Tag Archives: Child psychology

Slaves, Oranges and Arithmetic: The Dangers of Too Much Content Integration

In that ever-growing list of educational untouchables, the enslavement of African Americans is among the most sensitive and nerve-rattling.

So why in Hell would a teacher build a set of math problems based on slavery? The misguided belief that social studies can—and should—be integrated into everything.

One of the offending questions, courtesy of ABC News

If ever there was proof that social studies deserves to remain a separate and distinct subject, it is the recent “slave math” controversy. Luis Rivera, a third grade teacher in the Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett County, Georgia resigned when he assigned math homework that included problems involving slavery and beatings. Samples of the controversial work include:

“Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”

“If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”

The story made headlines across all the news outlets and provided prime fodder for the early morning gabfests. Many clearly found the incident offensive, and others thought one careless act shouldn’t mar an entire career in education…and so on, and so on.

Bullshit. The guy should’ve known better: both as a tolerant American and as a teacher of sound pedagogical practice. Rivera gets an “F” on both accounts.

The use of such a sensitive topic is appalling in it of itself. As a teacher, however, it is the casual, even careless use of history that is most repulsive. The teacher claimed they were attempting a “cross-curricular” activity, supposedly integrating social studies and math.

If this is what passes for “integration” or “multidisciplinary”, then here come the division problems using cattle cars and European Jews (prepare to use high numbers), probability questions involving Christians thrown to lions (advantage: lions), and fractions involving Crusaders slaughtering Muslims in the Holy Land (i.e. “What fraction of a merchant in Jerusalem is left after Sir Godfrey cleaves him to pieces with a broadsword?”).

Not only are these examples equally disgusting, but teach absolutely nothing about the content being used.

As much as it twists in my gut like a rusty bayonet, districts will still be pushing for integrating social studies and science into reading and mathematics. Understandably, each content area fits better with a certain skill set: social studies is basically just focused reading and writing, scientific analysis rarely doesn’t involve at least basic math skills.

Yet when the subjects are reversed, the integration can be a little tricky—and no more so than with social studies and math. The Georgia example, to be honest, was more of an example of lazy, slipshod integration than any real malice. It was probably based on the notion that the content itself doesn’t matter so long as the skills taught are understood.

Thus, in Rivera’s mind, the slaves being beaten and picking cotton and oranges could have been anything and anyone, so long as the math algorithms were internalized.

This in not integration. It is the hijacking of one subject to further another.

If true integration is the goal, the student materials, assessments and lessons should:

1. Align with content material or units that are either being taught at the time or previously covered. According to the Georgia Performance Standards in Social studies for 3rd Grade, students should be covering the impact of various important Americans. Even if the American in question was a slave (i.e. Frederick Douglass) the content was inappropriate and didn’t really tie into the curriculum at all. The content you use has to make sense to the students in some way; otherwise both your math and your social studies objectives will be lost.

2. Utilize settings, actors and scenarios appropriate to the historical period or unit. This sounds a lot easier than it is. Many times, problems are created that in no way resemble the reality of the time. Even amongst the offending problems, the second one makes no historical sense: if Frederick needed two beatings a day in order to work, he would have probably been sold. A little research into primary sources can go a long way in justifying your use of historical content.

3. Enhance understanding of BOTH the skills/standards and the content area. Okay teachers and administrators, I’ll say it: social studies and science are not your personal call girls designed to fleece students for their respective pimps, reading and math. If you create a division problem involving the supplies of a pioneer family, students should learn a thing or two about the hardships of frontier life in the process. That reading assignment about volcanoes should not only enforce main idea, author’s purpose, etc. but also the scientific concepts of volcanic eruption and its role in land formation on Earth.

Since the remorseless monolith of integration is with us for the foreseeable future, educators have to learn to effective join content and skills together for mutual benefit. With so much time in the school day devoted to reading and math—plus that ever-growing period of test prep—many find it hard-pressed to even find time for social studies and science. Thus, integration often becomes the only way content is taught in many classrooms.

The best way to find great material for integrating social studies content into your lessons is to amass a vast library of primary source materials. Many of the websites featured here have incredible databases and clearinghouses of newspapers, diaries, account books, ledgers, captains’ logs, ship manifests—all with enough numerical data to torture your students for months.

Use common sense, fit them into your lesson plans where appropriate, and if you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ve crossed the “Rivera Line”, as we’ll now call it, ask a colleague.

Ideally, these subjects should stand alone. Certain things can only be taught in the isolation of a period devoted to social studies or science. Yet the NCLB monster squeezes the day to the point that integration has become a necessary evil in our everyday lessons.

Just use your head, unlike poor Luis Rivera. The only job he’ll be doing now is picking oranges and cotton for slave wages.

(…pun was completely intended.)

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Calling out all Teachers “converted” by Public Education!

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.

At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.

 

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The Dos and Don’ts of the Common Core Standards

Lately, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) has taken a good piece of my life.

First, it was the beginning of the year meetings that introduced us to the CCLS (then called the Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) and how they will impact our instruction. Then came the periodic meetings evaluating student work, supposedly using the CCLS (but often not).

Now, in a frantic pace to stay on the CCLS bandwagon, I’m involved with not one, but two taskforces attempting to integrate social studies instruction and museum education into the new standards.

During the whole time, I didn’t even attempt to read the standards. Maybe it’s time that I did.

The Common Core Learning Standards were part of a two-year long initiative by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Their goal was to provide a uniform set of standards for reading and mathematics nationwide, supplementing the various state benchmarks and standards that had been implemented in the early stages of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

The CCLS was rolled out in 2010, and immediately many states jumped aboard. Washington had much to do with the enthusiasm: Race to the Top grants were determined—de facto, if not de jure—through swift and thorough adoption of the CCLS. To date, 48 of 50 states have jumped on the initative (except Texas and Alaska) and 47 of 50 have adopted the standards (Virginia chose not to).

On the surface, the CCLS is a noble idea. It would be an incredible leap for our educational system if a child were held to the same standards in any part of the country—the same way other, smaller countries handle it.

Looking at the standards themselves, however, leads me to believe they are not the silver bullet everyone makes them out to be.

I decided to see how the Common Core stacked up against the old standards used in New York City up until now. Here’s the first elementary standard for reading in the old system:

“E1a: The student reads at least twenty-five books or book equivalents each year. The quality and complexity of the materials to be read are illustrated in the sample reading list. The materials should include traditional and contemporary literature (both fiction and non-fiction) as well as magazines, newspapers, textbooks, and on-line materials. Such reading should represent a diverse collection of material from at least three different literary forms and from at least five different writers.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

It’s what we expect from standards: broad, verbose, and so cumbersome that any set of criteria could fit in here. A combination of Marvel comic books, Mad Magazines, the Onion, the history textbook and some selection from the class library should do the trick. By the way, this is what you’re expected to do once you reach sixth grade.

The CCLS addresses this standard differently, as it does with others: instead of one culminating indicator, there are benchmarks for each year from Kindergarten to 5th for elementary, and from 6th to 12th for secondary. In first grade, the similar CCLS standard for reading would read like this:

“RL.1.10. With prompting and support, read prose and poetry of appropriate complexity for grade 1.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

By fifth grade, the same standard reads like this:

“RL.5.10. By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

It appears that the Common Core has won this round—after all; grade scaffolding seems more palatable than a one-shot deal. Yet look at the old standard compared with the one above: other than the quantity constraints of the old standard, don’t they look suspiciously similar?

Let’s try a writing standard now. In the old standards, we have:

“E2a: The student produces a report that:

• engages the reader by establishing a context, creating a persona, and otherwise developing reader interest;

• develops a controlling idea that conveys a perspective on the subject;

• creates an organizing structure appropriate to a specific purpose, audience, and context;

• includes appropriate facts and details;

• excludes extraneous and inappropriate information;

• uses a range of appropriate strategies, such as providing facts and details, describing or analyzing the subject, and narrating a relevant anecdote;

• provides a sense of closure to the writing.” ~ NYC Performance Standards in ELA

The fifth grade standard in the CCLS for report writing is as follows:

“W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic.

Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

Again, apart from a difference in vocabulary, these two standards bear a striking resemblance.

The Mathematics standards, on the other hand, seem to be a real improvement. Here’s the old standard for 5th grade for using base ten number systems:

“5.N.3 Understand the place value structure of the base ten number system” ~ NYS State Education Department Mathematics Standards

We could all agree that’s pretty lame, even by the already-low standards (no pun intended) of the authors of these standards. The CCLS version gives much more detail:

“5.NBT.1. Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left.

5.NBT.2. Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10.

5.NBT.3. Read, write, and compare decimals to thousandths.

• Read and write decimals to thousandths using base-ten numerals, number names, and expanded form, e.g., 347.392 = 3 × 100 + 4 × 10 + 7 × 1 + 3 × (1/10) + 9 × (1/100) + 2 × (1/1000).

• Compare two decimals to thousandths based on meanings of the digits in each place, using >, =, and < symbols to record the results of comparisons.

5.NBT.4. Use place value understanding to round decimals to any place.” ~ Common Core Learning Standards

So the new standards are pretty hit-and-miss. There’s a lot of good stuff to get out of them, but also plenty of pitfalls along the way to implementation—and especially assessing them.

First, realize that, especially in English, the CCLS is largely a re-packaging of the standards we have already used—standards that lack much substance to begin with. So for all the hoopla of newness and scaffolding, in the end the final benchmarks will not be so radically different from before.

Second, the “Common” in Common Core is a real misnomer. Many states, including New York, are allowed to tweak or alter the standards to meet the needs of their particular groups of students. This is important, to be sure, but then it no longer makes these standards very “common” anymore. How is this any different from the old state standards?

Furthermore, don’t expect to see a massive overhaul of the standardized testing situation because of these standards—at least not yet. It is claimed that full implementation of the standards, with new assessments, curricula, etc., will be in place by 2015 the latest. I’m guessing we’ll see the new assessments sooner than that, because there will be little new about them. If the CCLS is a re-packaging of the old, then wouldn’t the new tests be a re-packaging of the old, as well?

Besides, if you fuck with those tests too much, Pearson and McGraw-Hill will have a serious chat with you.

Finally, the CCLS does not even address content areas, science and social studies, until the 6th grade, and then it is merely a test of “Literacy in Science/Social Studies.” Those standards are a re-packaging of the re-packaging: a reformation of the English standards to make them more content-specific. Yet no actual content standards are addressed: what actual stuff do kids need to know?

It’s nice how we focus on the process, the skills, the strategies, but without the actual stuff of learning the CCLS—like any set of standards—is really meaningless.

So what can we get from this new initiative foisted on most of us in this country?

Not much, but that’s okay.

To those who are getting their shorts in a knot over the CCLS…relax. It’s not as big a deal as even they think it is. These standards are no more rigorous than the personal set of standards any good teacher uses throughout his/her day. It’s simply a new paper trail for what you already do.

Hopefully it’ll lead to changes for the better. Probably, it won’t.

Just grin and bear through the workshops, lectures, symposia and focus groups—knowing that the next “silver bullet” is coming right around the corner…

…and it’ll be just as effective as the last one.

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Videos for the Classroom: Dating Do’s and Dont’s (1949)

It’s time to shine those penny loafers and Bryllcreme those hairdos.  The Neighborhood is heading for the Fifties!

Nothing explains the intentions, the tensions and the goofiness of the era like the instructional films produced by Coronet.  Starting after World War II, Coronet Films, as many other distributors, created a series of films on morals, hygiene and national values to be shown in classrooms on 8-mm projectors–mostly to kill a Friday afternoon.  Through school-age actors, the films stressed the need for conformity, grooming, and patriotism, often at the expense of anything remotely considered unique or creative.

Today, these films have a mysterious antique silly quality.  Yet one can imagine the gravitas of a school marm in her bat-glasses showing a film on how heavy petting, rock music and consorting with Black people can lead to Communism.  Today’s film is the 1949 classic Dating Do’s and Dont’s, as a young boy ponders which perfectly coiffed Caucasian female of upper-middle class status he will take to the “keen wing-ding” of the night, the big carnival.  The film deftly guides our hero through the “right” choice of girl, how to set up the date, and the activities to follow…

…of course, not ALL the activities.  And our hero would never do that!  That’s only for pot-smoking, rock ‘n’ roll listening, Commie-loving, integration-pushing hipsters who beat on bongos and wear black all the time.

Sit back and enjoy the goofiness.  Of course, have students question the moral underpinnings of these films–though that may label them Communists!   God forbid!

Enjoy

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When Lunatics Control the Asylum: The Battle for Control of the Classroom

A meeting of doctors at the university of Pari...

Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris. Image via Wikipedia

Imagine a world where the inmates dictated the routines of the guards and wardens of a prison.

Parishioners at church mandated certain sermons for the minister on Sunday.

Crowds of spectators made on-the-field decisions for sports teams.

(That last one was tried once in baseball. It may even work for the New York Mets this season, but that’s another story.)

Such is the situation in many school systems across America. In the march to vilify teachers as a hindrance to progress, “reformers” have “empowered” parents and students into making decisions largely left to teachers and administrators.

Discipline little Johnny for not doing his homework? Don’t hurt his feelings, or reports of “verbal abuse” will mark your resume for years to come. Little Cindy not working to her potential? Parents demand assessments and data that even they can’t understand—and ultimately lead to the same conclusion. And don’t you dare exclude Timmy from a field trip due to his reign of terror over little girls: such exclusion can (and often has) been interpreted as “corporal punishment.”

Reformers, administrators and naïve parents have worked to strip power from the very people that make school effective in the first place. Not only is this a gross sign of disrespect to the teaching profession, but runs counter to over 800 years of scholastic tradition in Europe and America.

Yes, that long ago.

In the development of scholastic education in Western Europe, two main systems emerged in the Middle Ages. One, the older of the two, was the Bologna system patterned after the University of Bologna, which is still the oldest continuously-running institution of higher learning in the world. In this system, a school was a corporation of the students. The students organized the government of the school, hired the faculty, and managed the faculty for the needs of the students. In essence, the students had all the power, and the faculty served at their pleasure.

This system made sense in Bologna, because it was primarily a professional school that granted strictly doctoral degrees in law and medicine. Thus, only the most dedicated and rigorous students would even apply in the first place. Yet there were flaws: students became difficult to control, drunken orgies were commonplace, and civil authorities could do little as students claimed the same rights and privileges as clerics.

(This is why you wear funny robes on graduation—it’s based on medieval monastic and academic dress.)

In the University of Paris, a new system of school governance emerged, not long after Bologna’s founding. Under the Paris system, the power was shifted from the students to the masters. The university would be a corporation of the faculty, which set down rules and governance, established the curriculum and guidelines for graduation as they saw fit, and maintained order and discipline among the student body.

(Sound familiar?)

Again, this made sense in Paris since the student body was comprised of many young students, often as young as 8 or 9. The curriculum was based more on the arts and theology, although law and medicine were also offered. Furthermore, it offered more than one degree, the baccalaureate (or bachelors) and the doctorate.

In 1167, King Henry II of England banned English students from studying at the University of Paris. It wasn’t their fault, just good old European politics, and they’d be invited back in the mid 13th century. The now-displaced Paris students established the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge (along with that important legacy of English smugness). 500 years later, the descendants of the Oxbridge alumni would establish other universities in the New World along the lines of the Paris system (with an even more insufferable brand of smugness).

Finally, the graduates of the bastions of learning in the United States helped to form America’s public education systems. That system of K-12 learning still utilizes the Paris model to an extent. While a high authority establishes the curriculum, and a separate administrative body handles general school governance, it is the corps of faculty that manages the day-to-day needs of the students in the best way possible.

The teachers, like the medieval masters of Paris and Oxford, were considered “experts” in their field. This allowed them a degree of flexibility when planning lessons, establishing routines and procedures, and managing the classroom. Parents listened to their counsel with the same respect due a doctor or even an ordained minister, and trusted that teachers knew what was best in the education of their children.

So what went wrong?

After numerous reports showing the ruinous state of our children’s education, one factor became paramount among “reformers.” The “expert” in education, the teacher, was almost solely to blame in America’s downward educational spiral. Thus, it was important to give parents more control over their child’s education. Home schooling, charters, vouchers—all were designed to make parents (and in a subversive way, students) the principal actors in their learning.

Along with the “parents first” approach came a noticeable uptick in litigation over perceived abuses in the system. Parent-teacher conferences and visit to the principal’s office now require phalanxes of attorneys ready to serve on any perceived slight by the child. What’s worse, administrations on the district level set up protocols and controls that make teachers virtual whipping boys in even the most frivolous complaints.

Both of these developments due, unfortunately, have some basis in fact. Teacher training and education has long been an Achilles ’ heel in developing quality education. It’s hard to be an “expert” when there’s little scrutiny or rigor in selecting and training great educators.

Furthermore, one cannot overstate the very real abuses that take place in many classrooms. Verbal, emotional, and often physical abuse did, and still does, occur. No good teacher should engage in such negative behavior with students. Excesses in the system need to be controlled, even by legal means.

However, education is not served by handcuffing teachers with burdensome regulations, litigious parents and administrations quick to blame a scapegoat instead of standing firm with the faculty for the good of quality education.

Parents should be fully involved in a child’s education. Yet rather than sit parents and teachers together to solve common problems, reformers have set parents against teachers like rabid dogs in a fighting pit. Thanks to half-truths and hypercharged rhetoric, parents see the teacher as the enemy, with no room for compromise.

If a parent thinks they can teach their kid better than a teacher, by all means, go ahead.

If a parent thinks a charter school or a private school can educate better than a regular public school, best of luck to you.

But be warned: parents, if you choose to send your child into a school, any school, be prepared to surrender some of your power and discretion for the best interests of a child’s education.

In all schools—public, private or charter—parents need to trust that teachers are doing the right thing. All the teacher programs in the world, TFA, Teaching Fellows and the rest, are efforts in futility unless teachers are again regarded as “experts” who demand respect and discretion (to an extent, of course). Second-guessing teachers rarely helps a child, but rather gives more anxiety to an already tense situation.

Maybe education in this country never fully resembled the Paris model to which the lads of Harvard and Yale aspired. Yet it was a model that set the standard for Europe and America for almost a millennium.

Who are we to doubt its effectiveness now…

…unless, of course, you’re one of the inmates running the asylum. (Mayor Bloomberg, I’m looking in your direction.)

 

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Videos for the Classroom: What About Prejudice (1959)

I love these hokey 1950s educational films–the sincere morals, the clear messages, the sea of perfectly coiffed Caucasian youngsters.

Our good friends at the Social Studies and History Teachers blog had released this 1959 doozy to their readers, and its worth a look here at the Neighborhood.  This McGraw-Hill film What About Prejudice chronicles the trials of Bruce Jones, an outsider who we never see from the waist up.  For whatever reason–ethnic, racial, socio-economic–the other students at this high school shun and castigate Bruce due to their own prejudices.  It isn’t until one selfless act that the students finally overcome their preconceived notions and accept Bruce as an equal.

I know, this is so bad it gives the word “corny” a bad name.  Yet students who watch this can analyze how feasible it is for them to (a) accept someone like Bruce, or (b) change their mindset after one event.

Real life is rarely as neat and Brylcreemed as a school filmstrip.  Enjoy.

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Video for Parents: Tips on how to Prepare for a Parent-Teacher Conference

Like right here in the Neighborhood, many teachers and parents are heading to their first parent/teacher conference.  Teachers are preparing frantically to have all your child’s information on hand.  However, many parents often leave the conference even more bewildered than when they came in.

As much as teachers prepare for these meetings, parents should be equally ready to face the acheivements and challenges your child has experienced thus far.

I stumbled upon a great instructional video from The K5, an elementary education blog.  In this video, parents can learn how to prepare for the best–and worst–that can happen at the conference.  It takes away much of the stress if both teacher and parent are on the same page.

Please pass this on to all of your parents and teachers.  Now where did I leave that stack of report cards…?

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