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.