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No Homework

I try to keep my politics out of this blog (though anyone who reads it can probably guess). However, I ran across an article today that just simply blew my mind. It takes place in France, under the new Socialist president Hollande. Whatever he’s doing to the country is outside the scope of education, but he has placed his nose into education and even classroom practice.

According to the article, he wishes to discontinue the practice of homework. Now, I won’t deny some truth to his arguments. For younger students, homework has very little academic benefit. Most of the research I’ve read suggests 5-10 minutes of homework at the most for young kids. I still remember my personal experience with homework. A lot of it was worthless, pointless word-finds, stupid puzzles, and all stuff that had absolutely no benefit. “Busywork” is a common term.

The research on homework suggests that it should be practice of skills students have already learned. At younger ages, the main benefit of homework is to introduce students to the habit of getting work done, sticking with something, and working independently. Older students do benefit more from homework, though the benefit is mixed based on a number of factors. The suggestion one source I quickly looked up is that homework in high school should be between 1.5-2 hours a night. I’ve read other research that ties homework to years of age.

So, the president of France wants to eliminate homework. I disagree that this is a governmental decision: it should be a classroom decision. But, my real problem was this argument from the article:

“An education program is, by definition, a societal program. Work should be done at school, rather than at home,” as a way to ensure that students who have no help at home are not disadvantaged.

That really strikes me wrong. In fact, it holds shades of Harrison Bergeron. Since some students are born disadvantaged, all must be held back. Instead of helping the students who don’t have advantages, this clearly suggests holding back those who do have advantages. That is scary. I’ve heard similar arguments in my school against a course I teach: Algebra 1 to eighth graders. Apparently, this course places other students at a disadvantage because they will benefit from being around the more advanced math students. That is a scary argument. Instead of targeting better instruction to the weaker students, the better students should be held back.

The correct answer to the homework question is that educators should answer it based on the needs of their students. Homework should be meaningful. It should give students practice. It should not be too much nor should it be too little.

Government fiat is not the way to improve education.

Flip Your Classroom

This past weekend, I got inspired by a book on flipping my classroom. This is really why teachers should continue to read in their field. In fact, anyone should read at least one book in their field every month (a good topic for another post, I think).

Flipping the classroom means changing the familiar structure of a classroom. I’ve considered doing something like this for many years, but I’ve always been too scared. Now that I’ve actually started it, I’m very nervous. The idea comes from a simple question: when do students need the most help, when the teacher is lecturing or when the students are actually doing the work? Yet, our classrooms are set up so that the teacher is available to explain concepts, but missing when students do homework.

Most teachers have done a hybrid of this process. I like to have my Algebra students start their homework in class so I can help them. The better teachers do this, and it actually goes back to the Madeline Hunter model. But, the problem with lecture is that sometimes the teacher goes too fast, sometimes too slow. In a regular classroom, the teacher does both simultaneously, depending on the student. Did you ever sit in a classroom and wish the teacher would just “shut up” and let you work? Did you ever want to scream at a teacher to “stop”?

In the flipped classroom, students watch video notes as homework. They do what was once homework as well as other activities in the classroom. Last Friday, I reviewed with my students how to name chemical compounds. For some of them, it was a “What is he talking about?” lesson. For others it was, “Yes, we already learned this in ninth grade” moment. It was almost serendipity that I read Flip Your Classroom that weekend. I knew what I had to do.

A Book Review

The book itself is written by two chemistry teachers in a rural school. I’ll admit that they got my interest right away because they do what I do: teach Chemistry. Of course, my school is a lot smaller and a lot more rural. Nevertheless, it was really helpful to hear from actual science teachers. These are people who do labs and deal with the things I deal with: including students who lack internet access. Like me, they also use Moodle in their classrooms.

The book also includes a lot of comments from teachers all over the world who flipped their classroom. I found these very interesting. Here is a big theme: they did it on their own. These people did not wait for an education savior. They just did their thing in  their classroom without waiting for permission or support. 10 years ago, I started writing my own material for the same reason.

The book also makes an important note: flipping is a great way to individualize instruction. Students can replay, pause, or skip through a video as needed. The teacher can individualize practice. If technology, such as Moodle, is used, the teacher’s workload is not inordinately increased. I’m doing “exit exams” on Moodle. They are self correcting. I will still be doing regular pencil and paper tests, but that’s a personal preference. I spend more one on one time with each student, mostly helping them in the areas where they need help. Maybe one student needs me for molar masses, another for conversions. I can individualize my attention.

I can also buy less equipment. Since not all students will do the same lab on the same day, I might be able to by 2 or 3 or each piece of equipment instead of 10 or 12. That actually will mean more equipment for my students to use. It also makes my poorly laid out Chemistry lab much more usable. (As in: 2 gas jets for burners, limited outlets, limited sinks.)

The Flipped Classroom

Go into most classrooms and who is working? The teacher is working. Students are passively taking notes. A few years ago, I noticed how much easier grad school was than teaching. The reason was that I could just go to class as a student. As a teacher, I had to work a lot harder. I’ve learned more teaching than I ever did as a student. So, why are teachers doing the work? Students should be working so they get the most benefit.

In a flipped classroom, I can lecture on a video. If the lecture goes badly, I do a retake. The lecture is short: there are no distractions. I set a goal of 4 minute videos. If a topic is more complex, I break it into 2 or more videos to keep them short. This helps with attention. It also keeps me focused. I don’t ramble as I sometimes do in real life (or blogs). Students get targeted instruction. If they need more in real life, I can do that in the classroom, individually. Just because one student is confused doesn’t mean they are all confused.

Moodle enables me to assess skill levels quickly both with homework and “exit tickets”. I can also use the software’s database function for analyzing lab data and pooling class data. It provides a convenient layout for organizing lessons.

I want to close here because I’m at the beginning. I will post back in a few weeks on how flipping is working out. More importantly, I will have time to get a realistic perspective. I’m starting slowly. I am flipping my Chemistry and semi-flipping my Physics. I’ve already discovered some poor structure in my Physics lessons that I have lived with for years, even when I rewrote the curriculum a few years ago. I plan to flip Biology and Algebra 1 in the future, but I refuse to bite off more than I can chew. If I’m going to transform my teaching, I need to be sure I can do it right. One and a half courses is about all I can handle to begin with.

Tools

I’m cheap. I’m also flipping my classroom without permission. It’s something I’m just doing. I’m using a few tools, but I will share them in my next entry after I’ve had a chance to really see how they work.

The Paperless Classroom?

The education media continues to run stories about schools that have implemented 1:1 laptop or 1:1 iPad programs. This sounds futuristic and dynamic, and I will freely admit that there are times I wish all of my students had a laptop. I also have the advantage of having attended Grove City College as part of the first class to take part in its 1:1 laptop program.

One argument in favor of these programs is the savings in paper. This is both an environmental and financial savings. I question both because laptops are expensive and they’re full of scary heavy metals and manufacturing processes. Also, although some schools use only online textbooks, these are actually quite uncommon, and not as much of a savings as they appear, especially over the lifetime of a typical paper textbook. A big advantage of the laptop is its weight: one item in the book bag rather than a stack of books and notebooks.

I haven’t been convinced by that argument, but computers are awesome for homework. I love that my Physics and Chemistry students get instant feedback on their homework, sometimes with suggestions. I wish my Algebra 1 students could get this, but as they’re a bit younger, I’m uncomfortable requiring computer use. I tried this with Calculus as well, but my software lacked the sophistication needed and another option I tried was quite difficult to use. Computers are also awesome for putting resources in students hands. There is a wealth of information out there. I’ve also been making videos for some classes so they can get my lecture (condensed) with examples on the screen. Finally, computers are great for composing new material. I would never go back to teaching without a computer!

But, while computers are a great tool, they do not operate in a way that complements the way people think.

How Students Do Homework

Let me introduce you to my eighth graders. They’re an intelligent group, and reasonably hardworking and motivated. Now let’s visit the best students among them while they work on homework problems. First, they’re writing their work down (possibly not in the detail I would like). Immediately, a paper advantage is clear. It’s a lot faster for me to handwrite mathematics than it is to type it. I’m reasonably fast with LaTeX, but I don’t want to teach a programming language to my students. What is far worse is to try typing math in most word processors. It’s agony and very slow! So, advantage to the paper.

But wait, what about stylus input? I actually give a lot of my handwritten notes that way. The iPad accepts a stylus, there are even better styli on some laptops, and I retouch a lot of photographs with a Wacom tablet (and it also makes an awesome tool for inputting handwriting). I actually listed these in order of increasing comfort and preference. But, let’s look at the other thing my students are doing: they’re looking at the original problem in their textbook. Since the notebook and the textbook sit side by side, they have no trouble switching back and forth. On the computer, it would involve using the mouse or a control-tab. Admittedly, the homework problems could be on the same interface as the work, but the screen resolution means that only a limited number of problems and work could be seen at a time. You see, my students are looking back at other problems for clues. They also have a visual that show them how much work they have to do before they’re free. The computer does not facilitate this. Also, this method of stylus input means the computer can’t correct their work. Other than weight, there is no advantage to computer here!

Finally, the other thing my students are doing is checking their work. Yes, I assign the “odd” problems because the answers are in the back of the book. The good students are using the answers to make sure they’re doing the problems correctly. Most have a piece of paper or else a paperclip back here to facilitate easily flipping back and forth. Again, on the computer, this would require mouse clicks or control-tabbing.

So, what about my older (more computerized) students. Their homework is online through Moodle. It is self-correcting, so they don’t have to flip to see the answers. However, they are not paperless! These students are writing their work out in notebooks. They have notes in front of them. They have their textbook as a reference when needed. They also have either a reference sheet (periodic table, conversions, ion names, etc) if they’re in Chemistry, or else a formula sheet if they’re in Physics. They’re not paperless either. Admittedly, the textbook, periodic table, and reference sheet are all online, and I’ve had my Physics students keep formula sheets updated (typed) also online. The trouble with using these online resources, again, is the switching back and forth between documents.

A Few Other Paper Advantages

Paper isn’t just awesome for homework. It’s also awesome for note taking and test taking. Some of my students like to put notes in the margins of my handouts. I make the margins wide in part for this purpose. They will highlight or underline parts of the handouts. One girl even had a color-coding scheme for marking up my handouts. When I have them doing labs, there are handouts open, notebooks open, and sometimes random scraps of paper floating around (used as a temporary holder of information). In group work, the same thing happens. I also do a lot of diagramming using marker boards.

Computers can do all of this, but computers aren’t conducive to the thinking and drafting part of the creative process. The screen does not have the size or the resolution to keep multiple sources of information open. The computer is awesome, however, for the later stages of the creative process.

Let me close with a few personal observations on paper and computers. I write science fiction as a hobby. As I write, I need a few things. One is a reference list of characters and places. I also need maps of places and buildings. Occasionally I need pictures to help me get things right. I also need to refer elsewhere in the book to recall what happened. Lately, I’ve created sort of a map (not an outline) of the intertwining parts of the book, so I need this too. I tried to write on my iPad. At first, I loved it. My writing could follow me everywhere. However, once I got to about 20 pages, I started to get frustrated by my need for all the references. I could create all of them on the iPad, but getting to them involved too much switching around. I’m now back to notebooks. The iPad lets me write when I travel, but I would prefer to use it to jot ideas down. Of course, if I ever publish, I’ll need to type and the computer will be awesome for putting together (and editing) the final book. Even now, it’s great for research!

My other observation is in photography. One of my other jobs is as a photographer. Mostly I cover high school events for the paper. Occasionally I do other jobs, though not for profit. It was in this latter capacity I got a great reminder of the power of paper. I took some pictures for the Snowball and gave the people in them the web-address where they could download the pictures or else order prints. I got a few complaints that the prints they made from the downloaded pictures were “blurry.” So I investigated by ordering prints at the two local businesses that make prints. When I got home I spread them across my dining room table to do comparisons. (By the way, they were blurry because these people were downloading the small sizes instead of the large sizes.) It was great to be able to arrange and rearrange so many pictures at once. On the computer I can’t do that. The more pictures I put on the screen, the less detail I can see. As a result, I go back and forth between pictures or have, at most, two on the screen at a time. That’s not as good as paper.

On the other hand, digital photography is cheaper, easier to edit, and easier to share. If my parents come to visit, I don’t pull out the huge album of everything. Instead, I show them landscape pictures. I show other people sports pictures. I can even show only pictures of a single person or subject. That’s a few keystrokes on the computer. It is hours with albums.

I’m no luddite. I love technology and will never give up my computer. However, as we seek to implement more and more technology into the schools (and workplaces) let’s not forget that paper is a great tool for many things.

“Brighten the Corner Where You Are”

During church today, we sang a hymn I had never heard before, and it got me to thinking about education (I also had some religious thoughts about it, but this is an education blog). The hymn was Brighten the Corner Where You Are. The central message of this hymn is that we need to shine God’s love no matter where we are. The pulpit and missionary work are not the only places in which we can make a difference for the Kingdom of God. In fact, the author wrote it after giving up her missionary plans so she could care for her sick father.

This has so many applications to education that I hardly know where to stop. Begin with a simple question you could ask any teacher: “Why did you become a teacher?” Few of them will list pension plans or tenure or working 9 months of the year. Most will talk about a favorite teacher, the desire to help, a passion for a certain subject, or something along those lines. Then look at how they function both in the classroom and with the adults in their school and their community. Are they reflecting that love and passion? Are they brightening their corner of the world or are they making everything a little darker?

Brighten Your Classroom

Most teachers have had that horrible experience in which a classroom is out of control. They then have to clamp down and discipline. Over the years, they learn to keep control by being scary and intimidating. Before too long, they have sucked all of the joy out of their classroom. The students go in, they behave, they may even learn, but they feel no passion. This teacher does not inspire students. Will you put in your best if you are not inspired?

I am good at English. I was even told that I should be an English teacher. What was missing was a passion for English. Math and science do not come easily to me, but I actually have a passion for those subjects, so I was willing to put in the work and time they required. If I don’t share passion with students, how can I expect them to become passionate or even interested in my subject?

Discipline is important, but I prefer the term management. My philosophy is “busy hands are happy hands.” Through the years, I’ve cut my lecture more and more because, oddly enough, that was when I had discipline trouble. As I’ve changed my teaching style, I’ve had far less discipline trouble. I get to be more cheerful, joke around, and the students feel less need to cause trouble!

So, are you brightening your classroom? Or are you sucking the joy out of learning and blaming the students in the bargain?

Colleagues

Some colleagues are skilled at sucking all of the joy out of the room. If I’m having a great day, I know just who to visit in my school to make sure I go home hating education and hating my day. Are you the type of colleague who is filled with continual complaints? Do you complain about your students, your classroom, your administrator, your colleagues? Are you filled with criticism of the job everyone else is doing?

What you do is to bring down everyone you talk to. As the old expression goes, “Attitudes are contagious.” By sharing a negative attitude (or allowing others to share theirs with you), you reduce the effectiveness and passion of everyone around you. Your complaints may even be justified. But, I would ask what is being accomplished with complaining? You are flailing around helplessly like an ineffectual eunuch, and poisoning everyone else in the bargain. On the other hand, identifying problems as a first step to solving them is a different matter entirely. Maybe you need a new school. Maybe you need to talk to your principal about the useless teacher down the hall. Whatever it is, don’t just complain. Do something! Otherwise, keep it to yourself. All you are doing is making yourself and the people around you more negative.

In Public

Some teachers aren’t happy to share their negativity with their colleagues. They take it out into public. They share how awful the superintendent is, or how the new teacher has no discipline, or how much harder they work than everyone else. They might even complain about students. Worse yet, they might even use names!

Imagine the member of the public who has to listen to this and who sends a child to this school. When this child complains about school, the parent may believe the child has some justification. The parent may even share the complaints with the child. Their faith in a teacher or administrator may also be undermined. Worse, they may think to themselves, “If the teacher says that about one student, I can only imagine what he says about my child to other people!”

A few years ago, I had to visit a different church due to bad weather (my church as about 15 miles away from the nearest paved road). When I introduced myself at this church, I was interrogated about the school. One of the members of the congregation made the remark that, “It’s nice to meet a teacher who actually likes teaching.” Why? Because I kept my complaints to myself and shared the good things.

Conclusion

I’m not advocating some kind of Pollyanna attitude. I am advocating watching what you share. The negatives should be shared as part of solving problems. Instead, share the passion, the love, and the joy. Isn’t that a far better world?

And, remember people are always judging you. Perhaps that person who could rescue you from the job you hate will be so turned off by your negative attitude that they will pass you buy.

Creating an Awesome School

The 385 students who attend the Waconda School District of rural Kansas are out-performing students at some of the best schools around the world.

This is a short post because the secret(s) to their success are so simple. There are no amazing innovations in the teaching, no fabulous new curriculum, no 1:1 laptop programs, and not even performance pay or a charter school! This school does not have the innovations that liberals push, but it also does not have the innovations that many conservatives push.

So let’s look at a few things that the school does:

  1. Small class sizes in grades K-3. The research out there on class size shows that these are the grade levels where small class sizes have much impact.
  2. Parents are involved. This school has parents who buy into its mission and who show their students that school matters by attending conferences and staying involved in the school.
  3. Teachers follow students’ skills, not grades in courses. Rather than a useless letter grade, this school follows specific skills. This allows more targeted intervention and is something powerful that any teacher can do. In the education lingo, this is an “assessment matrix.”

There is nothing innovative here. Even the third item is something many teachers do informally. Writing it down simply gives teachers a tool and a visual record. A teacher may know, for example, that a particular student is weak in solving problems by division. When it is in black and white, the teacher may see that many students are weak in this skill (a sign that reteaching is necessary), or maybe that only one or two students lack this skill, a hint that individual or small group tutoring is necessary.

The individual teacher cannot control class size. However, when a district needs to cut spending or target additional spending, this shows one area that would be effective. An additional primary teacher would be more effective than an additional science teacher, when the choice must be made.

Parental involvement is more difficult. To increase this, the school needs to work slowly and expect small, gradual victories. The midwest is fortunate enough to have high parental involvement. However, our Reservations do not have high parental involvement. One technique they use to invite parents to the schools is to provide food at events like conferences. Another is to make sure the school is welcoming. Teachers need to contact parents. This will make parents more likely to return the favor.

Given parental involvement, teachers who monitor exactly what skills their students have, and small primary classes, there is no reason any school cannot improve. A particular teaching style or curriculum will not save a school.  Best of all, these three improvements are cheap (except for the additional primary teachers).

To find out where your own school district ranks nationally, internationally, and statewide, visit the Global Reportcard website.

How To Test Writing

I read today that the state of Illinois is giving up the writing portion on its standardized tests. Now it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and condemn the state for lowering its standards, but I want to take a different tack and suggest that this is a good thing.

I’m not an English teacher, but I do a fair amount of writing, and my students write. This blog is an example of pretty bad writing. I usually have a few talking points written down. Then I put them into paragraphs and follow up with a quick edit. This is poor writing, but note the amount of preparation and editing, even with such informal writing. With my more formal writing, I have an outline, many edits, lots of research, and a lot of time.

I’m no longer a student. When I was a student, sometimes I was asked to write something to be turned in right away, maybe by the end of the period. In my professional life, I’ve never had to write like this. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine any profession where this kind of writing is essential. The only places I ever write like this are letters to family, E-mails to friends, and on internet bulletin boards. Most writing involves planning, writing, rewriting, editing, and research. The writing on standardized tests isn’t like this, and there is no way it could be.

It is expensive to grade the writing on a standardized test, and it doesn’t actually measure anything useful except a student’s ability to produce a rough draft. I say good-riddance to the writing portion. Now teachers can focus on doing real writing in their classrooms instead of preparing students for the standardized test.

Teaching on the Reservation

Right now I’m teaching on one of the Reservations in North Dakota. This is a summer job, so I will soon return to my school next to the Edge of the Earth. Overall, I’ve been really busy and have not posted to the blog in a long time. This post is just a few random observations about teaching on the Reservation and about the direction of this blog in general.

Teaching on the Reservation

I’ve always taught at essentially middle class schools. This does not mean that they were in the economic middle class, rather that middle class attitudes pervaded these schools. Coming to the Reservation has been interesting for a few reasons. One of them is that the middle class attitudes are not so pervasive.

What this means is that good teaching is so much more important when students don’t necessarily have the skills or the interest in school. The teacher needs to work really hard to truly engage the students and keep them engaged. Another thing I have seen is the importance of a structured classroom. This doesn’t mean militant discipline. It means that I know what I’m doing at all times and, more importantly, the students know what is expected and are engaged in some way at all times.

Another important lesson is that kids are kids. Whatever issues there may be, the students on the Reservation are kids and are at the same combination of adulthood and childhood that students in other parts of the country are in. There are some cultural differences and there are also some differences in experience: some of these kids have seen far too much at far too young an age.

What I’ve found myself considering is whether the Reservation might be an option for me in the future. I don’t think I’m a good enough teacher…yet. But I really think that teachers who feel called to serve on the Reservation and who have the skills and strength could really find that they have a visible influence.

I might comment some more on this later. These are just a few thoughts drifting around right now.

Direction of the Blog

It might help if I wrote more regularly. It might also help if I regularly commented on other blogs. The fact remains that I have a miniscule readership. I started this blog because writing and reading are my best ways to absorb or process information. When a website has its information in a video, I tend to skip it. This blog was an attempt to processs and write, so it really was primarily for me. It was originally born out of my frustration with a school that I’d moved into in hopes of advancing my career. Big mistake! I quit after a year and switched to my current school, which has lasted the longest of any school.

I haven’t typically ranted here. My policy is that anything in writing could be found, even if my name isn’t on it. It would be an uncomfortable experience to explain to my principal why I said something horrible about him that a parent brought to him. Worse, what if I wrote about a student?

Over the years I’ve come to realize that there is no point in being negative and unhappy. It’s better to dwell on the positive, fix what needs to be fixed, stop complaining, and not worry. So, I don’t complain too much about teaching here. Instead, I’ve tried to share ideas, analyze ideas, look at mistakes, the law, experiences, and I’ve tried to offer solutions as much as possible.

Along the way, I find that I have a lot of different interests. Some have appeared here: open source software, online education, photography, movies, books, and so on. I’ve tried to keep this an education blog, but lately I seem to be in a dry spell.

So, I really need to make more effort to post here. But, is education where I want to stay? Do I want to look at a photography blog? Do I want a general interest blog?

I’m going to try to talk more regularly about education, but I wonder if that is where I want to keep writing?

Cutting the Extra in the Classroom

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This picture was created by cropping the extra from around the action.

I caught a lesson on education from my sports photography. I photograph my students at games. Then I’ll typically erase hundreds of pictures after a game to keep 25 or fewer. My rules are to keep one of each of my students and then the best after that. With the pictures I do keep, I spend time rotating, cropping, and retouching. From those I send the 3-5 best to the local paper for publication.

The lesson here is that by cutting down, I can get the best. In education, this is something we need to do. A common lament among teachers is lack of time. What they need to do is cut the extra and distracting so that they can focus on doing well what is left.

Standards

Let’s begin with the obvious: a textbook is not a curriculum. They are overstuffed with facts and information so that they can be marketed to all 50 states and satisfy the desires and interests of all the different special interest groups. The teacher should not design a course around the textbook. Instead, it should be designed around the state standards. Since most of those standards are of low quality and usually too many to teach, the teacher should additionally focus on the most important standards there.

Common Core standards may lead to improvement in the quality of the textbooks, but I doubt it. Textbook companies are asked to include things like career information, minorities, sexual minorities, and other trendy topics outside the core of the subject. In addition, the textbook may not interpret the standard in a useful way. The teacher must stay focused on the standards.

This focus helps the teacher  when administrators show up with a “good idea”. I was once asked to teach a career curriculum as part of my 8th grade science. The superintendent had gotten a grant to offer this thing. It was awful, but that was not the problem. The problem was that it had nothing to do with what I was expected to teach, and I made this point. The superintendent should have refused it point blank. That grant was not sufficient reason to forget the core mission of the school.

Administrators should ensure that their teachers are focused on the standards. Moreover, they shouldn’t sabotage this by bringing in extras that distract from the standards. National standards may improve the quality of the materials available to teachers, but good materials do not replace the teacher’s job.

Schoolwide Focus

David

Michelangelo's David, from Wikipedia

In my last example, I cited the ways administrators sometimes toss extras into classrooms that are outside the mission of the school. State legislatures and departments of education do the same thing. It seems that every time someone sees a problem, they automatically think schools should fix it. They seem to think a new course will be the perfect solution. This is where health classes, sex-ed, economics, drivers-ed, various PE courses, values clarification, career courses, and other  strange courses come from.

I would agree that some of these belong in schools. But, the overall point is that we should consider what is the school’s job and what is not. The more we place in the school, the less it can focus on the essentials. The government should stop interfering in schools and allow them to focus on their core mission. A local school may see a need for any course, but a problem in one school does not translate to a problem in another that needs to be solved statewide.

Schools focus on too many non-academic issues. My own school board spent a startling amount of time talking about buying a bus for extra-curricular activities. The board also spent many hours discussing our sports co-op with a neighboring district. Recently we spent too long quibbling over a few days on the calendar. The board has spent almost no time discussing math scores, AYP, or anything academic. They need to focus on the essentials.

Schools also need to ask teachers to focus on the essentials. Last year I was told to coach and my teaching suffered horribly because I didn’t have time to focus on my teaching. In this country we expect teachers to teach all day and run extracurriculars afterwards. We see it as getting our money’s worth out of them. Then we turn around and ask why they aren’t as good as teachers in Singapore or Finland. That’s because teachers there teach less in the day and are then expected to spend the balance of their time developing lessons and collaborating. They have time to focus on the job because the extra has been cropped out of their job.

It is said that when Michelangelo was asked about how he created his statue of David, he responded that David was there all along. He simply removed the excess that was around him.

I think we have good schools, but there is so much excess in them that they can’t do their job well. Our schools could be like David (hopefully with clothing) if we focus them.

Good Teaching is the Cure-All

The secret to improving our schools is so simple and so obvious that I’m almost afraid to open this entry with it: improve teaching.

Were you expecting something else? Maybe computers? Eradicate poverty? More money? Better testing? Close public schools? Disband unions? Require union membership? Homeschooling? Small class sizes? Large class sizes?

The truth is scary but powerful: what goes on within the classroom will have the greatest impact on teaching. Much of what is suggested in the literature are ways to get students to conform to the needs of the adults in schools when the reality is that adults need to conform to the needs of students.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that it is difficult for the individual teacher to control what goes on in the rest of the school. I have some thoughts on that, but unless the school buys into the mission of reform, that avenue is closed and the impact of an individual teacher is far less…but still important. Some humility is also in order. I’ve met many good teachers. I’ve met one, maybe two truly great teachers. We all have  a lot of work to do, and I include myself in this: the more I learn, the more I realize how far I have to go.

I will close with a few general thoughts and a promise to flesh these thoughts out in my next few blog entries.

  • A textbook is not a curriculum. Good instruction will use a lot of resources that are all part of a larger plan.
  • Have a plan for instruction. Make sure it is aligned from grade to grade with fewer topics taught at each level, but those topics taught for mastery.
  • Teach well. Would you want to be a student in your classroom?
  • Challenge students, but know what a challenge actually is.
  • Students should think in your classroom, not just memorize.
  • Have a plan for those students who either arrive unprepared or who just don’t “get it.”
  • Remember that part of teaching is coaching. Good coaches don’t just tell their players how to play the game, they show them the skills, have them practice the skills, give them feedback, and help them master the skills.
  • Do not hand-hold or coddle the student.
  • Recognize that you are not perfect!

I might go on and on, but I think the general idea is that the teacher and school should control what can be controlled and stop worrying about what can’t be controlled. We can’t control the horrible divorce situation in the student’s family, but we can control what the student faces in school. It may well be that the school is the only stability in a student’s life!

It is interesting to note that most of those successful adults who rose above terrible circumstances in childhood can trace their success back to the influence of an adult. What a shame if God chose a teacher to be that great influence in a child’s life and that teacher did not rise to the challenge.

Anti-Bullying Legislation

I know I promised to talk about education reform (I even presented the topic of my next few blog entries at work today). However, I found a news article today that I just couldn't resist. Like most states, North Dakota is looking at legislation to prevent bullying in schools. Noble? Absolutely!

Of course, there is already legislation on the books against murder.  It doesn't seem to have stopped murder.  Even threats of dire punishment don't prevent murder or any other crime. Laws don't fix problems, but they certainly do a good job making politicians and other feel like they're doing something.

If we are serious about bullying, we need to look more locally. Here are a few easy ideas to start:

  • Teachers need to be visible and in the hallway between classes. (I've stopped some bullying that way.)
  • Teachers need to actually stop bullying when they see it.
  • Everybody needs to agree on what bullying is.
  • Parents need to take an interest in their children: check Facebook accounts, check e-mail and texting if necessary, and, most important, talk to their children so they know when there is a problem.
  • Parents need to act when they find out their children are being bullied. I've been shocked to find out how many parents won't call other parents when there is a problem.
  • Don't let it go. Some schools or parents will excuse bullying as kids being kids. Parents should stand up to schools that won't deal with bullying. Schools should stand up to parents who try to excuse bullying.
  • Recognize what is worth attention and what isn't. Ideally, the student should deal with the problems. We should help students learn to do this. We should always be ready to step in, of course.
  • Parents need to be parents: teach their children right from wrong, punish when they do wrong, and pay attention to them.

Bullying isn't just children being themselves. It's not good natured teasing. It goes beyond the give and take of the real world. Bullying is a problem and it can be a serious one. Well-intentioned legislation doesn't solve the problem. It actually just dances around the problem as a form of CYA (Cover Your...Antelope). The documentation is there in the case of a lawsuit, but not the solution.