Friday, June 29, 2012

Changing Paradigms

This is a clip that is popular in education right now - so it wasn't a huge surprise when it was selected to kick off a fun filled day of professional development last week. 

It's worth investing five minutes of your day to watch in that it is thought provoking for anyone with any connection to education, and in fact, can probably be applied to an array of fields which haven't evolved with technological advances.

Essentially, the idea is one that anyone who has spent five minutes in a classroom has to have considered: the way that we expect kids to learn is outdated, and out of touch.  The world has changed dramatically, but the basic tenets of public education have not.  And so we still ask students to sit still, to listen, to take written exams, and to learn based on a curriculum.  Innovation has been seen as moving desks out of rows and into groups.  Compare that change with the way that internet has changed out world, and you can see how hopelessly far behind our efforts lag.

Ken Robinson goes on to talk about ADHD as a false diagnosis, one that is actually a result that we should expect when we demand that children function in a way that has become entirely unnatural.

There are a lot of takeaways from this idea, and we discussed it with enthusiasm - always excited by the potential that lies in throwing out everything and starting fresh, from scratch, in a way that is entirely reflective of the way that kids learn and absorb information in this day and age.  And then, of course, reality sets in.

Yes, kids love video games, and talking, and running around.  It is probably unnatural to demand 90 minutes of silence, or active listening.  And yet - in real life, and attention span does come in handy.  In most jobs, you have tasks that aren't fun or exciting or designed for your specific learning style.  You may not always be engaged.

The real disconnect becomes  - are we as teachers preparing kids for life after school, or should we be attempting to maximize the success of school itself, even if the learning experience doesn't resemble what their world will be like after graduation?  How open can we really make our minds - how much can we afford to throw out?

Ironically, we transitioned from this fantasizing into a discussion of the very concrete, very practical, very by-the-book, regimented new national learning standards, which are in fact what the future of teaching likely holds.

Ken Robinson does and excellent job of illustrating (literally!) major problems with education today.  But what is the solution?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kady and Deenie

By some terrible mistake, it seems that Barnes and Noble has stopped carrying 'Deenie' by Judy Blume.  Luckily enough, it's still on their list of books that they can order, and I did so, waiting eagerly for it to come in so that I could devour it, and remember what about it was so special when I read it as a thirteen year old. 

One of my students, Kady, has scoliosis, and wrote a long paper recalling her diagnosis, and the progression of the condition in concise detail.  She listed the degrees that her spine had tilted without flinching, though it can take her ages to remember something that I have taught her.  She talked about how scary it was, and how no one really understood what it was like.  She's a very quiet girl, but she expressed herself in a loud, clear voice in this paper - one that I never heard her projecting in class.

Deenie flashed into my mind immediately, as a book that she should read.  I have long subscribed to the belief that we read in order to know that we are not alone - to recognize the feelings that we feel in characters, or to find words for the things that we couldn't say.  Being a girl in Kady's position seemed lonely and terrifying. 

She is having a surgery early in July, in the hopes that it will help her.  I don't know the details, or fully understand any of it, but I badly wanted to press this book upon her. 

Perhaps there is a reason that Barnes and Noble no longer has it in stock - maybe Kady will find it outdated and irrelevant.  But still, I felt as I gave her the book today, that I was connecting her to something important.  I hope that she finds company in the words, and even if it doesn't make it less scary, at least it may make her a little less alone.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Another Chance?

One of my students failed both of her state exams.  She has been having a difficult year - her mother has been in and out of the hospital, and she has taken on a large load at home to compensate.  She is bright, though she needs extra help in math and is behind in ELA.  She has been held over in the past.

When she came into school and found out that she had failed her test, she looked disappointed, but resigned.  She accepted it, and said that she was a little bit surprised, but that she would do what she had to do.

Then she wrote an email to her former principal, who now runs a school.  I have put the email here because it touched me to read it.

"I have been held behind and would like to know if you can help me.  I failed both of the tests.  For the ELA test i felt asleep at the time of the state tests.  I was going thru a lot that I can't manage at once, like for example my mother was in the hospital and I was so worried, and at the same time i had to be ready for the test. For the MATH I just felt like I needed more time to study and understand things, but I will go to summer school and see if i can make magic work...

Ever since I have been held over in the pass it's been messing with my future.  I have a very low self-esteem and I really give up fast, because I feel like I can't do it.  I also feel like there's no point in doing something that I know I'm going to fail at.  Thats why I was going to drop out of school and get my "GED".  I honestly don't wanna get it, I would love to graduate high school and become a successful woman , That's when Mrs. Klein told me about your new [school]l.  I would love to attend your school.  I promise I would work my behind off, I don't care if i have to stay after school I would work as hard as i could.

So please give me a chance I promise I won't let you or myself down, and if I can't attend thanks for listening."

Awards Season

This piece was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook blog.

My eighth graders are graduating, and I am asked to choose students who are the “best” in each subject area. There’s also an award for the “best” student over all (one boy and one girl).

When students receive their yearbooks, they flip to read the results of the ever-popular “senior superlatives” vote, which decided which of their peers would be most successful, who has the best hair, who is the best athlete, the best dancer, and more.

As I consider the categories, and try to choose just one student for each, I find myself overwhelmed by all of the awards that we don’t give.

How about an award for my student who isn’t the best or the fastest, but who always helps her peers, and is kind when they don’t understand something?

Or for the student who brightens everyone’s days with his sense of humor, and his perfect comedic timing in a tense moment?

Where do I find the award for the child who has overcome the most this year — who has been heroic in his or her personal survival?

I want an award for the student who was brave enough to stand up to her peers when someone was being teased, and for the student who finally had enough confidence to stand up for himself.

What we value is reflected in what we recognize and reward. We give out awards for attendance and for showing up on time. We give out awards for high grades. But we don’t have a reward for effort — for the student whose grades aren’t the best, but who never gives up, never stops trying and never lets you down in his or her perseverance to learn.

We’ve added an award for “most improved,” but our award system itself is what needs improvement.

Where is the award for the kid who learns to manage the anger that has handicapped her for the last five years, or the student who rises from a second-grade reading level to a fifth-grade reading level in a single year?

We award the best dancer and the best athlete, but not those students who are remarkable in ways that are harder to summarize in a sound bite.

As it has always been, the same few kids receive the awards — the standout three students who blow everyone away with their high grades and their amazing work ethic; the five loud, outgoing kids who make themselves noticed, and demand attention and credit for their talent, looks, athletic prowess.

I always look around the room and see all of the other kids for whom I know there are no votes.

How does it feel to be those kids? They know that they don’t fit into those categories. None is expecting to win one of these awards. But in middle school, if you don’t fit into a category, where do you fit in? What is your worth?

I always write excessively long yearbook messages to these students, wanting to make clear to them their value and their potential. It’s a little ridiculous, I realize, to try to squeeze these sentiments in beside the pink gel-pen hearts and emoticons with which their friends have decorated the pages. But it feels somehow important.

During the year, I have my students respond to journal prompts as class warm-ups. “What is something that makes you unique and special?” is one that always generates unexpected answers.

My middle school students never answer by writing about themselves. They list the people who they love and who care about them; they list the things they like about the way that they look — but they never look within when they consider what makes them special. “I’m special because of my mom.” It’s sweet, but it’s not really the same as taking pride in who they are.

These prizes are not malicious. The voting is supposed to be fun and exciting, giving recognition where it is due. But it’s never a surprise who wins. We are just giving voice to what each already knows about himself or herself.

If you have straight A’s, you know that you’re in contention to be successful, and if you always get picked first for a team, you’re already told each day that you’re the best athlete. Really, the awards that we give out serve only to make official what is already obvious.

It’s the kids who don’t know yet what is special and unique about them who we leave out, who we don’t take the time to label — and they are the ones who really need it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Keep My Name Out Of Your Mouth

I teach in a middle school, so there's no end to the amount of gossip and meanness and bullying that occurs.  Students are constantly upset because of what one person or another said about them online or in the cafeteria.

Of course, having been in middle school myself once, I remember the flush of anger and embarrassment that overcomes you when you hear that someone was talking about you behind your back.  Indeed, it's the same feeling that I would get today if it happened - though luckily for all of us, people tend to be more discreet after the 8th grade.

When my students hear about this happening to them, they rarely shy away from it, or shake it off.  They confront it head on.

"Yo - keep my name out your mouth!" they will charge up to the offender, and very literally instruct them on what they should stop doing.

Sometimes this doesn't work.

Sometimes there are fights.

"Why did you hit her?"

"She couldn't keep my name out her mouth!"

I find myself in awe of their ability to shamelessly confront one another, and tell them how they need to change their behavior.  It's not the 'stop talking about me', or 'stop whispering behind my back,', or, 'stop talking crap'.  It's more than that.  Don't say my name at all.

If you are so clear and literal in your desires, it's easy to imagine being distraught when someone doesn't comply.