Friday, December 9, 2011

A Holiday Offering....

From Thanksgiving to the beginning of the new year teaching becomes more difficult.  Grade school kids are excited and teachers have to solve the age old question, "Is Santa Claus real?"  High school teachers deal with the problem of their students telling them that their family is going to visit relatives and they will not be in class for X-amount of days.  Yes, districts have policies about all of this but reality lives on. 

In recent years school policies also include what books one can read to your class.  Of course religious books are prohibited and it is a wise school administrator that has a parents advisory committee on what might be allowed and what needs referring.  I remember in one school, as the elementary music teacher I was not allowed to teach the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which in my mind was not religious but about giving gifts but I was overruled.  However, I could teach "What shall we do with a drunken Sailor."  Some days I couldn't get my mind around these problems.

One of my problems was to find something to read to my fourth grade class that had a nice holiday theme to it.  At that time I really didn't find much on the library shelf.  Today there are more books available.  But from my time I started to write a children's story about a cat who liked Christmas Trees.  Over the past twenty some years I have been refining it, re-writing and fine tuning it to my satisfaction.  It's not quite ready but as an offering to you for this holiday season I submit now with the warmest wishes for a wonderful season.


The Perrrfect Tree

He was curled up on some double braided lines that had been thrown carelessly on the deck, with his tail covering his nose, perhaps to keep it warm but more likely to keep as much of the smells of yesterday’s ancient fish, diesel fumes, and malodorous bilge water smells from penetrating the interior of his dark, cold and wet as well as sensitive  nose.  Wadsworth was a young gray cat with incredibly soft short fur who was not happy.  
The gill net fishing boat rocked back and forth at the dock, the sea gulls shrieked at him from above, it was misting and he was all wet, and his stomach was hungry....Wadsworth was definitely unhappy.  Reaching his front paws forward and leaning backwards he stretched and then with an easy leap reached the gunnels and then down to the dock. So on this early dank fall day, Wadsworth headed down the dock and up the ramp to terra firma.
Ralph, the wharfinger, was looking out his office window and watched the young cat move with an easy grace up the ramp.  Ralph had a cat, Stumpy, who at the moment was nowhere to be seen which was good for Wadsworth who was stoking up on Stumpy’s food dish.  
“Hey, Ralph!  Ya got a new cat?”
Responding to Dana, one of the boat owners going to check on his boat, Ralph yelled back.  “He just showed up on my doorstep.  Came somewhere off a boat.  Is he yours?”
Wadsworth wasn’t about to linger.  Living with the wharfinger would only be slightly better then on a fishing boat.  He would still be too near the smells, the sounds of the working docks, those annoying seagulls and the damp salty air.  Then there was the constant pounding of halyards against the aluminum masts.  There must be a better place for me in this world thought the cat.
Wadsworth walked across the large parking lot skirting the empty spaces but going close to the parked cars and trucks.  Every once in a while, he would stop under a big wheeled truck, staying out of the rain, and just looked around through the gray mist.  With a shake of his fur coat, Wadsworth continued on until he had crossed a road and a dirty railroad yard.  There was a large warehouse building, not much used, but it did have a place for railroad workers to sit and have some coffee between times when they would cobble up freight trains going either north or south.
Without looking back the young cat walked up a small hill toward the town.  There were buildings, more parking lots, cars going to and fro and noisy smelly buses.  And bicycles!  They would come silently from behind almost running him down....on the streets and on the sidewalks.  Bicycles and fishing boats began to compete in his mind as things he could do without.  As he passed a Deli, a buxom lady saw him and came to the entry door with a small bowl of fish stew.
Wadsworth sauntered over to the offering, sniffed, then turned his back to it, sat down and began to wash his face.  First the left paw which he licked and then rubbed his face--then the right paw was licked and that side of his face was washed.  Although hungry, he had had all the fish he would ever consume, thank you.  And then he continued on his way.  
It took several days before Wadsworth wandered through the neighborhood of homes.  The further he went the less he smelled the salt air and he exchanged seagulls for crows and Jays.  Wadsworth walked for several days, eating at stray cat dishes on back porches, lightly sleeping in car ports and children’s play houses--but mostly on the move to find a place for himself where he could be happy.
One day as Wadsworth prowled a back yard looking for food he came upon a large board on board cedar six foot fence that lined the back yard.  From a convenient low branch to the top of the fence the gray cat made his way and looking from the vantage point of the fence, Wadsworth saw the most beautiful sight that he had encountered in his entire journey.  He was looking at the display yard of Bakerview Nursery.
What a sight!  As he sat on the fence he could see piles of bark to roll in, all different sizes of pots to jump in and out of, a whole sawdust pile to scratch, there were many bushes and small trees to hide under, display tables in the sun and in the center of it all was a display of a waterfall gurgling down over rocks that drained into a lazy pool full of gold fish.  To the right were raised beds of flowers with many walkways throughout the display.  It was the perfect place.  
The next morning when the display store was opened, Wadsworth walked in with his tail held high.  Here were gardening displays, tools, seeds and in one corner a pile of new burlap  to be used in wrapping roots of plants.  Wadsworth tried the burlap for comfort, turned around twice and curled up with his tail over his nose--for warmth.  When he awoke some time later someone had put down a plate of food--turkey and gravy.  Not a fish bone to be seen.  Now this was what he had been looking for--he had found a home away from the port.
For the next few weeks Wadsworth played and enjoyed Bakerview Nursery.  He played in the pots, jumped and made of mess of the bark dust and hid under bushes to jump out to surprise customers.  When customers wanted gardening tools, the exquisite  gray cat walked ahead of them with his tail up to show them the way.  If the customers needed holiday wreaths Wadsworth went and scratched on the display post to show them where they were.  And when staff went home at night, Wadsworth would sit and rest by the pool and watch the goldfish before jumping in the bark dust and making another mess.  It was the good life.
One day a large truck backed into the parking lot by the front door of the nursery and began to unload Christmas Trees.  All sorts of trees, Douglas Fir,  Norway Spruce, Virginia Pine and some Fraser Fir.  Wadsworth was on top of the trees, he was in the truck, he even rode a tree as the two delivery guys unloaded it to the display stands.  There were four foot trees, five foot, six feet and even several that were eighteen feet tall.  It was an impressive array of Christmas trees and Wadsworth was quite pleased with himself and his new play area--he would have fun showing customers the right tree for them.  It would be a busy holiday season.
It was several weeks before Christmas and all through the nursery holiday stock was flying off the shelves.  Outdoor lights were almost sold out and there was precious few Poinsettia plants left on the display rack.  The selection of Christmas trees was dwindling rapidly--already the condo/apartment crowd had snapped up all the four foot trees.  Not a one left.
Wadsworth was checking out the tree stock when an old, somewhat rusted pickup diesel truck drove up to the front parking lot.  Wadsworth slunk down and watch it drive up and a low unexplained growl came from his throat.   His fur stood out and his whiskers were all at attention.  With his belly to the ground Wadsworth oozed to under a bush where he could watch with slitted eyes.  Another growl, low and deep inside.
Wadsworth could smell the salt air and all those long ago boat smells from the port coming from the truck and in the back, a large fish net from a bow picker with more hated smells.  Wadsworth growled again.
A young couple with a daughter emerged from the pickup.  “Mom, can I look for a Christmas Tree?” said the little girl.   But it was Dad that answered.  From under a bush, Wadsworth saw the man get down on his knees and he reached out for his daughter in a hug, “Honey, I told you before we left to come here that we can’t have a Christmas tree on our sailboat--it’s only a thirty-four foot Beneteau and even if we could get a small tree if we put it in the salon you wouldn’t be able to go forward to your Vee berth.”  “Do you understand, Nora?”  
There was a nod of the small head, a shake of some dark curls over her eye and a small tear but she understood.  It is so hard to be young and not be able to participate in all the delights of the season.  There would be presents to be sure but no tree for Christmas morning.  That is how it was when you lived with your parents on a sailboat.
WELL NOW!  Wadsworth had heard all of this from his vantage of being under the bush near the front door.  And he was a professional nursery cat now.  As Lori and Mark went inside to find a wreath to put on the bow of their boat for the season, Wadsworth galvanized himself into action.  Bad smells and memories were behind him.  He would find Nora a tree.  
But the four footers were all gone.  You could cut the top of a six footer but it wouldn’t look very good.  And then Wadsworth thought of the solution.  He immediately went into the store, found the man and rubbed up against his leg.  Hard.  But Mark was looking at a string of lights that would work on 12 volt, just right for the boat electrical system.  Perhaps he could make an outline of a tree using the mast and shrouds.  It wouldn’t be like a real tree but it might do.....
“CAT, get off my feet!”  Wadsworth was doing all he could to get his attention.  He had the real answer.  The cat even threw in some purring as he rubbed against the pant legs.  Still, Mark did not respond to the cat.  This was going to be a difficult sell thought Wadsworth.  
“I think this wreath and string of lights will be all,”  he said to Lesley and Lynn, the sale clerks who proceeded to ring up the sale.  
Wadsworth was beside himself.  He even tried scratching on Mark’s pant leg, very unethical behavior for a professional sales cat.  “Very interesting cat you have here.”  “Enough small talk and politeness,” conjured Wadsworth and with an easy grace jumped on the sales counter and almost without stopping jumped on Mark’s shoulder.  “Daddy, that cat really loves you,” giggled Nora.
Both Lynn and Lesley were aghast.   “That cat has never done that before--here, let me get him down,” said Lesley, as she reached for the cat.  “No, no, no, don’t worry.  I like cats,” responded Mark as he rubbed his cheek against the soft fur of Wadsworth side.  “This is cool, let him stay and I’ll look around the store a bit more.”  “YEEEESSSS,” thought Wadsworth.  “Okay, now go this way.  Keep going!”  
As cat and man moved about the display area, they moved toward double glass doors leading to a cooler area for specialized plants.  Wadsworth was leaning, purring, kneading of Mark’s shoulders and practically pushing his face into Mark’s to aim him in the right direction.  In this cooler display were the bonsai plants, small Japanese styled trees that were exceptionally small.  All were in small and not very deep pots common to this ancient hobby. And all needed special daily care.  And there on the entry display table for the bonsai plants was a perfectly formed Douglas fir only eighteen inches high.  It was a miniature Christmas Tree that Mole and Rat would have appreciated.  And the pot was broad and heavy in just the right balance for the little tree.  It wouldn’t slide no matter how rough the water might get in the marina.
Wadsworth jumped down onto the table right next to the little bonsai tree and proceeded to wash his face.  Maybe the tail could use a little cleaning as well.  But he kept purring.
“Hey, Lori, come over here.  Maybe this would work.  Look at this little Christmas tree.”  Lynn had followed the man with the cat on his shoulder concerned as to what might happen and was quite relieved when she saw Wadsworth jump to the table.  “That is a bonsai plant and it has been in training for three years--it’s very young.  But I suspect it might do for a short time on your boat.  Both Lynn and Lesley had been sailors at one time.  “After Christmas you might want to sell it to a collector or plant it somewhere.“   
“Lori, what do you think?  We could plant it after New Years on the other side of the wharfinger  office--that place needs some sprucing up.  And we could decorate the tree each Christmas to come.”  “Nora, would you like a little Christmas tree for the salon table, Honey.”  Nora’s smile was the answer and at the same time she picked up Wadsworth in her arms and rubbed her nose in his side, such soft gray fur.  She hugged him and softly said in his fur, “Thank you, Kitten, Thank you.”   “Oh for heaven’s sake,” thought Wadsworth, and he wiggled free from Nora’s arms and jumped to the floor.  “It’s time for me to check on the goldfish.”
As Wadsworth looked around he saw he still had several eight foot trees to sell and those big eighteen footers.  They wouldn’t be a problem--a church or hotel would take them.  Yes, it had been a busy season but it was good one.  As the pickup truck from the marina pulled away, Wadsworth could see Nora sitting between her parents holding on to her new perrrrfect Christmas tree.  Then Wadsworth washed his face one more time.
Merry Christmas to all and to a Happy New Year
Les Blackwell
cc: The Perrrrect Three
2011 Christmas Holiday
Bellingham, WA 98225

Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Tis a Puzzlement!

I really have a dilemma on my hands.  In recent postings I have endeavored to create a vision of a hypothetical graduate of a make believe school system.  What would this person look like if they were taught OR were allowed to learn from a curriculum that this blog was creating.  I had started this development with Leslie Briggs' (Handbook of procedures for the design of Instruction) first area of curriculum concern, that of communications.  Reading, writing, art, drama, speaking, dance, music and a few other subjects that my age I have forgotten already.  We need to teach these subjects and skills, as John Dewey would say, to keep our society alive and moving forward in knowledge.

I was doing well with my thinking and fantasying of that curriculum until two things happened.  First i was introduced to the latest iPhone by Apple with its deceptively intriguing "Siri," a personal digital assistant that you can ask to do things. You can ask it "where am I?" or "Call home,"  or "what is the square root of 23 times 1.25?"  This latter question is how I figure out the theoretical speed of my sailboat when under sail.  Can I do that in my head?  Not really.  But the iPhone 4S can which raises that age old question, "Which knowledge is of most worth?"

I can hear the comments already about what if the battery dies, or what if you drop your phone and it breaks.  Those are logical questions but how many of you keep wood chopped in case your furnace breaks down.  Or do you keep a horse to back up your car?  I'm being silly here but the true question is what knowledge is so important that I need to teach it to my child.  Much of what knowledge we use is incidental in nature.  

And that is my dilemma.  What is most important to teach our children?  I'm struggling with this question.  And the incredible smart phones are beginning to overwhelm me.  Reviewing the last ten years (2002 to 2012) there is so much information or skills that I know that are now obsolete.  Useless.  Worthless.  And much more of my known knowledge is also becoming less valuable.  

I was standing in the grocery check out line the other day and I realized that I was the only one in line that wrote a check for my groceries.  Everyone else in line was paying by a plastic card except for one other--that person paid by smart phone.  I don't know how it works but it was much faster and easier.  I suspect it is the future here today.  I still have to go home, balance my check book, compare it to my checking account (I can do that on-line) to keep tabs on my finance.  I suspect that that gentleman looks at his smart phone and knows exactly what his finances are at any time.  Fascinating.

So to my mathematics colleagues who follow this blog, please chime in as to what arithmetic or numbers or concepts or......  do we need to teach our children.  This is very troublesome.

The second thing that has really bothered me, i.e., kept me up at night thinking is the book, The Dyslexic Advantage:  Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock Eide and Fernette Eide.  This book is making me cry, laugh, wonder, yell, and berate the world of education in general.  It is a textbook with research and stories about those that have dyslexia, a form of learning that is different from the rest.  

I have Dyslexia.  In a world that does not recognize this style of learning it puts that person in a difficult position.  In most cases, we cannot take written tests and do well. In mathematics we can't always "show" our work for we don't know how we got the right answer.  But we are creative and we think outside the box.  There was one test in my background that I scored well on--a test given by the US Air Force during my days of ROTC at my undergraduate university.  I scored well, actually I scored so high that i had to take the test over again.  I still scored well.  It was a test of space and connectivity that the Air Force had found to be a good predictor for pilot training.  But I wore glasses and that kept me out of the cockpit.  Still, my point being that much of our educational process does not work with dyslexic children and young adults.

I highly recommend to any teachers who are still teaching read this book on Dyslexia.  It is the best one so far that I have encountered.  And if a fourth of our school population might have dyslexia then we have a problem--a major problem.  

I wonder if "Teach for America" personnel (I hate calling them teachers until they've had some experience in the classroom) are given any instructions on learning disabilities.  Would they recognize the characteristics anyway or are they getting next day's lessons ready.  Just a thought.

As you can see, setting up a school system is difficult.  How should we go about teaching our children what is important?  I read this morning a short article about a Waldorf school (I have appreciated the philosophy of the Waldorf methods) that is prohibiting computers and iPads.  I'm not sure I can go along with this policy.  But like me, they are struggling with how to teach our children.

As I struggle with this "puzzlement" I wish to thank the teachers who are doing their best to give our children and young adults some guidelines to the future.  It is a tough task.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Pondering of Thoughts

Please accept my apologies for the long period of nothingness.  I have been reading articles and books galore and thinking.  The latter is the hardest thing to do at times.  I'm fascinated with myself as I can take the easy way out in my thinking--"keep going as we have in the past."  Then I remind myself of that philosophical sentence...."How many people keep doing the same thing but expect different results."  I tend to fall into that trap.  

In reading the articles and editorials about teachers these past few months I've notice a decrease in those attacking teachers in the public schools.  It appears that everyone in the negative side want to get rid of poor teachers but it also appears that most of those wanting this objective have different criteria as to what a poor teacher looks like.  As I've said, I've seen quite a down turn in negative articles about teachers.

On the other hand, I have seen a number of articles, not quite a trend but certainly interesting, on what makes a good teacher.  I hope this continues.  While a few of these articles focus on the young teachers bringing new ideas to this classroom I hope we don't over look some of the older teachers who have been successful for twenty or twenty-five years.  

Another trend that I have noticed are both articles and television clips on countries that have excellent schools, what they do, and how do the students perform.  I was interested in noting that many of the European schools have a much shorter school day--hard to measure as they include a hot meal and then go into leisure time activities, art, music and in Norway's case, skiing.  However in the asian schools time in the classroom reaches nine hours a day.  I haven't found if the arts are included in the asian schools.  Shanghai (China) has a school that on one test scored higher then any other schools worldwide in mathematics and science but a caution, it is only one school and there appears to be a very large waiting list to get into this school.  Cream of the crop so to speak.  Measuring schools, teachers and students is a very difficult thing as there are many variables to ponder.

I relate all this as I have been pondering as well.  What is a good education?  Is it just things or "stuff" we learn?  What of our society does we want to pass on to our kids?  

I admit with somewhat of a smile on my face of the following things that I have learned in school that is useless, obsolete, and of little or no value.  For instance, I can develop negatives and then black and white prints (far better and quicker with a digital camera and a computer).  I can uncoil hemp rope for sailing ships (they don't make it anymore).  I can use special drawing pens for making of overhead transparencies--well, for that matter I can make all sorts of transparencies which we don't use anymore....We now use PowerPoint Presentations.  So many things I have learned that are obsolete.  I still remember reading in a Boston museum of a parent's letter to a school board complaining of their children using metal nibs for writing--those kids needed to know how to sharpen a turkey quill for writing.  Those metal nibs are in my memory bank as I had to use those same nibs in writing.  I also had a small bottle in the upper right hand corner of my school desk for ink which the teacher had to go around the room filling said ink "wells".  Hence my nick name and the results of some fights on the playground, "Inkwell."

So what should we be teaching our kids?  I also have a passion for what is around the corner, what does the future hold for us in this society?  Reading the book that I have mentioned earlier, "The Dyslexic Advantage," a characteristic of many Dyslexic people is thinking or seeing outside the box.  Many with dyslexia see the world through different eye sight.  I guess I'm one of them.  Not only what should we be teaching our kids but how should we be teaching them.  Or maybe, just maybe we shouldn't be teaching them but guiding them as they teach themselves.  My, what a thought.

I raise this point as I discover that today's recruits in the US Army are given iPhones with learning material already loaded on them.  A recruit has to study the material and then teach the rest of his squad.  

I spend a couple of more days recently in my local hospital for checkups and as is my wont, questioned the nurses, assistant nurses, nurses in training and techies of all sorts as to their training, a form of entertainment for me.  Where did they learn what they do, how could it have been better, what are they going to learn next. One young techie when I asked what would be the side effects of a drug I had just taken, flip out her iPhone and using an app told me the scientific name of the drug, that there were no side effects and it would last some many hours.  

And this is the major point I am pondering--how much "stuff" do my students have to know and how much can they retrieve from the smart phone?  Maybe much of what we are teaching is already old stuff?  

I was reading a sailing magazine lately--I like to sail. At one time I raced my sail boat extensively in the pacific northwest.  One of my crew (besides me) had  to be a navigator, one who could read charts, plot courses magnetically, figure out tides and currents and a hosts of other navigational duties.  In Sail magazine recently someone wrote of a major race on one of the Great Lakes in which the navigator did just what I previously told you--plotted the course, kept track of where the boat was in the body of water, figured out how fast they were sailing--stuff like that.  When he came on deck and announced his finding in a loud voice, much of the rest of the crew reached in to their clothing, pull out their iPhones  and said, "Yeah, you're right."  All the latest smart phones have GPS tracking software and charts.  It tells the owner just where they are, either on land or sea.  I wonder if we need navigators anymore.

So I am going to leave you with an assignment.  It is a complex assignment really.  How should we use technology in our schools?  If all my fifth grade kids had iPads with the web as a source of information, what should I teach?  I have some idea but I want you to think about it first before I write about this problem "...seeking a solution or a discussion."

The following little example is exciting.  When I first taught high school band for a short time, I always had the band tune up, get in tune.  Play an "A"  and see if we all could get the same "A".  Part of my task was to get the kids to train their ear to listen and also to play in tune.  Today's music teachers now have an app on an iPhone or iPad that allows each student playing to tune their instrument to an "A note" and they can see in a graph how close or far off they are.  I suspect the more a music student uses this device the more they themselves will train their ear.  What a thought!

Okay, you have your assignment.  How should we use the technologies in our teaching and what subjects do we need to teach.  Got it?  You can either write me direct: or leave comments after this blog.

And then go thank a teacher who helped you learn to think.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Returning after a Vacation

Hello Patient Readers.  I have returned after a two month's vacation with some thoughts about teachers and teaching.  For those who are new to the blog (and for those with short memories like myself) this blog is devoted to the amazing world of teachers, primarily in the public schools, but in private, religious, as well as home schooling.  In spite of the recent national barrage of criticism of teachers which has resulted in "No Child Left Behind," most teachers are going about their jobs teaching children and  young adults about our world and about the students themselves.  As John Dewey has written in his book, "Democracy and Education,"  if this society is to survive and grow it needs to educate the young so that society can advance. And as Louis Armstrong, the wonderful jazz musician once sang:  

I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow
They'll learn much more.....than Ill never know
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world

So this blog is dedicated to the many dedicated teachers in this wonderful world.

A word or two about my background and a bit of my biases.  I was born in the great depression in New York state.  For whatever reasons, we moved many times and by the eighth grade I had been in eight different public schools.  One of those schools was in the Italian part of town and the teachers did some of their teaching in Italian.  Unfortunately I don't remember much Italian.....just good food.  No matter where we moved, there always was a desk in a classroom for me.  

I still remember going to one new elementary school with my papers and asking to be admitted and the secretary asking where my parents were.  "My Mom is busy moving and my Dad is at work."  As I said, there was always a desk for me and a teacher to get me started.  

I did my undergraduate work in Music Education--I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher.  High school band and chorus was my goal but I never got there.  I ended up being a grade school music teacher for several years as well as a fourth and fifth grade teacher.  At that time the school policy was not to allow men in below the fourth grade.  Strange.  Music teaching was fun but classroom teaching was demanding....hard work.  But there were rewards when a child leaned a math problem or could understand what they were reading aloud.  The smile on their face when they could do something new was the pay I craved.  Although grade school teaching was demanding it was also very rewarding.  And my colleagues, the other grade school teachers were equally wonderful.  I had found my niche in the world.

Somewhere in this beginning I went to a workshop on a new learning problem called Dyslexia.  The scary thing about that workshop is that I realized that I had Dyslexia.  It explained most of my problems in school throughout the years.  It even explained to some degree my father as he probably had it as well.  It was a scary time--would they fire me from teaching because I had a learning disability?  For a long time I never told anyone that I had dyslexia.

Forget Dyslexia for a moment if you will.  My next goal was to become an elementary principal and worked at summer school for a masters and elementary principal's credentials.  The moment I received my principal's papers I knew that I would never want to do that job....I wanted to keep teaching.  During this time I was assigned to be the audiovisual guy in the school--that person who collects, distributes and oversees the hardware of teaching--overheads, slide projectors, movie projectors and tape recorders. This world of teaching has changed considerably in the last decade.  

As I finished my master's degree someone suggested I work on my doctorate.  I did, in the field of Instructional Technology.  The field was in its infancy and main frame computers were just becoming available to the education market. Steve Jobs had yet to invent the Apple computer.  Actually, there is a bit of humor to this story.  I was suppose to do a foreign language for my degree and I convinced them that I should learn "BASIC", a then new computer language.  My committee agreed.  To this day I am still fascinated with the use of technology in teaching.  Did you know that the U.S.Army now gives iPhones to new recruits for use in learning?  Almost makes one want to re-up!  Almost...

Two significant things happen halfway through my program.  My principal professor said he was putting a computer in my office and I was to report back to the department how it might be used in education.  The other happening was that a regional state university, primarily a teacher college at the time was in need of a part time professor in audiovisual.  I got that job.

I stayed at that teachers college for another thirty two years teaching instructional technology and some graduate courses in methodology and teaching.  I enjoyed every moment at Western Washington University.  I can report that just recently "Western's" Woodring College of Education was listed at an education school whose graduates do "... an excellent job of teaching."  
I knew that!  

So teaching, elementary schools, educational technology, and Dyslexia are all primary biases to be considered when you read this blog.  I see these subjects through different glasses then do others.  

During my vacation (holiday for my Canadian colleagues) I read ten books, mostly historical novels, one political book that spoke about our educational system and a book on Dyslexia.  I dropped one book from my reading list, that of "The Black Swan" as it got more and more into statistics and probability.  All fine and good but not my cup of tea.  Not bad for a two months reading schedule and being a dyslexic.  

The book that has held my attention the most is "The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain" by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide ( - Aug 18, 2011).  So far I have found the book to be fascinating, enlightening and scary.  I suppose the scary part is okay at this time of year (Halloween) but this book certainly understands me better then I do.   Not only that but the authors comment about people in my home town of Richland, Washington.  

I plan to write about Dyslexia in a future blog--let me read more and then comment.  However, the next few blogs will be about what we want from our school's graduates.  What subjects should they study, what curriculum should be promoted and where do teachers fit into the new courses of study?  Does distant education have a place in our education system?  And (I say the following fondly) where does technology play in our educational system?  

I think we're on to a whole new system of education but still based upon John Dewey's cultural transfer of knowledge.  I think he would be excited about the changes coming to our schools.

And has been my theme these many blogs, I like to end each blog with the admonishing of my readers to thank a teacher for what they do.  I spoke this morning with a nurse who told me she would never be a teacher like her sister--that sister teaches first grade and she works at it night and day....and on weekends.  I spoke to another teacher during my vacation and she had just retired from thirty plus years of teaching, mostly in special education.  And she told me she was going back part time as she missed her kids.  Thank you, teachers of every grade and of every subject.  Thank you.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Making Foreign Languages Not So Foreign

I am in a fantasy mode trying to be positive as to what my public school system should look like.  In recent months there have been many articles and opinion pieces written criticizing today's public education.  Most of the criticism has centered on teachers not doing their jobs and how we need to get rid of the teachers' unions.  Ever since the "No child left behind" era, the fault of public education has been laid at teacher's feet.  I have argued that other factors are in play but the overwhelming number of articles have been negative.  I am pleased that Diane Ravitch, an educational historian, has taken up the cause in argument and I am thankful for her presence as she is a far better writer then I am.

So instead of fighting the good fight, I decided that day dreaming about a more perfect world of education might be the way to go.  And the process was to work backwards from a perceived graduate of our fantasized school system.

At present I have concluded that an educational system that allows students to make mistakes and encourages an interest in learning is the way to go.  That is the environment for our educational system.  Furthermore we are using Leslie Briggs' three areas of study:  communications, the self, and the broad spectrum of the arts.  If I have read Briggs correctly he wanted an education system to start with communications.  Makes sense.

And we started with talking and listening.  It is difficult for some young pre-school children to listen--they want to speak all the time.  For some of these children speaking is a relatively new activity in their lives.  But if a child is excited about telling you something why not take advantage of the moment and help them improve on their speech.

In the past blog I also mentioned learning another language.  Of all my faults (and there are numerous that I hold) not speaking and understanding other languages is a prime fault with me.  And those that speak several languages appear to have a confidence that we who only speak English do not have.  So I would want my graduate to be able to speak and understand at least one language besides English.

While I suggested that Spanish might be a wise investment in our graduate I thought about the number of Asian people I know.  What If our graduate could speak in Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese?  What a thought.

During the years that I supervised student teachers I had one student teacher who was assigned my very favorite elementary school at that time to a fourth grade teacher that was exceptional.   Both got along  right from the beginning and the cooperating teacher felt secure enough to suggest to Megan, my student teacher, to plan a lesson on another culture for social studies.  Megan began by talking to me, then formulating a unit plan on China that would be interesting to these fourth graders.  I push Megan a bit by saying how could she teach all this without turning to a textbook for the students.

Megan was good.  She made arrangements with a local Chinese restaurant to host the class for lunch near the end of the project.  She also got some of the owners' family who were from China to come give talks about their native county.  Megan did the usual with maps on the wall and posters from the Chinese consulate in Seattle.  But i think the best part was bringing chop sticks to all the kids in class and making them practice using them by picking up pieces of paper and small objects,   I tried it and I wasn't as good as I thought I was.  Can you pick up a penny using chop-sticks?  A stamp?

After a number of Chinese visitors to the classroom, the class boarded a school bus with a number of parents and had lunch at the Chinese restaurant.  The owner was very proud of his place, explained the food to the kids as it was served and as they say on the travel brochure, everyone had a good time.  As I wandered about the classroom, I could hear kids saying Chinese words to each other or writing their names in Chinese characters.  I could not fault this lesson unit in any way.  And I believe it was a very positive learning experience for the children.  I've always wondered how many of the children went back to the restaurant with their parents and said "hello" in Chinese?  

My point to all this is that I believe we can expand the qualities of our educational system by including such experiences as learning another language.  I would want my school district to have language training for the students from the early grades through high school.   Just a year or two of a foreign language at the grade level or middle or high school is not enough.  We need to look at languages as a constant--another way to communicate to each other.

In the next blog we'll talk about reading and writing.  Should we be teaching penmanship?  Some school districts have eliminated it.   How should we teach keyboarding (typing for you oldsters)?  Are reading and writing connected or are they two distinct subjects?  Can we teach some of these subjects on the internet?  Interesting thought

This is fun.  Maybe this is why teachers like to teach.  A constant decision as to what and how to approach a child or young adult so that they see the value of knowledge.    Thanks to those teachers who have written me and made suggestions as to what should be in the requirements for our make believe graduate.  And thanks to all those teachers who are trying to make a difference in our young students.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back to the Future? A continuation....

In my last blog, we started a discussion as to what we might like in our own educational system for children and young adults in today's society.  At the moment it appears that many people are negative about education in general (particularly those who have never taught before) so I decided I wanted a more positive approach to our educational thinking.  I agree with John Dewey that society cannot not exists much less then move forward unless we teach our children what we already know.  If we don't do this task it will mean that each generation will have to start over from the beginning.

And in the last blog I quoted Nassim Taleb who wrote "The Black Swan" who stated that mistakes were a part of learning, indeed, a necessary step in advancing knowledge.  This position was endorsed by Thomas Friedman, a well known writer for the New York Times.

So our first salient position for our new educational system was to have an environment that allowed mistakes in learning.  But we also need students who were interested in learning, had a curiosity about the world around them.  These two features are part of the Affective Domain--values that we can hold.  There are some schools that do not look for these features in their students.  "Make no mistakes, be perfect and listen to your teacher."  However, our task here is to be mistakes galore and what is around the next corner.  Eh?

So now we have a graduate of our system who has values in learning.  But besides the ability to make mistakes and the desire to learn what else should our graduate have?

This is where a curriculum, a course of study, is desirable.  However, we are back to that age old question of which knowledge is of most worth?  What should our graduate have knowledge of, what is important to our student to know?

In the past several years we have seen a plethora of op-ed, and political pieces written as to how we should test or examine todays' student but little on what is being used for the tests.  In the State of Texas there has been an ongoing discussion as to what should be included in the history and science textbooks for their children.  Do we include creationism in the science books?  And do we ignore or eliminate information bout slavery in our history books?  What is important to know for our graduate?

I still like Leslie Briggs' focus on the three aspects of knowledge for students--that of communication, the self and finally, the broad aspect of the arts.  Be aware that at present we are talking about types of knowledge that appears to be important to our graduate--we have yet to start a discussion as to the systematic methodology of teaching and learning.  We're still focused on subject matter--what is important?

Let's start with Brigg's communication.  Our young graduate of our fantasized educational system is to be able to communicate in a variety of methods.  But there seems to be a logical place to start, i.e., speech.  A young human begins to verbalize sounds and noises almost as soon as they emerge from the womb.  Crying, laughing, contentment all are sounds that they can express.  There is an interesting story I think I've already told you about an American women married to a Britisher living in London who worked for the German embassy.  Our woman hero spoke German most of the day at her job.  Becoming pregnant, she worked almost until they day that she delivered a normal bouncing baby.  The young baby exhibited normal reactions at home but when Mom took the baby back to the German embassy, the baby laughed, cooed, and was more then happy as everyone talked in German.  In recent months there has been some research that if mom eats string beans while carrying her child, the child will like string beans after being born.  If mom doesn't eat spinach, the young child will probably not like spinach.  Interesting.  In fact researchers seem to suggest that those cultures that have a variety of exotic foods will have children that prefer those types of foods.   So I suggest that Moms and Dads need to talk to their child PRENATAL.  And I suggest that early childhood curriculum have speech as a major emphasis for the children to practice.  "Stand up and tell the class what you did today to learning something."  "Tell all of us how you tied your shoes."  "Tell me your full name."

I was surprised that at the fifth grade level I had a number of students who did not speak well.  Perhaps because I had been a music teacher and had voice lessons I emphasized good speech in my classroom but I think it should have been done earlier in the grades.  It was difficult to get some of my student to read in a LOUD voice.  I didn't want shouting but in a strong loud voice.  "please read that paragraph over, I can't hear you."  It was difficult for some of them to do this task.

Somehow in this atmosphere of speech, I would like to introduce our young students into another language.  If the predominate language in my class is English, why not introduce Spanish?  I am quite envious that many Europeans speak several languages.  I was visiting a Norwegian elementary school and found several fifth grade girls working on some computers in which the software programs were in Norwegian.  However, they could talk to me in perfect English and ask me questions about the software.  At the fifth grade level.

I suggested Spanish as predictions are that a majority of the United States will be Hispanic in the near future.  But even now we have a number of young students in our schools that speak Spanish.  What an opportunity for them to help a teacher teach a class another language.  Not only would it give them a chance to excel but would allow the children to speak to each other in two languages.  " You teach me English and I'll teach you Spanish."  What a deal!

There was once a private school in Bellevue (WA) that hired only teachers that could speak fluently in two languages, one being English.  But the requirement was to teach part time in BOTH languages each day.  Interestingly enough they didn't really care what the second language was--they just wanted the children to become aware of other languages.  Smart thinking I believe.....

So in summary, we have our fantasized graduate having the courage to make mistakes, be interested in learning and being able to speak well, perhaps in two languages.  Do you agree?

For those teachers already teaching in several languages, accept our thanks and ask that you help the rest of us in this area.  You are very important in our educational system.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Perhaps A New Beginning

As I read the educational web sites I get more depressed and more hurt as I see what seems to me to be much of our civilization putting down teachers for not doing enough of a good job, costing us too much in taxes, having an easy life.  I do get some amusement reading that Brad Pitt (movie star) is on our side knowing full well that his mother is a long time English teacher.  Thank you, Brad.  I needed your pick-me-up.  I find it humous that I can't repeat what he said as he expressed himself with a number of four letter words not normally used in polite society and I am sure his mother would not have approved either as a mother or as an English teacher.  But I wander from my theme of the day.

I also need to tell you that I am reading, no, struggling through the book by Nassim Taleb, entitled:  "The Black Swan".  I suspect I understand about thirty percent of what he has written and even that may be high in understanding.  But I am enjoying the book and it is forcing me to think and ponder.  Whether Dr. Taleb is right or wrong is not material but that he makes me think.  The book can be found in the business section of your bookstore--I am reading it on my Kindle.  

The book is essentially (I think) about prediction and probability.  If you are expecting to see a flock of white swans (my sailboat is named, Trumpeter, after the beautiful swans that winter here in the northwest) and a black swan appears, what would be the probability of you finding that black swan.  And so Taleb is discussing in the most part the futility of predicting market busts, company failures, and natural disasters.  They are the black swans of probability.

Dr. Taleb is a philosopher of considerable stature but one of skepticism, a branch philosophy that has a number of followers and thinkers.  I suspect at this time, Dr. Taleb is one of the leaders in this thinking.  But I too, have held some thoughts about skepticism.  I'm not a big believer in statistics but only as an after effect to see what was happening--I don't always see it as a predictor.  By the way, Dr. Taleb views us "soft scientist" as "amusing."  We are definitely not of his ilk.

It is at this position that I wish to expand on a new thread about education, teaching and teachers.  Still within the realm and purpose of this blog let me wander around in thought about what we might do in education while everything around us is tanking.  Working with the premiss of John Dewey's that society needs to educate its young if society is to continue, what sort of education should we construct?  If we could do anything in the arena of education what would we do?  This is interesting stuff but it may take some time.  Let's get started

I think of our society as a three legged stool.  One leg is the private sector, another leg is the public sector and the third is the government.  We need all three to remain stable.  Government keeps in check the private sector while the private sector supervises the public sector and if public hits upon a society need, quite often the private sector takes it over.  So there is a check and balance among the three sectors.  

So who should take on the burden of teaching our children?  All three sectors could do the job.  However, the private sector needs to make a profit and there is a chance that the curriculum would be to train workers for the private sector.  It's possible.  The public sector could do the task however, it would depend upon donations as it does not have the resources.  Some churches within this sector have traditionally done this task from early days, however, it also included religious instruction as well.  To pray or not to pray, that is the dilemma.  

Home schooling has been viable since the beginning of our country.  Indeed, this was the beginning of education in the United State--on the kitchen table in front of mom or dad.  Even today there are millions of children being successfully home schooled.  Dr. Taleb, in his early years, was home schooled because of wars in his homeland of Lebanon.  He later went to the University of Paris so I suppose his home schooling was adequate.  

A major difference in our government is that we have a separation of church and state, essentially no one religion can have an influence on the children.  Should parents want religious instruction it can be presented after school or on weekends.....or included in home schooling.  

So the government sector has the primary responsibility of educating our children.  But the compromise is that the local parents have the right to decide on the type of education.  At one time, local power by parents was the most influential, however, as states paid more and more of the bill, they gained more and more of the power to decide.  One wonders as the U.S. government pays more and more of the bill through "No child left behind" where the power will reside.

So for the moment, let us say that the governmental sector in our fantasized day dreaming of a utopian educational system is responsible for the education and training of our children.  We'll let the religious schools and the private schools do their own thing--we'll plan our own system of education.

Let's continue by working backwards.  Some call it reversed engineering.  But in any event, we start by taking the end product and going backwards.  What should a graduate of our school system look like.  What do we want them to be able to do?  How do we want them to perform?  What would be valuable about them to our society?

I have an old saying that I like to remind myself from time to time.  "There are people who work with their hands and they are call laborers.  There are those that work with their hands and head and they are called craftsman.  And there are those that work with their hands, head and heart and they are call artist."  I equate "heart' with courage, curiosity, compassion, creativity and courage.  What say you, my friend?  Do you agree?

A repeated item in Talib's "Black Swan" is his acknowledgment that making mistakes are good.  He points out that many of today's advancements in knowledge came through mistakes.  Thomas Friedman (New York Times editorialist) in his recent speech to the Governors Convention, said that we need more people in our society that are willing to make mistakes and more companies that are willing to provide an environment to make mistakes.  Then Friedman went on to list a number of items that were the results of mistakes that are now multi-million dollar assets.  I remember when teaching in the "grades" that when children made mistakes they then learned what the correct option was right.  However, the mistakes seem to emphasized the learning of a concept.  John Dewey would have approved for his emphasis was on the children trying things out--in doing was what he wanted.  

So my first requirement for my graduate student from my fantasized school is to be willing, no, WILLING to make mistakes.  Have the courage to make mistakes.  Understand a mistake is not wrong but a chance to change direction.  Using mistakes I believe is important to learning.  I have seen too many children and adults who are afraid to make a mistake thereby limiting their behavior in many ways.  That is not permissible for growth.  And growth should be a constant.  If I'm not better then I was yesterday then something is wrong.

Another feature I would like in my graduate is curiosity.  Having a desire to learn is a wonderful attitude.  Friedman writes that his journalism teacher in high school was tough as nails--wouldn't let him publish in the school newspaper until he got it right but he has recently said that he hasn't needed another journalism course since then.  But he also had the curiosity to  find out things to write about.  That part didn't come with the class....that was his to begin with.  So I want my students to have a curiosity.

I've already wrote about this scientific experiment that we did in one of my fifth grades.  Take an old thirty-three and a third turntable (garage sales) and place three medium growing pots equally distant from each other on the turn table (use double stick tape).  Plant some sort of beans in each pot and water lightly.  Place turn table and pots in a sunny window and during the school day, turn turn table on to slow revolve (33 rpm).  Then ask the class what will the bean stalks do when they start growing?  Will they lean backwards because of the speed?  Will they lean outwards like on a merry go round?  Will they just grow upwards like they always did in the past?  I had the students write what they thought the beans would do and why, then put that writing aside.  After a few months we got our answer.  And, no, I'm not telling you.  You do it yourself.  Be curious.  There are no wrong answers, just some mistakes.  But my little experiment did promote curiosity in my kids.  We need that in our children.

What else do we want our children to exhibit when they graduate?  What knowledge (and skills and attitudes) are important?  I'll leave you today with something Leslie Briggs wrote years ago that I think is still valuable today.  He said we need only to teach three things to our children.  Just three things.  The first was how to communicate which he included speaking, writing, reading, mathematics, dance, singing, art, plays, pictures and I suppose he would today include video, facepage and tweets.  How to communicate!  The second thing he said we needed to teach our children was the "self."   Who am I?  Why do I do what I do?  Why do I have a bad day?  Why did I have a good day?  The more high tech we become the more "self" we need.  The third item that Briggs said we should teach is the arts--from fine arts to zoology.  Briggs really thought all the rest of the knowledge of the world like history, geography, science was the art of civilization.  

So what do you think?  What would you like to see YOUR graduate look like.  We've only begun--there is much work to be done.  As they say in the soaps, to be continued.

And thanks to the science teacher that I talked to on Wednesday.  You are one of the best.  So thank you for teaching the teachers to be.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Visiting an elementary school

[First, an apology.   I recently had an cancer operation and it laid me low for a few days but I am in recovery mode.  I'm sorry for the delay of the blog.]

I came across some interesting news this week that I had not known.  The University of Chicago has a laboratory school that was started by John Dewey.  What i didn't know was that it was still operating and teaching children.  My oh my! And it is considered one of the premiere educational schools in the United States.  

So I did a little more research about it and found that it costs $21,600 for one child to go to the elementary school and $25,000 for a student to go to the secondary school.  Anyway you look at it you will be paying out in the neighborhood of $50,000 dollars A year for tuition for two children.  That's a pretty decent neighborhood.  EACH year!

Apparently Rahm Emanuel, the new mayor of Chicago will be sending his three children there as did the Obama's before he was elected president.  I wonder what the cost per child is when going to the Friends School in Washington, D.C..  

Rich people want the best for their children and they are willing to pay for it.  And it appears they don't want to fuss over the curriculum but they do want a broad curriculum that includes physical education, music, art, drama, small classes but hold the national testing, thank you.

My concern is that what John Dewey envisioned for good schooling was not just a lab school run by a university but by schools all over this country helping the young gain a satisfactory position in our society.  If I interpret what professor Dewey wrote in his book, the better our schools are, the better our society will be.  Somehow I don't think the American politicians have accepted this position.

But Finland and South Korea have done just that.  They have made teachers a highly respected profession with excellent pay and have made entry into the teacher profession difficult--you gotta be top flight to get into their university to be a teacher.  My university has done that--it is difficult to get into the Woodring College of Education.  And once there, you have to work at it.  Lots of time spent in the schools BEFORE you attain student teaching status.  

I like spending times in the schools.  I once heard about a school in the Olympic peninsula that was getting good reviews by other teachers.  When teachers say something is good, I pay attention.  So one early morning I left my campus, traveled to Seattle, took the ferry across Puget Sound and located this new elementary school located in a new growth middle class housing.  Nice neighborhoods.  

I got to the school about eleven in the morning--my due date and time.  Parked the car and as I walked toward the front door, a young boy met me and asked, "Are you Mr. Blackwell?"  When I agreed that it might be me, he said, "Please come with me."  I felt as if I were in a time warp, he was very polite--probably about a third grader.  And he led me straight to the office of the principal who was ready to meet me.  Some schools I'm left sitting in the office waiting for the principal but not this time.

We chatted.  It was a new school opened only a year previous and had three open wings in a circular style with a first, second, third, fourth and fifth grade in each wing.  Kindergarten was in a separate building.  It was interesting that the three fifth grades were not together but the reason will become apparent.  All classrooms had only three walls with what might be called the back wall opened to a long section between the classrooms.  This area held two large rows of computers.  The fact that there each classroom was open to all the other classroom impressed me that the noise level was at a minimal.  I've heard noisier schools.

But back to the principal....she told me that the teachers had worked for a year after school to design this building and the curriculum.  Parents were involved with the process as well.  One of the themes was this would be a "helping" school, hence, the reason for the first through fifth grade in a wing.  The "rule" was that a younger student having problems could ask an older student how to do something, how to read a paragraph, do an arithmetic problem and so on.  The older student had to help. If asked you had to help.  If he/she couldn't answer or solve the problem they HAD to get some other student who could.

One of the rules of learning (not teaching) is that redundancy is a key to knowing.  You learn something but then do it several times and it becomes engrained in long term memory. That was happening at this school.  Kids were learning things and then having to help younger kids, they employed redundancy.  By the time they got to fifth grade, the concept of helping others was imprinted in their behavior.  

When the principal answered all my questions, she buzzed the outer office and a young fifth grade girl was shown in.  "Mr. Blackwell, this is Jessica and she will be your official guide on your tour of this school."  "Jessica, this is Mr. Blackwell."  And off we went.  

There is nothing more delightful then a young student who knows that have an adult where they want them--in their control.  With great importance she took me around the school visiting wing after wing.  At some point a younger student asked Jessica a question and she excused herself for a moment telling me she had to do this task first and then with deliberation helped the younger student.  I was impressed and Jessica knew that.  She also explained to me how the computers were used.  

I asked about the noise level--did one class make more noise at times and did it bother the other classes.  "No, you get use to it."  "But sometimes when a lower grade is having music and they are singing a song, we in the upper grade will sing along under our breath."  "You won't tell our teachers, will you?"  We now had our little secret.   I said I wouldn't but I suspect the teachers sang along as well.

All the wings lead to a large center section of the school which was the library.   Very large.  But no librarian.  She was apprently out in one of the classrooms teaching library skills.  So how did books get checked out and in?  Jessica with her hands on her hips said, "we do it ourselves."  "Okay, show me."

Apparently, each child in the school had a bar code that was distinctly theirs.  And these bar codes were in loose leaf notebooks by grade.  A child would find a book that they wanted, zap the bar code in the back of the book, then find their class note book and zap their name in the check out list.  Done deal.  When they returned the book, it was again zapped and the name under check in was also zapped and the book was place so that it could be re-shelved.  I spoke with the librarian and she mentioned that they had about the same amount of loss as when she did all the work, but in this case, she could go out into the classrooms and teach!  The kids could do the office work.  What a concept.

I am sorry that i didn't ask about bullying but I doubt if much of that happened at this school.  The older kids seem to sense that they had a responsibility for the younger kids.  Part of the "help system" I suppose.

I talked to the teachers and they all seem quite happy with the arrangement of the school and the policies that they had implemented. According to the principal the school had the lowest change of faculty in the district.  She agreed that that could be a problem down the road but she would deal with that when the time came.

I suspect that the cost of putting a child through that public school, not counting the cost of building the building, would be in the neighborhood of $13,000 a year.   I didn't ask but did a rough estimate at that time.  That is a far cry from the $25,000 that the University of Chicago's lab school costs.  

And I suspect if I had to pick a school for my kids, I might have chosen this unique school across the sound from Seattle.  I wouldn't want my kids to become elitist.

"There is no nobility being superior to anyone else.  The only true nobility is in being superior to the person you were yesterday."

Thanks, Jessica.  You were a great tour guide.  Pretty smart, too.  I like your style. And thanks to all the teachers who designed a unique school for learning in the public educational system.  Nicely done.