Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Random thoughts on Schools and Teaching

Originally published on February 26, 2012 [during a long-term music teaching assignment at a local elementary school; very slightly edited mostly for style and updated terminology.]

Now that I've been in this particular long-term teaching assignment for 5 weeks and counting (at least 3 more weeks to go), lots of random thoughts have been going back and forth in my mind, none of which is ready yet for a post on its own (except the school discipline and standardized testing which I was working on even before I started working here). Some are old memories refreshed, some are old memories seen through new eyes, and some are complete reworkings of misconceptions I had of kids and discipline before I became a parent.

Kids need more unstructured playtime than they get, especially outside playtime. They need to get more of it at school, especially kids who live in neighborhoods where playing outside unsupervised just might not be safe, and especially kids who are "hard-wired" into the internet and video games. In my own elementary school we had 15 minutes of recess morning and afternoon in addition to after-lunch recess and we still managed to learn to read and write and do math and science, and it was also far enough back in the annals of history that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, had computers at home (not till I was in middle school, anyway, when we got our first 64K doorstop computer from Radio Shack, or did the Atari come first? LOL).

We desperately need to revisit what is developmentally appropriate for children at what ages and stages. There is no need to shove literacy and numeracy at 3-year-olds when most of their brains aren't ready for it. There's no need to deny those skills to kids who ARE ready for it, either (says the mom who was reading fluently at 2YO with one daughter who did the same), but to assume that all children will be ready to decode words and read them with comprehension by the end of kindergarten (which here means 6YO for most children, now that we've gone exclusively to full-day kindergarten in order to increase the "academic rigor" in kindergarten making it completely inappropriate for most 4-year-olds who would turn 5 during the school year) holds no water. In Finland, early education (which is available to all families regardless of family income, incidentally) focuses primarily on social skills and interaction, and I don't think there is an American teacher who will disagree that these areas are extremely deficient in American schools and the majority of American students.

On the flip side, students in Sweden and Finland aren't taught reading formally til age 7, and yet their academic progress is equal to or better than American students' by high school. This leaves plenty of time before 7 years old for unstructured play, for time spent alone and with friends, and for helping them learn how to work with each other, and this age is when kids naturally absorb and imitate what they see around them. Behavior problems in many Western classrooms are rampant IMO partly because we spend so little time helping kids learn to interact appropriately in the early years when they SHOULD be learning those skills, when they are hard-wired to be learning and imitating them and putting them into practice - and instead we're so wrapped around the axle about "higher standards" in academic areas that we're neglecting this crucial aspect of children's minds and lives, to their detriment and to ours.

Children need more time and opportunities to express themselves artistically. When I started teaching, I saw all students twice a week for music; they also had art and PE/gym twice weekly. In my current school system, we see kids once a week, and if there's a holiday or snow day or assembly or testing on those days, too bad. In the 6 weeks I've been at this school, I've missed my Monday students THREE TIMES due to holidays, meaning they're getting a lot less music time than their agemates. Goes without saying that the same goes for art and phys ed in our school system. :-( Our society practically venerates pop musicians but doesn't give our youth the same opportunities to succeed artistically in other forms of artistic expression or even other styles of music. In addition to the well-documented academic benefits of arts education and participation, the arts are especially important to kids who might not be really able to express themselves in traditionally academic ways; the cutbacks and losses of arts programs in schools is in my opinion a far bigger loss than anyone really can quantify, which is probably precisely how it happens: we can't truly express how important this part of ourselves and our children's selves truly is, so we marginalize it, view it as unimportant.

I've had the pleasure of seeing some kids really blossom when given new opportunities to be performers. During the third quarter (so late January thru the end of March here), there has been a grant to pay for a choreographer to come work with the entire 5th grade during their music time to learn two dance numbers per class with the end result being a schoolwide assembly about the history of Broadway through dance. Each class is learning choreography for two Broadway songs from different eras which will be presented chronologically at the end of March. It has been utterly amazing to me to see kids who have been chronic discipline problems in their classrooms accept instruction, work with their classmates (with whom they may have been fighting on the playground the day before), and do the Charleston to Sing Sing Sing. "Alpha" kids who in their classrooms might be encouraging other kids to misbehave en masse are entreating their peers to shut up and listen to the choreographer, and are even coming up with some of their own moves. They're getting their classmates together at recess to work on dances. And they're finding a focus that they might not have anywhere else in the school.  It's also amazing to me also to look at displays in the hallways and see some of the artwork even younger elementary kids can do, and to watch them progress even given the extremely limited time allowed in once-a-week art classes; kids who might have a lot of trouble expressing themselves verbally or managing math are coming up with some really lovely drawings, paintings, and sculptures that require time, effort, and attention to detail that isn't being tapped through traditional instruction. Many kids excel in physical education even if they don't do so well in the classroom because a completely different set of skills is being called on, but because all those things aren't "on the tests," in many cases the art and music and physical education teachers are viewed as little more than providers of planning time for classroom students by the powers that be. We subjugate these parts of our children's learning and lives to their detriment and to that of the school and community as a whole.

"Higher Standards" is a big fancy term for "expect schools to counteract what kids bring to school with them from their homes." It's not going to happen by spending more and more and more time on literacy and numeracy without getting to the root causes of what isn't working and why. Teaching IS getting better, but a lot of kids are still coming to school with the same shortcomings they always have. In several of my current classes, I'd estimate that half the class is receiving ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instruction, meaning that while the classroom teacher is still expected to have these kids reading at grade level by the end of the year, the fact is that over half the kids in his or her class speak only enough English to get by in conversation but are going to have a hard time with the more formal language found in most of their reading texts, let alone the vocabulary expected of them on standardized tests. With a class size of sometimes 28-30 children (or more!) in many underfunded urban schools, it is simply not realistic to expect some magical approach to remedy this. It's also not going to happen by waving the promise of better funding for schools that improve their scores (when it's the schools who are having a harder time overcoming these obstacles that need the funding for more teachers and smaller classes!) or the threat of a revolving door of administrators perceived as ineffective because the test scores didn't improve enough (when stability of leadership is most important in those settings in most cases).

These approaches DO NOT work. They HAVE NOT worked in the past. If improvement in test scores is happening at the expense of true meaningful learning, because hours and hours are being devoted to "MSA Words of the day," to acronyms the kids will never use after public school ("short paragraph" now = "BCR"), to a specific prescribed method of paragraph dissection and step-by-step math problems that weren't for some reason fully understood when they were initially taught, then we need to look at the curriculum and instruction and resources (and in many cases the lack of resources!) we have and fix THOSE. The Federal and State governments' call for "higher standards" doesn't mean doodly to families whose parents are working 3 jobs to pay the rent and keep their families housed and fed and simply don't have the time or resources themselves to work on English skills and homework with their kids, or to the preschoolers being raised by (in some cases) single teen moms who may or may not have had the best parenting skills modeled for them and so have no real basis for parenting their own children. If we can't address THOSE problems, then threatening with the Big Stick of "Accountability" is completely meaningless.

We need to adjust our expectations of children both higher and lower. We need to remember that 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds are still very much in the realm of "Early Childhood." (That actually goes up to Age 8 here in the States.) These kids need to move around a LOT. They need a different kind of structure than desk/table time and sit-on-the-floor-in-rows time, but more and more sitting-down time is expected of them at earlier and earlier ages. On the other hand, we need to give them credit that if we teach them social skills early on, they WILL learn them if we expect them - but at the same time, we have to be prepared to be very hands-on with them, to teach and re-teach and model and re-model over and over and OVER again - but to LET them learn, to set them up for success. Too many times I see a child reprimanded from a distance instead of being shown the correct way to do something up close hands-on - and of course in a class of 27 kindergarten children, all of whom may need this at the same time but in different corners of the classroom or playground or hallways or cafeteria or bathroom, there isn't enough staff to do so, and so we end up regimenting instead of giving the help the kids need because teachers are mere mortals, with only two arms and without the ability to be in more than one place at once. We desperately need to increase the staffing of qualified and competent teachers and assistants in the younger grades and in pre-K and Head Start, because if kids are coming out of those programs deficient in social skills after two years, then we need to look at why and we need to fix it then instead of letting the problems grow with the children.

At the same time, we need to understand that kids are capable of some pretty high-level stuff if given the opportunity. Keeping kids all on the same track in the name of homogeneous instruction has its good points - more capable students modeling for less capable ones, and theoretically at least motivating them - but it has drawbacks when capable children really don't have the opportunity to shine because one-size-fits-all instruction simply...doesn't. There's no way that it can. And there isn't enough staff, and in many cases the classroom space, or the time allotted, to accomplish anything better for too many students. :-(

"Tougher Discipline" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Before I had kids of my own, I thought that reward charts and harsher punishments were really the way to go. If you've read any of my other posts, you know I no longer feel this way - not even close! - and in fact I've gone pretty much the other direction. We need to enable kids to do and be their best, and we need to provide resources to schools and teachers to enable THEM to do this. Otherwise, we're constantly trying to paint over water damage on the ceiling instead of just fixing the roof already. Absolutely not a fan of letting bad behavior go unaddressed, mind you - but there's a difference between addressing a problem and punishing it.

School lunches suck. There's no way to say it nicely. And what we don't know about nutrition is not helping our kids learn, or behave, in good ways. [Once I get my posts on nutrition back up, this will make more sense.]

Now for the good news: the teachers I'm working with now are completely different from the teachers I worked with 20 years ago when I was just starting out. Not that teachers or teaching were bad back then, but we have learned more about how kids learn, about how to work with special needs kids, about how to incorporate technology. At my first school, I think only 2 or 3 teachers in the building had a Masters; in this school, I think most of the teachers either already have one or are working on theirs. In fact, the requirements for certification almost demand 5 years of college anyway, so colleges are beginning to offer degree programs where students go in as freshmen and come out in 5-6 years with a Masters already. The teachers are more likely to be up on recent research or new techniques to try with their kids. I see some of these teachers in the building at ridiculously early hours or leaving pretty late in the afternoon/early evenings because their schedules during the day don't really give them the planning and marking and grading time they need.

But the flip side of that coin is that despite their enthusiasm and dedication, there is only so much they can do given the classroom resources they get. A number of classes in many schools across the country are so large as to be borderline unmanageable, and I often wonder how long it will be before these teachers will wake up one day and realize that they're being expected to work miracles without a magic wand and just burn out, as so many have before them. As much as I love watching children learn, and as much as it delights me to see them being musical and to watch them grow and mature, for every case like that, there are probably 5 more where I can't connect with students for reasons I may not be able to understand given my extremely limited contact time with them. Teachers and administrators are being held "accountable" for student successes but aren't being given the resources to really DO what could - and should - ideally be done with enough time, space, staff, and materials. And make no mistake: as a result of policies created in No Child Left Behind and continued in Race to the Top, kids are being "Left Behind," and it's happening in droves. We are absolutely NOT doing what it takes to keep kids in school, to keep them learning, to keep them healthy, or in some cases to keep them safe, let alone helping them all become complete adults in 13 to 15 years when they leave the schools, assuming they stay for the whole time and don't drop out. And this is why I feel that despite my (finally-successful) efforts to reinstate my teaching certification and despite the fact that I adore teaching and learning and being a part of children's education and growth, that my own future is probably not going to be in that system, at least not in the traditional sense. If I'm to "Be the change I wish to see in the world," in the words of Gandhi, I don't think I will be able to do it locked in a system that won't enable me to succeed. I will need to make my own path, either alongside the schools, or intersecting with them, but not constrained by their system.

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Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)