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.

Monday, August 15, 2016

I Love Audio Books!

Book Riot has a lament by a new mother here about the difficulty of finding time to read with a new baby. The comments offer plenty of suggestions about pillows, and using kindles, but I didn't see any that offered the really great, perfect solution.

Audio books! You can download the audible app and listen on your phone. And if you put your phone in reduced battery mode, it doesn't even drain the battery much. When you're walking the baby outside you can plug in earphones. In the house, just stick your phone in your pocket and turn up the volume. A book read by a good reader is an amazing joy. I wish I had discovered audio books when my children were babies. Now all of my household chores slide by almost unnoticed while I'm listening to one of my favourite books.

I find books that are slightly comic are the most fun--authors like Jennifer Crusie and Georgette Heyer. I'm listening to Faking It by Jennifer Crusie now, and I'm laughing out loud sometimes. Audio books are so much fun. And being able to listen to them on a phone means they can go anywhere with you--way better than the cassettes I used to use, and then the CD's.

How Do Kids Learn Empathy?

Salon magazine has an interesting article here about a practice in Danish schools of setting aside an hour every week for a classroom discussion of problems or issues, with a treat, such as cake, to enjoy afterwards.

The purpose of this practice is to teach kids to feel empathy for each other, the idea being that when they hear of each other's problems and issues they will become more sympathetic.  Many of the comments, however, noted that when they were in a group like this, the group often ended up abusing certain kids. 

I think anyone running a group like this needs special training so the group does not devolve into an abusive, blame certain kids kind of exercise.  I prefer that schools teach common courtesy, which involves being polite to everyone, and not shutting certain kids out.

I've always noticed in my many years of teaching that many of my most empathetic kids were the avid readers.  I think continually being pulled into different narrators' viewpoints enlarged their own.

Teachers are Mandated Reporters

The Washington Post has a heartbreaking story here about a seven-year-old boy who was so hungry he was trying to sell his teddy bear for food money.  When the police investigated they found four more older boys also living in the home, which was filthy, and filled with trash and empty liquor bottles.  It's difficult to read the story without getting tears in your eyes.

 As a high school teacher for almost forty years, I'm wondering how this could have gone on for any length of time.  Surely there would have been some sign of abuse or neglect on at least one of those children.  Teachers are mandated reporters.  Did no one see anything?  A couple of the boys were old enough to be in high school.  I am never surprised that abused or neglected kids don't speak up themselves, but by high school they usually have friends, and I know that I usually learned about abusive homes from friends of the victims.  Teachers out there:  Keep your eyes open!  And don't assume that if you just tell Guidance that a report will also go out to the police.  Call the police yourself.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Holding Kids Back

The Washington Post reports here on a new policy in Florida:  students whose parents refused to let them take the state mandated standardised tests in third grade will not be promoted to fourth grade, no matter how academically competent the kids are--and some are honor roll students.  I had to read the article twice this morning just to believe it.

Wow.  Talk about a really unbelievably stupid policy.  New research shows that holding back failing students just makes them more likely to fail and eventually drop out.  And this study was done with students who had trouble achieving.  Imagine how demoralizing it will be for students who have worked hard all year, gotten good grades, and are then blocked from advancing to the next grade.

Plus, of course, it costs a substantial amount of money to have many students repeating a grade.  The school district will have to hire more teachers, and build more classrooms. 

And, of course, the main point is that the best way to find out how well students are reading is to find out how much they are reading.  Only kids with a love and habit of reading acquire sophisticated reading skills.  Schools should worry about building a love of reading in their students and stand with parents on the destructiveness of multiple standardised tests.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Most Important Reason for Reading

The Washington Post has an article in their Health section here that describes that describes new research showing that readers live longer than non-readers.  I was glad to see it, although I don't think adding a few years to the end of your life is the most important reason for reading.

The best reason for reading is that it enriches your life.  And it certainly enriches your children’s lives.  Kids who are avid readers read better, write better, concentrate better, and do better in all of their subjects, across the board.  I taught high school English for almost forty years, and found that it didn’t even matter much what my students read, as long as they had a love and habit of reading.  Many of my best readers, as kids, read comic books, fantasy and romance and mystery series, and much popular fiction.  A love of reading is the best educational gift you can give to your children.

Should Grandparents Babysit?

The New York Times has an interesting article here on the kinds of issues that arise over the topic of grandparents babysitting.  Be sure to look at the comments.  Personally, I think anytime we care for someone else, our own life gets richer and more satisfying.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The New York Times Jumps in on Getting Kids to Read

The New York Times has a good editorial here about the importance of getting your children to read during their summer vacation.  My only real criticism of it is that the author devotes much time to trying to figure out if it's okay to bribe children to read.  I wish she had thought to mention that what is really important is being willing to spend money to buy books that kids can love.  And the rules some parents had for their children made me uneasy, like requiring that all of the reading was in books that were on their grade level, and that they hadn't read before.

I devoted much of my 37 years of teaching high school English to helping my students become avid readers.  And I paid attention to the avid readers who walked into my classroom.  I found out this about them:  they almost always developed their love and habit of reading through series books, like the Harry Potter books, or the fantasy books by Rick Riordan, or the Big Nate graphic novels.   Their parents were willing and able to spend money for their books, since libraries rarely had all of the books in the particular series they loved.

Ms KJ Dell'antonia is right about the importance of reading.  My avid readers read better, wrote better, and did better in all of their classes.  

So do everything you can to help your children love reading.  Just don't expect that they will love the same books that you did.  I really believe that all reading is good, and that any kind of reading eventually leads to more reading.  My students who loved comic books and mysteries and fantasies and romances as children were the only ones who read well enough to love Shakespeare in high school. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Reason to Buy a House Rather than Rent

The NYTimes has an article here giving the advantages of buying or renting a house.  The article looks at the choice purely in financial terms, but I think they've missed one of the most important reasons for buying a home:  children.

A huge benefit to buying a house, if you have  children, is that now they can stay in the same neighborhood and the same school system.  Moving can be very hard on children, and in my thirty plus years of teaching high school, I saw a number of my students fall apart when their families moved, whereas those who had grown up in the same small town were able to keep close friends for years.  Plus, a stable school situation is usually a great benefit for children with learning issues.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

J.K. Rowling is Back!

The New York Times has a story here about the new play that J.K. Rowling has written using the characters from her Harry Potter series.  The comments I found especially interesting, as so many writers told about their love or the series, and describe how it brought them to a love of books.  There was the occasional snotty comment of someone who is clearly angry that a children's book author gets so much attention and acclaim.  The post by Peter Giordano is typical of them, calling Rowling's books trashy and calling her a hack.  I just had to respond to his posting, as I think people who think like he does have done more to cause a reading crisis than all of the televisions and video games in the country:

Oh Peter, Peter.  I wonder if you've actually read the books you are so confidently writing off.  I was a high school English teacher when they were coming out, and I read them, since my students were falling in love with them.  I found them to be very well-written children's literature--fresh and funny and full of interesting themes and characters.  Plus they brought an untold number of children to a love of reading.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Perhaps We Should Lay off Buying All Pink Clothes for Little Girls

Russell More has an interesting editorial here in the Salt Lake Tribune giving the religious argument against transgendered bathrooms.  His main point is that he believes God has created each of us to be a certain sex, and we must learn to live gracefully within the sex God means us to be.  While I think there are many problems with that as a rationale for public school policy, he does, I think, make one good observation.

This is it:  the idea that many boys and girls are not interested in, nor comfortable with, traditional gender toys and roles.  Perhaps if we stopped dressing all little girls in pink, and buying them dolls, fewer would think they were really meant to be boys.  And if boys were allowed by their families and culture to be mostly interested in dancing and cooking, fewer would think they were meant to be girls.  Of course, there are true transgendered individuals, and I do believe we must accommodate them as best we can.  I was a teacher for 37 years, and see no problem with transgendered young people using bathrooms they are comfortable in.  All of the ones I knew, without exception, were gentle, timid people.  Impossible to see them as predators.

Reading as a Help for Clumsiness?

The 'Well" blog in the NY Times has an interesting column on clumsiness in children here.  The main idea is that there can be many reason for children acting in an uncoordinated way, and the author, Dr. Klass, gives several good suggestions of steps a parent should take.

I think this is an excellent overview of ways of dealing with an uncoordinated child.  As a teacher for 37 years, I would just add that it might help to find some children's stories about creatures who are clumsy.  You could start by searching amazon for "clumsy children's books".   I tried that and several good suggestions came up.

With my students, I found that it wasn't the necessarily the most coordinated, or smartest, or best looking children who were the most popular.  Rather, it was the kids who felt all right about themselves, and truly liked and were interested in their classmates.  Some of the experiences necessary for this mindset can come through reading.  Reading makes everything better.