professional teachers like I normally write about and no, for the most part, they didn't care about their "students."  They were drill sergeants who were prone to yell, scream, punch, prod, kick and say and do whatever they thought might get your attention and to change your attitude.  But they also taught young men how the military worked.

Most of these drill sergeants had been in combat, had been under fire and had done the dirty work of "fighting."  Their goal was to teach us "civilians" what we would have to do when going into combat.  By and large, if my memory serves me at all, I liked my drill sergeants.  They had something to teach me and I was well aware that some of this "stuff" that I was learning might indeed come in handy someday.  Most of the sergeants use external motivation to make sure we learned.  "Now listen up, I'm going to show you this once and only once and you don't get it right the first time, I'm going to have you run around this camp with full pack ten times.  DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"  

Most of the kids that went through basic training with me were just that--eighteen and nineteen year olds who had never left home before.  A number of them had their future decided by a Judge. "Either finish high school or go to jail or do four years in the Army."  I suspect most chose the Army. They didn't know how to make a bed (bunk), wash their clothes, shine shoes and boots, keep their mouth shut, stand still, follow orders, eat with any degree of manners or keep a neat locker.  Life up to this point was anything they wanted life to be.  It took yelling and screaming and threats to get their attention.  It was possible but it was hard work. 

So the drill sergeants taught us how to walk, march, stand tall, fire a rife, a bazooka (now called a grenade launcher), machine guns, how to crawl low on the ground under fire, put on gas masks, and a variety of skills that were needed at that time in the Army.  I thought to myself that teaching kids was harder work quite frankly.  There was a lot of standing around and waiting in the Army.  You couldn't do that with kids.

After "basic" I was assigned another base and did my advanced training.  Most of advanced training was mostly skills needed in the Army such as clerks training, medical and para-medical, air-borne (parachutes), heavy equipment (tanks and personnel carriers), radio, etc.  

My eventual assignment was in an Army division band.  One might call it "easy duty" but I was not a happy individual.  We played out of tune most of the time and we played the same tunes for almost the two years that I was in that band. And the Army's hurry up and wait was a predominate feature for this group.  We'd wait for this general or some VIP from the states.  My feelings have not improved.

But I did do one thing that gave me some satisfaction.  Given that we had time to wait, I signed up for a college course from the University of Michigan through some sort of an Army system in education.  The Army would pay for the course, books, everything--all I had to do was learn.  So, I signed up for an abnormal psychology course.  I figured that it might help me in later years in my teaching career.  I got the textbook and started to read.  This in itself was an abnormal 
behavior in this unit as no one read.  I don't remember anyone ever getting a book out.  

But the fascinating part was reading about different abnormal behaviors, their characteristics, evidence, treatment (if there was treatment) and possible causes of that behavior.  Great material.  But even better was that I had actually examples of these deviant behaviors all around me.   Manic-depression?  Yeah, Sergeant Crowley fit the bill exactly.  A controlling nature?  Oh my,  did First Sergeant Pagio fit that behavior. For every chapter I had one or more examples right by me.  

I did my written assignments and got excellent grades and much encouragement from some professor back at the University of Michigan.  However, I never finished the course for a variety of reasons.  

I'm a school teacher, plain and simple.  I was not military material--never would be.  I spent two years and then two more years in active reserve and was very happy to be discharged after six years.  

It is interesting that I find this blog difficult to write.  I don't want anyone to write and thank me--I'm happy now writing and talking about teachers and teaching.  Maybe we teachers need to do a better job so there will be no more wars and violence.  Maybe?

You can thank a vet but be sure to thank the teachers around you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Some random thoughts of kindness and teaching...

A day or so ago my wife and I watch a DVD, "Julie and Julia."  As critics have said, it was a delightful show with good acting and a theme to keep you interested.  Although I am not Italian, I was raised in the Italian part of town and enjoy good foods and eating.  During one trip to Paris to attend a conference, I enjoyed a Bistro and everyday good food of the French culture.

There was a small section in the movie that I felt quite close to as Julie (Amy Adams) is blogging about her culinary trials and tribulations and writes,  "Is there anyone reading this?  Is there any one out there?"  Ahhh, Julie.  I know the feeling.

If on cue, I received an e-mail from Kaitlyn Cole who works with  She pointed out that her organization recently published "20 Essential Books on U.S. Education Policy."  She thought my readers might be interested.  I agree.  You can see the list at: .  I was a little concerned that if I looked at the list of books I might feel left behind--I do get overwhelmed with my readings at times.  But it is a good list in as much as a couple of the books I once housed in my library.

One of the books I actually read and made use of.  It is "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn.  So I went to my bookshelf and looked for it.  Not there--probably loaned it out and it hasn't come home.  But I remember it.  Mr. Kohn (and I) dislike grades and grading and.....Homework.  I haven't read the most recent research on homework but I suspect it will be saying the same thing.....that homework does not increase knowledge or grades.  That is a generalization since I believe that small doses of homework and for specific reasons beyond just doing it might show value.  But by and large homework just tires us all out and the teacher still have to correct and grade it.  Mr. Kohn has a website:

I use to tell my parents at the first PTA meeting my thoughts on not sending homework home and I was surprised to find most were acceptable to this policy.  Many European countries do not send home assignments but I have not done my research on this for some take me with a grain of salt.

However, my point being that this is an interesting list on the blog.  Kaitlyn--thank you for the headsup e-mail.

Then following Kaitly's note, I got an e-mail from Emma Taylor at pointing out an article on "10 Shocking Stats on the State of the U.S. Education."  It would be interesting to check out some of the statistics that the article quoted.  For example, 43 percent and 53 percent of eighth graders receive inadequate music and visual arts.   My initial thoughts was that this seems low--I would suspect 60 to 70 percent of eighth grade students receive little or no instruction in music and art.  But I am a biased ex-music teacher.  You can find the complete article at  .

One of these days I am going to do several blogs on distance learning.  I am a believer.  And have taught for an on-line university.  

I am also looking into bullying.  It seems to be a popular topic these days.  But it happened in my classroom.  I don't think it will go away without education and supervision.  Parents, you can help on this.

I would like to thank Julia Child for teaching me how to make an omelet.   I use to fuss and worry and carefully tilt the pan and raise my blood pressure when making an omelet.  Then one day I watched a video of Julia making omelets--many of them.  Some of them actually landed in the stove.  But she'd pour the eggs in the pan, shake the devil out of them and then plop them onto the plate.  I tried it and it worked.  Thanks, Julia.  You're a good teacher.

Have you thanked a teacher today?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bulletin Boards

When I first started teaching at the intermediate grade level after having taught elementary music, I was assigned a classroom in a new elementary school that at the time was quite innovative.  It had a number of large circular buildings divided into four classrooms with restrooms in the center of each building.  No halls to clean or heat, each classroom had a door to the outside which had covered walkways.

In each classroom were two walls, one was covered mostly with a blackboard, the other wall was composed mainly of some sort of soft wood quite accessible to thumb tacks, pins and staples.  It was considered by the principal to be the classroom bulletin board which he wanted filled all of the time.  The outer wall was curved with mostly windows.  

I was not a good bulletin board person.  I did not have the creativity nor the inclination to spend a lot of time putting up material.  At first I let the kids in my room put their papers up but my principal wanted sometime more and let me know his desires.  Now this so-called bulletin board was about ten feet tall by about twelve to fifteen feet wide.  By my standards it was a royal pain in the...but I had an idea.

The class was studying in Social Studies the wester expansion.  Starting with the original thirteen states the class was to cover the migration westward until we hit the Pacific ocean.  In my day (I dislike that phrase but it is appropriate) Alaska and Hawaii were just entering statehood so our textbooks did not mention them.  I also had the assignment of teaching geography, mostly of the states, rivers, mountain ranges, etc.  Sort of fun, actually.

But the bulletin board was nagging at me.  So I decided to cover the entire wall with butcher paper and cover the paper with a large map of the United States (I can't remember if we put up Alaska and Hawaii--probably but I cannot be sure).  But how to do it was somewhat the problem.  I could borrow from the janitor a stepladder so both the kids and I could staple the paper right up at the ceiling.  Not a big problem.  But how to get the map drawn was the problem.  I thought about making a transparency for the overhead but that meant I would have to copy a US map onto a sheet of paper and then go into the Intermediate School district to make the transparency.  This meant a lost Saturday and driving into Seattle proper.  

What I finally decided was to ask several students who lived within walking distance to the school if they would be willing to come back after dinner and help me draw the outline of the United States and the individual states.  When the class found out about my evening project at least half of them wanted to come. "Mom will drive me here and pick me up!"  But I stuck with my original four or five walkers.  The reason for the night work was that the opaque projector just didn't have the power to project that far during the daylight hours.  Even with the lights turned off we couldn't darken the room enough to see the outline.

So one night I went back to the classroom, got out the opaque projector and by placing it just outside the entrance door, we could see the outline covering the entire wall.  When the kids came, I handed them a black felt pen and turned them loose on a section of the map.  It was just an outline of the country and then the outline of each state.  No rivers or mountains or names of the state.  That turned out to be the right thing in the long run.  Brilliant even thought it was not planned.

So there I was with a map of the United States covering my entire so-called bulletin board.  The class was enamored with it and we had fun guessing which state was which.  I was good with the east coast states but most of the kids had traveled during the summers and knew the west coast states better then me.  Talk about delight when a kid can beat their teacher at getting the right answer. Did I make mistakes on purpose?  I'm not telling and I'm sticking to this story.

I also assigned a state to each student to research, write about, and eventually give a talk to the entire class as to what their assigned state was all about.  But I only had about thirty five kids that year (I later had over forty kids in my classroom) so we had a few states to spare.  I gave the class some guidelines as to what they should be looking for for information about "their" state.  Population (this wasn't important to them--numbers that large had no meaning), cities, rivers, ports, agricultural areas were also good subjects of interest.  History of the state and state flag was also to be on a lookout.  Then I said I'd give bonus points for who were the native Americans that lived there before the western movement.....things like that.  The kids ate this stuff up.  My one set of old World Books did yeoman work.  The "N" volume got the brunt of the assignments.  As the kids "found out" about their state, I began to have them post notices, pictures and such onto the state with thumb tacks.  I got groused at in the office for using two boxes of thumb tacks--they normally only gave out a half a box to each class!  

My principal was still not happy but he really couldn't complain.  I did cover up my bulletin board--it just didn't fit his sense of what a bulletin board was suppose to be about.  And I suspect his comments about me in the files probably said I didn't cooperate all the time.  But I have to admit that the kids and I learned alot from our bullitin board map.  

Would I do it again today?  Nope.   In todays world I would assign a state to each of my kids and then have them do a section on a class web page.  But using this method I would have to be a bit more organized.  Because information about each state is so huge the class and I would have to decide "which knowledge is of most worth."  Now the kids would have to pick and choose.  Is this video of something worth that much gigabytes?  Does this picture really say something about my state?    This is all good stuff on how to learn.  And, yes, I would have the kids do some sort of an electronic presentation to the class about their state--powerpoint here we come!  What would I do with the extra states?  Assign them to some of the faster students in the class. They might complain but I doubt it.  This sort of learning has great enjoyment to it.  I suspect i would hear a lot of "...look what I found!" and groups of children going over to see what's new.    What would be difficult for me about all this?  How do I test the entire class on the Western Movement, knowledge of the states, geography, history of the states and so on.  Lots and lots of material to cover.  I don't like to test but I do need some sort of a base line.  How did I do in teaching this stuff?  What should I do differently next time?  How can I improve and become more efficient?  You get the picture.

And what about the damn state tests measuring all the kids?  Do they test the knowledge of how my kids put together their presentations?  Does the state test measure the enjoyment of learning that I think my kids would have in doing this assignment?  

I did this project for a couple of years.  Highly successful.  It is interesting that I learned as much as the kids did each year.  By the way, the entire class had to do the State of Washington, our home state.  By the time we got to it, the kids were skilled researchers and ferreted much more information then was in our textbooks.  Some parents also got involved as many had lived in different places within the state.  My kids were delighted.  I would also like to try something different by letting two or three girls do their states together.  Girls learn better in a group according to the research.  I'd like to give it a try.

I'd like to thank my principal from those days for egging me on in covering the bulletin board in my room.  It wasn't what he wanted but it turned out to be a good thing for my class.  They were great kids.

And thanks to all those teachers (who are now probably retired like me) who shared their ideas with me so I could do a better job of teaching.  That won't happen if we have merit pay.  But thanks all, you were great.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thoughts on the coming holiday season...

In a recent post, I mentioned that the time between Halloween and the second or third day of the new year is exciting times for many children.  From the pre-schoolers to the sophisticated high school crowd, their hearts beat a little faster and excitement is in the air.  Sometimes the teacher has to remind the students that they still have to study and learn.

At the intermediate grades life for the teacher becomes very difficult at times.  First, is there a Halloween celebration at the school?  On the school day before Halloween, kids got to dress up in their costumes and come to school.  And some schools have "parades" where one class will go from room to room showing off the individual costumes.  Parties (cupcakes and koolaid) just before the kids went home for the day.  Big relief for the teachers.  Some schools have voted to ignore Halloween but it is hard to do.  I always worried about some kids with little or no costumes.  

The holiday stress continues however for many teachers.  I use to buy a box of pencils with each student's name embossed on them.  Although you could get a classroom deal from the company it still was costly to my wallet.  And you HAD to buy several boxes extra with "My Special Student" embossed on it for sure as you would know, just before the winter break I would get one or two new students.

Also, I made it a rule that the kids could not give me a present.  "School Policy" I would intone but sometimes that didn't always work.  I'd find a package in my car as I would head home some days from some family.  Mostly a tie--and yes, you HAD to wear it to school.  We wore ties in those days--mandatory. Women teachers quite often received some sort of perfume which they HAD to wear.  Much teasing in the teacher's room at noon.

I've already wrote about the Gingerbread Boys and Girls that my wife and I made along with a number of my neighbors.  Each gingerbread item had the child's name in icing on the top.  That was overall the kids' favorite gift.  

But I also had the boys and girls make gifts to take home.  We weren't the richest of neighborhoods around this school and I knew many of the kids would have little money to buy something for the mom or dad.  

My best attempt was to buy sheets of beeswax from a local hobby shop.  It comes in green, red and white and after the first year I picked the color.  The kids each got a sheet of wax--it comes in a kinkly style and you measure it in half, fold and break it into two parts.  Then you lay the wick along one edge and carefully roll the wax sheet softly along that edge.  If done well, it looks pretty good, burns well and is a success with mothers.  The key words here are "carefully" and "softly", both are not commonplace with fourth or fifth graders.  At the end of the project each child was to have two candles to take home.  By and large it worked and I would receive a few nice notes from Moms thanking me in getting her child to make something.  I still remember some of my kids saying that they burned the candles at the Christmas dinner--the look on their faces said it all.

But there were dangers involved.  The candles were fragile and if you held them in your hands, they would melt and all you could do is start over with a fresh sheet of wax.  More then once I had to dry some tears and tell them, no problem, we can do it again.  Also taking them home on the school bus was sometimes a hazard.  But by and large it was a success.  Better yet, it only took one afternoon from our studies to do them, wrap and make a card.  It was time effective.

My other holiday project was not that time effective but I could work it in all during the day.  What I did one year was to take 35mm slide pictures of EACH of my kids playing on the playground....around the tetherball, foursquare, kickball, whatever they were doing.  I got each child individually photographed.  

What I liked about this project was that it had some learning involved.  Each child had to be measure in height.  It was "back up against the wall and tape, and someone had to use a triangle to mark and record the height.  A little bit of science here.  Then in a corner of the room, we'd tape butcher paper up and project the slide of each child using an old push-pull slide projector that nobody used.  The job was to get the picture the right height by moving the projector back or forward.  Then the kids were to outline and color in the picture of themselves.  Some used crayons and some used colored chalk.  I learned quickly to get a spray to fix the chalk or it would smug.  My kids could go back to the corner and work on their "picture" when they got their school work done.  Amazing how improved their work got done.  

But the project was deemed a success.  It was clean, easily rolled up to wrap and a number of parents told me it was one of the best things their child had done.  It wasn't hard and I think the kids learned from it.  Several got into shading, a few tried different styles.  It was cool.  Unfortunately it was the last year that I taught grade school and never tried it again.

In todays world you could take pictures using a digital camera and then project the images using a video projector.  

There are some schools who have banned holiday activities for a variety of reasons.  My personal feelings is that it is a part of society no matter what religion or group you belong to.  It is in the stores, on TV and on the radio.  You can't ignore the elephant in the room, can you? So make it into a learning lesson and discuss, study, and enjoy how children around the world celebrate their holiday.  

The holidays, they are a cummin.  If you are a new teacher, find out what is required or traditionally done or not allowed so you are on top of things.  

Did you ever thank one of your teachers during the holiday season for helping you learn?  Select a teacher today and thank them for all they do with our kids.