Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Public Home-school?

Writing entries for this blog has taught me something. I'd rather be doing than writing. So I appeal to anyone who might pause to read this post to help me answer a feasibility question. My wife and I have been discussing opening a publicly-funded charter school organized on a home-school model. Here's the pitch:

We believe that many of the students in the middle years of schooling (grades 4-8) are not succeeding because they need a different kind of environment. Our intention is to provide the warm personal attention, hands-on activities, and flexibility of schedule that home-school parents can provide; but also adhere to the curriculum, testing, and legal requirements that govern public schools. Two certified teachers with a maximum of twenty students meeting in a leased home: in essence, a home-school surrogate for parents whose schedule or expertise prevents them from doing it themselves.

What do you think? I look forward to your comments or questions!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Who Gets Left Behind?

Joey and Lauren---two of my wife's special ed students when she returned to the teaching profession several years ago. Their stories always come to mind whenever I read or hear about the successes or failures of No Child Left Behind.

With plenty of enthusiasm and idealism my wife would plan activities to engage Joey and Lauren. And day after day she would come home frustrated. The materials that Joey and Lauren could handle were at the 1st grade level and much too childish for these 8th grade adolescents. But the 8th grade math and reading materials were incomprehensible to them. So she began to look for alternatives.

Lauren liked shopping but couldn't remember the values of the coins and bills and how to exchange them. My wife instituted Friday afternoon store. The students could earn money during the week for their effort and progress and then spend it or save it on Friday. The students rotated through the jobs of banker, clerk, customer, and stocker.

Joey liked cars. The store soon contained models of cars. Joey had a knack for putting the models together without the instructions, but as the year went by began to appreciate the hints that might be found in the diagrams. When my wife discovered that Joey was due to begin driver's ed during the summer, The Rules of the Road became his reading textbook.

As the year progressed, my wife learned that Lauren's dad was a butcher and was in negotiation for purchasing a small market. Lauren's mom reported that Lauren's whole attitude towards school had improved. She was even practicing making change at home.

Joey's parents preferred to avoid the school altogether. Joey had indicated that his dad enjoyed his work as an excavator operator and Joey hoped to do the same. But the saddest day was when Joey's diagnosis came back with a neurological condition that resulted in very poor long-term memory retention. My wife had observed this many times. Joey would rehearse something like basic math facts on a Tuesday to the point of 80% or better accuracy and then return on Wednesday to a retention score of 20% or lower. Although he maintained a fairly cheerful attitude on most days, it was very frustrating. One day, late in the school year, Joey turned to my wife with just the beginning of a tear and said, "I just wish I could learn like everyone else!"

Your reaction at this point might be "how sweet" that my wife would spend all this extra time and money to try to connect with Joey and Lauren in a creative way. Or "how sad" that Joey and Lauren couldn't function at a higher level as teenagers. Or "very mad" that the school system hadn't done more to help these kids at an earlier age. But my biggest frustration is that the current climate in schools, led by government policy and administration response to it, is to shove the freedom that my wife had to see a situation and respond to it completely out of the school day.

Three years later, my wife has been forced by school administration to spend that last hour of the day on test preparation. For six weeks! I doubt that the students who read at a 1st or 2nd grade level are going to be able to engage with the "college prep" level material found on the tests. And I am fairly sure with all of the statistical reminders of how dumb they are that not many of these students are going home and telling their parents how much more they enjoy school. More than likely, they are plotting their escape---to drop out!

Are we so fearful of our children's future that there is no time for creative play? Do we expect every one of our children will be a doctor, an engineer, or a computer programmer? Is going to college the magic answer for future success? Are we too concerned with six figure salaries to honor honest work as a butcher or excavator? Do we think we will outsmart the Chinese and the Mexicans who are willing to do the work for less money? Do we rely too much on institutions to solve our problems for us? Maybe, just maybe, in the case of the thousands of Joeys and Laurens around us, we should just celebrate who they are. Coax them to try harder when we can. Encourage them when things look impossible. And let them be children!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Listening to my wife!

I am lucky enough to have a spouse that makes helpful suggestions. As a result I rewrote my previous post on beliefs. So here are my ten commandments---make that, suggestions---for improved parenting and teaching:

1. Most things that children (and adults) learn well are tied strongly to the emotional context in which they were learned. That’s why when we try to recall how we learned something, we remember loved ones, favorite teachers, or vivid experiences. Even if the source of the knowledge is neutral, there is an emotional attachment to the material. The reason I remember who played shortstop for the 1959 Chicago White Sox, for example.

2. Learning, as the learner experiences it, is often chaotic. What we want to know is rarely available in the real world in a neat and orderly sequence. It is more like a quest or an adventure of the mind. Think of your favorite hobby and how you acquired the bits and pieces of what you needed to know to accomplish your goals.

3. The preoccupation of adults with pre-digesting information, deciding what should and should not be available to children, protecting them from so-called “bad” information, and then trying to present it to them in a neat and orderly package (a curriculum) is a waste of time! It comforts the adult, but is not effective with the child! The alternative to this approach is to use something called the “teachable moment.” The story of my grandson and the dragon in the basement was meant to be an example and I intend to come back to this idea over and over again in future posts. If you are interested in a brief description check out this link:

4. It’s frighteningly true: children learn what you do, not what you say! Over and over again, I observe parents and teachers who think they can get away with just telling children what to do, say, or think. It doesn’t work! Or it does work until you leave the room or they grow up. If the choice to behave in a certain way or learn something is not in the learner’s head and heart, it won’t stick. Understanding this can dramatically change the way we spend time with children and what they learn from it.

5. We are all role models for every child we encounter whether we intend to or not. The catch is: they get to decide what behavior, interests, and attitudes they will emulate, not us! If you have grown kids, you get to see little examples of this all the time. My son, for example, compulsively checks a locked door two or three times before moving on. Hmmm, where have I seen that behavior before?

6. There are no short cuts to self-esteem! (I prefer the old-fashioned term, self-confidence). To feel good about oneself requires risk and effort, but not always achievement. I have been a slow learner in this regard. After hundreds of experiences, it is finally dawning on me that the joy of life is in the risking…and the trying…and the internal pride in my own effort---not the end result! The tricky part for parents is to know when it is safe and appropriate for their child to take a risk. It seems to me that there is an art to this and it takes practice.

7. Children's play is vital to dynamic learning! If you spend time observing children while they play, you will notice how much of their time is spent imitating adult activities. This is an amazingly safe way for a child to take risks. And I suggest that if the kind of play a parent or teacher observes is alarming (such as violent video games), this is a major clue to listen to why this activity is so attractive. Banning the activity only postpones the opportunity to find out what's behind it.

8. The frustration of a child not doing what we want them to usually leads to a long succession of suggested threats and/or rewards. Frequently, these rewards and punishments become impractical to enforce. Children catch on to the trap adults set for themselves in a heartbeat. It's really simple, take the time to think about if the praise or threat is honest and realistic. The secret is in the power of your love and attention for the child. As parents and teachers practice toning down their rhetoric, they often learn that most children will do what you want them to because you want them to. ...This does not necessarily include teenagers (grin).

9. “We ain’t all geniuses!” Particularly as parents (or grandparents), we want to believe our children are the smartest, the fastest, the toughest, the prettiest, etc.! Fine. But doesn’t truth matter? Kids know when someone is smarter than they are. Or a better basketball player. We would do our children many more favors if we modeled an honest assessment of our own strengths and weaknesses and discussed strategies for how to make the best of them. In my opinion, the No Child Left Behind legislation is an example of an entire culture declaring that we all learn at the same pace and in the same way. Shame, shame, shame!

10. In the end, the only one responsible for what is learned, how much is learned, and what values are applied to one's own behavior is the child. We can hold teachers responsible for knowing a subject matter, behaving in a professional matter, and modeling effective attitudes toward learning. We can hold parents and schools responsible for providing for the safety and physical well-being of their children. But we cannot exclude the child from taking responsibility for the results of their own choices. That is disaster in the making!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Dragon in the Basement

“Love of life!” has been the response from several readers when asked what they most wanted for their children. And I agree, but wonder where that love comes from. Are we born with it? Is it magic? Is it God? I’m not enough of a theologian, philosopher, or psychologist to attempt to find all these answers. I just look for simple ways to urge the children I know to discover a love of life---which brings me to the subject of Monster Repellent.

I heard on the news this morning that a mom in the Western U.S. has started marketing a harmless spray to enable little ones to ward off monsters. Cute idea. It reminded me of my grandson, Evan, who just turned 3 last month. He believes that a dragon lives in the basement, a very scary dragggonnn. You should know that my son and daughter-in-law spent six months renovating the basement into a giant playroom with sky-blue walls and comfy green carpet. And most of the spiders are dead. Nevertheless, Evan needs big sister, the dog, mom, dad, grandpa---anyone and everyone---to walk down the stairs with him. All the while, mentioning that a dragon lives down there.

During my last visit I slept in the guest bedroom, which was also in the basement, behind the playroom. Every morning, Evan and Maddie (big sister) and Phoebe (the dog) would creep down the stairs to see if I was awake yet. Then Evan would warn me that a dragon lived down there and I would reassure him that I hadn’t seen a dragon. We began playing with the many toys scattered about. Then Evan snuggled close to me and his sister and asked us to turn off the lights, which we did. Evan shhh’d us and whispered, “I think he’s coming!!!” And then snuggle even closer. And then giggle. And then laugh. And then ask us to turn the lights back on. We repeated this little game at least a dozen times over three days.

I tell this story not just because grandpas like to tell stories about their grandchildren, but because of how impressed I was that Evan chose to face his fear of the dragon. Isn’t that what we read about dealing with fear. Pick a safe situation, face the fear, and hold hands with somebody you love. What could be better!

I am concerned that too often adults rush to prevent children from experiencing fear, instead of looking for ways to face the fear and conquer it. Every time I can recall facing a fearful situation and getting through it, I can remember the tremendous feeling of confidence and well being that followed. I saw that happening for Evan and thought what a great rehearsal for the challenges to come and the “dragons” we face as adults.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It Worked for Us

My wife surprised me last week with her response to my question, “What, specifically, do you want for your children?” Her answer, “I want my 8th grade math students to be able to use a ruler!” Not what I was expecting. A lengthy discussion followed as to how anyone could spend seven years in school and not learn how to use a ruler. I mean, seriously! I rambled on about how sterile school classrooms are with their five rows of five desks, one teacher---25 students, no time for projects, etc., etc. And she said, “But it worked for us! We know how to use a ruler and we went to school in the same sterile environment.” ...or did we?

So I asked her, “Name any occasion, any year, any teacher, any activity in which you remember learning how to use a ruler!” She confessed---no memory of any. Then I asked, “How about at home?” She followed with fond memories of her grandmother teaching her how to sew and her dad showing her how he drew house plans. This prompted my only memory of using a ruler. In third grade, when I was a new student, at a new school, a boy in my class gave me an old beat-up ruler as a gift. I ran home that afternoon excited to tell my parents how cool it was that someone in my class would give me a ruler. Soon afterwards, my father took me outside and gave me an hour-long lecture on sex, and bad words, and being careful about who I played with---until my mom drew him aside and pointed out that I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about. Apparently, as was explained to me years later, the word, f@#k, was carved into the back of my “gift.”

So what’s the point? Well, this might be a stretch, but I think it’s about connections. Learning occurs in a context. It does not happen divorced from the emotions of the moment. It’s more powerfully remembered as a part of a project. The mood and attitude of the people you’re with affect the outcome.

So my wife and I started discussing how she might be able to create activities with rulers that would have a meaning beyond finishing a worksheet. And homework assignments that would encourage family members to include their child the next time they measure for new drapes.

Oops, that’s if they have time after NECAP testing and football practice…

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Passing the Torch

I am a retired educator, but not a retired parent. Actually, as I am experiencing it, I can retire from the chores of both---but not the caring for either. In response to my endless complaining about the ideas we are currently following as parents, teachers, and decision-makers, my daughter has been encouraging me to start a blog. After six months and dozens of drafts, I’ve been stuck. …until yesterday.
We were on the phone and I confessed my lack of progress. I expected that subtle tone of disappointment. Instead, she cheerily offered another suggestion for becoming unstuck. That’s when it hit me. She had become the grownup and I was acting like the kid who didn’t want to do his homework. Whoa, I wasn’t prepared for this! But isn’t this exactly what I have been working towards for her entire lifetime? Independence, competence, a sense of responsibility, caring for others…I am one proud papa!
If you are anything like me, you do not measure what you want for your child in test scores or “Annual Yearly Progress.” When asked the question, many parents respond with the tried and true: success and/or happiness. And in these troubling times of terrorism and toxic toys, it is easy to become preoccupied with issues of health and safety. I don’t have much to offer as a writer for how to make the world healthier or safer for children. I will leave those issues for others. But, I am fascinated with what kind of parenting and schooling results in kids we can be proud of. So my first challenge to myself, and anyone reading this: what is it, specifically, that we want for our children?