Friday, October 14, 2016

How to Build a Learning Culture in Schools

The American Engerprise website has an interesting article here on how to improve schools.  The main idea is that schools need to become centers of learning. We need to build a learning culture. Well, yes.  But how do you make that happen?

We need to turn kids into avid readers.  Simple as that.  I taught high school English for 37 years, in public, private, and parochial schools across the country.  The top students were always the avid readers, as they could read better, write better, concentrate better, and had wider frames of reference that make all learning easier.  Schools have turned what should be a pleasurable, exciting pastime into a dreary parade of work sheets, comprehension questions, and vocabulary words.  Flood the schools with interesting reading material and let the kids read.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Heart of School Reform

The Ny Times has an interesting article here  about the ruling of a Connecticut judge on the state financing of education.  He ruling commented that the problem isn’t just financing, and he noted all of the school reforms that haven’t worked. 

I agree with him, that the school reforms put in place are not working.  But I disagree that the main problems are things like teacher evaluation systems or charter schools.  I think the problem is much deeper, and it is primarily one of reading curriculum.

As a high school English teacher for 37 years, I am convinced that the education crisis is a reading crisis.  The students I got into my classroom who were fast, efficient, perceptive readers were also the excellent writers.  They were also the students who excelled in all of their classes.  

Why aren't more kids avid readers?  Because myths about reading are deeply entrenched in our culture.  Here is one of the deadliest:  Kids should read only good literature.  False.  My avid readers had a history of reading comic books, serial childrens' books (like the Babysitter's Club), and genre literature, like fantasy and science fiction and mysteries.  

Most kids are turned off to reading by what passes for "reading" in schools:  vocabulary tests, answering comprehension questions, reading "approved" literature.

Until our schools give students plenty of time to read any kind of books they like--and help them find these books--scores will stay low.  Few kids make time for avid reading at home anymore.  We have to support it in our schools.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Should Special Ed. Students be Mainstreamed?

The Huffington Post has an essay here by a mother explaining that her two special ed. children--who both have intellectual disabilities--do better in small, special ed. classrooms rather than mainstreamed into regular classes.

She discusses an issue in education that is very interesting, and very topical.  It's a little discussed issue that special ed. costs are a huge part of any school budget, and are rising rapidly, especially now, I would guess, with all of the children on the autism spectrum.   The original federal law said that children should be mainstreamed whenever possible.  This was written in because years ago children who were disciplinary problems were warehoused in spec. classrooms, and didn't receive much in the way of an education.  All of that is changed now.  Most children on ed plans can be taught in regular classrooms, often with the help of aides.  But some children who have severe disabilities do better in small classrooms set up especially for them, with a special ed. teacher.  The problem is that separate classrooms are very expensive, and school districts often fight having to move children to such a classroom, especially if the district is too small to have an appropriate classroom, and has to pay to have the student educated in a private school.

Personally, I think we pay now or we pay later.  I think every child deserves the very best education possible, whether that's in a mainstream classroom, or a separate one.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to Have a Free Marketplace of Ideas

The New York Times has an article here describing a letter sent by the University of Chicago to incoming students notifying them that the university would not sanction the creation of "safe spaces," trigger warnings, or the cancelling of speakers who held controversial ideas.  If the comment section is a good cross-section of the readers' opinions, it seems most people agree with the university.

I agree as well, but when I taught high school English, I explained to my students that I wanted to have a free marketplace of ideas for our discussions, but to make that work, the students needed to commit to maintaining a civility of discourse, i. e. no personal attacks.

That worked very well.  I remember a time when a student told the class that AIDS was God's punishment for men having sex with apes.  She was from a very religious background.  I held my breath, but my students carefully, and clearly and respectfully explained to her what we knew about the origin of AIDS.  On this girl's class evaluation at the end of the term, she wrote that the best thing about the class were the discussions.

So yes: free marketplace of ideas.  But I really think you need a civility of discourse to make that work.  We are in the middle of a presidential election now, and sometimes debates seem to be nothing but personal attacks.  Words like "loser" and "racist" are flung about and, I think,  poison any ability to have a thoughtful discussion of ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Freud and ACE's

The New York Times has another article about ACE's here.   It is about the things different communities are doing to help children recover  from ACE's (adverse childhood experiences).  Some of these programs are even being run in prisons, although it has been difficult getting them established there.

I am so happy to see these programs, but puzzled that ACE's is presented as a new idea.  W.H. Auden has a wonderful poem, "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" in which he notes that Freud " . . . wasn't clever at all/he merely told the unhappy Present to recite the Past/like a poetry lesson till sooner/or later it faltered at the line where/long ago the accusations had begun."

It's sad that our culture has drifted so far from Freud's major insight, which I think was that what happens to children will influence their whole lives.  I'm so glad that the ACE movement is bringing us  back to it, but sad that it has taken so long.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Problem with Assigned Reading

A website called Read it Forward has a great essay here on why the author won't borrow or lend books.  What I loved about it was his gripe that when friends gave him books to read, he never wanted to read them because he was going along his own reading path, and this book would interrupt it.

This is what I saw in my high school English classrooms.  For my money, the most deadly thing about English curricula is all of the required books kids are given to read.  It would be so much better if they were given the freedom, and help, to start establishing their own reading paths.  Assigned reading tends to drive out all other reading, and many kids don't even do the assigned reading.  So they read nothing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Value of Community Initiatives

There is an excellent article here in the New York Times about how community initiatives can help children with high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores.  The author, David Bornstein, gives a good deal of background information on how these initiatives have been funded, and the kinds of community changes they have caused.  The heart of the programs is that local residents identify and lead these changes.  The one I loved was the community that helped their residents who were victims of domestic violence by having the entrance to the shelter go through the local police station.  This sent the message that the police were going to protect victims.  I strongly recommend your reading this whole article.

Here is my "reading" take on it:  Besides a high ACE score, the other thing to pay attention to is the rate of functional literacy in children.  There are many studies on literacy rates, but a blog article by Mike Tikkanen quotes Rubin Rosario's statistics that  show that 85 percent of juveniles who come in contact with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.

I don't know anything about Rosario's work, but I do know that my almost forty years in a high school classroom teaching English make me a believer in them.  The kids in trouble were so often the kids who cold barely read.  Poor reading scores ensure that kids will have trouble in all of their classes.  Kids who rarely read also lack the experience of seeing the world through the eyes of different narrators, and so become hardened in their own often dysfunctional view of how the world works.

The solution to this problem is much like the local initiative solutions that Bornstein describes:  well-funded school libraries, curricula that is shaped to be interesting to the local students, parent literacy outreach programs, etc.  National tests and curicula just throw cold water over local efforts to turn kids into avid readers.