Sunday, May 1, 2011

No wonder they have trouble learning at school

This morning I was very excited to visit the local garden center. I've been waiting for spring for so long and now the day had come to pick out my favorite annual flowers and replace perennials that didn't survive the harsh winter.

My garden center is a crowded place and it's hard to avoid overhearing conversations.

A woman was shopping close by with her son who appeared to be about 5 years old.  She over articulated every word, explaining to her son what each flower was. She'd ask, "should we get this one?" The boy would often reply, "no, I don't like that color!" or "that pot is dirty, find another one!"  She obediently replied each time, finding another color or another pot that was maybe not as dirty as the last one.

It was so lovely to see her take an interest and to bring him shopping with her. But, then I thought, "what was she really teaching him?"

Well I guess what he learned is that his color preference mattered more than moms and that when he thought something was unacceptable, he had the power to have it removed from his sight.

What could he have been taught? Well, that mom's color preference mattered too, primarily since it was her house they were bringing the flowers to; that it was mom's money paying for the flowers; that she was the adult in this scenario; and that garden pots are supposed to have dirt on them.

It is little wonder why so many children have such a hard time adjusting to life at school. At school, if the directions say to color the flower purple or black, that's what is expected. Following directions is a skill that should be mastered. And if students don't like the assignment or school work, they can't send it back for something that is a little more palatable or pleasing to the senses.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Professional Development as Union Breaker?

So what's behind these new models of professional development? Well, it seems an underlying motive on the part of administrators is to create a a subtle hierarchy among teachers.

This new model of professional development has all the makings of 21st century union breaking. By providing financial motivation to break rank and declare themselves more worthy of roles like teacher leaders and teacher coaches, school administrators feed the battered egos of their teachers and, at the same time, loosen a brick in the union wall.

Initially, many districts are providing temporary financial incentives to take on professional development. It would seem harmless enough. After all, administrators might argue, this isn't a blow to the union contract because professional development has always been separate from annual salary.

So much of the professional development isn't about becoming a better teacher, but about becoming different than one's colleagues. What does professional development look like in your schools? Are they providing incentives or compensation for research into literacy, into building new models of education, into being a better teacher?

I'm guessing in your district professional development has little to do with building a better teacher for students but has a lot to do with building a hierarchy of teachers who will eventually see themselves not as a united front, but as separate factions willing to do each other in for a salary bump or financial token.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Finland vs. United States - so much more than just culture

In a recent posting, I discussed the vast cultural differences between Finland and the United States. But while culture is a big issue, there is more to the success of Finnish schools than their population size and homogeneous people.

While we push children to learn at younger and younger ages, Finnish children begin formal schooling at age 7. The Finnish believe that childhood is for playing and that children learn while playing. It's believed that given enough time to play and have fun (and learn while doing so) children will arrive at school ready to learn.

In Finland, children are not pulled from the classroom for remediation. Rather, students who have trouble perfecting a skill or grasping a concept are visited by the two or three teachers in the room or by one of the teaching assistants. I wonder how many teachers in this country would be grateful for just the teaching assistant.

While we believe in "no child left behind", we increasingly expect one classroom teacher to differentiate instruction, keep paperwork on all those tiered students, meet with parents, make copies of lessons, pay for additional education and consult with colleagues. And unions certainly don't help by negotiating contracts that call for a work day that consistently allows teachers to walk out the door only moments after the children do.

In so many ways, the Finnish system reveals a high level of respect for the developmental needs of their children and sets high professional expectations for teachers.

How did we get it so wrong?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Cauldron of Crazies

Teachers, especially those who spend their days with young children, have a great deal of power. We arrange seats, lessons, little lives. We get to tell kids when they can pee or drink or speak.

So much of teaching is about crowd control, about making sure nothing goes wrong. Move along, little fella.....don't talk in the hallway....raise your hand....speak clearly....practice your math facts....find your "voice" in writing. The list, oh that list of skills, is endless. The ways we can control little lives are many.

Now take those very same teachers and put them with a group of adults and adults who share the same job. A group of control freaks who are used to bossing other people around. Visit a teacher's staff room and you'll find the control freaks with personality disorders, mood fluctuations, self-esteem issues. Throw in a full moon, and it's the ingredients for a cauldron of crazies at each other's throats. If you're a teacher, you probably have the scars to prove you know what I mean.

Let us know if you have the scars to prove it.

Parents: Where can I get books...and more

Lots of parents are terrific, looking to form good relationships with people in their children's lives. And then, there are these...

Me: I'm afraid he'll have to stay in for recess to finish this work since he spent classtime doing nothing.
Outraged Parent: But Recess is his FAVORITE time of day. You can't do that.

Me: Your daughter flooded the bathroom along with a child from another class.
Outraged Parent: Why did you let her go to the bathroom with the child from another class?

Me: Your daughter tried to convince another girl to give her money "or else".
Outraged Parent: There are a lot of bad influences in your school.

Me: Is your son reading everyday? It's really important and it's clear this isn't happening.
Confused Parent: No, where can I get some books?
Me: Library or book store, or he can borrow them from the classroom.
Confused Parent: He can read the news scrolls at the bottom of the TV.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fern vs. Forest

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Linda Darling-Hammond wrote about a recent worldwide educational seminar in New York City. The slant? Well that in really high performing countries, teachers are respected and are well paid. They provide high quality teacher training, support their get the picture, I'm sure.

And I have to say that as a teacher these types of articles make my head spin just as much as the teacher bashing, anti-union rhetoric we hear so often. I'm happy for Finland, really I am. I'm glad that they have a wonderful educational system and love their teachers. But are we to conclude that modeling our schools after theirs is the answer?

While we might be able to learn some things from Finland, a comparison of the U.S. to Finland is like comparing a fern to a forest. Yes, they're both shades of green.

The population in Finland is smaller than that of New York City. The population is largely homogeneous, the dominant language being Finnish. The child poverty rate is 4 percent. They are not currently running or participating in any wars.

Our schools are part of a huge, troubled nation filled with violence, an extremely heterogeneous population, with confused and overwhelmed parents. Nearly 25 percent of children are from families living in poverty.

The biggest problem we have in the dialogue about education is how limited it is. Yes, there are bad teachers and it would seem, plenty of them. The unions are often inflexible and administrators can be narrow minded and political.

But schools are not isolated islands unto themselves and the problems go way beyond the walls of school buidings.

How would Finland's educational system hold up under the challenges of educating American children?

There's no quick fix, no single answer. The lack of quality in our educational system is merely a reflection of the lack of quality, moral conviction and sense of community that maybe this country once had.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Little boys and their dirty words

Molly, my third grader approaches tentatively with a pained look on her little face.

She whispers that Sam has said a bad word about a girl's body part, but refuses to even utter the word.

Of course, I need to call over Sam and ask about the word. He hesitantly admits that he's said this word.

What word?

"The B word."

Hmmm, I wonder, I try to think what it possibly could be.

Finally, I say, almost pleadingly "Sam, just tell me what the word is." 

"Um, um, um - you know..... Bagina."

Note to self: Review phonics instruction.