Tag Archives: K through 12

Can We Keep it This Simple?: A Response to Amy Weisberg’s Huffington Post Article on Education

shutterstock_109809197The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.

Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country.  She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so.  Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.

Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:

“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”

That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world.  Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:

“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”

This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size.  Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs.  Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.

Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns.  This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop.  To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less.  It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.

“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”

This really is beating a dead horse.  Yes, teachers are underpaid.  Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize.  Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.

However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional.  Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world.  This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice.  Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.

This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance.  How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling?  You tell me.

“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important.  Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance.  They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have.  To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.

However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined.  In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked.  If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly.  If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.

Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.

“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”

A permanent fund for education?  Wow.  Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC?  Where would the revenue come from?  Property taxes, as they are now in many states?  Payroll taxes?  Direct government expenditures?  Oil money?  Gold bricks from Fort Knox?

The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds.  The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic.  To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools.  The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families.  However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.

These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed.  Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.

“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”

See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now.  The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.

It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.

It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.

It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.

It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.

It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.

It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.

Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points?  Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”

I really wish it were that simple.

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New Posts Coming Soon…

Sorry everyone…I’ve been absolutely swamped by work.

A new assistant principal, new teachers to train, new assessments…it’s been a real uphill battle this first week.  The last thing on my mind, honestly, was a new post at the Neighborhood.

I am REALLY trying to get new posts up next week…at least one or two.  Maybe the next week will get me motivated.

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A Long Overdue Update Before School Starts

It’s been a crazy summer.  After LA, the SOS March in DC, and a week in Delaware cut short by Hurricane Irene, it may do me some good to get back in the classroom.  Here’s some odds and ends to take care of:

  • The “conversion” experience post has generated quite an interest.  James Boutin and I have collected a few stories already, and we might have a website in the works to showcase these courageous teachers speaking out.  Other bloggers/activists are also interested in the project. Please PLEASE keep the stories coming!
  • In all the Irene hoopla, we forgot about the upcoming September 11 anniversary.  The 10th anniversary of 9/11 comes just as school years start, so its kind of a downer.  Still, its an important one.  Make sure you cover this with your students–and include any personal experiences you can.  The more personal, the better the connection with your kids (Many of whom might not remember, or weren’t born yet!)
  • My school is in flux this week…some new administrators, possibly new staff.  I’m going to post probably one or two more times before school starts up after Labor Day.  But if you don’t see me for a while, you know why.

Have a great school year, everyone!

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A Dear John Letter to my Textbooks

Dear NYC Social Studies Core Curriculum Textbooks published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

This is a difficult letter for me to write…and an even more difficult letter for you to read, so I hope that you are sitting down.

Remember when we first met? I trembled in excitement upon hearing of a textbook option for New York City’s social studies curriculum. Once I had you (or the fourth grade version of you at the time), it was as if a great weight was lifted from me—finally, a concrete guide to instruction.

I was smitten just by looking at your spine…the glow off your glossy cover…the sharp color photos that littered almost every page.

Those first few months were incredible, weren’t they? Every day was something new, something exciting. We were so wild, so adventurous…we could take on the world. To be honest, we were into some really kinky shit, but that was all in the fun.

Each year, another book would await me, and my love affair renewed. The roller-coaster ride we shared made the mundane phone order to the central office in Tweed so—dare I say—exhilarating. The maps, the optional activities, the worksheets and games: at last, I thought, I found the one.

Yet, something changed.

At first, I thought it was just me. After a while, we settled into our routine. Occasionally, you provide a surprise to spice things up—a game on the Internet, or a music selection. That, however, was the exception to the rule. To be fair, that routine suited me fine…for a while.

Then, maybe it was my weakness…but I started to feel restless. The chapters and units weren’t doing it for me anymore. I felt trapped.

It was then that I met someone else…more like some other people, plural.

There were some websites on the Internet. I was leery, at first. But then, they lured me with their siren song of primary source documents, streaming video and interactive games. Once I saw the ever-changing and ever-expanding volumes of media, lesson plans, worksheets and graphic organizers, that old excitement, that feeling of adventure exploded over me again.

I had mentioned that I was attached, that I couldn’t turn my back on my beloved. They, in turn, mentioned some shocking things about you: that you don’t fact-check your information that well, that there are numerous mistakes in historical maps, that terminology and vocabulary are often misstated.

Worst of all, they said that by watering down the content for the sake of “readability”, you were holding me back—and even worse, holding my students hostage to shoddy literature.

I wouldn’t believe it. They were just jealous, after all, I thought. How could they appreciate the passion, the connection we have…besides, if there were flaws, you would have told me, right?

Right?

Well, I did some digging myself. On page 161 of the grade 3 book, this is what you say about the Roman Empire:

“The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years, but then broke apart. It had grown too large for its rulers to control. However, ancient Rome still affects the world with its ideas about government, architecture, and more.”

Fair enough, it is only for 3rd graders, but sometimes you water down way too much. Look at page 163:

“In the mid-1900s, World War II broke out. Many countries fought in this war, including Italy. Italy was on the side that lost.”

Umm, that’s it? No mention of the nightmare of a 21-year fascist dictatorship that preceded it? No mention of the other countries that bear more responsibility for losing—the ones that had more blood on their hands. Those kids can get that…why do you treat them like morons?

If that’s not bad enough, I found outright lies—lies that you should’ve told me about. Why did you keep it a secret that the leaders of the New Netherland colony were incorrectly called “governors” instead of the correct “directors-general”?

Why does a map of North America in the 18th century use flags from another century? I see an 1801 British flag, a 1793 French flag, and a 1981 Spanish flag.

I’m not even going into the problems in the 5th grade book.

Why? Why did you hold me back so many years? Why the lies? The deceit? The lack of clarity and depth of content?

I’m sorry, but our relationship has really run its course. It’s over.

Please, no tears…it’s not entirely your fault. I was too stupid to realize how badly written you were. I didn’t see your limited vision and lack of depth.

Basically, we’ve really grown apart these past few years. I expanded my base of knowledge and resources through the internet, seminars, grants and lectures.

You just can’t grow past your binding.

You were suffocating me, and screwing my students in the process. There’s nowhere else for this to go.

Believe me, it’s better for both of us.

Goodbye, and good luck. Perhaps we’ll see each other again… that odd day that I need to waste a period with busywork in June.

Just don’t wait up for my call. Sorry, babe.

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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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Sorry sir, Just a Bayonet Charge: The Use of Play in the History Classroom

Every year, I do a lesson that makes teachers and administrators cringe.

Around the start of my unit on the American Revolution, I begin with a lesson on the intricacies of 18th century warfare.  The students are lined up in ranks, with meter sticks on their shoulders to simulate their flintlock muskets.  In step to a military cadence playing from my iPod, my little regiment marches in place to face an invisible enemy on the battlefield—which happens to end at the back bulletin board.

After a quick lesson on loading, carrying and firing a musket, I direct the students to fire in ranks, all the while tapping the unfortunate dead and wounded on the shoulder.  True to form, they fall over themselves in writhing “pain.” 

As the survivors make their last volley, I instruct the regiment to “fix bayonets”, and lead them headlong into a charge towards the back of the room, screaming and howling.  By the time an administrator shows up to complain about the noise, there are heaps of wounded on one side of the room, and rabid infantry tearing up the word wall with their pig-stickers on the other.

“Sorry sir.  Bayonet charge.”  It’s a miracle I haven’t been fired yet.

The French and Indian War gets even more fun.  I plant a Native war party all around the room to shoot at the soldiers from any angle in pitch darkness.  The screams and confusion could rival the real slaughterhouses of Fort Duquesne, Crown Point and Fort William Henry.

The teachers can’t stand it.  The administrators shake their heads in disgust.  Yet when they start to write about the Revolution, they use their “battlefield” experiences to their fullest.  When they leave for middle school, it’s one of the few lessons the students actually remember.

They learned history by doing—a rare feat in a field so often associated with dusty old books and dustier old teachers.

Learning through play is often a taboo subject in today’s classrooms, where the relentless drive to get the test scores up can turn classrooms into Dickensian workhouses.  History, with its current devaluation in the NCLB universe, is in an even more perilous state, as teachers scrambling for time will resort to the tried-and-true textbook to cover the basics so that he/she can say with all sincerity that social studies is taught in that classroom.

The lack of play is a symptom of the mechanical nature of Western education, according to noted British education professor Sir Ken Robinson.  In a famous talk at the 2006 TED Conference, he argued that current educational models stifle creativity to the point that Western nations will no longer be the source for new and innovative ideas, and children will be ill-prepared for a world where traditional education will matter less and less.  In a 2009 article for CNN.com, Robinson stated that

“…we’re all born with immense natural talents but our institutions, especially education, tend to stifle many of them and as a result we are fomenting a human and an economic disaster.  In education, this vast waste of talent involves a combination of factors. They include a narrow emphasis on certain sorts of academic work; the exile of arts, humanities and physical education programs from schools; arid approaches to teaching math and sciences; an obsessive culture of standardized testing and tight financial pressures to teach to the tests.”

The use of play, therefore, is an important tool in providing a rich, expansive education, especially in history.  Students today have an extreme disconnect with the past, and often cannot understand that people hundreds of years ago have many of the same concerns as people today.

There are times when the linear method of digesting pages of textbook material will not ensure a deep understanding of the past.  So why not explore the past for yourself?  Make a point to involve play as much as possible in your history lessons. 

Role-play events in history and have students create “what-if” scenarios to emphasize the importance of human action.  Stop the talking history and make it a walking, talking, breathing, smelling and seeing history.

Act out how people used tools and weapons: at the very worst, it’ll unload some aggression on kids that desperately want to stick a bayonet into the belly of their worst enemy.

Use the primary sources of history in creative ways: use a “tableau” and act out the characters in a painting or print.  Put famous documents through the writing process to see if their arguments could be improved.

So don’t be afraid to play in your classroom, especially for history lessons.  The more students get to use their brains in creative play, the better they will be at complex, real-life situations that involve critical thinking and analysis. 

In short, play makes sure kids turn into adults.  Make sure your history lessons involve some play and creativity.

Just make sure you shut the door when you signal the bayonet charge.

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Let’s Start with Standards

1991000177_a658462f6dIn life, we are full of standards.

We should dress appropriately for the occasion.  Uniformed personnel require certain standards of dress and conduct.  Military standards are rigorous to the extreme.  Even fast food must live to certain criteria; if the special sauce is missing, then it’s no Big Mac, just another fatty sandwich.

As educators, we also have standards that dictate who we are and what we do.  As rebellious as I can be, I actually like standards.  They provide a basic body of requirements that all teachers should strive for in their classrooms.  They protect teachers and students from missing out on a full education.  Finally, standards help students, teachers and parents set goals and benchmarks to meet that student’s learning needs.

However, there’s a fine line between comprehensive standards and strapping a kid to that Clockwork Orange learning machine.  The New York City Department of Education Social Studies Scope and Sequence for Grades K-8 may swing more toward the latter.  Its goals and intentions are great, and the scaffolding of early grades is phenomenal.  Yet grades 5-8 can only work if every droogie in the public school system gets strapped to one of these things and becomes a Yale history professor.

The opening statement has much to admire.  “Social Studies is the integrated study of history, geography, economics, government and civics. More importantly it is the study of humanity, of people and events that individually and collectively have affected the world.”   I couldn’t agree more.  The study of humans, the story of us–that is what the social studies are about.  Furthermore, students today have the most superficial grasp of our history.  Even time is an issue; I still get students who think that the Founding Fathers are still alive–except for Hamilton, who “got snuffed.”

Page 17 of this document, though, provides with one of the true problems of this program.  Up until 5th grade, the curriculum has been about building up students research, reasoning and writing while slowly including actual historical content.  5th through 8th grade was obviously bought at Home Depot–the kitchen sink included.

One problem is the 5th grade state test in November.  That means Unit One on Geography, scheduled for September/October, is out the window because that’s when the students are trying to cram everything they forgot in 4th grade.  Well, GPS can take care of that, right?  Now let’s see–November.  The United States.  The whole damn thing.  Everything from the Natives crossing over the land bridge in Alaska to Lee’s surrender to everything in between.  In one month.  By the way, I usually stay on this topic all year.  Call me crazy, but Native Americans alone takes up a month and a half.  I think next time I’ll condense all of U.S. history to a baseball stat card with wins/losses, on-base percentages, etc.  The Iroquois gave up a lot of earned runs in 1779.  Too bad the Confederacy did its best stats before free agency.

If that’s not enough, the rest of the year is taken up with the rest of the hemisphere, which the Department of Education (DOE) thinks of as America’s asterisk.  Two months are devoted to Latin America–the whole thing.  This covers everything from the Mayans to Eva Peron.  Students can produce a decent timeline of coups and juntas that look very nice on a bulletin board.  El Salvador’s is particularly useful.  If a student does the Argentine military juntas of the 70’s, remind him/her that dropping a Communist from a plane is not the best diorama subject.

Next up is Canada, from February to April.  Isn’t this a disordinately long time to dwell on our neighbor to the north?  I can usually end this in a week and a half–Canada was offered to join the Revolution, they didn’t, they played nice with the British Empire and were rewarded with a freezing cold federation of wacky right-wing nuts out west and a separatist Francophone population back east with an extension of Michigan in the middle.

Canadians do have hockey, a good point of entry for those students with behavior problems.  Show a class the grinning toothless wonders of the 1960 Montreal Canadiens and just see if that kid flings a ruler again.  If that doesn’t work, call the NHL to see if Bobby Clarke or Mike Milbury can scare your kids straight with a stiff crosscheck to the gut, or a good beating with his own overpriced Nike hightop.

6th grade isn’t much better.  Again with the hemisphere theme, this time on early civlizations of the Eastern hemisphere, which covers everything from Portugal to New Zealand.  I’d love to see the papers out of this class: Spartacus leads a revolt of Maoris, Ashanti and Gauls against the Ch’in Dynasty with the help of early Mesopotamians.   Their battle plan was whatever they remember from watching  300 for the umpteenth time on cable.

All of this is, of course, to be forgotten as 7th and 8th grades provide the United States depth and detail you needed in 5th grade.  You can picture that 8th grader now, thinking, “Thank God Mr. D stopped our U.S. history cold in December so we can cram about Fidel Castro and Gordie Howe.  That’s really useful for our U.S. history exam coming up.”  (flips finger in my direction)

To be fair, I’m familiar with a few of the creators of this plan, and they did the best they could under the circumstances.  The problem is that you may want students to know everything about something.  However, that student will have so many things in their head at the same time that the Teapot Dome Scandal and the Battle of Thermoplyae may be fighting for space with reading comprehension strategies and Pythagora‘s Theorem.  They shouldn’t–since social studies requires reading and math–but it happens, especially in upper grades where compartmentalization is still the norm.

Don’t look to me for an answer, either.  These standards will probably be tweaked over time, to be sure.  Hell, you don’t want me designing a curriculum anyway.  It’ll probably include the Draft Riots of 1863, methods of medieval torture, a study of Fijian dining habits with roast Caucasian and a history of the NCAA basketball tournament.

And not necessarily in that order.

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