Thursday, May 27, 2010

What to teach... and when. A puzzlement.

Just the other day I was being given the once over by a young nurse in a doctor's office.  She had a lap-top in which she was putting down my vital signs and other information that might assist in seeing how I was doing.  She was a very competent nurse and inputed the data with her touch typing skills.  She typed well and I asked her, "Where did you learn how to key-board?"  "In first grade."  "First grade?"  I was somewhat amazed.  She continued, "yes in first grade and second grade.  We had this program that we would do every other day.  Then we had to bring in a piece of cloth to cover the keys and we had to keep typing."  Then she broke into a big smile and said, "But in the third grade we got to use a mouse!"  Obviously, that had been a big deal in her life.  Getting to use a mouse.

So I continued my inquiry.  "Did you ever get instruction on how to write cursively  or print?"  "Oh yes, we had that for a number of grades on how to write.  My printing isn't that great but we were taught that too."  I was impressed.  So I asked what school district did all this and her answer was the name of our local school district.  As they say in one television show, "Verrrry Interesting."  

Still, I have been pondering when it would be good to teach key boarding to children.  Many have their own computers at home so when is it optimal to teach keyboarding?  Some years ago I talked to a colleague who was more into keyboard then I was and I asked him how soon can we teach keyboards to children.  His answer, "Prenatal."  I thought him teasing me but he reported that there was much research that appears to show that whatever the mother does during the third trimester of carrying her child will have an influence on that child.  If the mother to be likes to sing, her child will have a need to sing.  If she listens to German, her child will have an interest in that language as well.  If mom to be types, then we can suppose that the child will want to type as well.  

The research is there overall in this theory but no one has tried it with typing.  I wonder.  My keyboard is very quiet.  Would an un-born hear that?  Or is it something in the blood that conveys that talent?  Interesting question.

So we teach key boarding at the primary level.  Now I will suppose that there are computers in the classroom.   I've heard some people say that computers are beyond the scope of pre-schoolers but I have watched a fairly lengthy video of a two year old playing at great length with a Mac Plus.  She stands at a coffee table in her diapers, can turn on the computer and then moves the mouse around and makes drawings the same as a two year old would do with crayons and paper.  The only thing she didn't know how to do was to erase pages  on her computers.  Both parents worked at home on Windows type machines and she had early on wanted to play with their computers.  They bought this Apple machine so she could "do her work", while they did theirs.  No, she didn't know how to type but rather just randomly hit keys.  She preferred the mouse to scribble lines on the screen.

The reason I report all this to you is that it raises some fascinating questions.  If first graders are learning to touch type what are they typing?  I would think words.  Is this a new way to teach reading?  What about spelling?  As they type words does the spelling checker underline misspelled words like it does for me?  We know that immediate reinforcement is the best teaching device, i.e., to tell a student a word is misspelled as soon as he writes it.  Does this work on the computer.  

I once had a very excellent graduate student do a research project in a grade school where a fourth grade class was taught exceptional writing skills by the regular classroom teacher.  He would give instruction to the class and they would write a story about something.  What my graduate student did was to provide a number of computers out in the hall outside the room and randomly selected six of the class to "write their story" on the computer.  I'm jumping ahead here but those selected kids turned in longer stories, longer paragraphs and longer sentences then they did when writing.  But a bigger measure of good writing is how much someone revises their original effort.  On this point, the kids on the computer far exceeded the rest of the class.  Indeed, in one case we had problems getting one of the computer kids to turn in his story--he kept reading it and going back to make revisions.  

This is fascinating stuff.  If we teach key-boarding in first grade how is that going to effect the teaching of reading?  How about spelling?  And will they be far ahead in writing?  Some years ago I was a visitor in a Canadian elementary school where they had a large number of small calculators called "the Little Professor."  Hand held devices, you could select the level of difficulty and give it to a child.  It would then present the child with an arithmetic problem--for an example, 6 + 8 and the student would have to enter 14 in a given time.  Or you could have multiplications problems--9 X 5.  You get my drift here.  However what I noticed in the school that most of the kids were at the extreme top of the problems.  They were using the Little Professor in small groups and shouting out the answers to be the first one.  And now they were not doing easy problems.  I saw one group of kids doing multiplication of several places---128 X 53 and they were giving the correct answers from their head in seconds.  I was outclassed. I couldn't do it as well as them.  They were having fun with numbers.

How can we use technology in the classroom to help further the learning skills of our children?  What an adventure this has to be in teaching and learning.  There has to be a whole new way of comprehending how to use twitter and facebook in the classroom.  And that means we also have to teach the children the dangers of those learning tools.  

Over the past weekend I read several accounts of what the state of Texas is doing with regards to textbooks, especially social studies and history by way of a textbook committee.  Because Texas buys so many textbooks, publishers go out of their way to see what Texas wants and what Texas wants is what a number of other states get.  This textbook overview resulted in a more conservative look at history and a number of educators are already upset with the results.  Me too....except after I thought about it, the textbook is just one pile of information to the student.   They will also have the advantage of the internet to check and collaborate information.  If an elementary teacher tells a fifth grade class to do a presentation on Power Point about Abraham Lincoln, some subjects will emerge that have been discarded in the Texas textbooks.  I have calmed down.  Our kids will do spite of us.  They always have.

My thanks to a nurse who learned how to key board in first grade and to that teacher who taught her how to type.  

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Heart of a Teacher

I wish I had written the following.  It is well done.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Finally, some good news on the age old question of Merit Pay for Teachers.  For those who have been following along, you know this writer (blogger) has opposed merit pay without question for many years.  From early research by the Washington Education Association and the King County Round Table and a local school district in King County, the results were such that the experiment was cancelled after only several years at the request of the parents.  Some of the negative results were 1) known good teachers leaving the district for other local school districts without merit pay, 2) lack of sharing among teachers, 3) poor teacher morale, and 4) students not enjoying school as they had been.  It has been many years but I have not forgotten the results.

Recently a study published by the Economic Policy Institute suggested that merit pay for teachers did not improve teaching or student scores and also have other negative reactions in the school system.  [editor's note:  I do not know who the Economic Policy Institute is, where they get their money or what their purpose is--I'll try to get back to you on this]  This institute reported that private schools hardly ever used merit pay--perhaps because they paid well to start with.  Worthy of further study in this area.

But in another recent book by Daniel Pink, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"  says that money doesn't motivate people.  I'll have to get the book--money does have an influence on me, maybe because I never had much of the stuff.  But teachers go into teaching knowing full well it is not a high paying job.  And two or three thousand may not be enough to influence their behavior.  Pink gives three reasons that motivate people.  They are:

  • they are aligned with the purpose of the job
  • they are given some autonomy on the job
  • they are supported in gaining mastery of the job
Great reasoning.  Do you see how this fits perfectly with teaching?  This really gets to the point why merit pay just does not work in education.

In an excellent report in Huffington Post by Esther Wojcicki, and educational writer, journalist and......high school teacher, Ms Wojcicki in her article, "New Research Shows Merit Pay for Teachers a Poor Idea," writes a beautiful statement (wish I had written it) about merit pay.  I quote it here verbatim:

Studies show that teachers are already purpose driven and while merit pay may temporarily improve performance over all it has no positive impact. Teachers need to be given more respect, more autonomy, better overall pay, supplies, and more classroom support to master their teaching skills. Merit pay doesn't work for the workplace and is a terrible idea for schools.
This is probably not the final word on merit pay.  Politicians will continue to energize the population on how bad our schools are doing whether it be true or not.  It goes with motherhood and apple pie.  But at least it is on the side of reason for a change.  

Thanks to all those who went into teaching because they wanted to teach our children....and for that purpose alone.  Teachers, you are uncommonly great.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why college? Why education? Why learn?

In my previous blog I wrote about some college professors who I admired and respected.  As I think back on seven decades of life, my college experience started out okay but kept getting better.  I've pondered this reaction and wondered why.  My general thought was that as a freshman learner  I wasn't very good at all.   I still remember a graduate student in psychology teaching me how to underline important material in my textbook.  Whoa, mark up a book?  They never let me do that in high school.  I'm somewhat embarrassed as to my behavior during my undergraduate days.  That was long ago and I still weep mentally.   Some of those professors must have had hard duty.

But as I mentioned my college experiences kept getting better.  Parts of my master's studies were downright mind boggling.  I was in heaven.  It was hard work but I enjoyed it.  I still remember a elementary teaching colleague who asked me for help on some statistics for a research project one summer and I did the work and realized he didn't have enough data in certain categories to be able to do the statistical procedure.  I told him about his data short fall and he told me he get back to me on this.  He did the next day with enough data to finish the statistical work.  But I asked him where did these figures come from?  He had made them up--"why go to the trouble of doing more measurements when you already knew what you wanted."  Jack went to a different college and I wondered if anyone would ever find this ethical problem.  I doubted it....but was comfortable that my own professors would have made me do it over.  I learned.

Recently there was a major article in the New York Times that asked the question, "Is College Necessary?"  And then it went on showing the number of jobs that was available that did not require a college degree.  In one example, the writer noted that his mailman had a bachelor of arts degree which was not necessary for the job and the cost of his degree might have gone to buying a house in a good neighborhood.

It seems to me that we have the age old question, "What are you going to teach me?  OR What am I going to learn?"  Are college degrees necessary for getting a job or for improving oneself.  I have always argued for the latter.  College is not a job placement procedure, it is a self improvement procedure.  It is an attitude adjustment.  Much knowledge of which we learn will be out of date during our lifetimes but our improvement to self will still be in good standing, even if you aren't (standing).

Another article in the Huffington Post counterpoints the New York Times, "Is College Necessary?" It was written by Jeff Brenzel, who is Dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University.  He hasn't been at this position for long and the class of 2010 will be the results of his first admissions.  It's a good article (blog?) and I can recommend it.  "To the class of 2010."  Toward the end he asks some good questions of this years graduates but I thought the questions were good enough to share with you.  They made me think....even tho' ol' blue eyes suggestion that I am in the September of my life.

Here are Mr. Brenzel's questions.....and some reflections of mine.

 Are you graduating with broader views of what you might do in life compared to the ideas you had when you arrived?  As a senior of some standing, I do think I have gathered broader views then when I first graduated years ago but I have miles to go...
• To what degree have you learned how to lead by subordinating your own ambition to the common good, rather than vice versa?  I'm comfortable with this question.  Broad goals are essential because life keeps changing.
• Have you mastered a mode of inquiry, or developed anything that could constitute a permanent and fertile source of intellectual interest?  I wonder about this one.  I sometimes think I am narrowing my focus for the ease of thinking.  Not good.
• How much more did you contribute to classes and organizations and jobs than you took from them?  I am afraid in recent years I have dropped out of organizations because it has become difficult to understand the changes that are going on.  Poor marks on this one.
• Have you as yet loved anyone or anything beyond reason?  To a fault.  Perhaps too much.
• Have you learned how and why to risk a serious, public failure? Done that--several times with egg on my face.  The hard part is getting up again and trying to go forward after you failed.
• How well can you sustain a determined, focused and disciplined attempt to solve an important problem?  In my mid seventies, sustaning is the hard part of life.  It is easier to sit down and read my kindle.
• How much more inclined and more able are you to recognize and appreciate real genius, whatever its mode of expression?  I can recognize real genius but sometimes it hurts.  I wish I had some sort of talent or intelligence.  
• What have you become willing to do without getting paid, graded or recognized?  I've tried to do this much of my life.  It gets harder as you go.  Recently I found out that something that I had started at my university is now being attributed to someone else.  It hurts.  But the real question for me is can I overlook this?  I don't know.....yet.
• How much room have you been able to leave for the inconvenient exercise of compassion, kindness and generosity?  I wonder, I wonder.  Do I measure up?  I don't know--tough question.
These are the questions--you need to ask yourself what are the answers.  Are you still growing intellectually?  It is hard looking into the mirror.
Thanks to all my teachers and university professors who helped me, pushed me, encouraged me to go beyond my self-imposed limits.  It is breath taking.  Thank you again.

Monday, May 10, 2010

College teaching...

Eons ago before the iPad, blackboards and indeed even schools, there were monks throughout Europe who were interested in the truth.  What was real?  These monks lived for the most part a simple existence studying, reading, and before the invention of the printing press, writing books.  You've all seen the elaborate and intricate designed books copied by these monks.  The only teaching that these monks did was to initiate the new members into their order--what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.  The primary purpose was to gain knowledge and perhaps to pray.

But knowledge was the focal point.  An interesting book that describes the problems and tribulations of one who was interested in knowledge but had to acknowledge the church is Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dave Sobel.  Essentially, Gallileo fell in love with a woman but since there were of different classes of society, could not marry.  A daughter was born from this union named Virginia who changed her name when she became a nun.  Tough times for both of them.  The church at that time espoused the fact that the earth was the center of the universe and Galileo and his new technology the telescope decided that the sun was the center of the universe and that there were other planets in our solar system.  Basically this did not set well with the church and so we have some political tip-towing through the land minds of those times.  Fascinating book.  While it is not the beginning of science it certainly is a portrait of an early era of the problems of science.  It is still going on today in this society.  

Why all this introduction?  The monks and individuals throughout the centuries have worked to find the truth and to pass it on to others.  There is a fascinating little antidote about the monks.  They would get together every so often to relay what they had recently learned--early research.  And as a group they would pick the least among them to make arrangements for a room, a warm fire, food and drink.  This person was called a "dean" and would take care of the logistics.  Least among them, eh?  How the world turns.

But the monks and these individuals who thought knowledge to be important were the beginnings of the colleges and universities.  They were our earliest teachers or professors--the Latin word profess means to "declared publicly."  I wonder if in the ages that are to come if I will be known as a professor or a blogger.  Maybe someday in the far future it will mean the same thing.

I have know some brilliant, fascinating, complex, and very knowledgeable professors.  But not all of these professors were also good teachers.  It is a profession that does not require teaching to be among the essential characteristics of being a professor.  You have to do research and you have to publish but you don't have to know how to teach.  One might study chemistry or fresh water organisms but be unable to tell others of your findings and your passions.  

For the college student there are two extremes--one is that here I am, now teach me something.  The other being what can I get out of this person that I don't know?  During the time I was working on my masters degree I had a professor that fascinated me.  She was so smart and intelligent that I immediately found myself listening intently to her lectures.  What new idea would she impart to me?  Sometime during that course I was having coffee with several of my friends who were also in the class.  They commented on what a terrible lecturer she was--why today she had over seven hundred "er's" during the hour lecture.  "ER's?"  I didn't know what they were talking about.  One of my friends explained that when Dr.  C. said a sentence, they would keep count of the "ers" between the in, "Today, er, we will, er, discuss, er, the effects, er of technology, er, er, on those chidren, er with muscular problems."  Strangely enough I never heard those "ers".  Later on I would sometimes hear them but most of the time I heard her ideas and information.  I thought her to be brilliant.  So much so that she became my mentor during my research project, master's thesis. In spite of her lecturing technique she opened the door to research and thinking to me.  I'll be always grateful.  

I had another professor during the early days of my doctoral studies who walked into the classroom and asked "what class is this suppose to be?"  Some of us answered and he continued with something like, "why so many--is it required?"  This went on for several minutes and I prayed that this was not our instructor.  To my dismay it was.  He seemed so disorganized--totally ignorant of what he was supposed to do.  Our class was becoming chaotic within the first fifteen minutes.  We students were arguing among ourselves as to what the course was supposed to be and why were we taking it?  Somewheres in that first half hour I realized he had done this specifically to start us thinking as to what literature and reading really meant in the public schools.  It was a good discussion and the members of the class, all experienced teachers were immediately drawn in the discussion.  Dr. S use to drive me nuts because he always asked us questions--we had to discover the answers.  We had to think!  I wish now that I could take the course over again just for the fun that I missed thinking.  

Some professors are famous for their teaching ability.  There was one faculty member in the history department that I would go over to see what he did in his lectures, how did he handle the student questions, did he move about or stand behind the podium.  I had a list of questions on my clipboard that I wanted to get answer for.   Each time I went to listen to Dr. T I got so involved with the history of Ireland that I forgot to get the answers to my questions.  He was fascinating.  I quit trying to learn about his lecturing techniques--I couldn't stay focused on my inquiries.  The students loved him.  

Teaching at the college level is a unique problem.  For one thing, professors have no one to teach them--they have to find their own answers.  But perhaps more important than finding the answers is knowing what questions to ask.  

I am eternally grateful to all the many professors and instructors and lecturers who taught me information, processes, and thinking.  My thanks to all of them. Have you thanked a teacher this week? 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Another blog, another story

I have a colleague at Western Washington University in the Woodring College of Education that I think very highly of.  A brilliant woman who is in the Foundations Department (read:  Philosophy of Education) and has presented and written many papers that articulated democracy in education as espoused by John Dewey. She is my friend.  

Dr. Lorraine Kasprisin is also a blogger and writes a more erudite and accurate blog than I do.  Which is why I highly recommend, nay, push you to read her latest blog about a school in Bend, Oregon.  Her blog address is  Please do me this favor and take a look at another school that has children in its focus.  I wonder had I first started teaching in an exciting school would I still be there today.  A puzzlement for me.

Now, don't forget.  Read Lorraine's blog.

Teaching is not just the imparting of knowledge.  That's the main idea but just putting stuff into another head is not so easy.  Some heads are more resistant than others.  And also, somewhat like making wine, it takes time.  I really hadn't grasped this concept when I first started teaching but from my playground days in Rye, New York, I knew that kids needed an environment that they could ponder, to think, to play with. 

It was my first year teaching in the fifth grade, perhaps a month or so into the year.  I was struggling to get a hand on the curriculum, the kids, my place in the school, and keeping my wits about me.  The kids were doing better at surviving then I was so I suspect it should not have been a surprise when they started asking questions about me.  "Was I married?"  "Did I have a pet?"  "What were my hobbies--what did I like to do beside teach?"  So far so good, I had answers that satisfied them.  But one question came up, "How old are you, Mr. Blackwell?"  Not noted for being quick on my feet I did realize in a second of time that most of the parents of kids in my class were older than me.  What would happen if this fact was taken home?  Would I lose face?  Without much other thought I told the kids, "I am eighty-two years old."

The surprise was that the kids were okay with that answer.  Because they were mostly ten, eleven and twelve years old, anything above fifteen was in the general area of normal for an adult or an older person.  

However, this satisfaction lasted about a week.  It now seems obvious that the kids in my class had gone home and discussed what was going on in their classrooms during dinner time and when the subject of my age came up, mom and dad broke out in laughter.  "Even grandpa wasn't that old."   So the next day the question came back up, "Mr. Blackwell, tell us your real age."

I explained that that was my real age.  You had to be old to be allowed to teach.  I will admit that that line of defense did not sit well with my colleagues when they heard from their kids about my age and why I was that old.  But still it satisfied most of my kids.  But after a couple of days, the question started in again.  One of the interesting things for me was to see that the kids were puzzled by my answer--it didn't fit but they couldn't figure it out.  BUT it was something they could think about.  World problems, even local civic problems were above these kids but figuring out the age of their teacher was well within their realm of thinking.  "When were you born?"  "1876."  This number was so far out of their reality that it didn't even raise an eyebrow.  I was enjoying myself.  Some of my kids actually went back to their previous teacher and asked them to ask me my age.  Fortunately, we teachers are a band of liars and they stuck with me on this one.  For a time eighty-two was the proper answer.

The story soon got around the school that I was eighty-two and at the first PTA meeting of the year, I was introduced as a new teacher and as the oldest teacher in the faculty.  Adults laughed and enjoyed themselves.  My kids hearing this were more confused then ever.  He can't be eighty-two!

A few of my students from time to time would ask me for my wallet ostensibly to see if I had a picture of my wife or dog.  But I knew it was really to find my driver's license and see when my birth date really was.  

Well, my friends, I stayed eighty-two the rest of the school year.  The class almost pleaded with me as we ended the year, "Tell us your real age!"  

At the start of the next year my new group of kids had the advantage of having asked the older kids what was Mr. Blackwell like.  It was soon after the beginning of the year that the question arose--How Old......   And my answer was eighty-two.  "But you were that last year."  "I know, I know but when you get to be this age, things go slower--asked your grandfather if that isn't true."  They did just that and the grandfathers united behind me--things go slow when you're in your eighties.

I remained eighty-two the entire time I was teaching at that school.  It began to be a game of trying to out fox me as to my real age.  They also learned about being teased.  It definitely was a bond between me and the kids.  I was their eighty-two year old teacher even if it wasn't true....but they liked being part of the tradition.  

Near the beginning of the last year that I taught at this elementary school, the new kids brought up the question--how old are you.  And I gave the now standard answer.  There was a groan from the class and they knew they had to figure out how to out smart me.  This was going to be tough!  And then in the back of the room a blond haired girl whose smile could light up a room, stood up beside her desk and in a strong voice said,  "Mr. Blackwell, if you were eighty-two you would be retarded!" and she sat down.  I have to admit, I laughed out loud.  It was a delight and she turned out to be a delight in my classroom.  I've always hoped that she really meant, "retired" but perhaps "retarded" might be more appropriate.

I miss those kids.  All of them.  I will forever wish I had been a better teacher than I was.  The children of our society need good, steady, and yes, puzzling teachers who want them to learn.  

Thanks to all the old teachers who with a smile, much affection and intensity teach our children.  You're a wonderful bunch of people. Hang in there.