Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Block That Metaphor! The Common Core Salad

If the Powers that Be took the stand that the Common Core was like a salad out of which I could pick the stuff like celery and radishes, which I hate, into which I could put goat cheese and dried cranberries if I felt like it, I'd have a much different opinion of it.

Take what a kid really loves and refer to the Common Core to find the standard. Keep track of what standards the kid has mastered. Then an assessment could be made based on what standards the kid has chosen to achieve. I could look at something like that. Maybe even support it.

But if the Common Core is what it's being accused of by detractors, a national curriculum that a school is connected to like glue and that is tied to national testing; if a school or teacher or student cannot veer to make room for tangents of discovery, delight, passion, then it's no bargain. It just ties the hands of teachers and students alike.

A person may reject learning something now, but may be totally into it later. Or maybe that student will never be into it, but fills his time with the thing he loves most.

Access to knowledge! Freedom to learn! Flexibility to teach with passion, learn alongside children! If the Common Core is merely a recipe for a salad, and they make kids eat the radishes, then, all things considered, I vote no.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Give Me My Purse Back!

Here's something that occurred to me in the car on the way home from the board meeting tonight.

To the person who said kids need to be taught HOW to use their voice and choice: we have STOLEN their voice and choice from them, from elementary school on up. We took it away.

If someone stole your purse, would they say, "I'm sorry, you're not ready to get your purse back?" Would they say, "Here's your lipstick. Here's your wallet. Here's your car keys. You have to wait awhile for your checkbook, because you're not ready for it yet?"

No, you give the &%$# purse back.

It's not yours! Kids want it back! So just give it back!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Is Traditional Education Harming our Kids?

Those who pay attention to the confused jumble that is the "education reform" movement often hear this cry: that the result of a failing school system is a lack of competitiveness of the U.S. compared with that of other nations. A slipping-away of the supremacy of our country.

You know, okay, whatever. If that's what gets people to lose faith in the current way we do school, I'll take it. But success is all in how you define your goals. The focus of educational change won't be good enough if the improvement of the mental and emotional health of children is a side effect to the great purpose of "being competitive again."

I don't say it's a bad purpose. I say it's the wrong focus. We can achieve the same ends if we focus on creating healthier and happier children, and in the end, we'll have economic competitiveness AND healthier and happier children.

We don't need to reform education. We need to reinvent it entirely. The only recognizable thing I see remaining is the buildings, and the public commitment to education in the form of public funding.

The reason we need to pack it in and start over: kids are being harmed.

Too melodramatic? No, I don't believe it is.

We know that high school graduates are, more and more, ill-prepared for either college or the working world. We know that there is an epidemic of student disengagement. We know that kids weigh more and have more health problems than they ever did. We know that the sleep requirements of teenagers are ignored in most middle and high schools. We know this and more by observing schools and kids and teachers, and we draw our own conclusions about problems and solutions

I don't accept the more popular targets of blame, like teacher tenure, or solutions, like more charter schools. Let's take it a step farther, and question everything about what we know as school. I promise you can go back to your homes afterward and are under no obligation to take on these opinions permanently.

We require that children change themselves in order to fit into school. The result of this can be plainly seen in some children, in the anxiety that school causes, but it can also be under the surface for quite a long time before a parent can see any ill effects, if they are ever seen at all. Nevertheless, a child undergoes a wearing away of identity.

When we don't accept and value small children for who they are, they don't turn their resentment outward. When a parent rejects a child, the rejection turns inward and wears away at their self-respect and confidence, often turning into depression. We have the same responsibility, and if we fall short, we have to accept that there will be similar consequences.

We require kids to learn what WE want them to learn. From birth to age five, children explore, play, discover, manipulate, run, jump. Then suddenly, they sit in kindergarten, told what to learn. Kindergarten is now a training ground for the rest of kids' educational careers, and the message is: "What you want to learn isn't important. Empty your minds of your own passions and interests. Learn what I tell you to learn."

What better way to teach kids that what is inside them is not important? Is there really a question as to why, by fifth or sixth grades, kids have tuned out of school, march from class to class with no expectation of the joy of discovery?

We make kids learn stuff they don't care about. We do it every day, in every age group. Don't be fooled by the appearance of compliance, even cheerfulness. Kids want to be happy; they tend to look on the bright side and eventually separate their passions and strengths from anything to do with school.

This takes a cumulative toll on kids, and results in a detachment between students and the adults in their lives.

Add to this rules they have no say in and make no sense, and authority figures who don't have the time to learn their needs. Sometimes this is turned outward, in rebellious behavior, acting out, bullying. But I believe we also ought to worry about those kids who do not display the negative effects of this educational coercion.

They go along and get along, do their homework, get decent average grades, and feel disconnected from the flow of school. Do these kids put the blame in the right place? No. Not often. They don't know there is anyone to blame other than themselves.

We don't think enough about the loss of self-respect, sense of alienation, even depression, that this system engenders.

The purpose of learning is to get good grades. I sometimes hear the complaints of teachers about kids that care about grades more than they do about learning. "They say, 'Will this be on the test?' And when I say no, they tune out. What is with these kids?"

When kids are told to learn something they don't care about, why should they work to achieve more than minimally required?

Since we structure our system around grades and test scores, we send a clear signal: this is what's important. When kids try to skate along doing as little as required, they are responding: message received.

We see this most clearly in the "high-achievers," who try to accomplish a lot, take four AP courses and have lots of extra-curricular activities and hope to get into the "right" college.

My son once told me of a school assembly where one of his teachers stood on a stage and gave the students this message: "Do your homework! Study! Get good grades!" He wanted to yell, “Yeah but, like, what's my motivation?”

The getting of good grades – something that every parent wants their kids to do – is not a simple issue. There has been a mountain of research that demonstrated the adverse affect on learning that grades impose. If you have two groups of kids, and you tell one of them, "We're going to study this subject. There will be no test. Would you like the hard version or the easy version?" The answer is: The hard version. The second group is told. "We're going to study this subject. There will be a test. Would you like the hard version or the easy one?"

This little experiment has been repeated often in educational research. Group Two always chooses the easy version.

We think when we want kids to get good grades, that they will work, learn, reach, and grow. Turns out the quest for good grades means none of those things. It makes kids value a carrot instead of learning. They get a hard lesson when the leave school, get a job, or go to college.

I know that we all can point to those instances where kids worked hard at something for school, put themselves into it fully, and were happy to receive as their reward a big fat A, front and center, which is the mark of approval by the person in authority.

Chances are the project or paper is something the student really found enjoyable. There was something of intrinsic value about the work. It is also more than likely that the teacher was someone the student respects and wants approval from. This happens; a stopped clock is right twice a day, after all. Sometimes the conditions a student needs in order to produce good work converge.

I don't question the value of a good teacher-student relationship. Teachers should want to inspire kids to work hard, after all. What would happen if kids got to pick their teachers? Their topics of study? The ways in which they pursued their learning of that topic? I'd be ever so happy with a big A on top of a paper, in those circumstances. And how much greater would the happiness be if this paper, into which was put so much hard work, was put on a blog where it could be read and receive the feedback from a larger audience?

Students are not often given the time and resources to follow their own passions. They have only the carrot of the possible grade to get them through the stifling indifference of studying without heart. I have often heard the counter-argument: “I only learned so-and-so because they made me, and I loved it.” Fine and dandy, but if they make you and you don't love it you should feel free to drop it like a hot potato.

Forget everything you have ever heard about tough love, and the school of hard knocks, and not everything is supposed to be fun, and kids have to learn. Yes, adults have to do things they don't want to do. Sometimes the hit is mitigated by a paycheck, but sometimes it isn't. The ability to do that which is unpleasant happens over time; the older kids grow, the more of the world they come to understand. I contend that training courses for kids on the merits of suffering borders on cruelty.

However, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through their passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them.

When kids leave the land of high school, sometimes they get to college. Then they are exposed to the kind of rigorous work deserving of the name, and their unpreparedness for the work can be a bit of a shock.

And who did this to them? Who did this to the kids unable to perform well in the work world? We did. Adults. Those of us who work to perpetuate an unhealthy, harmful system of education.

We structure school in such a way that students have to contort themselves, body and mind, to fit into its tight spaces. We ignore the drive to learn that exists inside every child. We make them chase after carrots, as though they had real value, until they find out that the world that waits for them has no use for carrots, and would prefer students and employees who innovate, make connections, ask good questions, think independently and work well with others.

The results of the damaging practices of public school on the kids we are turning out into the world are clear.

Why are we so stumped at how to respond to the sinking of the U.S. in the global scale of competitiveness? Why do we subject our kids to more tests, more grades, less flexibility, and no lattitude for the innate differences between kids?

We're going from bad to worse. We need to insist on schools that value children for what is inside them. We need to stop planning, processing, talking, arguing and hashing it out. School is harming our children. We need the transformation to be big, and we need it to happen now.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What is our name?

Suppose a group of education thinkers and doers decided to band together around the education we'd like to see for our kids: the real pie-in-the-sky vision of what public funding for education can do. We're not pushing a particular school or model, but around how we think kids learn best, and what's needed to provide for it.

It's not "passion," because that only provides part of the story. It's the culture change in schools, brought about by respecting all kids for who they are.

It means the end to test-based accountability.

It means the end of batch-teaching.

It might mean the end of the classroom as we know it.

So it's a combination of political and cultural changes, both being important. A sea change in the focus of school, hardly even recognizable as public education.

What is our language? What is our name?

There are many names out there, emphasizing one aspect or another of this kind of education. There's passion-driven learning. The strengths movement. Democratic education. Free schools.

We run into the problem of the misuse of the language, the Orwellian, Bizarro-world of "education reform" that brings us stuff like, "Students First," Michelle Rhee's organization. You need a scorecard to keep track of who is for what.

Let's take back the language. Can we find an "umbrella" name under which we can all stand?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Culture of Change

What does it mean to create a culture of change in a school? A district, a state? Is it even something worth talking about? Does it mean the same thing everywhere? Can you take change in one district or building, pick up the lessons and apply them directly to another building?

Is there a school of thought on how and where to place change so that it has the most chance of spreading to where it's needed?

How am I defining the culture of change? There are institutions that do things the same way, over and over again, and keep getting bad results, add more and more of what isn't working, watch things still not change, that can be called intransigent, entrenched. Stuck. I'm a school board member, a parent of schoolchildren; I haven't worked in a school building or central office, so I don't know the subtleties. I do know what groups of people do and I have read Lord of the Flies. Introducing a culture of change in an institution can be difficult, even impossible.

I've written before that the main reason I oppose a charter here in RSU 3 has to do with the culture of change. My fear is that because of the difficulties of entrenchment, the institution won't ever change, and that those who want change will take the opportunity to start something new on the outside. It's easier to make change there, start fresh, no bad history, just good energy and new ideas. Charters promise this. "We'll show you how good it works, so you'll want to do it too!" But the charter started fresh: no entrenchment, no history. There's a reason why very few public schools have adopted models that were tested and worked well in a stand-alone school. The problem is the entrenchment; the problem is the lack of a culture of change.

So why bother with the change that is so hard? Because after you create the new, clean, energetic and exciting school, the old institution will be left just the same. For all the kids who are not being homeschooled, privately schooled or enrolled in charter schools, the unchanged institution remains. I don't think that possibility should be tolerable to those of us agitating for school change. I can't put my energy behind a movement for change that has, in its design, left some kids out.

When you make a change in an institution, you start small. Maybe teachers start something in their classrooms, maybe they talk about it, kids get together at lunch and talk about a new way of doing things, talk about how they are pursuing their passion in a new class. Parents find out about it, they want it for their kids, things get around. As Arlo Guthrie says, pretty soon, they might think it's a movement.

So here is my question: what is the culture of change to you, and how important is it? How many different ways are there to introduce change to an entrenched system? Am I right to be against the opening of a charter in my district, because I don't want to "quarantine" change to a building where the effects of it have no chance of leaking out into the rest of the system? At the same time, it saps money and energy from the mother ship, weakening its ability to make change of its own. I can't get behind it. I dont' want to make change for some, with the vague idea of making change for the rest "in the fullness of time."

I'm asking for input, Stephanie! I'm asking those of us working on this issue to come forward with their experience with how change happens. Please re-post and re-tweet; send folks here. I will listen and change my ideas about this little charter school, if the message is that I'm wrong about change.
March 28, 2012

Today I'll ask a slightly different question: Can adults change the culture of an institution in such a way that makes school more relevant, makes learning more real, to students, without including the voice of students?

What mistakes, what wrongheaded approaches to change will come from this ageist and dismissive attitude toward young people?

Yes, it's a leading question. But WHY can we NEVER feel safe just asking kids, many kids, every day, WHAT DO YOU THINK?


Monday, January 2, 2012

About the Ban

An interesting conversation took place this morning between my daughter, her two middle-school-age friends, my husband and I. It was about cell phones in school; the general complaint from the girls was about the ban on using cell phones, even at lunchtime.

The conversation turned to the ban in classrooms, and my husband, who I have apparently failed to bring up to speed on cell phone issues, brought up what he felt to be an issue of common courtesy: that kids should have cell phones turned off when in class, and their attention turned to the person who is trying to teach them. Reasonable, right?

My riposte: if a teacher can't hold someone's interest enough to keep their eyes away from their iPhones, what are you accomplishing by banning them? At first he was held up by the common courtesy thing, but I hammered away at the whole give-and-get-respect thing, and if he wasn't a quivering mass at the end of it....

Nah, he wasn't a quivering mass; he still holds that until the great education transformation,when all kids are pursuing their passions in and out of the classroom, we should still ask kids to be courteous to the teacher by leaving cell phones off.