Monday, August 30, 2010

A Teachable (perhaps) Story

I had a most enjoyable and surprising morning.  For years, I have  gone out for breakfast and brought a book to read.  In recent months I bring my Kindle....wonderful device.  I suspect my delight of this activity goes back to the days of my undergraduate time at a university where I would walk in the cool morning air to the sorority where I was a houseboy and could have a free breakfast.  Well, the breakfast is not free anymore but I don't have to cook it myself... but the air at the moment is cool and fresh as I drive to one of my favorite cafes called the Skylark.  Two waitresses have smiles to make your morning along with a hot cup of coffee.  I really enjoy myself as I read my way into another day.

Thinking about starting another day, I have been blessed with a wife who is smarter then me and much more forgiving.   I still remember her reading a philosophy paper of mine, putting it down and saying, "so, what are you trying to say."  She continued on saying something about my not telling the reader anything they could make out.  It was back to the drawing boards and start over.  But perhaps I was starting over learning to write.  I still have a way to go.  Thanks, Lynn.

Not only is she smarter then me but she also overlooks my shortcomings.  I have been amazed that she has stuck with me for fifty three years so far (or is it fifty four?) but as I sat pondering at breakfast this morning I finally figured it out.  I can be a dumb ass at time, at least once a day and I now know that she is staying around wondering how I can top what I did today tomorrow.   It now makes sense.

Do you know what you have when two Ph.D. types live in the same house together?  A paradox.  (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

But the surprising thing that happened at Skylarks this morning was that a family came in for breakfast.  Mom, Dad and three children, two boys and a little girl--school age kids waiting for school to start.  But what surprised me was that Mom and Dad reminded me of years ago when I gave their little girl all "C's" on her report card.  They were at my classroom door the next morning waiting for me.

This couple looked just like them.  Spitting images.  Both were a bit over weight but this Dad looked like the one in my history of being able to pick me up with one hand.  He wasn't tall, maybe 5 foot 9 or 10 inches but he was big and had a few muscles I don't have.  I'm sure if he and I did chest bumps, I would be bounced about ten yards back.  Big man....even if he lost some weight.

Mom was a bit heavy but you wouldn't notice when she smiled.  It was a wonderful smile and she smiled a lot at her kids.  The kids were very well behaved.  Mom sort of coached them about the menu before the waitress got there and the kids order quickly and answer questions on some of the decisions they got to make.  "How would you like your eggs cooked?"  It was a great scene.  I wonder why more parents don't take their children out to breakfast instead of dinner to teach them how to behave in a restaurant.  Much easier on everyone.  It is a teachable moment for parents.  And these parents did it perfectly.

Anyway, I was impressed with this family.  I know I've told this story before but it bares repeating.  However, before I tell you the story keep in mind the latest political dance about how to evaluating teachers by using students' test scores.  The Seattle school district and the local Education Association are working on the problem right now.

I was teaching fifth grade and it was time for the first report cards to be sent home to the parents.  I remember struggling with my grade book, looking at the letter grades and numbers after each child's name. There could be "A's", maybe some "B's", then numbers ranging from 70 to 100.  Normally the way I thought in those days was that 70 to 79 was the letter "C", 80 to 89 was the letter "B" and from 90 to 100 was an "A".  But I would look at the name and then the grades I had, open a folder with a sampling of that child's work and then wonder what grade should I tell the parents their child is earning.  God, how I hated grading.  Sally was trying so hard her knuckles would turn white while she wrote her sentences.  She wanted to please me.  How could I say she was below average?  And Tommy would turn in anything he wanted to do that day--smart as a whip but not motivated.  Some days I could get through to him and other days I would never reach him at all.  How do you grade a kid like that.  He was an "A" student but he could do much better.  He wasn't trying.  Do I give him "B's" to motivate him--doubted if it would work and it would mean his folks would be down on him.

Each child was a problem of what grades do I send home.  A few of the parents I had already called and talked to them about what I was doing.  They would be no problem but for the most part the majority of the parents would be getting the first indication of how their child was doing in my class.  I still hate grading.

One child, I'll call her Elsie this time, was a quiet girl, who never, never gave me troubles in the classroom.  She didn't volunteer answers, never raised her hand, never changed her expression.  She was easy to overlook.  Elsie was just there in class.  I liked her.  When I did her report card I really couldn't remember much about her.  Her grades in my grade book were almost all "C's" or 75s or 76s.  I looked at her folder and it was bland--nothing leaped out at me.  So I put down "C's" in most of the categories and wrote something like, " liked by her classmates."

I sent the report cards home really thinking I might get a few phone calls that night but nothing came of it.  But the next morning as I walked to my classroom there were Elsie's parents and her little sister and Elsie.  They looked a lot like the parents I saw this morning at breakfast but these parents weren't smiling.  Elsie's Dad started in and I don't remember getting many words in edgewise but I did get them invited to my classroom where we could sit down.  Dad's main theme was that I was a poor teacher because his daughter was an "A" student.  He also continued on the theme that if Elsie didn't do well, it was my fault.  Let's just say it was a bad morning, hair and all.  They left and I told Elsie she was to raise her hand if she wasn't understanding something, okay?  Okay.

But Elsie, quiet girl that she was, didn't raise her hand and her work did not improve.  All "Cs".  I'd work with her from time to time but when you have 38 or 40 kids in a classroom it is hard to get to everyone.

The next grade report card time arrive and I struggled as usual with all the kids.  Elsie was an exception, indeed I really sat back and thought about her.  I didn't want her folks hassling her or me for that matter.  What to do?  I looked at my grade book, all "Cs" and decided I'd give her all "Bs" .  This time I wrote, " making good progress on improvement."   I'm a born lier.

The next morning there was Elsie, her sister and her parents at my classroom door.  I let them in and got a good talking to about how I was improving but I still wasn't the teacher I could be.  "Elsie is an 'A' student!"  I got the message.  Dad was a scary guy.  I was not about to argue with him in anyway.

So class continued except......Elsie started doing "B" work.  I don't believe I did anything different with her--she just started to do "B" work.  I remember looking at her papers and wondering what was going on.   I even watch her more often--still quiet, not many friends but one of the nice kids in class.  Didn't smile a lot but then I hadn't seen any smiles from her parents.

Well, the next reporting time came and I have to admit I did a lot less contemplating Elsie's scores and grades.  They were all "Bs", solid B work.  I put down on the report card all "As" .  Right down the line.  I don't remember what I wrote but it had to be complementary.  Strangely I didn't feel any guilt.  At least i wouldn't have to face her parents this time.

Or so I thought.  Next morning after report cards went home, there were her parents and the two girls waiting for me at my classroom door first thing in the morning.  "See, I told you you could be a good teacher if you tried." Her Dad did all the talking, the theme was much nicer but he wanted me to keep up the good work.  He was sure I could be a good teacher if I worked at it.  Mom smiled (the same smile I saw this morning with the other family).

Somehow I was not surprised when Elsie started to turn in "A" work.  I was fascinated, watched her work and still to this day have no idea if I had anything to do with her improvement except for lying on her report card.  She rose to what i expected of her.  In fact, she not only did "A" work but I started using her to help some of my other kids and she immediately began to have many more friends.  Toward the end of the school year she was becoming one of the leaders in the class.  She still had a quiet voice and I have to ask her to speak up but she was a leader.  My oh my.  What a turnaround.

I had other kids improve and I had other kids not do as well as I thought they could.  It was always a challenge every day.  How to get children to learn--that was my job.  It is not scientific, it is not precise, maybe a touch of voodoo thrown in.  I don't know.  When a student learns, it's payday for the teacher.  When they don't learn it is problem time.  What to do?  Some parents help, some don't want to be bothered.  Some parents aren't there--grandma or grandpa come in to see the teacher.  But they have problems too and sometimes are looking for help from the teacher who in turn is looking for help from the grandparents.

I wonder how teachers work with children whose parent(s) are in the military and are stationed overseas.    That much be particularly hard on both the kids and the teacher.  I cry openly when I watch a television news broadcast of a military parent coming home and surprising their child at school.  It's emotional.

And I will cry emotionally when teachers are graded by test scores they have little or no control over.  I hate this system of evaluating teachers by student scores.  Maybe we should give them all "As" and they will improve like Elsie because we expect it of them.

At the beginning of school the next year after I had Elsie in my class, I heard that there was a big argument in the Principal's office with a parent.   So, I wasn't surprised when I got Elsie's little sister in my room.  Strange, she got all "A's" when the first report card session came around.

Thank you teachers.  I know you are doing your best.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Random Thoughts

I've been reading Dewey, a few segments at a time and thinking about school starting.  I suspect as in my day teachers have used their key and gone into the school and checked out their classroom.  What's new?  Probably not much.  Perhaps some new textbooks or some workbooks that were discussed last year in a curriculum committee and maybe a desk has been replaced.  And I suspect this years teachers are sorting out their boxes of materials sent by the office to their classrooms.  A few may go to the office and get the student files or if in a high school get the list of students they will have this first quarter.  Some, like me, will sit in the chair and think about the new year.  No, they are not on the payroll yet but it is something we teachers do--mentally get ready to teach our students.

I've also been reading (on my Kindle) a young adult book titled, The Hunger Games.  Young adult books are their own genre with librarians who specialize in this category of books.  Type "young adult books" in the Amazon search bar and you get pages of books written for the young adult....primarily high school age kids.  But many books are read by the middle school kids as well.  

By and large the subjects of these books have teenagers as the heroin/hero who are brave, intelligent, smart and what most young adults would like to be if only in their minds.  In the early 1970's Judy Blume bust upon the educational library scene.  Judy wrote for the middle and high school student readers with subjects like masturbation, religion, love, divorce--anything that was taboo in those days.  I remember our elementary school had a PTA meeting to discuss whether we should have Judy Blume's  books in our library.   If I remember correctly I didn't care one way or the other, I was sure that the girls in my fifth grade would get the books and devour them.  They did.  At one time I could tell you what pages to read that were scandalous.  

Young adult literature has from time to time raised the eye brows of adults, particularly those that want to keep control over the learning of kids.  Yesterday I started another book that may well raise the ire of some adults.  I'm reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Oh my, such a dark and foreboding story so far.  But I will traverse on and see where it goes.  An enjoyment of mine of the book is that the heroin is a girl by the name of Katniss Everdeen.  

I know I told you this earlier in a blog but there was a time when I wanted to read a book aloud to my class after lunch and I wanted a book that featured a girl as the hero.  I had read several books that year which had a boy who was the smart, the forgiving, everything you'd want a hero to be.  Now it was time for a girl to take that part.....but I could not find a single book in our library that fit the need.  We were not allowed to have the Nancy Drew mysteries although we could have the Hardy Boys.  Strange.  I finally found the Sci-fi book, Madeleine L'Engle's,  A WRINKLE IN TIME.  I'll never forget the girls in my class as they hung on to every word.  I had hit a nerve in teaching my class.  

As an aside, how are we to measure these successes in a classroom with test scores to evaluate teachers?  It boggles my mind all the things that some teachers do that are not measurable.  When I saw my girls eyes light up I knew I was on to something.

And so it will probably be with The Hunger Games.  I can recommend it to you.

And I can recommend thanking a teacher who made a difference in your life.  He/She could probably use the pat on the back right about now.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

A brief break from the curriculum discussions...

I've been reading in a number of news publications and web sites about how teaches are being asked to do more and to be evaluated primarily using students' test scores.  While some east coast unions are fighting back they are losing the battle.  Mr. Obama is still pushing his contest to the top and rewarding those schools that achieve more then others regardless of the social setting around the school.  I won't bore you with my rants about this.  

Then I read that the Seattle schools are doing the same thing wanting to evaluate the teachers according to their students' scores.  As I delve deeper into the background of this conflict I find it seems to be mostly on the elementary and middle schools looking at reading and mathematical test scores.  One problem with this concept of testing to evaluate the teacher is how do you do it for the high school music teacher, the business teacher, the art teacher (if they still have one) and others like them.  How do you design a test to measure such learning?  

I hold an elementary principals certificate although I have never used it.  But because I use to be in many different schools I have always have read educational management and leadership tomes.  A lot of top down stuff and goal setting.  I suspect some of it worked someplace.  I never found much that supported that movie about a principal, Lean On Me but I suspect it could work for some dynamic type of person.

Still....I am concerned about teachers being asked to do more and in some cases for less money.  Tutor after school children, start Saturday make up classes, visit homes to let parents know more about their children.  I suspect you'll see some of this on evening television news--something positive once again about teachers helping students.

BUT....and this is a big button for my anger, what are school districts going to do in return to this added burden on the teacher.  Are we going to fix up some of these old schools?  Are we going to provide more learning materials for the students?  Will there be up to date computers for the children to use?  Even more important will the district get parents to form committees to learn about the schools and to make recommendations that they want for their children?  Can we mandate that children have to come to school to learn?  How do you rate a teacher when the student just doesn't come to class.  

I have been in many of the Bellevue schools over the years.  I was there when the fledgling Bellevue Community College moved out of the Newport High School (evenings only) into their own buildings.  The Bellevue schools are impressive.  Just walking up the path to the front door makes you want to learn.  Their grounds are landscaped and easy to look at.  Most of the classrooms have Smart Boards.  And then people wonder why Bellevue is always listed in the top one hundred high schools in the nation--all of them.

Yes, it takes money to have good schools but it also takes an attitude of cooperation between administrators, principals, teachers and PARENTS!  That is what Bellevue has and does.  

So before your school district starts evaluating teachers, you need to start evaluating the school district and the buildings.  There are a number of schools I'd rather not teach in--the kids are fine but the building is tired.  You have to keep up to be good.

My teachers are heading home from their summertime college classes.  They are keeping up.  Thank you all--you've been wonderful as usual.  And thank you for teaching our kids.  Have you thanked a teacher recently?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The beginning of school is just around the corner....

I have been pondering for the past week or so this social studies curriculum--what should we be teaching our children.  At the same time I have been working my way through the second chapter of John Dewey's Democracy and my estimation a monumental work.  But it is difficult, not that I don't understand it but rather I read a paragraph and then have to think of the ramifications that that paragraph suggests.  There is no question that John saw schools and schooling at a mandatory requirement of society.  Without schools our civilization would slowly  take a turn for the worst.  

I had also forgotten from my last reading of this tome that Dewey was probably an instigator of the field of sociology, that is, the study of humans within society or a group.  Charles H. Cooley who I consider one of the founders of sociology in the United States was with John Dewey at the University of Michigan.  I suspect they had some interesting discussions over coffee.  I like the field of sociology, the study of us in groups.  The reason I say this is that Dewey (in chapter two) makes a point that we as humans learn from the groups that we are in, religious groups, neighborhoods, work groups, recreational groups and so on.  Each group adds to our learning.  But because there are groups beyond our presence or surroundings we need schools to formally bring the learning of those groups to our attention.  Schools are charged with bringing the cultural learning that needs to be passed down from one generation to the next.  

Which brings me back to the subject of social studies and just what should it include that our children need to know so that our society can go further along its path of knowledge.  "What social studies is of most worth?"

I know I wrote sometime in the past about my meeting with a colleague from a Russian university.  I'm sorry I have forgotten his name but I had troubles saying it much less remembering it.  We met at a conference in Paris and both of us were teaching instructional technology to teachers.  It was an interesting conversation as he spoke some English but I spoke no Russian.  But we managed.  

I remember asking him what was the biggest problem facing the Russian schools and he replied, "History."  "Which history do we teach our children?"  And then he explained that for the moment, they were not teaching anything about Stalin except that he was in charge when "...they (Russia) won World War II."   The mass killings that followed were entirely left out of the textbooks.   I remember him saying, "It is too soon in history to teach that."  Fascinating statement.

Since conversing with my Russian colleague, I have thought much about what we teach in history here in the United States.  Do we teach about the Korean War or the Vietnamese conflict or is "...too soon in history to teach that."  Recently a friend of mine wrote me about the blog and this thread of what to teach in social studies.  She commented about my thoughts and questions on what do they teach in Germany about them losing World War I and World War II.  How do you do social studies in Germany?  My friend explained that she had met a woman in a yoga class that had come here from Germany as an adult.  The lady explained to my friend that when she first read about the holocaust here in the United States, she was afraid to leave her house because she was sure the Americans would all hate her.  She had not been taught about the holocaust in her school in Germany.  In one sense this incident shows the power of the schools and education.

But what have we in the United States left out of our social studies curriculum over the years?  I suspect our history of the native Americans (American Indians) have been biased in favor of the white American in that era.   Do we tell the known history of events?  What about slavery?  Have we told the entire story?  If you've read about the social studies review board in Texas that recently has reviewed their social studies textbooks and voted to leave out certain leaders of the past and to include others, then you know that our history is being presented to the school children in a certain way.  Perhaps we should not think too poorly of Germany and its exception of the holocaust. 

I once lived on "Smugglers' Cove Road" near "Chinamen Point."  Do you think there are like names of places in Arizona?  My how social studies becomes complex.  What should we teach in the public schools?

John Dewey suggests that schools have the power to massage the content and leave out both ends of the knowledge base that may yet need validation...and perhaps a motivation to teach.  I think teachers have been doing this for years, finding the importance to pass on to our children...the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly.  

My thanks to all those teachers who "massage the content" but make sure the students learn.  You do a difficult job.  Thank you. 

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Social Studies--a scary subject.

I have been writing notes, pondering, talking to myself, and in general, wondering how to approach this subject of what should be taught in Social Studies.  Before we get all tangled up in the subject, let's agree that social studies is made up of history, geography, civics, psychology, health, sociology, anthropology, and economics.  Yes, religions (note the "s" on the end of that word) is also included in social studies however because of the separation of church and state in this country it is somewhat removed.  When I say somewhat, we do study the pilgrims, and some of the early settlers who came to this country for religious freedom.  Sort of hard to study early United States history without getting into religion.  But the teachers I have known and watched certainly stay away from the actualities of religions in their classes.  

So the question in front of us today is what social studies should we be teaching our kids in the K-12 classrooms?  It is interesting that the State of Texas has elected officials (a board) who are charged with deciding which social studies is to be taught.  I disagree with this board but since I don't live in Texas I shall refrain from commenting upon their decisions.  It's their problem.

Most teachers who teach some form of the social studies areas that I have outlined use some textbook which in most if not all cases has been approved by the local school board.  A school district's curriculum committee generally comprised of parents and teachers and perhaps one or two administrators will  look at textbooks, workbooks, and general courses of study for each grade and high school subject areas.  Most of this is based upon the agreed statewide curriculum proposed by the State Office of Public Instruction.  I would say that in most school districts social studies starts broadly in the early grades and becomes more specific and detailed in the secondary schools.  Makes sense.  These courses of study are generally reviewed every ten years or so.  

As an example, most primary classrooms generally start with studying the local neighborhood.  Who are our neighborhood helpers? (firemen, policemen, grocer, mailmen, doctors and nurses, etc.)  Some of the primers in reading will have stories that will help with this concept. 

But by the time we reach the intermediate grades, the study focusses on the beginnings of the United States and the western expansion.  The war of independence and the civil war are studied.  In some districts (and textbooks) the Mexican war and the Spanish American war are also included.  But for the most part it is the western expansion that occupies much of the social studies period in the classroom.  Lewis and Clark, the gold rush, the pony express are all included.  And let's not forget wagon trains.  All interesting stuff to fourth and fifth graders and most of this "stuff" is history and geography.  

I did get a replication of the Declaration of Independence from the local Coca-Cola Company one year, full size and put it up on my bulletin board.  It was quite impressive and we read it together in class.  But it was the handwriting that caught their eye and for a time it seemed like everyone was trying to improve on their handwriting.  So much for social studies.

Shortly after the computers were introduced to the public schools a software program called "Oregon Trails" was published.  It was a simulation program in which the student at the computer had to make decisions as to what she/he were going to be, how many oxen to take, how much food to put in the wagon, etc.  Lots of decision.  Then you start out and have to cross the first river, depending upon the time of year will determine the deepness and danger level of the river.  Some of your party may be killed.  But you forge on.  

One of my complaints with Oregon Trails which by the way became extremely popular in the schools, was that as your party entered the plains, you are attacked by indians.  I argued at one conference that that put an unfair light on our "native Americans."  I live near the great Lummi nation and knew when this program was offered in the local schools that unless the Lummi children could wipe out the entire wagon train they were unhappy.  I still wonder why the authors of Oregon Trails left it in the program.  I tell this story to illustrate the many complexities that we have in social studies.  Plato's question, "which knowledge is of most worth," is still valid today.

However, to be fair, the Oregon Trails software was one of the first materials for teaching that allowed the student to "own" their learning.  They had to make the decisions and decide what to do--it wasn't just reading from a textbook or having a teacher tell them something.   It was history, anthropology, geography, sociology, civics, psychology all rolled up in one teaching package in which the student had to participate.  And they did with gusto.  Who could made it to Oregon became the prize.

There are still many, many potholes in the road to the successful social studies curriculum.  I have heard recently that veteran groups want all the wars that the United States has been in to be studied.  And one chamber of commerce wants all the successful business men from their area included in the curriculum.  The asian community wants their celebrations included and the study of the holocaust is now mandated by law in this state. As each ethnic group comes of age, they want their history to be studied.  

When I first started teaching most teachers that I knew were very much opposed to letting their students know which political party they favored.  Even today I think many teachers still remain secretive about their political outlook since they know that their thinking could influence the students....and it is the students making up their own minds that it critical to teaching social studies in the upper grades.  I've talked to a few high school teachers who teach history and civics and they say they are keeping their heads down.  They do not want to get into arguments with the parents.  It's a tough road.  How to teach political science without being political.  Hmmmm?

Bet you don't know the rules for flying the American Flag!  Let me know and I'll grade your e-mail.  

And thanks to all those teachers who teach something without letting the students know their feelings and values.  "I want you to make up your own mind."  Bravo, teachers.  Bravo.  You are good.