Monday, July 30, 2012

Back To The Future

I know, that title has been used before--in movies and in other blogs as well.  But it came to mind when the White House announced in the last week or two that that President Obama will request one billion dollars for improving science and mathematics education in the United States.  My aging brain sent me a red flag--we did this once before.  I was there when it happened.  In a grade school classroom..... and my kids and I had several discussions on how we could make math and science bette in our classroom.  

I had just returned that year (1958) from serving in the U.S. Army in the Korean war (25th Inf Div) and because I was by law allowed my old job back (elementary music teacher) the school district would have to fire my replacement.  However, I knew that the district was building new elementary schools (2) and we would need several elementary music teachers in the near future and didn't want him fired therefore I had asked to be a elementary classroom teacher for the short term.  The district was in need of elementary teachers at the time and they quickly agreed to my request and made me a fifth grade teacher.

I was assigned thirty six students....  I remembered I didn't have enough textbooks to go around at first some of the kids had to share books.  I had enough paper and pencils to go around, two blackboards and one gigantic bulletin board that the principal wanted covered.  We had no other supplies and we didn't have a library for the school.  About thirty grade level 'library books' were put into each classroom and we were asked to exchange them after several months with another classroom.  

I remember we ran out of ditto's around April so that eliminated handouts and work sheets.  A month later we ran out of paper for the ditto machines.  I bought ditto paper from Sears--they had the best price.  There were no science supplies whatsoever.  Most of my science instruction came out of the science textbook assigned to my classroom.  The class would read a section and we would talk about it.  Sometimes I would have kids bring stuff from home to do little experiments like batteries, wire, and such.  

And then it all, not the fan but SPACE!  The Soviet's Sputnik was shot into space in 1957 and this provided the necessary motivation to congress to authorized funding for the National Defense Education Act  or as it was commonly called the NDEA (became law in 1958).  It provided about a quarter of a million dollars in several programs.  I don't remember them all but one was to assist undergraduates in mathematic and science education.  But these students didn't have to go into teaching, they could get jobs in industry if they so chose.  However it also provided monies for foreign language  and engineering undergraduates.  That was the defense part of the act.  The only thing that trickled down to my classroom was a science cart.  The kids and I really liked it.  It was on wheels (very small wheels so that pushing it on the cement walkways outside my classroom was not feasible so in essence it stayed in my classroom although it was suppose to be for all the intermediate classes.  

The science cart had a sink at one end with a hand pump lever and faucet into the sink.  Inside the cart was a plastic jug for water and another plastic jug for whatever ran out of the sink.  The counter top was especially made out of some sort of plastic that would resist chemical spills.  The kids and i never did find out if it did this as we never had any chemicals to play....which was probably a smart move on somebody's part.  The cart has some drawers at the other end of the cart--aways from the sink and jugs below which turned out to be handy for scissors, rulers and several other items for which we had no storage in the classroom.  But we loved out cart, the kids and me.  We could roll it down the aisles and stack textbooks on it, stand on it to clean the top of the blackboards and also to put stuff on our large bulletin board (the wheels locked).  We never used it for science or mathematics.  I heard later on the company that made the cart made millions off the NDEA act.  Maybe that was the purpose of the act to begin with.

So as I mentioned earlier on, the White House announced recently a request for a billion dollars for science and mathematics.  I've also read someplace that the president wants monies for engineer students as well.  My oh my I wonder if I will get a tee shirt this time around.  

One of my concerns is that if we want more science, math, okay, let's throw in engineering for the fun of it, we need to start in the elementary schools with basic science and math.  The engineering can come out of the math--OR--we can teach engineering and have the math come out of it.   But I have my doubts and I suspect we will see a new type of science cart that will be made available for elementary schools once more.  Hello Future, good to see you again.

I did learn to teach science and I was successful in my endeavors.  For several years the Washington State Dairy Council supplied me with four tiny laboratory white rats.  The class (and I) learned to mix dry food products by the gram and volume, to weigh the rats and keep charts and to observe skin and tail conditions depending upon the food eaten.  Two rats would get a good food supply (with dry milk) and two would get a poor food supply (of course without milk) and after a time, the rats were reversed in their eating habits.  It was all simple science methods and the kids loved it.  One of my students came to me while she was in high school and wanted to do a similar experiment for her high school biology class and wanted to know where I had gotten the white rats.  So I guess some of the scientific learning paid off.

I tried to teach science.   I suspect with a minimum of equipment, storage areas for supplies, and enough stuff for the kids we would have done rather well.  At that time I would have liked to have taken a basic science course during the summer school for teachers but I don't remember any being available.  I wonder what the NDEA monies were used for.

I still contend that if we want to improve science and mathematics we need to start in the elementary school curriculum.  And we'll need teachers.  Not larger classes, not state ordered curriculums, and not tests.  Just people who want to be teachers

I don't think we'll get them.  Perhaps some science carts, but not teachers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How We Learn....and how we teach

I just lost another colleague they other day--we're of the age where this will happen.  He was a professor of Geology and was instrumental in designing courses for science teachers in both the public and parochial schools....   But he also taught in his church, a community arts center, the Boy Scouts, and in his community neighbors association.  An all around teacher.  I could always count on him in the early fall workshops for the professors to have a broad smile and a warm greeting, "One more year, eh, Les"  We'd sit through these workshops and hope that we would remain awake until lunch.  Well, that was my modus operandi.  I can't remember how many years Bob and I listened to someone lectures us on how we should change our teaching which would allow students to be more involved.  And we'd sit there and listen quietly.  Oh my.  How many years.  

I will miss Bob.  But as I reflected on his work and friendship I also thought of all the different ways he taught, one on one, in small groups and in large classes of Geology students.  But he also taught over coffee, in his home and in an art center that he and his son developed.  

So I pondered how we learn.  Two things happened this week (so far) that adds emphasis to this story.  One reason the blogs have been spaced out (you may take that in several ways) is that I am writing a first attempt.  I've gotten a bit more then five chapters done so far and two of my friends have read sections and say to keep going.  Improvements need to be made, certainly, but I'm enjoying the creativity of the task.  Writing a novel is harder then i thought it would be.  Lots of details that I have to account for that you won't find in the book, like ages of the characters so that there discussions will make sense.  Were they in the Army at the same time?  If so, how old are they?  Things like that.  If a woman has a daughter in high school and her husband was killed in a war, what songs should she know from that time?  Fun stuff.  Do I write in the first person?  And how are narratives written.

So I downloaded a book on how to write novels from the internet--multiple authors, supposedly all famous who give advice on how to write a novel.  I can attest that an old dog can learn new tricks.  At least this old dog.  I'm learning a lot.  What I am worried about at this moment is that my first chapters will have been much more stilted and that I am finally getting into the swing of things in the latter chapters.  I'll probably have to go back and re-write the earlier chapters--no big deal, however.   My point is that I'm learning something new...from a book on an iPad.

An aside:  I am also reading on my iPad the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Fascinating reading--changing my thoughts about Apple.  But what really caught my attention is when Jobs is negotiating a salary for himself as he returns to the Apple company, a sum of 22 thousand shares of stock which they give him as CEO of Apple.  That turns out to be $300 thousand dollars.  For a years work.  At the same time my local state university (12,000 students) published the salaries of the faculty--a full professor makes on the average, $80,000 a year.  Wait, wait.  That person does get a medical perk of which He/she has to pay half.  And we ask what is wrong with our education system.  

But I digress.  I am learning how to write a novel--whether it will be good or not I can't say.  But the task is entertaining and I like doing it even though I am in the September of my life.  

The second thing that has captured my attention is that a colleague on the other side of the country has written me to ask about distance learning.  How do you go about getting a course on a distant learning site.  And I got pondering (god, I love that word 'ponder'.  It is less then thinking but above day dreaming) about how we deliver messages (that which we want to teach) to our students but how they intake that message.  We've learned long ago that we can do it by the book (sorry about that), by lecture (I wonder what the efficiency of learning is for that method), by demonstration, by pain (paddling), by insight, by mistake.  I suspect the list could go on forever in ways of learning.  With the advent of the computer (as well as the smart phone and the pad) we now have unique ways of delivering our instruction.  So the delivery methods are expanding.  

But as I wrote to my colleague, we need to take into account what the motivation is of the student for that course.   Are they really wanting his knowledge?  Or do they just want the credit. they have to take the course as a prerequisite for something else.  How learning becomes so involved.

And in this day and age, not all students can make an eight o'clock class or a four o'clock class on the same day.  They work, have families, need to take public transportation, so many things that complicate how one gets an education.  So I am in favor of distance learning except I just don't know all the methods that are available.  And as I said to him in my e-mail, how to we account (or accredit) someone who has taken the course.

I keep coming back to "what makes an educated person?"  What courses, what knowledge, what feelings and attitudes do you need after you've learned something?  It is very complicated.  

Along with this person's comments about getting into distance learning he wrote that teaching in the high school has become more difficult as the school districts rely on more testing methods for evaluation.  It limits the creativity in the teaching.  Steve Jobs would have taken note--he valued creativity as one of the highest attributes of an individual.  He'd put up with a lot of you were creative. But I've also heard from two other teachers saying they are thinking of retiring early as the teaching has become so structured.  Interesting word.

So I wonder if maybe one possibility in education will be distance learning.  Courses that are designed to the test.  Get so many of these type of courses out of the way and they (whoever is in charge) will allow you to take the more creative courses.  Maybe with a live teacher.

I still feel teachers are the salt of the earth.  Society will not prosper without teachers.  The collective learning of society will not be transferred to the young without good teachers.  Yes, we need the medical profession but without teachers who teach medicine it will not survive.  Nor will we.  Yes, we need both fire and police departments but with education I think we could change their objectives to helping not controlling.  But it will be teachers who will teach both the fire and police personnel.  The methodology on how to deliver this learning will continue to grow...and I believe distance education will be in the forefront.  

My thanks to all teachers who help people to learn.  You are necessary no 
matter what society says at the moment.  You are important to us.

Three hundred thousand dollars for year's work.  My oh my.

This just in!

Monday, July 2, 2012

I Remember.........Nora Ephron

Like many I'm sure, I was devastated to hear of Nora Ephron's passing--she was younger then me and far more perceptive of the world around her.   I will miss her greatly.  She was an astute observer of life around her and particularly so of herself.  Several of her books and especially her last one, I Remember Nothing are filled with observations of her world.  I am rereading I Remember Northing on my Kindle and iPad (depends upon which I have with me at the moment) and I once again laugh and cry at her comments.

I list Nora and what was the name of that famous woman anthropologist that i like as well.....hold on let me google it.....yes, Margaret Mead.  You see I am in Nora's camp--I forget names.  I always have.  And I laughed when I read that Nora had a secret code with her husband when she didn't remember the name and would pinch him on the upper arm, meaning 'get this person's name for me,' except sometimes he wouldn't know how or who the person was.  Ah, yes, my wife and I have that same signal--for me to say to her, who is that?   And up to a few years ago this worked well--she would tell me and I could go up to the person, extend my hand and say, "Hello (place appropriate name here), it's good to see you again."  Unfortunately my wife's memory of names is fading and we look at each other in dismay.  Was this person in one of our classes?  Or the yacht club?  We struggle on in conversation with people we can't remember. At least we haven't yet reached Nora's stage where she once did not recognize her sister in a mall.  But we're getting there.

Strange there are many things I'm forgetting.  Thank heaven's for smart phones (I have an iPhone) where one can put in combinations, gate codes, and for some of us oldsters, our social security number.  Who knew it would be this important when we first got them so many years ago.

But it is strange the things I do remember.  I can remember about this time of the year in 1953 getting on a school bus and going with a group to the Bronx Zoo as a volunteer and was given the charge of taking care of ten little boys, no make that ten little excited boys.  We looked at the animals, bought hot dogs and along the way, collected two more boys who had become lost from their assigned groups.  I can remember placing a couple of the youngest kids on my shoulders, one at a time, as they were getting very tired.  I remember telling them to keep a good watch out for our group--and they did.  "Saul is over by the bear cage" and we'd yell and get Saul back."  Why do I remember this?  Because I spent the day calling him Paul--poor guy.  I wasn't in tune with my kids.  It was a fun but tiring day for me and when we returned to the buses I had the two missing kids.  Everyone was relieved and the next day I was asked if I would like to become a playground supervisor for the summer.  If so, be at the training class the next three mornings and be sure to sign in with the main office so I could be paid.  A paying summer job.  I remember.  

I learned to call Paul, Saul, and the other kids by the right name.  I learned that you can't play softball in high heat and humidity, that lying under the oak tree and telling stories was a far better summer past time.  I remember with vivid detail.  Strange....

That summer and the next were like basic training for me on how to handle kids, disasters, change of plans, the unexpected and how to like kids.  Some kids I could hug, others needed directions.  I began to look at kids differently--they were all different.  And I made mistakes.  Oh boy did I make mistakes.  I remember the mistakes.  I had the girls play games with the boys.  Someone had not told me this wasn't done in 1953.  Well..... on my playground the girls got equal time at bat, or whatever the game was.  It just seemed right.  Title Nine was a long time in the future but my playground was on the right track--yes, I remember.

There is a lot that I remember.  Most of it is narrative, not facts.  I couldn't tell you any of the scores of those games we played--I don't think we kept score.  My memory for facts is devastatingly poor, always has been.  Which is why I've been on this theme for so long.  

I'm ahead of Nora--I wish she was here to tell us how dying is like.  But she did tell me how not remembering works.  I agree with her.  I chuckled when she spoke of her memory as a hard drive and finally decided that it wasn't all filled up, that being the reason for her poor memory, but that it was erased, empty. I've ponder that in my mind as well--is it because my memory bank is filled up or because i've erased much of it.  I think the latter.  If I am only a 64K memory bank then why not only remember the good stuff and throw out the embarrassments, the damn fool things I've done, along with all the stupid things I've manage to do.  Keep the good and throw out the bad.  Right.

But this raises an interesting question in my mind.  What stuff should I remember?  Time tables?  Okay. Cool.  The dates of all the wars that the United States has been in?  Whoa, I'm not so sure.  I can ask Siri that question.  Or Google it.  Which information should I memorize and which information can I let fly by.  I do remember that I taught a lot of information in my intermediate grade classes stuff for them to memorize which today is not important.  I do have some guilty feelings about that.  So what should our curriculum be--which knowledge is of most important.  My oh my what an assignment for a graduate class in education, list those categories that we should remember, put in our memory bank.  

Thanks, Nora.  You were (and still am) a good teacher.  What really bothers me is that I'll never know why you wrote "Sleepless in Seattle," when you always loved New York City.   I'll always remember you--I hope.  God Bless.