Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What can be expected of you?

The new year is just around the corner.  Many people are making resolutions for the new year.   What are reasonable expectations for each of us to have for ourselves.   Each of us needs to leave the world a better place than we have received it.  But how do we do that?   And particularly how do we make the world a better place for the children we care about.
First of all we need to have our values in place.   No child can learn if he or she is not sufficiently fed, clothed and sheltered.   Yet every weekend kids leave school hungry and stay hungry until they return to school on Monday.  How does the richest nation on earth allow that to happen.   We each need to express our values at the ballot box.  That means vote in each and every election no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.   If we care about children we need to make sure we vote those values.
Secondly, we need to make sure the agencies taxpayers are paying for are really working on behalf of children and not just pushing paper from one pile to another.  Each of us needs to report child abuse.   Then follow up to make sure that the child protective services have really done something about the complaint.  If the agency does nothing then a letter to the editor will expose that and change the attitude.
Each person needs to use the power of the free press.   Write letters to the editor.   Let people know what is happening in our schools.   We spend millions of dollars on new testing systems.  Then decide another system is better and spend millions more.   In the meantime our kids are in schools with water pipes that burst, asbestos that is destroying their lungs, mold, no air conditioning, broken windows and poor heating systems.   What could be done to these learning environments if these monies were spent on the physical plants in which we put our kids instead of continually changing testing systems whose value is doubtful.
School boards are doing the best they can but they are often caught in the squeeze between local governments, school administrators and teachers' unions.
It has been decades since teachers were really underpaid.  Yet unions demand step increases and cost-of-living increases without any correspondence to quality of performance of union members.   Unions need to be advocating for better buildings and more current instructional materials.
No one of us can make all these changes to our schools or benefit our kids.  But we can do somethings and what each of us can do we need to do.
One person can organize a food pantry to feed kids over school holidays and weekends.   Another person can track school board meetings and hold members feet to the fire to spend the money on school environments.   A weak teacher does not become a better teacher just because she is paid a higher salary.  Someone could monitor the child protective services to find out how they respond to reports.  There is so much work to be done.  The work can be seen as overwhelming and it is.
But it is expected of you that you will bite off the piece you can chew and get the job digested.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wired for Trouble

If you teach or work with teenagers, you know they are wired for trouble.  Don't blame them, it is the uneven maturation of their brains.  As kids mature into the teenage years their brains mature as well.  The maturation moves from the back of the brain where more behavioral functions such as vision and movement are, to the front of the brain where more complex decision making and long-term goal setting begin.
Teen brains crave novelty, risk and peer affiliation.   They are in a continuing state of flux emotionally.  The kid they see in the mirror in the morning is not the same kid they see in the evening.  The frontal lobes of the brain are still maturing so the decision making is not always reliable.  As a consequence, teens depend more on the amygdala, the emotional reactive area of the brain.  This reliance makes them more vulnerable to pessimism and self-destructive behaviors.
Teenagers get what they are experiencing.  What they do not necessarily understand is why they are feeling the way they are.
Several educational approaches are better for teens and teachers.   First of all, let the kids in on the secret.  Explain in scientific detail-as opposed to browbeating for a bad decision- what is happening developmentally in their brains.  Let students see brain models.  Explain that this process is not unlike  the development of physical and verbal skills when they were toddlers.   Lots of falling down, but lots of getting up as well and soon they could walk and talk.
Just as in learning to walk, adolescents need to learn to think independently.   They will not learn this skill without practice.  Again, in learning to walk they tried a lot of times and fell a few times. But each fall was in a protected environment and encouragement to try again followed.  So it is with independent thinking.  Teens need to be in a school environment where they will not be teased or embarrassed when they slip up.   Or just as bad, be in a place where repeating someone else's correct answer is masquerading as independent thinking.  Students need to be exposed to teachers making mistakes and acknowledging them and moving on.   They will learn that in thinking, making a mistake is the same as falling down in learning to walk.
Students need to learn about themselves and what makes them think at their best.   Many teachers use the K-W-L learning strategy where the "K" is what I know, the "W" is what I want to know and the "L" is what do I need to learn.  For teens, the addition of the "H" to this plan will guide students to learning how their brain works.  The "H" stands for How will I learn what I need to learn.   Each student can detect the way in which he or she learns best.  This approach responds to the craving for novelty and some risk.  It feeds the need for independence because students will be learning to do it "my way".
Just learning content won't do it anymore for any of us.  There is simply too great an explosion of knowledge.  Just learning content is particularly nonfunctional for teenagers.  Teaching kids how to use their cognitive skills in a manner that is appropriate to their learning profiles is the gift that will last a lifetime and truly prepare them for life in the wide, wide world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So what's the point?

Well over half of all local budgets goes toward public education.   Our state spends millions and millions of dollars of tax money every year on State assessment development and administration of those tests.   Additionally State money is given to school districts to supplement local money.   Federal funds also pour into states for education.   Of course, all of this money comes out of the same taxpayer pockets.  What is the point of all this expense?  What is the purpose of education at public expense?
We live in a democracy.   In our country every citizen has the right to vote.   Some states try to limit that freedom with additional requirements, but still those requirements can be overcome.  When everyone has the right to vote, it is elemental to the success of the democracy that the voters be informed and educated.   They need to understand government and be able to read to learn about government.  So the first function of public education is to create an informed electorate.  Based on my experience and the voter turnout, we have failed miserably at that goal.
Another purpose of education is to provide a trained workforce to secure the economy of the nation.  Some of that workforce will need a college education to perform their duties.  Others will not.  Our economy needs multiple kinds of skill levels and all workers need basic soft job skills- like responding to supervision and showing up on time.
Ours is a multi-ethnic society.   We need to work together to secure the common good.  It is a function of public education to teach us to work with a diverse population.   Within a very few years Americans of western European heritage will be in the minority in terms of population, if not in terms of power.  If we are going to secure the benefits of the talents of all of our people we need to understand each other and be able to take another's perspective.
So how are we doing in public education after spending all of this money.  From my perspective not so well.
First of all we are testing in everything except what is needed to be a good citizen.  In Maryland the government test for graduation was scrapped, then added back in.  But it is mostly memorization about stuff that is available on our smart phones in a heartbeat.   We are not teaching kids to research active candidates for political office, decide which policies fit our needs, how to be educated voters.  It does not take a test to do that.
We are now supposed to be striving for a heavy emphasis on college readiness and careers.   College readiness was supposed to come about through the testing of NO Child Left Behind from President George W. Bush.  But after 10 years, institutions of higher education report no reduction in the need for remedial courses upon entering college.   So much for that bright idea.   Then there is the issue of careers!   How do we train for them.  No Child Left Behind promised all kids on grade level by this year.  Ok, anyone with any sense knew that wouldn't work.  And that goal has all but been abandoned.  However, we need to do more project based learning and recognize that we can't force every child into a college mold.  Some kids just won't fit.
Finally, our best shot has been exposing kids to other kids who might not look like them.  Housing patterns work hard against that.  Public schools are neighborhood schools and neighborhoods have a strong tendency to bunch like background people together.  Oddly, it is the private school that might be doing a better job of creating diversity.
So here we are, spending a huge amount of money on something we all believe in.  Maybe we need a national conversation among the citizens about what we want our educational goals to be.   And could we PLEASE leave the politicians out of it this time!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Of the year...

This is the time of the year when there is an "of the year..." award for everything.   Maryland person of the year, Time Magazine person of the year, scientist of the year, event of the year...  You name it.  Everyone is excited about who that person will be, there will be discussions about whether the choice was the correct one, It was not too long ago that the person of the year for whatever was always a male person.   Not so anymore so that is good.   Here's the thing.   As interested as we are about each announcement, how long is it before we have totally forgotten who the awardee was.   While I am sure the awardee and his/her closest folks don't forget the award, I am betting that the rest of the populace does not give up memory space for very long.
I am proposing that we each select one or two moments of the year.   You know those special times that years from now we will remember.   Certainly we will remember major life events like the birth of a baby, a marriage, divorce or death.   I am not talking about those kinds of things.   Let me provide some offerings:
If you are a teacher, that moment could be the first time a student looked at you and "got it".   You might have been working with this student for days or weeks on a concept, perhaps even wondering if you were meant to be a teacher after all, then the magical moment happens and you and the student both know, she got it.   It is a moment that warms you and fuels you for all the hours of lesson planning and recharges you to try again for another student.
If you are in a personal relationship, perhaps this year something happened and you knew you had found your emotional safe spot.  In this place you realized you were safe and here you could be just yourself, nothing more or nothing less and it was all ok.
Maybe a furry faced child owns you.  You love that little furry face and think it is the cutest in the whole universe.   Then one night as you get into bed the furry person jumps into bed with you (do NOT tell me your furry child sleeps on the floor, we have social services for that).   Your furry person walks to the top of the bed, licks your face, gives a big sigh and then settles down right next to you.   Whatever is happening in the rest of the world, your world is just fine.
Perhaps you are a parent.   You sacrifice a great deal for your child, it is not just quiet nights out with another adult, or money spent on electronics that you would love to spend on a new outfit or the hours of sleep you lost worrying about his grades or her friends- it is the emotional investment into this child's well-being.   What you get in return is eye rolling, resistance, "whatever" said in a tone of derision.   Then a holiday comes and along with a gift is a card or a note, "you are the best mom ever".  You may not be sure that is true but you are very sure for you at this moment, it rocks your world.
So as the year winds down, pick a moment of the year, pick two, they're free.  Write them down. Do it every year and save these notes.   It would be really special if you kept a notebook for your kids of a special moment about them every year.   Wouldn't that be a terrific graduation or wedding gift.   Oh so much better than New Year's resolutions or who was Time Man of the Year last year....

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lives Matter

The Michael Brown killing upsets me on multiple levels.   Whether he was killed by a frightened police officer who felt his life was in danger or was killed by a racist cop who sees all young black men as dangerous we will never know.   We do know that a life was taken too soon and that the chance of Mr. Brown turning his life around from criminal activity will never have a chance to happen.   We do know that the hopes and dreams of innocent small business owners in Ferguson have been snuffed out by rioters and looters.   I have no idea whatever how those actions will secure justice for the other Michael Browns of the world.   We do know that life in Ferguson will be compromised going forward because there will be fewer commercial services for residents and property values will go down because no one wants to live in an area subject to rioting.  So the Michael Brown killing will take more innocent lives.

I think what bothers me the most is the rallying cry Black Lives Matter.   Of course they do.  But so do red lives, yellow lives, brown lives and white lives.   All lives matter.   Here are some issues that might deserve a rally- but will get none.

Every single day children are abused by those who are supposed to love and protect them.   We have child protective services that are understaffed, overwhelmed and conditioned to put kids back in the very environments that hurt them.   Where is the rally to remind us that these kids' lives matter?   Where are the decent loving foster homes to give these kids a chance at life?  How about a Presidential conference on that issue?

We consign children to deteriorating schools with lousy teachers.   What are their chances to escape the poverty of their families without a decent education?  We kid ourselves to believe that test scores will lead the way to better teaching.   They won't; but high test scores are a feel good way to believe that.  We need to get rid of bad teachers.   Not a chance of that happening as long as the unions care more about protecting and defending the weak sisters and brothers than they do about teaching students. Can we organize a march to help our schools get better teachers?

Children with special needs are routinely included in classrooms that do not meet their needs.   They are force fed a curriculum that has nothing to do with what they need to learn in order to survive once their entitlement to a free, appropriate public education goes away at 21.  We insist that by requiring them to learn what plain kids need to learn, somehow their cognitive abilities will grow to the challenge.   Why not accept these students as they are and give them the tools THEY need, not the tools politicians want them to need.  Let's demonstrate about that.

We are the richest country in the world.   Every Friday when the bell rings to end the school day, millions of kids go home to not much food until they come back to school on Monday for breakfast.  Why can't we figure out how to feed these kids.   It really is not that hard.   The political will is just not there.  Where are the TV interviews on this topic?

Look in our communities.   How many young adults are killing each other over drugs or gang turf.  If  lives matter why don't we do something about the killings?   It is easier to just look the other way and pick on a simpler target.  Where are the white, red, black, yellow, brown leaders on this serious issue?

So today we have riots, marches, and Presidential conferences because a killing has ignited our concern for this week's crisis.  There are lots of other causes we could take on if lives matter.   Truthfully, children's lives do matter very much for them and for the future of all of us.   Unfortunately, we just don't give a damn.