Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Homework Battle & Why It Must Be Won For Kids

Students at my elementary school receive a small amount of homework each night.  This mostly consist of independent reading and a few minutes of math fact practice.  The work and the effort are never graded, and they are never held against the student in terms of loss of privilege or even a hallway scolding ("We've talked!  You KNOW homework is important).  We encourage kids to read every night, and we also encourage them to play outside, to join sports, music, and church programs, and to eat dinner together as family.  Our school has regularly scored above the district and state averages in both reading and mathematics.  The junior indicates that our children and regularly the most prepared feeder school.  And I'm hated by a measurable percentage of people.

My daughter goes to a school with a long 'traditional of excellence' that has them very proudly stuck in pedagogical and assessment practices that are way outdated.  They affluence of the feeder  neighborhoods allows them to overcome bad practice and believe, that in spite of ignoring most modern research in the field, they're doing a great job (translation: the parents are really good at 'helping' with homework).  Predictably, we fight through hours of homework nightly with our 5th grade son.  We rarely can eat together.  He had to quit the swim team to keep up with homework demands.  My spouse is effectively his math teacher.  She cries regularly.  She drinks wine nightly.  My son hates his teacher.  He hates school.  This is the experience my school's parents are fighting me over denying them?

How can educators- particularly administrators- work with families and school boards who continue to cling to the outdated and many times over disproven notion that lots of homework equates to high standards, rigor, and preparation for 'the real world?'

Part of the challenge stems from the fact that we've become a data horny field with completely reckless use of information many don't even understand.  "My child got a 'developing' on Smarter Balanced Assessments! This is because he didn't have more homework!"  This is same blocked-headed reactionary thinking that sunk us into this mess following Sputnik and later the 1983 report A Nation At Risk.  The difference is, now we've tried the kill em' with homework approach and have a mountain of evidence to show that it's not effective. So why are we still do it? More isn't always better.  Not everything can be counted.  I'd argue learning is one of those things.  

These are hard conversations to have.  Most of the time, the resistance to modern assessment practices and homework reduction come from people who have already made their mind up.  After all, since they attended school, they too possess expertise (or they fear the advantage of white privilege will be negated by allowing someone else to re-do an assignment for full credit).

As uphill as these battles are, it's our obligation as educators to keep fighting these fights.  Squeaky wheels DO get greased.  Parents who do understand the harm of these practices need to be calling their principals, talking at school board meetings, and sharing their concerns with other parents.  Teachers need to have the courage to not do the wrong thing because it's the path of least resistance.    This just isn't the profession for it.  Our children deserve better.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

So That's How It Is In Their Family...

Dismissal is a hectic few minutes with quite a few moving parts for our school.  Kids are predictably rambunctious, parents are on the scene, there's the danger of moving cars, someone has always forgotten their flute inside (tying up the entire car line), and there's usually a bus driver who wants to have a discussion about arranging a make shift firing squad line to summarily shoot children until someone comes forward with a full confession as to who has been leaving Blow Pop wrappers on the bus floor. 

Dismissal is also a great time to make connections with kids and I try to filter as much of the other noise as I can during this time to chat with kids about their soccer practice, what they thought of last night's hockey game, or about the book they're reading.

John is a 4th grade boy who dresses in nothing but T-shirts which proudly express his fondness for Minecraft.  John is one these kids who has amazingly learned how to speak without pausing to breathe.  He shifts from topic to topic at lightning quick speeds, all while dancing a whirling dervish and subsequently assaulting classmates with his book bag or art project. 

As with many students excited for adult attention, John is unfazed by the challenge of competition.  Recently, during dismissal I needed to grab a couple PTA parents to briefly discuss an upcoming event.  John located me through the body traffic and came charging up, bull dozing his way into the group.

Immediately he loudly began hot breathed story about his families recent vacation.  "... and I had ice cream in a waffle cone!... and we stayed at this really great hotel!... they had a hot tub!....and they had a swimming pool and I swam for like 18 hours..."  I smiled gently at the other adults.  John was impossible not to like even if his manners needed a little tune up.   

"And they had GOLDEN SHOWERS! Wouldn't you love a GOLDEN SHOWER, Dr. Principal?!  I've never been in a GOLDEN SHOWER, but my mom went in the GOLDEN SHOWER and then my dad went into the GOLDEN SHOWER.  Have you ever been a GOLDEN SHOWER, Dr. Principal?!?"

Um, that's kinda personal, John.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Plea For Social Studies

Political affiliation aside, most people I've spoken to would at least concede on some level that neither major party offered a particularly good option when it came to our most recent Presidential election.  Donald Trump, for good for bad, seems have successfully blended the circus and government, and is seemingly at the center of more controversy each passing day.  He's more entertainer than leader, and to his credit, didn't campaign as anything different.  Knowing all this, the American people still elected him, no doubt in large part to Hillary Clinton's own career (and her husband's) having been mired in scandal.

How the hell did we get here?  How did two lousy candidates become our only options?  How did a man who has openly offended every imaginable demographic, who seems more likely to be impeached than actually accomplish any of his goals, become the fucking President of the United States?  Well, perhaps schools are somewhat to blame.

No Child Left Behind was signed into law in January of 2002, and ushered in the age of school accountability, and with that, testing.  Lots and lots of testing.  These tests were used to judge individuals, schools, and neighborhoods.  They caused re-organization of some schools, were sometimes tied to salary or employment, and their results became the absolute measure of worth when examined by a public who often didn't understand what they meant.  This predictably lead to schools slowly adapting curriculum to better increase their odds of scoring well on tests(regardless of how mundane the instruction became), more text prep, and a re-allocation of time which focused more on the subject areas tested, typically, math, reading, & writing.  Social studies began to disappear.  It wasn't tested and thus became a necessary sacrifice in order to survive the judgments and consequences of government.   In many places where it still existed in some form, students were often pulled from it for RtI needs ("they can't leave math or reading, those subjects are tested!").

Students who were four years old, when NCLB was signed into law were eligible to vote in 2016.  This essentially an entire generation of voters who were likely to have receives less education on Social Studies, Civics, & History than past peers.  Wasn't a primary function of schools supposed to be to develop the future citizens of our country?  How can that occur when little emphasis is placed in this area?

Donald Trump has certainly made numerous ignorant statements.  But I'm disheartened to hear that extremist groups like the KKK and the American Nazi Party are strengthening again.  Hate feasts on ignorance.  If students are not given regular opportunities to study these events and discuss their impact with a trained adult, how can they be expected to understand the complex dynamics of race relations when they become an adult?  How can we have empathy today if don't know yesterday?  How could a generation of collective opinions support identifying and electing wise leaders of any party?  It's at least fair to consider that they cannot. 

School leaders- if social studies has slipped in importance in your school or district- I am requesting that you use your voice and talents to help it remerge in our schools.  The possible consequences of not doing so could be tragic. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Is A Granola Bar Healthy Snack?

Earlier this year I attended my own kid's curriculum night.  The teacher went through the usual snooze fest of information about how he grades and how many minutes he wants the kids to read each night.  Then he got to the slide about snack time.  Being an educator myself, I had already predicted the canned Power Point slide about snack needing to be healthy- ya know, carrot sticks, apple slices, granola bars, but no candy, pop, or chips.  But for the first time all night, the teacher surprised me. 

"You can send a healthy snack with your child. You're the parents.  Whatever you feel is healthy, is fine by me.  If you want to send chocolate cake with your child because that meets your definition of healthy, be my guest."

This is brilliant!  No one can truly agree on what is, and what is not healthy- including doctors in many instances!  The government counts ketchup with high fructose corn syrup as a vegetable! Are food with oil good for you?  Is meat a healthy protein or a cancer causing nightmare?  Is a granola bar healthy?  This fruit roll up says it's made with 'real fruit flavors'.. is that okay?  What about 'flavored' water?  Chocolate milk?  Dairy in general.. good or bad?  Too much fruit is bad because of the sugar, right? Nuts are high in fat and sodium. Goldfish crackers are baked and made with REAL cheese, so I KNOW that's healthy! Boys shouldn't eat things with soy in them or they turn into girls I heard... 

Show one study that says anything is healthy, and I could show another that refutes it (sorta like educational studies...).  So why, on top of everything teachers & schools have become responsible for, do they now bring it upon themselves to be the health police (while at the same time, I'm pretty sure educators are the top consumer group for cakes, donuts, cookies, and diet soda...)?  Why are we potentially causing conflict with students and/or parents, and potentially challenging (often passionately held) belief systems?  My child's teacher took that hassle out of his life in one fell swoop. 

Believe me, I understand the role proper nutrition plays in a students ability to learn and grow.  I'm glad school cafeterias have become more conscientious about what they offer, and most classrooms have wisely allowed students to have water bottles throughout the day.  But when it comes to what parents send their own children with to eat, let's save our confrontational bullets for something worth the fight. 

And now, having said all that, I'm off to enjoy a couple bottles of wine- since I've read that drinking wine is healthy...     

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Georgia On My Mind

During one of the first few days of the school year I bumped into a 3rd grader in the hallway and inquired about how her summer had been. 

"Did you take any vacations?"

The little girl said she didn't, but then updated her answer by saying, "Well, just Georgia. My mom's side of the family lives there."

Knowing this was a divorce situation, and sensing her lack of enthusiasm for the topic, I decided to shift the topic to something else.  "Well, did you read lots of books this summer?"

"No.  Georgia really doesn't have many books."

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cell Phones In The Classroom

Mike Archie was the type of teacher that absolutely everyone, himself included, could not wait until he retired.  He was a physical education teacher at a middle school who had clearly smelled too many locker room aromas and no longer had any passion for kids or athletics.  He was simply a crabby old man who students hated, and colleagues avoided. 

This particular incident took place in early 2000s when cell phones were just beginning to become an item that every person owned.  Schools predictably were unsure where to go with the whole cell phone thing and defaulted to the stock approach to all things unknown- prohibit them.  Students caught with cell phones had the phones confiscated and were subjected to possible disciplinary action as well.

One thing crabby old teachers who need to retire are excellent at is dispensing discipline according to the handbook.  No gray area or breaks with this group!  So when Mike saw Cordero Williams holding a cell phone, he was on him like flies on shit.  Rather than ask the kid to put the thing away, he charged up the bleachers of the gymnasium in a fashion that might suggest that this phone threatened the safety of the President of the United States. "Gimme that phone Williams!" 

Most tough guy middle schoolers generally don't enjoy confrontation with adults.  Cordero became visibly upset and pleaded with his teacher that the phone wasn't even real.  Mike would have none of it, and snatched the phone out of his hands, and dragged the kid out of the gym and down to the Dean's Office.

Mike's anger at this offense was obvious by the way he filled out the discipline referral.  He pressed so hard I'm amazed the pen didn't break, and are five exclamation points ever really necessary?  When he was done, he taped the cell phone to the referral and noted below it, "Student tried to tell me the phone wasn't real!!!!!"  With that, he placed the referral in the dean's box and left Cordero to wait, fully embarrassed from the experience of getting dressed down by a teacher and dragged out of class in front of his peers. 

When the Dean of Students returned, he read the referral and examined the phone taped to the paperwork.  The 'phone' was actually a piece of chocolate with foil wrapping colored to look like a phone.  I couldn't make this up.  A three year could have told you this wasn't a real phone.  Hell, anyone could.  Well, anyone except Mike Archie. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Power Of Teacher Bias

As a standard practice at our school (and I'm sure many other schools), when we get a new a student during the year, the teacher reaches out to the former school for information about the student that may be helpful in better teaching them.  But is this information truly helpful?  Or does it create bias about the students abilities and personality before they've been given a chance to demonstrate otherwise?

Mrs. Fontenot reached out to Jerome's former school when he arrived a few months back.  Phone messages were not returned, and e-mails received no response.  Jerome was a little rough around the edges when he arrived, but in a matter of weeks his effort in class began to increase, his quality of work improved, and his behavior was a non-issue.  He went from one of the lower small groups for reading to one of the higher groups is less than a quarters time.  Mrs. Fontenot confessed he had become one her favorite students, and certainly one that she had immense pride for his accomplishments.

Then she heard from his former school.  Jamal's former teacher had been out on a maternity leave.  She apologized for not getting back sooner, and commented that by now, Mrs. Fontenot had no doubt learned that Jamal was lazy, often disruptive, and disrespectful when re-directed.

Imagine if the teacher had heard these things before Jamal had been in class a week?  Would the teacher have had lower expectations?  Would she have treated his minor misbehaviors different ("I'm going to set a tone with him right away!")?  A bevy of research suggests it would have- to the detriment of Jamal.

While collecting information to help better understand students is done with sound logic and wonderful intentions, the unintended consequences of this habit deserve reflection.  Different adults connect with different sorts of kids in different ways.  Because a students second grade teacher couldn't stand him/her, does not mean that a different person a year later will feel the same.  Schools that systematically organize conversations between former and future teachers, or have teachers call former schools are seriously jeopardizing children's opportunities to find success in a new environment. 

Low expectations are already a hurdle many students have to overcome.  Let's be cautious as a profession about creating such expectations in advance.