Thursday, January 23, 2014

Educate with Trust in Mind

In the dead of winter, revisiting the Summer Institute.

July, 2013
I have just walked the promenade on the east side of the Johnson Center on the George Mason campus.  Where is the crepe myrtle, I wonder?  

Ah, there, behind the maples which now shade the entire walkway. 

Fourteen years ago these maples were mere afterthought, and the crepe myrtle stunned the brick walls and bare sidewalk with their variety and fecundity.  Now I can barely find them.  I remember watching them flame into color and then ebb as I dashed each morning from my parking spot, surprised to find a bit of the beach and the various shades of myrtle in the land of concrete.

The maple trees remind me that fourteen years is a long time, long enough for saplings to crowd out the salmon, pink, and white bushes and darken the sidewalk with thick shade on a cloudy morning.

In my July—in 1998—the Northern Virginia Writing Project Summer Institute quickened my teaching into a life of inquiry, a place where classrooms could be home to my learning as well as my students’.  And returning to this campus has always rekindled my energy and my focus on teaching as a puzzle in human enterprise.  I like the puzzle.  It’s interesting.

And yet, it seems that I must continually learn my lessons over and over again.  Here in this space, where we have the luxury of time, we build a fire of conviction fed by the sparks created when minds rub up against one another.  The fire will burn through the next school year and, hopefully, I won’t forget what it is that students need, as opposed to what we hand them.  There are plenty of buckets of water waiting to douse the flame. 

What do they need?  They need to be invited to take hold of their own education just as I was invited to take hold of mine.  Things seem better, richer when teachers are merely setting the sail and not steering the craft.  For a teacher, that means providing choice, time, tools, the thing-you-need-to-know-when-you-need-to-know-it, and the chance to continue on a journey in the company of someone who is willing to celebrate along the way.

But all that is old news. What have I learned this time, in this new and different, and yet oddly the same Summer Institute? 

I’m a slow learner, and I like to keep things simple.  So this year I will take just one small thing into the storm.

This year, I choose trust. 

The basis for most learning lies in trust, but we supply it in miserable quantity. 

Trust first that we can be engaged in our own growth.  Trust that our students and our peers already bring experiences we can learn from.  Trust that there can be gain from taking what the others offer. Trust that none of us learn until we have had the chance to go inside an idea and walk around a bit. Trust that the outcome of that experience is unpredictable, startling, unique, and entirely human.  Trust that the blank page will be filled.  Trust that waiting will bring an answer.

I would like to think that after fourteen years I am fourteen-years wiser, but that would be a lie. 

Teaching is complex and intellectual and frustrating and exciting and best done in the company of those who are in on the fun.  Surround yourself with those who grapple, wrestle, dance, sing, write, draw, run with ideas and you will never feel “wise”—just childlike in the face of that endless pursuit of the next best thing.

If you do it right, those people could be your students.

Trust in that.

*Written in the Summer of 2013 as a final Position paper to my final George Mason Summer Institute.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poverty Leaves Every Child Behind

  • "What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?"  ran on the New York Times Opinion page on January 18.  It reveals a study that occurred when the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina decided to distribute the largess of their new gambling casino to every family, no strings attached.  Luckily, 1,460 children in the group had already been under a study by Professor Jane Costello of Duke University Medical School. She was tracking incidents of psychiatric disorders among the group.  She had a baseline measure and was in the perfect position to track the effect of the infusion of cash, which eventually reached $6000 per family per year.

  • Recently I heard a re-broadcast of the October 19, 2012 This American Life.  The theme that united the four stories were people or groups who managed to "get away" with something.  The fourth story was called "Pre K-O. "  It was about how the governor of Oklahoma managed to pass a law stipulating universal pre-school right under the noses of state legislators who might object to the intrusion of big government.  Now, of course, no one could imagine cutting the program.  A prominent businessman helped in the fight because he saw it as an investment that would save money in the long run.

The results in both of the above cases were immediate and lasting for children.  Measurable and economically rewarding things--sometimes astoundingly so--for both the state and the children began immediately.  The younger the child the more pronounced were the changes.

In the case of the Oklahoma pre-K instruction, teachers and superintendents saw an immediate change in student ability to learn and an increase in enthusiasm for learning, all observable in the first year following universal pre-kindergarten instruction.

In the case of North Carolina, it turns out that the reduction of stress on the Cherokee families resulted in a lessening of mental illness, an increase in on-time high school graduation, a reduction in crime among the young.  As the article states:
By age 3, measures of vocabulary, working memory and executive function show an inverse relationship with the stressors experienced by parents.
In both cases economists see the expenditures spent early in life as far out-weighed by the savings to society.  It is good business for a state to spend money on its youngest citizens.  It saves lots of money down the road.

The evidence that expenditures on children is good for the economy and future investment of resources in social programs--prisons, mental hospitals, addiction programs--has been indisputable and well-known even before Richard Nixon vetoed the Economic Opportunity Amendment in 1971.

Here is some of what he said on that occasion:
Though Title V's stated purpose, "to provide every child with a full and fair opportunity to reach his full potential" is certainly laudable, the intent of Title V is overshadowed by the fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family-weakening implications of the system it envisions.  We owe our children something more than good intentions.
Family weakening.  Pish-posh.  The North Carolina study reveals that the real weakening of families is caused by the stressors of poverty.

Nixon, however, was right about something: we do owe our children something more than good intentions.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been overshadowed by both fiscal irresponsibility (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to testing companies), and administrative unworkability (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to the collection of data).

It has been a very bad intention -- shifting public dollars into private hands -- cloaked in the Orwellian language of a truly good intention.  We have been duped.  Repeatedly.

Dismantle the testing industry and divert the dollars to enriching the lives of our youngest, poorest citizens.

Statistics, like the ones used in the two situations above, have proven that the past decade has been reckless spending with zero results.  If we shift those dollars to shoring up our 16 million children (22%) living in poverty,  the impact will be immediate and long lasting.

And we can start to feel good about ourselves again.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Talking Education with Non-educators

It is easy to remain insular during the school year as any private life is consumed by the crowded school schedule.

It is school, school, school without a let up (nights, days, weekends) until everything comes to a screeching halt at the holidays.

Often I feel that I have emerged into another world when mingling with peers who have only tangentially thought about public schooling as it affects their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors.

After being immersed in conversations about Ed policy with educators for months at a time, I am confronted with themes as they are perceived by the general public.  Angry exclamations from those outside of our realm about what is going on in our schools--or not going on, as they see it--are informative. The texture these big issues are taking in the wider world by those who don't eat, breathe, and sleep educational issues becomes clear.

Though it may be easy to rise to a defensive posture, the commentary heard from the wider public can help us frame a message to explain the broad changes educators endorse when it comes to effective instruction for our students.

What I've heard over this holiday break convinces me that real reform in public Ed needs a framework that will engage a public that only understands one kind if schooling:  the one they had. 

Here are ways I've tried to shift conversations. Also offered are tips for transitioning a righteous rant into a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be educated, something those who played the game by the old rules (and did fairly well according to that system) haven't considered.

Tip number one:  Let your conversation partner rant. But listen beneath the outrage. What does he/she seem to be fearing?

Tip number two:  Rather than going on the defense, ask questions. Whenever possible, tie an issue to their own child or grandchild by describing what a policy looks like from the child's perspective. Link new ideas in education to memories of their own school experiences.

Here are issues which are raising the eyebrows of the general public.  I've had more than one adult bring up these topics as what is seen as alarming change:

Do you know that if a kid fails a test they get to take it again?

Fear:  This is unfair. Kids should get what they "deserve," which is a low grade due to laziness. We will get a generation that does not value hard work. Consequences, like low grades, will teach them a lesson.

Response:  What do you see as the goal for a course?  Is it more important to earn the first score or learn the material?  Try to shift the speaker's focus to outcomes for a system of education.   If you can maintain their interest, ask about their own grades, and what they can recall about particular subjects. Did the grade reflect what was learned?  (I recommend asking about Algebra and Chemistry. :-)) Does a good grade mean you know it?  How do you think you would react to schooling if you always failed every test?

At some point, I reference the many students I've had who've "passed" a course with the lowest possible numerical D and seem happy enough accepting several failing grades. They have learned to play the school game well, content to coast through on seat time, learning very little. (Or, as is the real case, they have given up trying to figure out how this learning thing works.)  Reteaching and retakes ensure that kids who struggle learn they can get help. They also learn that perseverance produces results. The message in this philosophy is that understanding the material is the primary goal--not squeaking by.

This issue is actually a monumental shift in the goal of public education.  It signals a move from merely ranking our students by the skills, talents, and experiences they arrive with through "earned" grades to instructing all students to a level of competency.  When the public gets behind this paradigm shift, then we will have the kind of literate, thinking workforce the biz people are always yapping about.

The teacher had the kids doing these projects and teaching each other.  She's not doing anything.

Fear:  My taxpayer dollars are being wasted. What a cushy job!

Teachers know this sounds like project-based or constructive learning. We also know that managing the projects and keeping students moving forward takes a lot of planning and skill not obvious to onlookers when the teacher is in coach mode. When the job is done well, the learning is deep and long-lasting. But it would take hours to go through the theory.

Instead, ask:  When you learn something new at work, which do you remember better--the directions someone feeds you or the tasks you had to figure out for yourself?

Or:  Tell me a specific day or days you recall learning something in school. Why do you think you remember that? Most will concede that they remember little of daily lectures, more about what they read on their own, reports they generated, and even more when the activity was unique--like a field trip off campus or a play or musical performance which demanded their active participation.  This, you can explain, is what we have learned about learning.  The mind must be engaged.  The task has to be somewhat challenging but achievable (not too frustrating).  Most adults only have experienced this kind of learning at their workplace--very few in the classroom.  This is another paradigm shift for the adult who has not experienced this kind of hands-on learning.

I'm evaluated on my results at work.  It's only fair that teachers are evaluated as well.

Fear:  Somebody is getting away with something (like that lazy, good-for-nothing history teacher I had who hurt my feelings in eleventh grade....)

With this one, the temptation is really strong to cry "bullshit" since I've worked in the private sector alongside plenty of slackers who were never fired or even pushed to improve.  However, reality never seems to enter into discussions of schooling.  Public schools, I've gathered, are supposed to reflect some place that doesn't exist in the real world where everything is "fair," all parties are happily satisfied, and no transgression goes unjustly resolved. Ah well.

Ask:  Do you have a child/grandchild/niece/nephew in school?  How would you feel about your loved one taking a high stakes test in every grade, including kindergarten, and every subject (think art, PE, band).  Now to add to the pressure of the test, imagine that the livelihood of the adults, who have their own children, mortgages and debts, relies on the scores of those tests.  What would the day/week/month look like?  Who's best interest will be served in this scenario?

That usually does it.  If you want to explore other ways that the teachers could be held accountable, feel free.  But, without a doubt, most adults can see that basing employment on the tests taken by children, impressionable, malleable children left in a room for six to eight hours a day with a stressed adult, is a very, very bad idea.

Oh, and the last big issue?  School shootings.   There has been no debate at all on this issue with my adult friends.

We all agree that something must be done about mental illness and the easy access to weaponry.