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, do good deeds, 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 high 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long 'traditional of excellence' that has them very proudly stuck in pedagogical and assessment practices that are way outdated.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How can educators- particularly administrators- work with families and school boards who continue to cling to the outdated and many times over disproven notion that lots of homework equates to high standards, rigor, and preparation for 'the real world?'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.