The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Creating a Community in a Public School

To me a “community” is more than a mass of people living in the same physical territory. It is a group of comrades bound together by communication, cooperation, purpose, and respect. In a classroom it’s fairly easy for a smart teacher to create such a community. Even a whole school may achieve it when devotion to a particular cause brings people together. But it doesn’t always stay that way. Differences in classrooms or bad experiences for only a few students can dissolve a community and severely damage the learning of those who are affected

What kinds of differences am I talking about? Well, they could be harsher discipline for some students than for others, larger amounts of homework in a classroom than in the one next door, limited opportunities for participation in extra-curricular activities, bullying on the playground, or even ability grouping in a classroom.

The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the students who earned them and their parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not publically criticize the work or behavior of any student. When necessary, those things must be done privately.

The key to creating a classroom community is a teacher who knows how to respect all students and figure out ways for even the most struggling ones to shine. The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the student who earned it and his or her parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not criticize the work or behavior of any student publicly. When necessary, such messages must be delivered privately.

On the other hand, teachers should make it a point to praise positive actions such as when a student has gone out of his way to help a classmate who is struggling to learn what others have quickly absorbed; or one who is new in the classroom, appears confused, and seems too shy to ask for help.

Another action that good teachers choose to take is assigning desirable classroom jobs, such as distributing new books, to a shy child who usually works alone. Still, the teacher must be sure the student is ready to bloom. She talks to him or her, explains the new job, and makes sure that the student is willing to take it on. Or maybe that student is only ready to be an assistant to someone else. Okay, that works for now. Leadership can wait for the future.

In a classroom where a true community exists, cooperation, productivity, and learning soar. Those things happen because each individual is willing to work with others whenever necessary, and to support anyone who needs help, is shy, or has been treated badly in the past. Classroom leaders may not consider everyone their new friend, but they do believe that all classmates deserve the same consideration the teacher gave them when they were new and scared.

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A New Way to Serve Students With Special Needs

Today’s post I wrote and published elsewhere some time ago. I am repeating it today because I’m not finding anything about education in the newspapers I read. If you can suggest any good sources for me now, I would be very grateful.

Several years ago we closed our special resource room for disabled students and set the inmates free.  Although most of those children are still with us, no one remembers just who it was that once inhabited our back ward.  Those children now are in regular classrooms full-time, where they work shoulder to shoulder with regular students, where teachers modify the teaching for their particular needs, and where a specialist comes in to observe students progress and also teach them—along with their regular classmates—in small groups. All this has happened not as a result of the national movement toward “full inclusion schools” but because we, as educators could not tolerate the old pullout and self-contained systems any longer.

What you would have seen if you visited our resource room before we closed it was a relentless dance of students drifting in, filling out workbook pages, getting grades on their daily work records, and drifting out again. Their teacher could not attend to the wide range of needs in the students that had been sent to that room all at once, as was expected.  He felt he had no choice but to use commercial self-instruction programs that required little or no teaching. To both him and me, the principal and outside observers, it was clear that kids weren’t learning much, but at least they were quiet and occupied.

At that time our rural school had about 20 students classified as disabled. Most of them were “learning disabled,” four or five were “emotionally disturbed”, and two or three, “mentally retarded.”  In my opinion, most of those kids might have been more accurately called emotionally battered.  The cruel irony was that our school was battering them even more by isolating them from their regular classmates and filling their days with assignments that were meaningless drudgery.  Worst of all, there was no way out; nobody ever got “unclassified.”

Like most people in and out of education, our teachers and I originally held three misconceptions about special education: (1) the teaching was truly “special”.  (2) It can make handicapped children “whole, and (3)” teaching is the best thing we can give disabled children.

The truth is that good special education teaching is no different from regular teaching. Although the teachers rely more heavily on behavior control than are normally used, their teaching methods are no more magical than those used by teachers in ordinary classrooms.  They plan, struggle, and react; then plan again, trying to capture all children’s attention and hold it until there is a breakthrough of understanding.

Another truth is that all children have learning problems at one time or another. Those who become successful as adults have learned how to work around their deficiencies and emphasize their strengths. Our fate is decided by the number and severity of our learning problems, as balanced against our strength and self-esteem, and the quality of education we get in school and at home.  If lucky, we learn to cope and compensate, but no one is ever cured.

Good teaching is only half the story, the other half is good learning, and that depends more on psychological factors than intellectual ones. Handicapped children need to be persuaded that what they are being taught is worthwhile and they are capable of learning it.  Such beliefs are essential to learning, but hard to come by when you are a student in a resource room.

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The Trouble With Textbooks

Some time ago I read an article: “What to do about terrible textbooks,” and I quickly replied. But, apparently, my response was too late, and didn’t get published. Although some of the responses were similar to mine, I felt that they did not go far enough in explaining the problems of most textbooks.  In the first section I post my initial submission. In the second section I expand by recounting my own experiences, which had convinced me to avoid buying textbooks. Here they are below.

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My immediate reaction to this week’s question, “What to do about terrible textbooks” was: Throw it in the trash!  It will do more harm than good to your students if you use them as directed.  However, it took me only a few seconds to realize that neither a teacher nor a principal could get away with such an action in today’s top-down run schools.  Somebody in the school district office chose that textbook, believing it was of high quality and appropriate for students at your grade level, and other officials had approved that decision.  Even though you, as an experienced teacher, are more qualified to judge the educational value, it is better not to go into open revolt against your superiors. You will certainly lose the battle and, perhaps, your job. Instead, you should go over the purchased textbook with your fellow teachers and see what the group can extract from it that would be meaningful for students. Then, use only those portions for teaching and supplement them with other sources—maybe, even an older textbook of better quality. If little or nothing appears appropriate, shelve the new textbooks entirely and allow them to collect dust while you improvise using your personal knowledge, past experience and materials you have found elsewhere. It might also be worthwhile to suggest to your principal that it would be better to have a teachers committee select the textbooks the next time around.

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I have never been a fan of textbooks. Over all my years as a student I resented carrying them back and forth to school every day, reading their long, boring chapters, and having to search for the answers to the meaningless questions at the end of each chapter   On top of that, many other students had written inside the covers of my textbooks such things as: “In case of fire, throw this in.”  Although they were joking, I understood that those words reflected the feelings of many students.

When I began teaching, one of the first things I did was to collect all the textbooks that the students had in their desks and store them in a classroom cabinet. No students complained about my actions, and a few cheered them.

Several years and jobs later, I was hired to be the Chair of the English Department at a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks for everyone, none of my teachers were pleased. The old books were still serviceable, and the teachers wanted to get single pieces of literature instead that would give them more freedom to teach.  Besides, textbooks were getting increasingly expensive, which might mean that we would get less money for other things that we needed. As a group we rejected the new textbooks and requested funds to buy a variety of paperbacks instead. The only hardback books we needed to teach English were the poetry collections we already had.

Later on, in two elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperback literature instead of textbooks and workbooks.  My teachers believed that they could teach both English and American history using those materials and the other materials we had accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials we chose and the other less expensive materials we collected were better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools where I worked over time we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve our teaching preferences and students needs.  We also found that paperbacks— their covers strengthened with Scotch tape– lasted just as long—if not longer–than far more expensive textbooks.

Please understand that we were seeking the best things for our students, not lower spending. The problems that haunt all commercial textbooks are the impossibility of meeting the needs of schools all over the country, and the fact that those who are creating them are far removed from the reality of students’ needs, interests, and abilities. It is sad, but true, that you can’t effectively teach a student you don’t know personally.

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How to Make Over a School

Early in my time as a school principal my teachers saw me as someone who might be willing to make changes in that school in order to have things better for everyone.

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While going through my pile of records recently, I found an old newspaper article about the Oregon school where I was principal for twelve years. As I read it I remembered many of the programs that my teachers and I were able to carry out when we were awarded a state grant. Today, I will try to describe those programs and their results, hoping that our story will make readers aware of some of the good things schools were allowed to do back in the good old days if their teachers were creative and willing to work hard. Ours were, and they made our school a great place for students, teachers and me, when I was principal.

At the beginning, our school was not a winner. When I came there it was the only school in a small country town of farmers, old folks, and workers with minimal jobs. The school consisted of two small and plain buildings on opposite sides of a dirt road; one an elementary school and the other a middle school with only about three hundred students altogether, and no fancy accoutrements inside or out.

When our state gave us the freedom and funding to make changes in our school, the first thing we did was to adopt a road that ran past usl. It had very few houses, and not many cars drove bye. But for some reason it was a popular place for people to throw trash on the road and into the adjoining bushes.

Our school got involved when one of our teachers expressed his determination to clean up the road. First, he contacted the local police department to officially mark the road as our domain. Next, he nailed up a sign on a tree to make our authority clear to everyone who went by; and then he obtained tools and outfits for students to wear for protection when they were working on the road. Finally, he selected a group of older students to carry out the first road cleanup during the afternoon school time. While they were working, younger students, some teachers, and I watched and cheered them on. The road cleanup job was repeated three or four times a year, and was continued in the following years by new workers.

The next school change that I got involved with was suggested by one of our middle school teachers. Although students at that level had a daily study period for homework or reading, most of them fooled around instead. The teacher thought it would be much better for them to use their time doing real jobs for the school and earning rewards for their work. When I saw what the kids were doing during “study time”, I agreed with her completely. It would be much better for children to be active and learning new skills than to play silly games. Besides, several other teachers and school workers had good ideas about what those kids could learn to do, how they could be supervised, and also be rewarded for their work.

The new “Jobs” program we started turned out to be great for the students involved and our school as a whole. Also, a teacher and some school workers were eager to instruct the kids and supervise them. For example, one job was helping the gym teacher clear up the gymnasium at the end of school days by cleaning up the room and putting away all the equipment that had been used. Other jobs were such things as emptying trash cans in classrooms and halls at the end of the day, delivering work materials to where they were needed, posting student art work in the hallways, and even wiping clean the glass doors that lead to the outside. All of the supervision was handled by teachers or school workers in their free time.

The last student activities I remember were serving food in the school lunchroom and collecting used school materials that could be re-sold to a company instead of being thrown away as garbage. Not only did our school receive a good amount of money for those items, it also paid less for having our garbage picked up.

Nevertheless, that was not the last activity for teachers and me. Our school, like other small ones often had a couple of over-crowded classrooms that didn’t work well for student behavior or learning, and were also hard on teachers. To make matters worse a particular class could continue to be overcrowded from year to year unless a few students moved away.

Since we couldn’t know ahead how many children would arrive for each classroom, we decided to have two classrooms for each grade level. Such an action would enable us to keep class sizes reasonable by putting students of similar abilities in the same classroom, and separating students who did not get along well with each other.

When I started to write about all the changes we made in our school I didn’t realize how much their was to say. The events I’ve tried to describe represent 12 years of teachers and me working together and supported by parents. We didn’t regret any of it. After so many yeas, we are still proud of all we accomplished.

Over a few more years the school worked as we had planned. Because of our actions we often got visitors from other schools and newspaper reporters. Things were great for several years, but unfortunately the state administration decided to merge its small country schools with larger ones in towns nearby. We argued against that action as long as we could, but finally we lost. Our school was taken over by a larger school in a nearby city, and many of the things we did were quickly changed. I waited for a short time, then resigned my job and retired.

Today I am leaving Portland for Philadelphia, and my computer will not follow for at least a month. Even then it will need to be “revived”by an expert. My plan is to start writing again as soon as I can, but I think that will be at least June.

Best wishes to you all,

Joanne

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A New Beginning

Although it may not please all readers I must tell you the truth. Right now I am in the process of moving out of my home in Oregon and moving to Philadelphia. PA. Leaving a home that I have lived in, and loved, for thirty years is not easy, but I will spare you the details. Still, I must let you know what is happening to my blog as a result of my moving. I am working every day to clear out my currant house and pack the things I want to take with me.  

As a result, I have very little time now to do anything else, including writing this blog. But in order to keep your attention– and my own sanity–I plan to post things that I wrote and were published before this blog existed. Since I suspect that most of you did not run into them, — or have forgotten them,– I plan to post several here–starting today–and continuing until I am able to write pieces and post them in my new home. I hope that’ll be no more than one month in the future. Start counting!

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do? The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than forty years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called, in a reference to Greek mythology and G Bernard Shaw’s famous play, the “Pygmalion Effect”: the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book, “Pygmalian in the Classroom”, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions. 

High expectations is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results. 

The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administrated a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance. 

In reality, those students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvement in learning and behavior for most of the students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen; no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters–but not their other students–were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified children.

Now, more than 40 years later, the reality of the “Pygmalion effect” stands unrefuted by further research, while it is supported by considerable evidence from classrooms where poor and minority children have made great strides in their learning because their teachers believed they would. It is also supported by countless stories of successful people who were struggling in school and life until some adult–a teacher, a boss, a family friend–saw something special in them and encouraged them to make the most of it.

Please ignore the message below; I have tried to remove it, but failed.

Joanne

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