Monday, September 27, 2010

The Focus on Improving our Educational System

Much has transpired in the last few days dealing with our educational system and on the bottom line, teachers and teaching.  Many people have written comments and have been video taped for news bites about what they think is wrong with our public schools.  I'm sure you have witnessed much of the hysterics of education reform.

Let's see now, first there was the fanfare of the opening of the movie, "Waiting for Superman."  No, I have not seen it and as an academic, I shall refrain from commenting upon it until I do.  Then there is the TIME edition that just came out (September 20, 2010) with the title, "What Makes A School Great?" and a number of articles detailing happenings in the public schools.  Before you can catch your breath on all this, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) started an education forum leading off with a substantive interview with President Obama giving us his thoughts on why we need to improve our public schools.

Leading up to all this Oprah had a lead in for the movie, "Waiting for Superman" and had Bill Gates there as well and they gave a million dollars each to a number of schools who are doing well.  There is something here I don't understand--wouldn't you want to give money to schools that are NOT doing well?  I hope someone can explain this to me.

I haven't listed all the op-ed pieces in the national newspapers that have been written in the past few days but there are a slew of them.  But still, not much from the teachers.  Brief findings seem to be that Charter schools are not all doing as well as we were once told and that where they are doing well, many have a waiting list for children to get in.  Can we duplicate the good ones?  I don't have data yet to suggest one way or the other. And I have heard nothing recently on what religious and private schools are doing--what is their graduation rate?

Besides the push for more charter schools I've heard mentioned several times including the President that we need longer school days and longer school years.  The President said that our (U.S.) public schools are shorter then in the European schools.  I would like to see the data on this one as my inclination is that the European schools let out earlier and have a shorter school year than we  do.  However, they also have other educational institutions such as music schools, art schools, science and cultural classes that take over after school goes home for the day  Finland discharges its students after they have had a hot lunch.  Again we are having a problem comparing American Public Schools with the European schools because of a lack of definition of terms.

I have also added to this potpourri of educational stuff my putting aside for the moment my reading of John Dewey's Democracy and Education and taking up two other education research readings.  The first is Living and Learning with New Media.  It is a research report on a number of studies on youth (age 8 to 30 with the majority of the studies intent on youth from 13 to 18 years old) and the interaction of the youth with New Media (the researchers did not want to use the term, digital media, which is explained in the report).  Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury--it is so refreshing to read a report where they first describe what the research was about and then the definition of terms and why they used the terms that they did.  Oh my I like academic writing when it is done well.  So far I feel this report is going to be a major study in the field of education.  It is dealing with social media that the children and young adults are using both for learning and for recreation.  And from what I can tell, we're not using it much as yet in the public schools.  I wonder how much we're using "new media" in the private schools.  Difficult to find out.

My second read in a book entitled, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg (2010).  I think the two reports are crossed pollinated but I will let you know as I read through the two reports.  I do see some of the same names quoted in both readings.

If I have a complaint with my Kindle it is that I have difficulty getting publication dates, authors,  and other citation information.  And although I dearly enjoy having footnotes or endnotes, the Kindle does not make for an easy read of those items. Because you can change the size of the print, therefore, page numbers are not given--instead percent of the reading that you have done is supplied instead.  Makes for sloppy citation work on my part and I apologize to the reader.  I'll have to go back to school to learn how to do up to date citation work dealing with social media such as Twitter, etc.

The one thing that seems to be in the spotlight of all this recent discussion is that it focuses in on the student, the learner, our children and the future leaders of this country.  That can't be bad now, can it?  Will we make the public schools an essential part of our culture?  I hope so.  I know John Dewey would say that the this country depends upon a good school system.  Our schools can get better--we teachers want that.

Finally a bit of icing on the cake so to speak but I've received several e-mails making comments as well to some of what I've recently written.  From teachers they have corrected and encouraged me.  Thank you for your wisdom.  And from one past student of mine, a delightful e-mail detailing her accounts in education.  What a joy.

Thank you all you teachers out there who continue on.... teaching our children.  You are a wonder.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Getting rid of BAD teachers...

Living in the San Juan Islands means my news comes to me over the internet.  So I pick and choose what I want to know.  Google sets me up to read about the latest in education and what teachers are doing.  I'm also pointed to those opinion articles that describe and sometimes denounce our educational system.  My wife and I both read different articles and we have commented to each other the number of writers who start off by saying we need to get rid of bad teachers.  Not just poor teachers, or ones who are having a difficult time or those teachers who have a difficult class.....but BAD TEACHERS!  As usual I mutter, growl, sometimes shout obscenities at the computer screen and always ask, "What is a BAD teacher?"  Those of us in academia are always "defining our terms."  This word or phrase means ......."  Then if you disagree with the definition we then have a starting point to discuss.

After this morning's review of the "Bad Teacher" articles, my memory started to click in and I got to reviewing one of my student teachers that I had a number of years ago.  I'll call her Steph, short for Stephanie but she was not short in anything else.  Rather tall girl with a pretty face that had a smile that will light up a classroom.  She was working her way through college, having some position on campus as well as a waitressing job in the evenings.  At that time I would always meet with the five or six student teachers that I would be working with for that quarter or two and lay down some guidelines like, no jobs--teaching is a full time job, no time off during the week, don't say anything in the teachers room except good morning or can I get you a cup of coffee?  And be in the classroom before the classroom teacher gets there every morning.  Oh, yes, volunteer to grades some papers the first week you are in the room.  

So Steph quit her waitressing job and was at her school and her classroom early the first morning of the quarter.  The principal and I had selected an experienced fourth grade teacher that I knew--a very excellent teacher with the kids.  Very smooth and helpful.  Good teaching skills and very understanding when a child didn't understand right away.  Patiently, she would go over the material until they got it.  I knew she would be an excellent cooperating teacher for Steph.  

But it didn't seem to start out that way.  After the first week where the student teacher is suppose to watch and get a feel for the classroom (and to volunteer to grade some papers), I returned to the elementary school, walked into the classroom during recess and had a chance to talk to Ms. Lee, the cooperating teacher. 

 "I don't think this student is going to be a teacher!" 

"Oh, dear, what is the problem?" 

"Well, she is so plain and has no presence in the classroom.  She doesn't get the students attention and her clothes are terrible."

(Using my best counseling technique of repeating the last part of the sentence) "...clothes are terrible?"

And my cooperating teacher went ballistic about what my student teacher was wearing to class.  I was dumbfounded.  I didn't know what to say.  Steph didn't have top of the line clothes and they were drab to some degree but I didn't think the fourth grades noticed.  But my cooperating teacher, Ms. Lee, was unhappy.  

I took Steph aside and asked if she had any other clothes she could wear?  She shook her head, no, and tears started to form.  Hang on, Steph, let me see what I can do.

I did talk to Ms. Lee several times during the next several weeks and she was always down on Steph.  While clothing seemed to be a focus of the complaints, other things started to become known--doesn't pass out the papers correctly, doesn't keep the kids quiet, favors girls.....and on and on.  As I watched Steph working with the fourth grade children I didn't see these problems.  And always the clothing, not suitable for teaching.

By the beginning of the fourth week, I told Steph that this would be her last week, not because she wasn't doing a good job but because I began to think we had misjudged the situation in which she was placed.  And if I would "wash her out of the program by Friday, she would get all her tuition back"  It was hard on Steph, really hurt.  She wanted to be a teacher....and I thought she could become a good one--but in a different situation.  Ms. Lee thought I was doing the right thing--getting Steph to change her major.  Which I wasn't doing.

What I did was ask the Student Teaching Office to find another position for Stephanie.  I wanted an elementary school out in the county.  Nothing near the school where Steph was first placed.  Between the Student Teaching office and me we found a school in another county that had been asking for student teachers to come to their school.  This would be a first for them.

So I talked to Steph and told her that not only was she going to go back to a fourth grade classroom but she would be our ambassador from the College of Education and seeing if this school would be a good mix for future student teachers.  I wanted her to feel good about herself.  Yeah, yeah, success breeds success and we hadn't done a good job with Stephanie.

[But an aside: at least in the State of Washington, all undergraduates seeking a teaching certificate must do a POSITIVE student teaching experience under the watchful eyes of the College of Education in a regular public school classroom in their field of focus (read Major, meaning elementary or secondary).  But here is the clinker in the woodpile--public schools don't have to accept our student teachers!  There are some public schools where the principal doesn't want student teachers in the school environment.  So we have to find other places.  Some schools want student teachers for different reasons.  I knew one school where they wanted a student teacher for one class because when that teacher had a student teacher to supervise he did better teaching according to the principal.  So there is this little dance between the College and the Public Schools as to where and how we place our student teachers.  The student teacher's final report is a compilation of the Principal, the cooperating teacher and the supervising professor.  All have to sign.  And as a supervising academic I don't dare criticize the public school. ]  

Okay, back to Stephanie.  The next quarter Steph started a county away in a country elementary school.  No one mentioned her clothing and everyone, and I do mean everyone was excited to have her in the school.  She was invited into other classrooms, given groups of children to work with--the difference in attitude toward Steph begat a different attitude IN Steph.  After a week I went down to visit her and the first thing she did was take me out into the hall and give me a big hug.  Tears again but they were tears of happiness.  We finally got it right in the Student Teaching office.  

Steph had a great student teaching experience at this elementary school and we both highly recommended that this school be put on our list to have student teachers placed in it.

Although teaching positions were difficult to get around that time, Steph interviewed well and got a teaching position in a different county elementary school in a third grade.  They loved her!  Really!  And she conned me into bringing my story telling class out to their school and each of my story telling students got a class to dazzle with their stories.  As they sometimes say, a fine time was had by all.

Several years later I read in the local newspaper that Stephanie had been selected as Teacher of the Year in that school district. I went out to see her and to give her my congratulations.  She was embarrassed by it all and told me, "I just wanted to be a teacher."  She was and still is.

I've always wondered about Ms. Lee.  A fine teacher in her own right but I wonder why she was so short with Steph.  Was she threatened by the student teacher?  Did she really think clothing was that important?  I don't know.  I never had her for a cooperating teacher again and we never talked about Stephanie.  I wonder too if she saw the same article in the newspaper.

Bad teachers?  I also wonder if there are teachers who are in the wrong schools, the wrong place, without sufficient support who are considered bad teachers.  I wonder......

To Stephanie and all those teachers teaching kids how to enjoy learning.....Thanks.  Have you thanked a teacher lately?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Two Guidelines to Follow.....

First, my apologies. My family including our two cats have moved to the San Juan Islands (Washington State) for a holiday.  And my access to a Wifi area has not been very successful.  It changes as the ferry boats arrive and depart so I have been frustrated in my limited attempts to write.  But I have persevered and have a clean signal today.  But, once again, my apologies.

School has started in many areas of the country.  A few strikes have kept some school districts closed but from my last review most if not all have now opened and students are back in the classrooms.

The next big problem in this state (Washington) is the major proposed cut in budgets to all state agencies including public schools.  I don't know what school districts are going to do--it is a problem that I would not like to face as an administrator.  There is no question in my mind that classes at all grade levels are going to get bigger, bus routes eliminated and some teachers will be laid off.  There are tough times ahead.

Still, the schools are opened and teachers are going about teaching the children in their care.  What sort of philosophy does a teacher need to have to be able to stand and deliver in front of a classroom.  I don't know about the other teachers but I had basically two rules of thumb in running my classrooms--either in an elementary classroom or a high school music room.......  My first one you've read about in other blogs but I'll preach it one more time--success breeds success.  I learned this very early in my career back on my Milton Point playground.  A successful child wants to continue whatever it is you are doing. For that matter we adults like to do things that we are successful at.... 

I blew this guideline one year.  On the very first day of class I put on the blackboard some questions dealing with items that I thought my students might know.  I was really trying to find out what did they really know or remember from the previous year.  I covered the blackboard with questions and then passed out paper and told the kids to be sure to put down a number of each question but if they didn't know the answer to go on to another question.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.  Boy, was I wrong.  Really dumb.  Remember it is the first day of school for the year.  This was the first thing I had the kids do--I hadn't yet even learned their names.  I remember one little boy starting to cry--big tears.  Oh dear, now what to do.  The poor little guy didn't know how to read my cursive writing on the board--he only knew how to read print.  About half way through what I thought would be the time to take this quiz I stopped the class and basically threw out the papers.  But the damage was done--I really had to work during the coming days to rid the class of what they thought was failure.

To new teachers, always make the first question on your quizzes and test one that most of the kids can answer.  If you give a test, don't write down how many a child or student misses--write the number of correct answers.  You still get some data but the higher numbers seem better to the kids.  Teachers have known these techniques for years; it was probably a teacher that invented the smily face.  If they didn't they certainly made good use of it.  They hadn't invented high fives in my day--if they had I would have used them all day long.  Fist bumps too!

Over the years I've tried all sorts of things that say, in essence, good job.  But on the whole, I found that that a bit of praise is much better then a "you can do better" sign.  I still remember telling a trumpet player in my beginning band that he was really sounding good--nice tone.  The whole brass section improved after that.  So, success breeds success.  

My second rule is time on task.  It takes time to learn.  I use to tell my elementary kids that you have to put time in on the subject to learn.  I remember one time I said, "you can't learn this by osmosis."  Then the kids wanted to know what "osmosis" meant.  We probably spent more time looking up the word and how plants absorbed sunlight and we wasted more class time talking about that--probably wasn't that bad but I remember thinking I should choose my examples a bit more carefully.

If I had a classroom that was going to be tested in math and reading, you know damn well I'd spend more time on those subjects so that my kids would score well.  I'd even have the class practice taking a test.  Having several pencils ready to go, clearing one's desk of other stuff.  Time on task.  One trick I learned from some other teacher is to have the kids tell the others in the classroom how to take a test--some of them have good ideas on how to memorize stuff and how to write it down.  I even learned a few things one day after that discussion.

Does my Time on Task lead to a longer school day?  No, I don't think so.  It seems to me that learning works best in bunches like grapes.  My kids would work on some math problems one day for forty-five minutes.  Then stop.  Maybe do it again after lunch.  I think the brain gets overloaded with learning if we go at it for longer periods.

An aside.  I noticed that I can read John Dewey for just so long, then I switch over to a leisure story I'm enjoying for a while, then back to Dewey. I'm sure there are a number of studies that will expand on this idea.  Sounds like a good graduate student in phycology study.....

I know I've already told you the story about how I use to have my kids tell me one think they learned that day before I would let them get ready to go home.  The surprising result was that the kids really were impressed of themselves on what they really learned.  "We really a smart class, aren't we, Mr. Blackwell."  Yup.  Success breeds success and Time on Task.  Works every time.

My best to all of you and again, my apologies for the long delay.  And as usual, be sure to thank a teacher for showing up this fall.  They are the greatest....

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Some random thoughts on teaching and teachers

There was once an old man who lived in upper New Hampshire in a very small town of Sugar Hill.  He lived across the street from the Crapo Elementary School,  a four classroom school with a basement multipurpose room and a kitchen.  The old man cleaned the school everyday after the kids went home in the afternoon.  It was a hard job.

Although he lived across the street from the school he did have to go down the hill to the store and get food and supplies from time to time and during the extreme winters in northern New Hampshire, this became difficult at times getting his car out of the garage in the back of his property.  So he would hire a person with a four wheel drive truck with plow to clear his driveway after each snow storm.  Being old and grumpy he complained to the driveway plower that he didn't do a good enough job and the plowman said, "Fine, go find someone else to do the job." 

So the old man did just that and got someone else to clear his driveway.  But that person too did not do a good enough job for the old man and he complained once again.  And once again, the second plowman said, "Tough! Go find yourself someone else to plow your driveway."  But there were no one else left in the small community to do the job.  And pretty soon the old man who couldn't get his food and supplies got weak and couldn't clean the school anymore.

No, there is not a moral to the story-- but it is a true story.  But the reason I told you the story is that I am beginning to wonder about young college age student electing or not electing to become education majors who want to go into teaching. They read about how some school districts are firing all their teachers, even hiring some people without education degrees--then these young folks are looking at the salaries and comparing with other majors and deciding not to go into teaching.  Could we have a teacher shortage?  I don't know.  I don't know.  

If school administrators start evaluating and getting rid of teachers, who will take their place?  At the moment there are enough teachers to fill in the blank spaces but I am also hearing from mature and valuable teachers who are wondering if this is worth the fight.  Several teachers that I know have "retired" and tell me that they would not go back whatsoever.  So in one school district we are losing a few of our most valuable teachers.  Sad.

But will the young teachers of tomorrow elect to become education majors of today?  I wonder.  At my old university, education majors were for the most part the cream of the crop, top flight students that worked hard, were very intelligent and WANTED to be a teacher.  I'm not sure I'm seeing that as much and it wouldn't surprise me if they were going into other majors.  Several of the young kids that I have talked to recently have said they are going into business, political science (to go further into law), and engineering.  A few have said they were searching in the medical profession to see what they could do.  But teaching was not a focal point for these young people.  To be sure I have not talked to many students and I may have gotten a biased view--I do hope I am wrong.

But like that grumpy old man in New Hampshire, the grumpy superintendents and other administrators who want to fire all the teachers they don't like need to check to see if there is someone in the wings that can do the job.  Just because there are many in the unemployment lines does not mean there are many people available that can teach.  

We in the college ranks use to weed out those that probably would not make a good teacher.  I know that more then once I have counseled an education student to change his/her major.  It will be interesting how the school districts fill those positions that have been vacated.

There was a comment from a teacher in Connecticut that had been fired in May along with all his colleagues and has recently been rehired under more difficult circumstances and he has said that the situation is very unsettling and he is looking elsewhere.  He further said it was difficult to teach children who were not always there--they went back to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic or....  But they just weren't there all the time.  "If I could teach the student all the time I could make a difference but when they are not here, there is little I can do."

I'd like to thank the Seattle Teachers Association for forging ahead and getting a contract for their teachers.  Nice job.  And to all those teachers worrying about the future but still wanting to teach the kids--you're cool.  Thank you.  Have you thanked a teacher recently?