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.