It’s a Matter of Time

A few years ago, research told us once again, that all children learn differently and as teachers, we must meet those needs through “differentiation” in the classroom.  Books, articles, charts and conferences surfaced by the millions to help us make sense of this not so new insight about learners. Below is one example.

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The differentiation dilemma is complex because it does not take into account the school system’s inability to actually accommodate it. Differentiation is mostly intended for heterogeneous classrooms where age is the single most common factor. Grouping learners by age in an assigned grade level is less designed to benefit students and more for the benefit of the system. It really flies in the face of known child and adolescent development theory. One child may learn to read at five while another at eight or nine. In our current system, the five year old may be identified as gifted and the nine year old is labeled learning disabled.

An Example 

I am reminded of my own four children and their individual growth during their first few years of life.

  • My oldest son sat up straight at five months and walked unassisted at nine months. When he started to fully communicate, around ten months old, it was in complete phrases or sentences like; time to play, go for a walk, want a cookie.
  • My second son sat up at six months, walked at ten months and talked almost immediately and frequently and still does. He also experienced persistent ear infections which required medical attention.
  • My daughter, third in line, sat up at nine months, walked at eleven months and learned to express herself by pointing until she was able to formulate her words. Her two older brothers often spoke for her. She took command of the situation by physically pushing them out of her conversations.
  • My third son and last born, sat up at seven months, walked at ten months and was reading words from flash cards at 24 months much to the surprise of his older siblings who learned to read much later.

In the school schemata, that batches students by age and grade level, each of my children at five years old would be in different developmental stages with regard to their learning. Now multiply those four by six or seven and you have the average Kindergarten classroom. Kindergartners are all over the map when it comes to experiences, exposure, support structures, and health issues.  Teachers, often successfully, corral these school newbies into a cohesive unit to begin the process of “schooling” them.

The grade level curriculum covers about a ten month period targeting the identified grade level standards often written by an unknown entity which has determined what students should know and be able to do by the end of that grade level.  Milestone markers and yearly goals are clearly articulated and progress towards those goals are reported via student grades on a report card. This system is familiar to most and rarely questioned unless a student is not meeting the goals in the given time frame. What if students don’t meet the goal by the end of the school year? What if they don’t walk unassisted until four months later?

Some schools employ the failing method which requires retention or a “do-over” of sorts. Others push students on with identified interventions to get them up to speed. Still others do nothing and continue the practice of assigning failing grades on report cards. The student themselves are keenly aware that something has gone wrong in their schooling process. Something is out of kilter, they have dropped a ball and its their fault. Internal and external pressure places a heavy weight on their shoulders to do better. Some eventually retrieve that dropped ball while others do not.

Differentiation is supposed to help alleviate this dilemma because we are offering instruction and assessment in a way that meets the particular needs of our students. While effective differentiation may help to support students in their learning, without including either more or less time, it is an incomplete model of differentiation. If a student needs three or four more months to master a concept we can’t give it to them. Kindergarten is over in June.

What would it take to think out of the box with regard to the current grade level schemata in our schools? Some argue that a time frame is necessary because life is full of deadlines and children need to learn that fact.  Really? I’ll try to remember that when my next grandchild enters the world. I hope to support their individual growth with dignity, respect and as much time as they need to realize their potential and gifting. Learning is not over in ten months increments. Learning spans a lifetime.

 

 

Perspective

When I was young, my parents took me and my two sisters camping every weekend during the summer months. We lived in the city, so having the ability to spend time in the mountains with fresh air and a cool, swift moving creek brought pure delight to our senses. We looked forward to this getaway as a unique diversion to summers in the city.

The almost three hour drive provided a self-directed sightseeing adventure through the hills and sleepy towns of northwestern Pennsylvania. Silos, cows grazing, corn stalks blowing in the intermittent breeze that carried with it the unpleasant farm smells reminded us that we were no longer in the city.

Once there, we unpacked and set up our camp grounds. In the early years we pitched tents. Later in our camping evolution, we slept in three connected cinder block cabins. This raised our comfort level quite a bit as we were on higher ground and a little farther from most of the creepy crawling creatures that often invaded our tents.

A direct view of the moon glittered creek, a warm cracking fire, and sparkling stars strewn over the night sky provided the perfect setting for roasting marshmallows, telling stories and singing silly songs. The swift moving creek served as one of our fun-filled afternoon adventures as we drifted downstream on large inner-tubes catching the warm rays of the bright sun along the way.

A two mile walk into the little town grocery store was filled with multiple surprises and discoveries.  Along the route we stopped to watch snakes slither across the road and butterflies lighting on the colorful wildflowers that dotted the hillside. We paused for a cool refreshing sip of mountain spring water spouting out of a pipe embedded in layers of shale and rock on the road embankment. Wherever we found ourselves; in the creek, on the dirt road, or in the makeshift outhouse, it was definitely out of our city comfort zone.

Camping brought into view a different and new perspective of our world. We became keenly aware of what we typically took for granted, things like plumbing, electricity and the ability to pick up a phone to call someone. The need for those essentials faded along side the spectacular benefits of fresh air, nature in full bloom, and the rugged joys of outdoor life.  The trade-offs were worth the slight inconveniences. The lessons learned far outweighed our perceived need for the familiar. It was a matter of…

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Perspective is what life gives us if we are open to receive it.

I am thankful that over my lifetime, various and vast experiences have greatly enhanced my perspective. It happens to all of us, whether good or bad experiences, they shape how we think, feel, and sometimes react. They become our lens through which we see everything.

For most of us, the ability to see perspectives other than our own is challenging. It requires us to listen with an intent to understand, as we ask questions and seek clarity. Too often, rather than fully engaging in an open and reciprocal dialogue, we are more concerned with crafting our response or rebuttal. We miss an opportunity to learn from one another. The dialogue shuts down. We choose not to listen ascending to and condescending from a camp we’ve created on our higher, more comfortable ground.

If you have read any of my blog posts, you’ll know that I strongly believe in one’s freedom to choose how to become educated. I am pro any kind of environment that promotes authentic and meaningful learning. Unfortunately, while many in and around schools tout the same sentiment for authenticity and meaning, the actual occurrence of such is spotty at best.

The measuring stick of testing accountability and the over reliance of coercion and bribery tactics suck the life out of what could be a rather positive story.  These unfortunate practices continue to permeate the world of schooling with no real end in sight. Even with all those visionary educational cheerleaders telling us about the importance of creativity, physical activity, and meaningful, self-directed learning, we refuse to listen. We refuse the change. We hunker down in our camps refusing to budge.

Within the various educational camps we fly our banners proclaiming the one, right and only way it should be done, demonizing all those who dare to disagree with our perspectives.  It doesn’t have to be this way if we would allow ourselves to really hear and understand different perspectives about learning. Don’t fall for an “us versus them” scenario perpetuated by our various media outlets, union organizations, or governmental entities. Use your own powers of observation and listen with an open mind.

I know some great public school teachers, public charter school teachers, private and religious school teachers, home-school teachers, and those who guide their children in self-directed learning. They have several things in common. They will do anything to ensure that each child in their care is respected, nurtured and allowed to learn in their own way. Granted it is difficult to do this in a formal school setting simply due to the rigid constraints, but there are a few brave ones who rise to the occasion. I know, I worked with some of them over the years.  I wish there were more.

Browsing through educational articles and websites one notices how often they beat the drum of change. Topics like grading, more time for recess, more physical activity, course offerings that tap into a young person’s interest and creativity, and the need to branch out of the four walls of a regular classroom are among the most noted topics. They are offering us a much needed and different perspective on the way we do school.

We hear from well-respected voices like Sir Ken Robinson and several others about the need for more creativity and authenticity in our schools. We see educators flocking to these conferences and returning to their schools utterly baffled at how they might implement such ideas within the strict curriculum pacing guides. Grade level standards  must be taught before the looming state tests in the spring.

Strong teachers try to infuse authentic and creative access to learning for their students. They work very hard within a structural format that does not lend itself to this kind of flexibility. They spend more hours outside of their school day, without reimbursement and without recognition, just to ensure that they can offer their students a peak learning experience. They are trail blazers. I will always admire those kind of teachers.

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Perspective is everything.

Camping connections for those learners who prefer non-analogous examples.

We didn’t just talk about how great summer camping would be in the hills of western Pennsylvania. We didn’t imagine the fun we’d have or the lessons we’d learn. We didn’t just read about outdoor life or attend events showcasing campfires, tents, fishing, or rafting down a steam. We didn’t practice camping in our own backyards first to see if it would work, we just did it! 

Message to every teacher, principal, school board, parent and tax paying community member reading this:

  • Be open and willing to learn from another perspective whether public, private, religious, home-schooling, or self directed learning
  • Work with those around you to make your particular learning environment more authentic and meaningful for the children you serve
  • Lighten up on the self-imposed constructs that choke the joy out of learning*

Just do it! Children will thank you and they will still learn – I promise!

 

*These self-imposed constructs are outlined in my book.

Learning Unleashed – Re-Imagining and Re-Purposing Our Schools

Make ’em Laugh

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I grew up in a family of clowns. Well, not literally, but enough of them kept all of us laughing most of the time.  Clowning was a way of life for my dad, a few uncles, my sister and at least three or four other folks in the extended family. We simply appreciated a good laugh which often led to tears rolling down our cheeks.  The jokes may have been self-deprecating or at the expense of family members, but regardless of the punchline, we didn’t take offense.

I still remember one liners that my dad often said while driving. Like the time a woman cut in front of him on the highway and he mumbled, “She must thing her name is MERGE!” Or when he saw a sign warning “curves ahead” and he lovingly looked at my mom saying, “Honey, look they must have known you were coming.” The “Right of Way” sign was reserved for anyone who edged over the median strip. My dad quickly reminded them that it didn’t mean help yourself to the highway.

Another comical memory was when our large family met for Christmas Eve Dinner at the home of my Uncle and Aunt. The tables were set for 15 or more as we prepared to enjoy our Italian vigil, seven fish meal together.  My Uncle asked for the bread and instead of passing the plate, a young cousin picked up a dinner roll and sent it on its way down the table. By the time it reached my uncle, at least seven people had touched it. Keeping a straight face as he quietly waited for the roll’s arrival into his hands, he took a look at it and then threw it on the floor asking if we could try that again. He suggested  this time sending the entire plate of bread so he could choose his own roll. We all laughed so hard it took us a few minutes to regain our composure and get back to our food that was getting cold.

The various stories, practical jokes, and infamous one liners are too numerous to mention. Growing up with major doses of humor was a natural way of life for me. I continue that tradition today. At this point in my life, the self-deprecating kind is the safest and most reliable form of humor since the perks of aging provide plenty of material.

Laughter is the universal language that everyone understands.

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Just by way of a reminder here is a list of laughter benefits from the HELP GUIDE

Physical Benefits of Laughter:

  • Boosts immunity
  • Lowers stress hormones
  • Decreases pain
  • Relaxes your muscles
  • Prevents heart disease

Mental Health Benefits of Laughter:

  • Adds joy and zest to life
  • Eases anxiety and tension
  • Relieves stress
  • Improves mood
  • Strengthens resilience

Social Benefits of Laughter:

  • Strengthens relationships
  • Attracts others to us
  • Ehances teamwork
  • Helps defuse conflict
  • Promotes group bonding

My purpose for writing this short blog is to challenge all of us to find some laughter in our day, especially those who work with children. In case you need help getting started please click on the links below. To avoid the cynical folks who must post every possible negative comment on these links, I suggest you watch the video only, remember it’s laughter we’re after not sour grapes.

ENJOY YOUR DAY!

Make ’em Laugh

Make ’em Laugh

Make ’em Laugh

The Overdue Metamorphosis of School

 

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Borrowing excerpts from Merriam-Webster below:

Metamorphosis

  • change of physical form, structure, or substance
  • a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances
  • a typically marked and more or less abrupt developmental change in the form or structure

From the Latin and Greek origins, meta and morph are translated to mean transform. [1]

In the educational arena, we often hear the term REFORM. Rarely do we hear the word TRANSFORM.  Reform implies changes or tweaks made with a desired outcome of improvement to existing metrics or accountability results. We often compare our students to each other and those around the world using these various measures.

The schooling system in our country experiences “reform” efforts about every five years. One might ask why and to what end. Do these reforms actually improve learning?

Surviving at least twenty or more reform efforts in my thirty plus years as an educator, has informed and transformed my thinking about the institution of schooling.  I’ve concluded that for every new reform, another one is needed. This will always be true because these efforts only address generalities in teaching and learning, not the unique differences among learners. While the researchers warn us that what works for one may not work for others, the suggestions leave teachers wondering how to faithfully implement so that all of their students might benefit.

Researchers and those who work in schools are miles apart in reality. We ask teachers and principals to accept and implement the latest and greatest research on school reform and wonder why there is overall lack of interest or buy in. Lack of time to process new reform efforts as well as adequate opportunities in which to practice such reforms often lead to poor implementation.

Given the exorbitant amount of training that goes along with new reforms as well as regular school paperwork, teacher evaluation, grading expectations and curricular pacing, among other challenges, there is little time left to truly delve into or examine the pros and cons of most studies. Even with a built-in Professional Learning Community structure or (PLC) time, most teaching teams and their principals must prioritize and weigh their efforts against competing demands.

From an online abstract published on May 17, 2013, titled, Teacher resistance to school reform: reflecting an inconvenient truth,  Ewald Tehert writes the following.

“… David Gleicher developed his well-known ‘energy formula for change processes;

  

…the formula reads that the change in energy C is sufficient if the product of the three factors (a) degree of dissatisfaction with existing state, (b) clarity of vision with respect to goal and (d) first visible steps towards the desired change is greater than the material and emotional cost of change x.”[2]

The costs of most major school reform efforts are literally staggering, both monetarily and emotionally. School reform is basically a jobs project for all related entities that presume their knowledge and materials will effect a positive change in student outcomes.

School reform is a lucrative business. School transformation is not and that is why it is rarely considered.

We don’t need more reforms and especially reforms on top of already existing ones. Imposed reforms produce apathy, skepticism and even contempt among teachers who have no say in the matter. Even well-perceived reforms often fall short of providing effective and lasting results, if any. This is mainly because they are only a small brick or two in a massive schooling structure that needs major renovation.

Rick Hess in his September 14, 2017 article titled, Educators’ time loss and the invisible cost of reform said the following.

“After all, when I reflect on some of the major reform pushes of the past decade or more, I fear that such attention is almost invariably absent…in each case, it’s easy for advocates to insist that this negative impact is negligible. If they concede any burden, they’ll insist it’s modest and obviously worth paying. It’s remarkable, though, that in an era infatuated with data and evidence that no one — and I mean, literally, no one — has made it a priority to figure out how much time this stuff takes or how big a distraction it is. Foundations that claim to value empowered teachers, autonomous schools, and nimble systems don’t invest in any of this. Scholars don’t study it; advocates don’t bother with it.” [3]

We just keep piling it on, year after year, reform after reform and to what end? Reforms don’t necessarily make schools better, they just make them very busy places. There are good, hard-working people in our schools. Many of them believe that our public schools provide the best hope for young people, a place that can lead and guide them into a gratifying and successful future. There will always be those who survive the system’s structures.

The reality is more and more parents and students are finding the compulsory, one-size fits all schooling model, a relic of a bygone era – one that is not providing them with peak learning experiences. They are finding more engaging and relevant ways in which to become educated. They are transforming the narrative one at a time, day by day, year after year. They are visionary learners refusing to accept the myth that in order to learn one must go to a place called school.

Oh, that this transformation could become reality for every young person and teacher who must endure the “latest and not so greatest” school reform efforts.

 

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metamorphosis
  2. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13632434.2013.793494
  3. https://medium.com/@rickhess99/educators-time-loss-and-the-invisible-cost-of-reform-79aaa134de4e

* Butterfly Photo credit to Getty Images

School is a social construct, learning is not.

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Let’s clarify the common understanding of a social construct.

“A concept or perception of something based on the collective views developed and maintained within a society or social group; a social phenomenon or convention originating within and cultivated by society or a particular social group, as opposed to existing inherently or naturally.” (Oxford Living Dictionary 2017 Oxford University Press)

School is a social construct. Learning is not. Learning is inherent. We are born with the ability to learn. It happens naturally, all the time.

School, in its current state, is basically designed as a one-size, fits-all construct. It functions in a regular pattern from school to school. Each school is a proverbial round hole, particularly traditional public schools. They frequently have similar rules, common curriculum and standards, similar language and comparable day to day practices. This is the familiar construct we have created.

Young people are the pegs that we force into the round holes of school.  Compulsory school attendance law leaves little doubt that coercion is involved. We typically send our little ones off to someone we don’t personally know who then “teaches” them for 6 to 7 hours a day, for 12 or more years. This is called in loco parentis. It is a Latin term meaning “in [the] place of a parent” or “instead of a parent.”  It refers to the legal responsibility of some person or organization to perform some of the functions or responsibilities of a parent. [1] If all goes well,  and we fit them into the round hole, it is seen as smooth sailing until graduation day. Sometimes.

As a society we are convinced that schools are essential to preserve our democracy. School is where we learn our history and the histories of the world. It is where we understand the value of reading, writing and mathematics. School is also where young people learn and develop the school’s understanding of empathy, social justice, and equality. Many believe that without schools, kids would not learn. More precisely put, school is social engineering for future generations.

How do our schools prepare students for their future?

John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year explains it this way, “I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience.” (This is an excerpt of a speech by John Taylor Gatto accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990.)

There is a groundswell of healthy skepticism of the inherent value of many schools in their present form, including colleges and universities. A massive number of young people are electing alternative avenues to educate themselves. Many seek out mentors, coaches, apprenticeships, or a combination of some online coursework and real life experiences. States and cities that are forward thinking in welcoming and supporting charter schools, equip more parents with the ability to choose which school matches their child’s needs regardless of their zip code.  Additionally, an increasing number of families are discovering the freedom and opportunity afforded them through homeschooling and self-directed learning.

While school choice is often seen as politically, racially, or religiously motivated, it simply allows the freedom to choose what, how, where and when one learns. It is often met with consternation and push-back from those who believe there is only one right and acceptable way in which to become educated, and that is public schools. Choosing anything else is simply heresy.  However, the wind is shifting, particularly with the millennials.

In a September 15, 2017 article for Intellectual Takeout, Kerry McDonald presents a solid snapshot of the rise in support of school choice options. “According to a new GenForward report conducted by University of Chicago researchers, most millennials support school choice efforts. The GenForward report echoes similar findings from a report last fall by EdChoice, showing widespread millennial support for school choice. [2]  Kerry’s Article

Schools, in their present form, cannot come close to providing the kind of authentic learning that is needed in this rapidly changing world. No matter how hard schools try, they simply cannot provide true personalized learning.  This is mainly due to their flawed design, one-size-fits-all, round hole structure, along with an ignorant refusal to fully understand the unique differences in learners.

Although some teachers try very hard to personalize learning for students, particularly those with disabilities, they are often handcuffed. They must follow the school construct theory that says, batch children by age, follow the exact grade level curriculum, constantly assess and grade, prepare for high stakes tests, and complete all the requisite paper work, on time and with accuracy.

I am dismayed at the claims saying that if students had more grit, perseverance, empathy, or a growth mindset they might do better in school. Teachers and school systems believe these myths because they are looking for strategies that will better engage their students in the act of learning and paying attention. One can see why these theories might be considered. Children in our schools would need these traits in order to navigate a highly restrictive and outdated mode of schooling that forces them to sit for 6-7 hours a day, unmotivated, disengaged, and often tired. Let’s not underestimate the amount of grit it takes just to attend school every day, teachers included!

As author, Paul Collins writes in his book titled, Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism, “The problem with trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is not so much the amount of time and effort and frustration of forcing the fit, but that you end up damaging the peg.” [3]

This holds true for many young people who find themselves at the mercy of a system determined to make them fit. All children deserve to learn in whatever way is best for them, instead of us forcefully molding them into the “right” shaped peg.

 

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute, September 16,  2017. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/in_loco_parentis
  2. McDonald, K. Black and Latino Millennials Overwhelmingly Support School Choice, Academic Survey Finds. Intellectual Takeout, September 15, 2017.
  3. Collins, P.  Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004, page 225.)

“You’re Going to Love School, I Promise!”

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The “Back to School” signs are in full force on multiple fronts including advertisements, social media, print articles, radio and television.  I couldn’t help but notice the preponderance of titles aimed at parents who may need support getting their children excited about going back to school. The fact that we have to entice young people back to school should be a warning signal. Unfortunately, there are too many who believe that school doesn’t have to be enjoyable, after all, not everything in life is enjoyable.

There are always some who love the routine and predictability of school. They have done well, fit the mold, followed the plan and achieved the subsequent rewards, i.e. good grades, certificates and other tangible payoffs.  They blissfully abide by the constructs of forced schooling. It’s what they are used to, what their parents are used to and what schools and our society tells them they must do to succeed.

In schools, we learn to comply or we fail.  Sounds like fun right?

Learning in school is contrived, overly scheduled, forced and regulated. None of these conditions are conducive to learning, yet we willingly convince our children it’s in their best interest to do so.   We believe we are good parents when we send our young people off to school everyday. We start the pep rallies months before they are old enough to go, just in case they exhibit signs of resistance. Parents can be the best cheerleaders.

It apparently doesn’t matter that almost every psychology course that teachers take in their educational preparation track, clearly outlines the importance of relevance, meaning and self-direction in the learning equation. This also proves true in brain research and various learning studies. While teachers find this information helpful, they often seek the practical nuts and bolts application in their classrooms.  Studies don’t bridge that gap very well.

What actually happens in the classroom is drastically different and is most often not the fault of the teacher.

Someone else decides what, when and how students will learn. Someone else determines who succeeds and who fails. Someone else decides and predicts a child’s strengths and weaknesses based on a designated grade level curriculum. Deadlines and expectations are a constant threat with frequent evaluation and reporting as a means to ensure progress. Even if a teacher wanted to allow for self-directed learning, the system is not designed to function that way.

Encouraging exceptions to this norm do exist as a recent article by Kerry McDonald explains below.

Full article

Kerry’s Blog

Different and effective models of learning are edging their way into the mainstream public schooling world and they are long overdue.

I am a firm optimist and believe that all things are possible. When a critical mass rallies around the freedom to learn, great public schools can happen. Many brave teachers are rallying the troops even now.

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Experience Life – Don’t Just Live IT!

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The old proverb, “experience is the best teacher” rang true this week as I discovered another accurate saying, “you are never too old to learn something new.” It was, it is, and it will always be true.  I’ve heard that experience gives you the test first and the lesson afterwards.  Some of us may need more experience than others when it comes to learning our lessons. More than often, I fall into that category, but not this past week. This week, I experienced three incredible lessons that I learned rather quickly. I’ts no wonder, I had the best teachers –  my grandchildren!

Here is what I learned.

  1. Grandchildren are better than ice cream on a hot day.
  2. Grandchildren are better at hearing and listening than we think they are.
  3. Grandchildren are better at taking you out of your comfort zone than you are yourself.

Let me explain.

My 18 year old, incredibly busy granddaughter, texted me at 1:30 p.m. “Grammy, you want to hang out together later this afternoon and maybe go to the pool?  I have until 6:00 p.m.?” I quickly replied in the affirmative knowing that this granddaughter typically has very little time to spare. Several minutes later she texted again, “I have to work late, sorry, no time for swimming.” I responded that maybe we could just grab dinner and she replied, “COOL!”

At five o’clock she texted, “Still at work, “Can’t do dinner. How about ice cream instead?” I never say no to ice cream on a hot day so I agreed. At 5:45 p.m., Maria and I met at the frozen yogurt shop.  As we sat talking about her upcoming class schedule, her stage managing, various shows in the works, our mutual passion for sorbet and her healing foot still in the boot, I realized this experience was a keeper. Her big blue eyes danced as we exchanged smiles and hugs good-bye – until the next time.

These brief 15 minutes were far better than the cool sorbet ice cream we enjoyed together.  She had to leave at 6:00 p.m. That was the best 15 minutes of my day.

My two younger granddaughters, 9 and 11 came for one of their Grammy sleepovers. We played games, went to the pool, ran a few important errands and had pizza, of course. As is our custom, we went to church on Sunday. The girls walked hand-in hand to find seats where they waited for my signal to pull out their coloring books. Busy creating the most extraordinary pictures, they hardly noticed that the service was over. As we made our way back home, I asked if they heard or learned anything from the sermon.

Much to my surprise, they both summed it up in one sentence. “If you don’t have love for others then what’s the point?” That brought a huge smile to my face. I was tempted to send their shortened version to the pastor, but decided that it was meant for me. Alexis and Anya added, “it matters less what you say than what you actually do.” They also chuckled telling me that they were listening while they were coloring and reminded me that you can do more than one thing at a time.

We all laughed, but I knew that this experience was another keeper. These morsels of wisdom were far better than any sermon I’ve ever heard.

During a brief visit with my 14 year old grandson, he described his efforts to build a demo derby car from spare parts. I know very little about cars and nothing about demo derby ones, but his face beamed with excitement at the possibility of telling me everything I ever wanted to know. How could I refuse?

He explained the kind of paint needed, the type of engine he wanted and the specific tires that he might use. Details included the nuts and bolts holding it together along with a YouTube visual for the demo-derby challenged like his Grammy. I asked questions, he eagerly responded with patience and expertise.

I found myself relishing this moment simply due to the sparkle in his eyes as he shared his passion with me. I knew it was another keeper experience. Although stretched a bit out of my comfort zone, I can talk demo derby with some confidence thanks to Nathanael’s tutoring.

Experience is definitely the best teacher, especially when it’s with your grandchildren. There is absolutely nothing better.

 

You Say You Want A Revolution?

Maybe it’s my age or the variety of good music I heard growing up, but some lyrics seem to live well beyond their years. The song Revolution, penned by the Beatles in 1968, lamented the Vietnam War and rang true for so many anti-war protesters. In the midst of a very unpopular and long quagmire where thousands of lives were lost, no real victory was realized as embattled troops returned to a seemingly unappreciative and event hostile homecoming. It was a challenging time for sure.

We all want to change the world right?

Anytime we find ourselves in a situation that seems inescapable we might consider how we ended up there and what we can do moving forward. War is evil yet sometimes inevitable. It wreaks havoc on all those involved (countries, soldiers, and innocent civilians) and leaves indelible damage long after victory is proclaimed. Just ask any veteran who is willing to honestly share their thoughts.

Notice to my young children 1974-1999

no guns allowed (4)

As a young mother, I forbid my children to have toy guns, not even a water pistol. Crazy some may say, but I could not in good conscience allow something in my home that I abhorred. I don’t think my children were damaged by my rigid adherence to this particular rule. In fact, one of my sons served three tours in Afghanistan and came back alive, no doubt due to his keen skill using a high powered rifle. Apparently not owning a toy gun for 18 years did not handicap his ability to defend himself, protect his troops, and to ward off the enemy.

The sad truth is, that in war, there will be casualties.

Why do I write about war and revolutions? Simply put, I believe there is a war for the minds of young people in a world of schooling that does not emphasize authentic learning. I believe that we accept this status quo because of compulsory school laws. We are told that public school ensures educational equity while training young people to become productive citizens. We believe that young people need to be formally trained and taught so they can take their rightful place in society. Cookie cutter classes producing the same kind of cookie is the goal.

You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead

Free thinking for students is not on most K-12 public school agendas. The institution honors conformity, compliance and coercion.  It is designed to keep order among the masses entering the school house doors on a daily basis. While it may recognize brilliant children, it is often too busy classifying them into the right box. There is little veering from the set grade level curriculum because it is too costly and time consuming to do other wise.

Creativity, innovation and grit are taught in metered doses through various checklists that good teachers try, all while ensuring that their students are ready to take the high stakes state tests every spring. Rigid time constraints, a plethora of testing, and cumbersome standards ensure that little time is left for authentic and meaningful learning.

We continue the practice of forcing all the square pegs into our round holes. The casualties are inevitable.

“Our students are products of what we model. Teach them dependence and submission and they comply. Teach them that certain behaviors trigger rewards and they catch on to the cues. Teach them to sit and raise hands and speak only when spoken to and they acquiesce over time. Teach them that passing the test and getting good grades is the sum of their existence in school and they work toward that end having no comprehension of what real, deep and lasting learning is. Teach them to find the correct answer, and they never strive, struggle, or persist at something difficult.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 63.)

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We’re all doing what we can

In my book, Learning Unleashed, I provided a list of doable and practical action plans. There are several ways to begin the revolution. For the sake of your time, I won’t list them all here, but you can check them out in my book on pages 115-116.

One prerequisite: Each parent, educator, and informed citizen must be willing to relinquish old school paradigms and firmly held political arguments to see real educational change. We must sift through years of ingrained school propaganda as well as current school sound bites that tend to brand everything according to politics. We must care more about how young people learn best and less about their grades and test scores.

Most importantly, we must want an educational revolution, driven by courage, conviction and commitment on behalf of our young learners.

Until we put this war to an end, there will be casualties. I’m hoping the war ends soon.

Peace! --peace-sign-hand-peace-signs

 

Unpacking the Learning – Part 10

Teacher Unions and Teacher Tenure

teacher strikes

Why do Teacher Unions exist and what do they do? If we take a look at the two prominent national teachers association mission statements below we find clues which I have highlighted for emphasis.

NEA -National Teachers Association Our mission is to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.

AFT – American Federation of Teachers  The American Federation of Teachers is a union of professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, health care, and public services for our students, their families, and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining, and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.

Apparently this is really hard work that requires quite a hefty salary in order to achieve its stated outcomes. This chart represents The AFT President’s salary/benefits and total compensation of $497,118. It’s no wonder she left the classroom in favor of becoming a union boss. The perks are well out of range for a normal classroom teacher.

RHONDA WEINGARTEN PRESIDENT $382,677 Salary $114,441 Bens $497,118 Total

Forty three of her staff earn over six digit salaries and the list identifies a total staff of 216 paid employees with ten non-paid employees listed as Vice Presidents.  Since there was no total salaries listed, I decided to pull out the calculator and begin the arduous task. I gave up adding at the $60,000,000 mark. You can check the details on the link below.

Sticker Shock AFT

I wondered if state and local teacher unions who are affiliated with AFT got a decent bang for their deducted bucks, or have they been duped into believing that union dues are worth it. I couldn’t help but think that part of the $60,000,000 might be better spent closer to each teacher’s school.

The NEA is even more staggering at well over 500 salary/benefit positions and far more than $60,000,000.  Again, what is it that they do? You can check their websites for a list of accomplishments. I did and wasn’t entirely impressed.

PRINCESS MOSS NEA SECRETARY TREASURER $327,195 $102,656 $429,851
LILY ESKELSEN PRESIDENT $303,934 $112,699 $416,633
JOHN STOCKS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR $304,709 $102,555 $407,264
BECKY PRINGLE VICE PRESIDENT $268,594 $102,684 $371,278

 

More Sticker Shock NEA

The Golden Age of Unions

I get why labor unions were important in the industrial age. Working conditions, fair wages, child labor laws and a seat at the table make sense to me.  I get why teacher unions began and what they hoped to accomplish. Teachers were laborers in the industrial model of schooling.  I even belonged and paid into a union in my early teaching career. I actually had no choice.

However, I am not convinced that teacher unions are worth the dues paid to keep them functioning. I am more inclined to believe that unions have outlived their purpose. They have become a political advocacy group whose sole focus is to ensure the status quo and to proclaim their relevancy and importance.

I couldn’t help but notice a rather obvious “omission” in their mission statements.  They forgot to describe quality teaching and learning and how they make it happen for every student in our public schools. Instead, they focus on generic mission statement jargon that sounds lofty but falls short of the actual mark – helping students learn.

It is hard to imagine that the mighty union bosses will relinquish their grip on public school teachers any time soon. It it too ingrained and pervasive in the institutional schooling world.  Teachers are duped to believe that there is value added, so they continue to pay exorbitant union dues.

Unfortunately, the school system itself is a culprit in this status quo game of “who’s really in charge.” Management and rank and file mentality continues to plague modern day schooling. It can be so much better than what we have made it.  We just can’t seem to kick old, unproductive habits.

Union Bargaining MD

“Schools created by like-minded individuals with autonomy to focus on authentic and meaningful student learning rarely need negotiations to accomplish their goals. When schools are built on strong student centered practices, they will accomplish far more than a negotiation session ever will.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 111)

John Taylor Gatto, a New York Teacher of the Year, explained it well in his letter to the NYT editor entitled, I Quit, I Think.

“School has become too vital a jobs project, contract-giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be “re-formed.” It has political allies to guard its marches. That’s why reforms come and go-without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different. David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can’t tell which one learned first – the five year spread means nothing at all. But in school, We label Rachel “learning disabled” and slow David down a bit too.”

Sadly, for many, this is where public schooling has taken us. It is a mega-jobs project churning out millions of “workers” ready to takeover and maintain the status quo. Unions exists to make sure that happens.

Teacher Tenure – A Relic of a Bygone Era

Teacher tenure is a remnant of an older negotiation time in history. It just doesn’t make sense that in every other profession, you remained employed only if you are effectively doing your job. IN schools this is not the case. “In the movie, Waiting for Superman, this phenomenon is described as the “dance of the lemons,” where ineffective teachers are just danced out of one school into another one without any real consequences.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 110.)

There are many hardworking, ethical, and passionate teachers who would never think of damaging their students. No sincere teacher does. However, situations arise from time to time…and something must be done. (LU pg. 110)

No one’s job is guaranteed – nor should it be.

We need a major education revolution!  You can learn about it in my next blog. Stay tuned…

 

Unpacking the Learning – Part 9

Norman Rockwell teacher1

Teacher-centered Instruction

Let’s face it, most teachers are not shy. In fact, they enjoy being center stage and often like being in charge. Their stage presence commands attention and drives out dissension in all its forms. Their repertoire includes various facial expressions, voice intonations, and ability to hover over those trying to steal the stage.  This hasn’t changed much over the years.

Although advocates tout the benefits of self-directed learning, it is typically slow to take root in schools. Many believe that relinquishing the teacher’s reigns is a recipe doomed to failure.  It is supported by the notion that children can’t be trusted in these matters. Teachers have to direct the learning endeavor or it won’t happen. An unyielding school system just can’t seem to wrap its heads around any other way to educate young people.

Teachers were taught to stand and deliver. Teachers are told to make their classrooms inviting. Teachers are expected to maintain control at all times and to ensure that their students are indeed learning as evidenced on a test. Most of the time teachers are evaluated on these expectations.

 

Unfortunately, most classrooms are either too sterile or too stimulating. They are too sterile in the configuration and rigidity. They are too stimulating with every single wall space covered with posters and pictures.  These practices are not necessarily bad; they are just not necessary for learning. (Learning Unleashed Re-imagining and Re-purposing Our Schools, pg. 108.)

Making a classroom look exciting and it actually being an exciting learning place can be two very different realities. (LU pg. 108) When teachers continue to do most of the talking and most of the work, the students will be less and less involved and invested in their own learning. They become consumers waiting for someone to tell them what they should buy.

Contrary to what we are led to believe, most children and young people don’t need a total reliance on a teacher. It is true that we have trained them in that manner, but given the opportunity, children can discover and learn without prompting. Self-directed learning requires a shift in thinking as well as a shift in hierarchy from the teacher being the most important person in the room to the student being the most important. (LU pg.109)

Young people learn best in an authentic setting where they find relevance and meaning for themselves. They learn best when they can choose topics to study, ask a variety of questions, make mistakes free from judgement or evaluation, work alone or choose to work with others, play with an idea and be creative. They learn at different rates in different ways.

Schools in their present form don’t often accommodate that kind of learning, nor are they really interested in doing so. It takes too much time away from the grade level curriculum which requires rigid pacing and reporting periods. It could dismantle the revered pecking order of grades. It would require a competent and energetic teacher who wasn’t afraid to color outside of the lines.

For just a moment, imagine a child teaming up with a teacher-coach to design a specific learning plan based on the student’s interests and talents. Imagine a teacher or set of teachers coaching and guiding students to reach their goals utilizing multiple resources; i.e. math, science, technology, engineering, geology, archaeology, botany, chemistry, literature, drama, music or art, field trips, community resources, etc. Imagine students demonstrating what they’ve learned through a performance, presentation, or a particular school or community problem solved?  Imagine this cycle of goal setting, inquiry, learning and demonstrating, occurring several times over the course of a few years.  What might be the outcome?

student eyes

We often hear folks say that schools prepare young people for college, careers and citizenship. However, communities, universities, and businesses frequently tell us a different story. From what I have observed, read, and experienced over the years, many of our K-12 schools fall short of this goal. They do produce a few great test takers, rule followers, and school dependent learners ready for a work world that may no longer exist.

When teachers become true learning coaches, whose primary focus is to come along side students as resource providers, we just might see student learning reach new heights. Teachers who step off the stage, give up the power and control, and truly know and respect each of their students are HERO material.

Coming in my next and last blog in this series: Teacher Tenure and Unions