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.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Student Evaluations...and then some.

I recently received an e-mail from Liz Nutt who writes for another online blog on a web site entitled:  Online Universities.  Her article was about the 20 meanest teacher evaluations of all time.  Perhaps.  I'm interested in distance learning so I do read this site from time to time.  On line education I think will continue to grow, expand and stimulate our society.  It certainly can't hurt.  To read her article goto: (

But her article brought back many memories.  Let me digress a bit first, however.  When a person after several years of study receive their doctoral degree many then have to seek a job somewhere in this nation.  The department faculty talk to you for a couple of days, lots of walking about seeing the campus, then a day of talking to the Dean, then the Provost, and in some cases, then the President of the university. Stressful time.  Mine never worked out that way but as they say now-a-days that's another story.

Let's say my hypothetical new wet behind the ears professor at some point is offered a position which on the books is called a FTE (Full Time Equivalent).  Departments are measured by their FTEs, how many they have, how many on sabbatical,  how many FTEs are shared with another department--you get the picture.

What the new professor will find out during the first year is that she/he has three obligations, research, service and teaching--in that order.  Now let me translate that into understandable English.  A new professor has to write (books, articles, research reports) and these writings need to be evaluated by peers in academic organizations.  Then the new professor has to serve which means serving on committees.  Curricular committees, advising committees, graduation committees, textbook committees, technology committees. standards committee and when you are there long enough you can be elected to the grandaddy of them all, the TENURE AND PROMOTIONS committee.    If possible serving on a national association committee will get you off of some of these lesser committees and maybe a chance to visit other universities.  Maybe.

The last assignment is teaching.  Many newly appointed professors have never ever taught a college course.  Maybe they were a teaching assistant and taught a lab course or a study course aligned with the main course...But some folks have never taught a course.  Many universities that produce doctoral graduates have no requirements for their students to take a course on how to teach.  There is a saying in the Education department--You teach as you were taught.  Interesting thought.

However, another little known requirement is that as you teach your courses you have to be evaluated by the students.  Most universities have a form that fits all classes, labs, lectures, performance, which can be given at the end of the course.  The results of these questionnaires are given back to the instructor AFTER the grades are sent out.  The questionnaires include such items as: "Were his lectures understandable?"  Yes, No.  And somewheres near the end there is a place where the student can write down comments.  Hence, Ms. Nutt's article on the meanest teacher evaluations....of all times yet.  

I need to change hats at this moment from professor to philosopher.  Am I required to pour information into my students?  Or are they required to learn the material no matter what.  Should I teach them how to think?  Or just provide data in information?  My point being where is the power, on the professor or the student.

I know I've already told this story but it is worth telling once again to illustrate this point.  There was a well know nuclear physicist at the University of Chicago and as one version of the story goes, came to a graduate level class assigned to him one evening.  He went around the room getting the names of his eight students, checking them off his list.  Then he looked around the room and asked if there were any questions.  The students remained quiet and the prof said, "Good" and picked up his books and left the classroom.  The next week he sat down and asked if there were any questions and all hands went up.  Where is the responsibility--for the teacher or the learner.

I tend to think that the onus is on the learner at the university level.  I once had a professor that to this day was the very, very worst lecturer I have ever heard.  He was in school administration and his thoughts wandered and were completely disjointed.   He was terrible in the classroom.  But, and this is a very big but, in the hall or in his office he was a fountain of information.  He was the google of all administrative data that a student could ever want.  I remember that all of us in the class would endure his lecture only so we could quiz him in the hallway.  We even joked that the classroom ought to be in the hallway.  Famously informative professor who could not lecture but still could teach.

I use to get those student reviews from most of my classes.  I normally scored in the top decile of rankings and much of the comments were laudatory.  Those comments did not interest me--it was always the one or two who were very negative about the course that I was interested in.  First, you have to decide if the student doesn't like the course OR if the student doesn't like the instructor, in this case, me.  This give me a clue as to what i should be looking for.  

In the early days of computers it was not uncommon to find a student in class that was perhaps brilliant in knowing how to write computer code.  I'm sure a number of them found my computer code writing rather basic.  But I wasn't teaching writing code.  I still don't think teachers ought to have to write programs for their classes.  But still I would get one of these students who was totally upset with my coding skills.  I can assure you some of their comments stung.

On the other hand when I found someone who did not like my teaching skills, I was in seventh heaven.  Now I had something to work with.  What did they not like?  The lectures?  Why?  One student said that I cursed too much.  I don't remember cursing but I wonder what set him off?  I did put a TV camera at the back of the room several times to see if I could see what some of the negative comments might be about.  Watching myself teach is agony.  Pure agony.  But I did see several things I could improve on.  Out of thirty students I would get perhaps one negative review.  Those reviews were the most important to me.  I think the quickest way to improve your teaching is to video tape yourself.  

Lets change grade level on student evaluations.  I routinely would hand out a form in my fourth and fifth grade classrooms on "How is Mr. Blackwell Doing?" and I had a series of questions like, What is your favorite subject?  What subject does Mr. Blackwell teach the best?  Sometimes I find a correlation but sometimes it didn't work out that way.

One year it was pretty clear that I had been pushing social studies and neglecting science and health.  Almost all of the students commented on this and I immediately change objectives and brought things back to an even keel.  But i was not happy with my "teacher report card" in that I didn't get information about how the kids felt about the class and their classwork.  So I changed the formate.  I had the same questions but this time I had them write the answers to my dog, Stormy.  He was very popular in class and would come once or twice a year. The students loved to write to Stormy and many added information that was valuable to me as the teacher.  I remember one of those evaluations that went something like this, "Stormy, Mr. Blackwell says I'm a good student but he never calls on me or talks to me."  Whoa!  She was a pretty little girl in the front row and I realized she was right that I didn't call on her very often.  Big time change of tactics. I made sure she got my attention at least once a day.  And big time change in her face--much more smiling.  Kids want to learn but they want a pat on the back too.  I don't blame them.

Teacher evaluations by the students.  Important part of our teaching/learning process.  I know that John Dewey would have taken this all in with a smile on his face (I can't remember if I ever saw a film of him smiling) as he believed that students needed to be part of the teaching/learning process, not just a receptor for information.  The strange thing about all this is that in his later years, Dr. Dewey was not the best lecturer and in one case, actually walk out of the room thinking about something.  

To all teachers, K-12 and university who get student reviews may they at least thank you for your services.  You are important to our society.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Why Teachers Cheat.

A couple of things crossed my desk and my computer screen this week that persist to trouble me about teachers.  By and large in my forty-five years of teaching most teachers just want to go about doing their business of getting someone to learn something.  In my case at the college level, I wanted to teach teachers how to use (at first, early on) audio-visual equipment.  Later we call it media (communications) and finally a term that seems to be sticking, Instructional Technology.  I was convinced that if teachers would use media correctly that kids of all ages would learn more in less time.  I still think along these lines.  I'm not sure how one could measure the teaching/learning that I generated but I suppose one could devise a test of some sorts. But if you then said to me that my future would be determined by the students' test scores, I think I would end up in a blue funk.  Well, certainly not a happy guy.  Probably scared a bit.  

But I have taught a college (graduate level) course on "Tests and Measurements."  I know that one can write a test to get certain results.  Negative or positive results depending upon how you construct the question or test item.  Are you with me on this?   Recently around the Fourth of July several news sources asked the question, "could you pass the American citizen test that is given to immigrants wanting to become U.S. citizens?"  Out of curiosity I took the test and failed...not surprisingly.  I'm not good with details like who is the seventh president of the United States.  But i did okay on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, probably because I use to teach that to my grade school kids.  But there were items even on that subject that I forgot.  Damn!   And I couldn't remember all the words to the National Anthem....not surprising as I could probably play it in several different keys on my trumpet.  I remember all the notes--do you?

Testing is the quicksand of education so I was also not surprised when those same news sources reported that a large number of teachers and principals in a large southern city were found to be cheating on their students' behalf so that school scores would look better for the "No Child Left Behind" tests.  The headlines blared:  "Teachers Found Cheating,"  and later clips in the news showed  the superintendent of schools "...if teachers were found cheating would be immediately dismissed--FIRED!"  As if superintendents never cheat.  

[A sidebar] I was once a school board member and one of our duties were to review the budgets of a number of smaller school districts in our area.  In one case two school districts used the services of a school psychologist but one district paid his salary one year, and the other district the next year.  Thats legal under state law.  But what those districts were doing was EACH district was budgeting that salary EACH year and then using the money if it were not their year to pay for other items--not legal.  But they had been doing this for a number of years and using that money as a slush fund for sports.  

So in the news a lot of hand wringing about how teachers were cheating.  I haven't talked or written any of those teachers but I suspect I know what was in their mind.  First off, this testing has gotten out of hand and many schools are doing more to prepare for the test then teaching the students what they need to know.  If I had been among those teachers I suspect I would have been in the group that changed student's scores.  I'm still thinking about it.  Teachers would rather teach the students a solid curriculum that will allow the students to be successful in the future.  I'm serious, teachers want to teach and they want to teach worthwhile subjects that will be useful to the students.  I have yet to meet a teacher who didn't want this objective.  Teaching to the Test is a waste of time for everyone.  Yes, teachers will still do testing but they want to know if what they are teaching is getting through to the students.   I have given tests to my fourth graders and realized I needed to go over the material once again--they weren't getting it.  But to teach for a national test that doesn't make sense is silly.  So who is the eighth president of the United States?  Don't google it, just tell me.  I don't know either.

I feel sorry for those teachers and principals.  I think they really had the best interests of the students in mind when they did this sort of thing.  I do wish them well...and want to remind the superintended, "let me see your budget for the year, eh?"

However, another item that came before me was essentially a local news clip.  Teachers in Seattle could take a 1.9 percent pay cut OR the district would have to forego buying new textbooks for the children.   This statement came from the Public Information officer of the Seattle School District.  Holy smokes, I couldn't believe it.

Now think about it--the teachers can keep their salary at the present level (no raises) or they can take the pay reduction to buy the books for the students.  The district isn't buying the books--the teachers are!  What blackmail!  Not only did this stick in my craw but in another news source it said that the Seattle school administrators are getting "pay raises to stay competitive."  Somehow I really don't understand all of this.  

To be fair I have found out that several mid-level school administrators have been released.  But my feelings are with the teachers.  Tough spot to be in.
I wish them well.  Perhaps one will write me and tell us what the final decision was.  Did the teachers buy the new textbooks?  I wonder.

I wish all teachers well.  My thanks to them for the work that they do with our children and young adults.  Thank you.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Two Things I Dislike In Our Educational System

Actually, there are many things we could do to improve our educational system and make it better.  I've mentioned some of them in previous blogs.  Most of them are things I think we SHOULD do for our kids, beginning with early childhood to high school and perhaps higher education as well.  But there are two items that I think should be eliminated.  

One of those items is spankings.  Recently in a local newspaper a letter to the editor said that much of the problems with education could be solved if we would just return to spanking the kids when they misbehaved.  It was from a woman and I believe it was sincere.  It had the element that what was good in her day would be good today.  And when a child misbehaved in her day, they were punished by having to bend over to endure a number of wacks with a paddle.  "Grab your ankles."  

My bias stems from the fact that I don't remember my mother or dad ever paddling or striking me.  A "talking to" was more scary then a paddling.  And there were other punishments to enforce the rules of our, no dessert for two days (the ultimate punishment in our house as mom was a great cook) or I had to stay in my room.  Boring.     But, no swatting or hitting.  So I guess I grew up with this bias taught to me.

But I have felt the paddle in the fraternity house as a pledge.  It hurts and it is humiliating. Some guys seem to want to prove their manhood by showing how much they can endure.  So much for brains.

My first introduction to paddling in the schools was my first year as a fifth grade teacher.  I had already spent a year as a music teacher and I had not uncounted any discipline problems.  Why would kids want to cause troubles when they are singing, dancing or playing their instruments.  Getting them to stop was my biggest problem.  "Hey, class is over--put your instruments away!"  But in fifth grade, there are many opportunities for a child to goof off and in some instances, even though I might have cautioned them on their behavior, they continue the negative action.  

I was still new to the profession of teaching and I tried several things first.  Have the student sit at my desk but that resembled rewarding the kid for his actions.  Keeping him/her in for recess wasn't that sever and it also meant that I had to stay in the classroom as well.  However, it was doable.  Girls mostly didn't like this punishment....perhaps because they couldn't talk to their friends.  I would not add homework to the kid in question for punishment--that seemed to be adding a negative connotation from the bad behavior to learning.  I didn't think that was a smart move.

But one time I had a boy just not paying attention, talking out of turn, being defiant, hassling other children in the classroom and when possible ignoring rules and my instructions.  I remember in this episode I moved his desk next to the door away from others but he kept making faces when I turned my back and continued to disrupt the class the best way he knew how.  My patience wore thin.

As a relatively new teacher I had been told on several occasions that if I were to have a discipline problem to bring that student to the principal's office.  On this occasion I did just that.  The principal was a big man, probably over six feet tall, very imposing and I thought he would just talk to the child and get his attention.  But that is not what happened.  

When the young student and I were ushered into the office, I explain that my young charge was not behaving in a positive way, explained what his actions had been and what actions I was expecting of him.  The principal asked the student if this was true and a slight nod returned the affirmative.  Then the principal closed his door and from the back of it took down this rather large paddle, told the student to bend over and he delivered at least ten hits to the student's behind--hard enough to lift the student off the floor.  This I noticed.  I was aghast.  I hadn't wanted this--I wanted the principal to talk to the student.

We left the principal's office and I think both of us were least my eyes were wet.  My kid was sobbing and we walked around the school for awhile while both of us regained some control.  I think my student realized what I was doing.  The rest of the day went off without further problems.....except the scene has never left my mind.   I NEVER took a student to the principal's office for discipline after that episode.  NEVER!

First, we're the adults--we ought to be smarter then the students.  If pain is the only way to get their attention, something is wrong.  I shortly learned another technique that I used to satisfaction--indeed, my kids use to remark that they hated it when I did this dastardly deed.  New teachers--pay attention to this technique.

First, you NEVER discipline a child in front of another.  In fact, as far as I am concerned you NEVER discipline an adult in front of others.  Go to a private room, an office, someplace away from the class.  Both of you sit in a chair facing each other.  Then you take the child's (adult's) hands in yours and you talk to them.  Go over what has just happened and explain what the correct behavior was desired.  By taking the other's hands, it is hard, almost impossible,  for that person to look away.  You "HOLD THEIR ATTENTION-EYEBALL TO EYEBALL."  It is like getting a direct link to their brain.  I normally ended by saying something to this effect, "Do you know now what we need to do?"  And then, "I still think you are a very important person in my life."  Positive ending.  Notice I said "WE need to do?  What I'm trying to tell my young charge is that we're going to get through this together.

With adults, it may not be discipline that you want to accomplish but rather the importance of the message.  My wife and I have used this technique for years when we needed to say something important.  

But I would never spank a child--or a fraternity brother for that matter. I have never seen pain to cause a behavior change for the positive.

As I said, I never took a child before that principal (or any principal) ever again. 

The second educational policy that should be eliminated is "RANKINGS."  Who is number one, who is the best, what student is better then all the others?  There may be times when a generalization of who is the largest university in the state or what roads have the most accidents are probably valuable.  But my indignation is when we say this child/student is the best in this classroom.  

I quickly learned that if you say, Charlie or Charlene is the very best at doing their spelling words, I would then have thirty-four other children who were not the best.  To a lot of kids they could care less, but for several who were really trying to know they had been bested, it hurts.  They would like to be up on that pedestal too.  It's alright if a number of kids do well and you mentioned that but singling out one person as the best leaves a lot of others with lesser feelings.

There is a philosophical saying that seems to fit this subject.  I have used it before--it is one that guides my thinking.  "There is no nobility in being superior to someone else--true nobility is being superior to who you were yesterday."  It was this thinking that I tried to impose on my students----from the music classes I taught to elementary to high school to college...getting students to say to themselves, "I'm better then I was yesterday."  I would not single out someone as being the best.  It's a hard road to follow.  I know, I keep trying.

Two items I would like to see eliminated from educational systems--paddling and rankings.  They do not have a positive effect in education or society for that matter.

Yes, I've had some top teachers but all of my teachers have my thanks for doing what they did to help me.  They all deserve a pat on the back and a sincere thank you for a good job.