Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Nothings Going to Hurt You, Not While I'm Around...

Bullying has become a national epidemic.
The classic image of the bully was a thuggish character, Nelson Muntz from the Simpsons... bigger, brawnier, and generally not the brightest. The bully instilled fear by the threat, whether stated or implied, of physical harm. He took your lunch money, knocked you down into the mud, tore your books, and made you feel weak and inadequate. Some facts about bullying: http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-school-bullying
Nowadays, that is not the face of bullying. The face of bullying is the pretty girls who torment an overweight class mate. It is the boys trying to prove that THEY are man enough by shoving around their more effeminate peers. It is rich people trying to buy elections by smearing their less well funded opponents in round the clock media blitzing, it is news stations that monger the fears we've been fighting, it's a government that marches into other nations uninvited, and it's a media that is hurls at us the messages that we are not good enough.
We are all being victimized by this bullying whenever we buy into the negative, hurtful messages we receive daily. But this post isn't about adults bullying adults, it is about kids (and horrifyingly, adults) bullying kids. The internet has given people access to other people 24/7 creating an ever more expansive platform for bullying. We have an enormous problem, so how can we fix things?
Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 20th various groups and hopefully millions of individuals will be coming together in their communities by wearing purple. They are coming together to remember those teens who have committed suicide because of bullying and to show support for the teens who are victimized by bullies. But we can do better.
We can help prevent bullying!
It won't be easy, but we must try. We can begin by valuing our children and teaching them to value themselves. That begins with sending our children positive messages about who they are and is followed by accepting them for who they are. If your little boy likes pink better than blue, it’s okay! If your little girl prefers Lego to Barbie, it’s okay! They are children and tomorrow they might like something entirely different, and if they don’t… IT’S OKAY! If you can’t accept your children for who they are, how can you teach them to accept themselves?
Teach them that it’s okay to be different. Beauty comes from the inside, not just the outside. One of my greatest moments in teaching was when a student said this of the lesson “I learned that anybody can be beautiful and everybody can be beautiful”. Our gifts can be very different but we can value them equally. There is a wonderful book, I Wish I Were a Butterfly by James Howe and Ed Young. It tells the story of a cricket who wishes he looked like a butterfly because of the hurtful words of a cranky frog. He learns that you can’t listen to everybody, but you should listen to those who care about you.
You can validate your child’s feelings. Being happy and people liking you is terrific, but children get sad or mad which is okay. You have to teach them to deal with unpleasant emotions. My students know it is alright to be angry at someone and to tell them you are angry, but they also know it is NOT okay to hurt others with their fists or their words. It is okay not to like somebody, but that does not make it okay to disrespect them. They also know that friends treat them well. When another child bullies with “I won’t be your friend”, they know to look for someone who will be their friend. It empowers the child who may not be the most popular and dis-empowers the bully.
Tomorrow, I am going to teach my kindergarten students about acceptance and tolerance. I am going to tell each of my students something that makes them unique and wonderful. But I am not going to continue doing this throughout the year. Children who accept and value themselves are not only less likely to be victimized by bullies, but they are less likely to become bullies.
As for us adults being bullied, we can begin by using our voices and telling advertisers that we won't buy products designed to make us feel less worthy. We can begin by reading voter information instead of just watching the ads. We can begin by telling our leaders that we won't let billionaires bully us out of our pensions. As my kindergarten kids will tell you “Use your words!”.

A great blog about bullying: http://blog.anniefox.com/2010/10/14/bullying-and-our-competitive-edge/

Sunday, October 17, 2010

There'll Be New Dreams, Maybe Better Dreams...

It takes a village to raise a child.
It's a very simple idea, but it really needs to become the central theme of education reform. For education reform to be effective, all stakeholders; teachers, administrators, students, and parents must work collaboratively.
We need to begin with the belief that all children can learn and want to learn. This does not mean that all children can accomplish all things equally, but it does mean that we have to hold high expectations for every child and that all stakeholders must have these expectations. I would like to say that I have never heard a parent or a teacher tell a child that they are not smart enough, but that should be the goal. The worst four letter word I've ever heard a child say is CAN'T.
After we've agreed that all children can learn, we need to examine and fix the causes for children not learning.
Poverty is probably the greatest cause of children not learning. Poor children are not inherently unable to learn, but a child who comes to school hungry or sick cannot learn. It is hard to hear the sounds of the letters when your stomach is rumbling or your head is throbbing. If we re-envision schools in high poverty areas as community learning centers and provide for the basic needs of the children (and hopefully provide access to services for families) we immediately make education more accessible. Fixing poverty is not going to be easy, but even in the current economy we are a rich nation and children living in poverty must become a national priority.
We then need to move beyond the racism of low expectations. Having different pigmentation or home language does not render a child unable to learn, but restricting their curriculum to 'basics' does impair their ability. Having spent two decades teaching minority students I am personally offended by educators saying that "our students can't do what their students can". I love words and my kindergarten ELL students frequently use vocabulary that many non-ELL elementary school students can't use. Ellos no pueden (they can't) is more despicable than "I can't.
Next, we need to provide all children with comfortable, safe, healthy learning environments. I recently noticed that not all my students can sit correctly at their tables because some of the old wooden chairs are too tall. There are several that wobble because they have lost the 'glide' from one or more legs. These aren't enormous problems, but they create unnecessary distractions. Some schools have falling tiles, mold, insect infestations, and some schools lack heat, air conditioning, working bathrooms, etc. It would be wonderful if all students could attend beautiful, well maintained, ergonomically designed schools, but all students deserve to at least be safe, comfortable, and healthy at school.
Now we can finally look at curriculum. Curriculum must always consider the developmental stage of the learner. I had noticed that many of my students have difficulty making slanted lines unless I provide dots for beginning and ending the lines. I just read that five year old children may not even be able to recognize slanted lines. No wonder Ashley's A looks like an upside down U! Perhaps it is time to rethink the time honored tradition of grouping children by age and move to groupings of academic and/or perhaps social maturity.
Finally, we need to always remember that education is about the students. Earlier today I read a tweet that if you are struggling to keep children on task, perhaps it is time to rethink the task. If we can engage students, they can achieve incredible things. Let's encourage them to think, to explore, to read, to create, to grow, and to embrace their possibilities.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

To Dream the Improbable Dream... part I

I didn't become a teacher in the usual fashion.
Suffice it to say that I pursued an arts education in the pursuit of a career in advertising, graduated a year before my university had the accreditation to give me a Bachelor of Fine Arts, and went to Los Angeles with my Bachelor of Arts and a job waiting tables.
I learned that LA, like many large cities in the late 80's, was experiencing a teacher shortage. I was able to translate my BA into an emergency credential and Voila! I was a classroom teacher.
My first year was perhaps a tad more difficult than the average teacher's first year. I worked at a large urban elementary school that offered teachers "combat pay", a stipend for spending extra time in intervention or enrichment activities with students. My assignment began mid October in a classroom that had a six week progression of substitute teachers. Many of the savvier parents had already pulled their children from the classroom, and many of the other third grade teachers had used the spaces to get rid of their problem students.
To say it was a difficult year would be understatement. I learned that some of my male students were harassing the female students (grabbing, pulling up skirts, and kissing). I learned that eight year olds may be savvy enough to pick a lock without being savvy enough to lie about it. I had to cross a picket line for the first time in my life, and it was my own picket line (that is a story for another post). I learned that not all schools were equipped with items as rudimentary as text books. And most importantly, I learned that I really loved teaching.
The following year, I was accepted into an alternative credentialing program through my school district. For two years, I attended classes taught by actual classroom teachers who were also teaching in classrooms much like my own. I learned classroom management, differentiating and integrating curriculum, and most of what I would need to know as a new teacher.
More than twenty years later, with a very scripted pre-packaged curriculum, I am sometimes nostalgic for that first year when they allowed a newbie to use whatever materials were available to benefit her students.

photo from: freedigitalphotos.net

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Uneducated Electorate Promotes Democracy's Demise

Why level the playing field when you can buy the home field advantage?

Maybe I'm a wide-eyed optimist, but I want to believe that the billionaires who have grabbed up the banner of education reform are genuinely altruistic at their core. Perhaps it is just my innate stubbornness that I don't want to imagine that anyone could have ulterior motives when it concerns children. But then I awaken to the realization that, after twenty plus years in an urban classroom, that children are the easiest targets for the self-serving.
When I hear that voice of reality speaking I wonder; just what do billionaires have to gain by controlling education? I cannot even conceive of these power brokers sending their own children to the schools they are planning to create. This all too familiar scenario is the politicians who send other people's children to fight and die in wars while their own children are shielded by their privilege.
I am suddenly drawn back to a passionate plea about the need to teach civics to insure the core principals of the United States. It comes from Richard Dreyfuss via Bill Maher's Real Time.
He makes a point about us not teaching children what we don't want them to know and I am reminded of the 'literature' that I am mandated to teach my students of the "huddled masses". I am quite certain that the children of these billionaires will ever be forced to sit through these stories once, let alone for a week or more of instruction. I think about the vintage computers that will glitch while running programs I have managed to keep viable for a decade while the billionaires' children will have all the latest technology.
The education system the billionaires provide will label my students according to their test scores and judge their potential on a number that reflects seven hours in an entire year. And while the billionaires' children may also be judged by a number, it will likely be the size of the endowment their parents provide.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Aren't We All More Than Test Scores?

I am watching a video on YouTube. A young woman, valedictorian of her graduating class, is speaking about the limitations of our educational system, "a system that trains us, rather than inspires us." She reminds us that while we are engaged in the business of performing well on tests we are missing opportunities to really learn. I smiled sadly as I thought about the millions of students in classrooms where teachers are mandated to focus on test performance to the exclusion of authentic learning.
As a teacher in an urban classroom in a working class neighborhood where the majority of students qualify for free lunch, it is abundantly clear that this is what we are supposed to be imparting to our students. We are supposed to teach a scripted program that is tightly knit with a rigid pacing plan in our effort to improve test scores, euphemistically called "increasing student outcomes".
We are given endless statistics about how US students are not measuring up in science, technology, and mathematics (STEMM) and expecting that we can magically improve these statistics by tightening up our lesson plans and giving them more problems to calculate. We are never directed to open our lesson planning to allow for exploration, investigation, conversation, or the most dreaded 'ation' of them all, imagination.
In this urban environment, we are told that we need to give the students 'the basics'. In my elementary school student days, that meant the 3 R's; Reading, wRiting, and aRithmatics. Now I think that the 3 R's are Redundancy, Repetition, and Regurgitation, none of which are part of Bloom's taxonomy of higher thinking skills. Part of this is rooted in institutional racism that directs us to believe that minority students are unlikely to be capable of higher levels of thought. Another part of this has it's roots in a system that seeks to perpetuate itself.
We live in a nation that may have begun as a "land of opportunity", but has become the land of "haves and have nots," The "haves" have a vested interest in perpetuating this system which is easily accomplished by making sure that the "have nots" remain undereducated. If the huddled masses are completely illiterate, they can not read manuals with instructions for doing their jobs. However if they are semi-literate, they can acquire the skills needed to do their jobs and yet remain unable to read a voter information pamphlet. Similarly, if they can do calculations, they can measure lumber or balance simple accounts, but if they have higher mathematical reasoning, they can calculate the interest on a subprime loan.
As this pieces of the puzzle come together, it is not surprising that we have billionaires, politicos, media moguls, charter school corporations, and other "haves" leading the discussion on educational reform. By limiting our vision of who and what children (and their teachers) are to a series of standardized tests, we take our vision from finding and cultivating the creativity and genius in children.
Despite being the product of a large urban school district, I was the student that the "ed reformers" want people to believe do not come from public schools, I was that top percentile test taker. Don't misunderstand, I consider that I was a mediocre student with good grades and great test scores. But, like the valedictorian on YouTube and many students in large urban school districts, I was trained and not inspired. I was fortunate to have a sixth grade teacher who cultivated my interest in writing and a high school art teacher who asked really interesting questions while teaching me that sometimes our mistakes are better than the outcomes we were initially seeking.
As a teacher, I look for those "happy accidents", the mistakes, missteps, and wrong turns that lead us to authentic learning. I look for the AHA! moments when students make the connections that enable them to grasp new concepts. I look for the glimmers of passion and creativity and genius that nearly every child has and try to help that child cultivate those talents. And I try to instill them with my own fascination with the world in the hopes that they will remain fascinated too.