Thursday, November 21, 2013

How to Make Students Want to Work Hard

The New York Times Motherlode has a column here today with different viewpoints on how to make students care about working hard.

I raised three children, and taught high school English for 37 years.  Here is what I saw:

Almost always, the more pressure you put on a child to do well, the less effective that pressure becomes over the years.  I had high school students who did almost nothing, but told me that their parents were successful getting them to work in the early grades.  But by high school that oversight and pressure had so sapped any internal motivation that the kids stopped working almost completely.  The only exception I saw to this were kids with serious learning disabilities who really did need day to day help in coping with academic demands.

The only solution I ever saw work for a child whose own motivation had been so eviscerated by parental control was to make sure that child was in as nurturing and interesting an academic situation as possible, and then stand back. 

While it’s true your child will not, then, have the grades to get into a competitive college, unless he develops internal motivation he won’t succeed in college anyway.  And it’s much cheaper to have a child fail high school courses than to fail college courses.  I’ve known kids whose parents pulled them through high school with pressure and punishments and tutors, and then had to watch them fail out of college—often after paying twenty or thirty thousand for that first college year.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Nursing Home Care

The New York Times has a column here discussing the increasing presence of video cameras in the rooms of nursing home patients.  The cameras have caught some shocking instances of abuse.  But I think the problem is much wider and deeper than a few instances of severe abuse (horrible as they are).

My mother was in a nursing home for over two years before she died.  I visited her every day.  These are my impressions:

I’m guessing that in her nursing home over seventy-five percent of the patients had some form of dementia.  While these patients could still walk around, they were in a locked ward.  But as soon as they were wheel-chair bound, they were moved down to the regular wards.  I’m sure at least half—probably many more—of the residents on my mother’s ward had severe dementia.  

While I know there are occasional horror stories, that these videos show, another huge problem is just the general level of care.  When you have so many patients who can’t complain because of dementia the care is likely to become careless and slapdash.  When you add in the low wages and difficult working conditions for the aides, I think it becomes a certainty that the care will be substandard.  For example, it was an everyday thing that when my mother would turn on her buzzer for some needed help--as she was almost completely helpless--an aide would come in, turn off the buzzer (so the timer would show it was answered right away), and then immediately leave without helping her.

A huge problem.  I don’t know the solution.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When an Autistic Child Wanders Off

The New York Times has a column here on the problem of autistic children who wander off.  Apparently as many as 49 percent of autistic children wander at some point.  An Amber alert can only be used for a child who is abducted.  The column calls for a national program on how to prevent wandering in autistic children.

Yesterday in a mall I saw a man, hunched over, talking loudly to himself.  The talk didn't seem to make any sense.  I didn't do anything, feeling that I had no right to intrude on him.

But now I'm thinking I was wrong.  He probably was disabled in some way, and perhaps had wandered off from a caretaker.

So here's my suggestion:  how about a public awareness campaign with instructions on what to do when seeing a clearly disabled child or adult wandering on their own.  Perhaps we could be instructed to call 911--I almost did that.  But I'm always afraid of overloading the 911 centers with non-serious calls.

I think all of the other suggestions are valuable, but giving the public an easy way to alert authorities when seeing a wandering disabled person might be very helpful.  Of course there would be false alarm calls, but surely these are less harmful than the dangers an autistic child or adult might encounter on their own.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Letter-Writing Vrs. E-mail

The New York Times has an op-ed piece here lamenting “The Death of Letter-Writing.”  Apparently, according to the column, famous writers set aside a portion of every day to write letters.

As a high school English teacher for almost 40 years, I have to say I think e-mail is a fabulous invention.  Just as the top readers I taught were kids who early fell in love with reading, and read everything they could find, my top writers were kids who did a lot of writing just for fun.  They wrote poems in chemistry class, and notes to their friends in all of their classes.

E-mail is this kind of daily bread-and-butter writing, just as reading newspapers or John Grisham is daily bread-and-butter reading.  People who are avid e-mail writers develop a fluency and voice and style that spills over to their more formal writing. 

And practically, it’s wonderful to have so much information (reservations, directions, times to meet, etc.) in an easily searchable e-mail database rather than in an overflowing file cabinet or hastily scribbled notes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lexile Scores

Oh my.  Apparently the new thing in teaching reading is the Lexile score.  This is a score that supposedly shows how complex the book it, and so at what grade it should be taught.  An English professor in The New Republic argues against the use of the scores here and points out how ridiculous they are.  For example, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway is rated as an easier book than Charlotte's Web.  Hemingway is writing about the lost generation after WWI, and the main character, who wanders through Spain (as I remember), is impotent because of a war injury.  Charlotte's Web is about a talking spider.  Which one would you give to a third grader? At any rate, I'm afraid everyone is missing the main point about teaching reading these days.

I taught high school English for almost forty years.  Here is what is wrong with the whole Lexile model.

Sophisticated readers acquire their advanced reading skills through wide, avid reading.  There is no shortcut.  And avid readers become avid readers when they fall in love with books, and figure out how to find that next book they will love.  I think it was Katha Pollitt who first used the term “independent reading life.”   The best readers I had in my English classes were always, always, the kids with an independent reading life.

Children don’t develop an independent reading life when someone is always handing them a book and telling them to read it.  First of all, the odds are great that the student simply won’t read the assigned book.  At least half of my students told me, over and over again, both to my face and in anonymous surveys, that they almost never did all of the assigned reading.  Some kids did none of it.  There are all kinds of ways to avoid assigned reading, and my students knew all of them.

Secondly, when you are always just handing a book to a kid and saying “Read this,” he doesn’t develop the interest or ability to find books himself—crucial for developing advanced reading skills. 

You want to raise reading scores?  Open up classrooms to student-selected reading.  Help students find out what kinds of books they enjoy.  Allow time in class for silent reading.  Reward kids who read a lot.