The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Welcome to The Treasure Hunter, a blog by Joanne Yatvin

ButterflyJYThe purpose of this blog is to highlight the good things now happening or possible in public education.  Although I will write pieces as often as I can, I welcome contributions from others who are aware of positive happenings in schools  or have good ideas for change.  My hope is that this blog will become the loudest voice in support of our schools, teachers, and students.


Bits of Treasure Found in a Few Schools

Today’s post gives information from an article written by Linda Jacobson and posted in Education Dive on 11/6/2017.

P.S. Because I will be attending the NCTE Convention later this week and visiting family for Thanksgiving I will not post anything more until December 1st.

Only one day after writing about how bleak the public education world looks to me, I stumbled on an article about what is happening in some states, school districts and individual schools. It gave me hope that those actions will increase and spread to schools around the country

To be specific, the article reported on the activities of certain school districts and schools in various states that were reaching out to students to get their opinions and give them the power to change things they disapproved of in their school.

I was deeply impressed by what some schools are doing to give students a voice in decision making, creating new courses and changing unpopular school practices. Unfortunately, however, there was too much information in the article for me to cram into my post.  What I have done instead is list the areas that were covered and mention the names of a few schools and students that stood out. I urge readers who want to know more to go to the original article and get a full picture of school executives’ actions and students’ participation in determining what should be included in a schools’ program.

School Districts and Schools Responding to Students Concerns and Seeking Student Voices

Greece Central School District near Rochester, NY, has removed requirements for uniforms in physical education classes

Arcadia High School has given 13 minutes to all classrooms at beginning of school day for students to hold discussions

Alcott College Prep in Chicago is one of 60 high schools to add student voice committees as part of the Chicago Public Schools’ civic

Lawrenceville School in N.J. seeks student participation in decision-making; polls students on school practices

Thirty Chicago elementary schools have committees that meet after school to discuss student leadership and make proposals for change to administrators

Helpful Organizations

“Joe Foss Institute” campaigns to get states to make civic education a more prominent part of the curriculum.

“Sound Out”  works with schools to increase student voice

“Youth Truth” does student surveys in  schools that reveal students’ positions on many issues, such as bullying and academic rigor. It also uses surveys in developing Local Control Accountability Plans, which include parents

Students’ Actions

Students at Arcadia High school organized a National African-American Read-in one year, and afterword designed a 12th grade English course that would focus on interests of marginalized populations. Three other high schools in the district also adopted such a course.

James Wellemeyer, a senior at Lawrenceville School created a 150- page e-text book on youth involvement in politics. He also reported that “My school polled students about workload and reduced weekend homework as a result.”

Anthony McCall, a 12th grader at Arcadia High School says, “Activities so far this year have included a field trip to a public market to learn about the history and the cultures represented, as well as discussions over issues such as not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.”


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No Treasure to Find in Education Today

Over the past year I’ve regretted naming my blog The Treasure Hunter. I should have called it The Disappointed Educator or, better yet, The Sad Sack. As I read about what is happening in our public schools, and what the plutocrats are demanding of students and teachers, I find almost nothing that I am happy with. These are sad, sad times for our schools, our children and, consequently, our nation

Although I am not visiting schools any more to see first hand what is happening, I read enough in several news sources to be convinced that today’s classrooms are more like torture chambers than places for students to mature, learn some stuff, feel good about themselves, and become successful adults.

Over the past several years, even before I had a blog, I publically criticized “No Child Left Behind” and “The Common Core State Standards” for asking the wrong things of students of all ages. I have also complained about the time and money wasted on high stakes testing and the judgments made about the significance of test scores.

Another thing that has bothered me is the ubiquitous worship of data. I cannot understand how the experts can pass judgment on the competence of teachers and the quality of schools on numbers alone, without ever visiting them to see what is really going on and why.

To be honest, I admit that an article I read this week pushed me over the edge of tolerance and civility about what is happening in our schools. It was about a high school in Ohio that has started a program to help students avoid thoughts of suicide. Because three students have killed themselves recently, the school decided that a program was needed to discourage further suicidal urges. I was outraged. Maybe the school leaders should have looked at themselves, the school rules, the current curriculum, and their student expectations,

After that I thought about some of the other programs being used in many schools today: Mindfulness, Social and Emotional Learning, and Grit. Why are they needed? Such beliefs and behaviors are learned naturally by children who are treated well at home and in school. Rather than providing programs to fit the interests, needs, and growth patterns of young people, schools are trying to re-shape them to fit the pipe dreams of the “experts,” and decision makers, all in the interest of making our international test scores look as good as those of some other countries.

Is there really something wrong with American children? I don’t think so. They are the products of our culture, and over the past centuries most of them have displayed the qualities needed to function well in our world. The only serious problems we have are poverty and too many guns.

Unfortunately, I am not empowered to change our country’s politics or re-educate our school decision makers. All I can do is suggest to readers that the most important things we can do is opt-out our children from high stakes tests, pay attention to what our school board is doing, and vote wisely.

Oh, and get off the data train!

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It May Be Time to Scrap the Traditional High School Curriculum

Some time ago I read an interesting article in Valerie Strauss’ blog titled “Why Kids Hate School—Subject by Subject”. In it the author, Roger Schank, a university professor, names several high school courses that he believes should be eliminated, and briefly states why each one is no longer appropriate for high school students. Today I will describe his opinions and explain where I agree or disagree with him, and why.

Professor Roger Schank claims that every subject taught in high school today is a mistake; and goes on to list courses that he finds especially bad. He names four of them that do not interest high school students because they deal with skills and information that have no connection to their lives today or the foreseeable future. In that group he puts Algebra, Chemistry, Biology, and French. Three other courses he names could be worthwhile, but he thinks they are now badly taught.

Schank does not take the time to explain the origins of the courses he names or why high schools still require them. I see them as deeply embedded traditions, originally put into the high school curriculum because most of the students in earlier times were planning to go on to college and aiming for specific careers. But they had not yet become familiar with the types of college courses available.

Today is a different world for most high school students. They are living their lives outside of school with cell phones, television, Face Book, and activities on line or in their neighborhood. College is far in the future for many of them or not even a possibility for others. Very little of what is being taught in school has any meaning for high school students.

The second group of courses that Schank criticizes are  History, Economics and English. He alleges that all of them are being improperly taught.  In my opinion the problem with  History is that the content is focused completely on the past. High school courses that cover several wars, many government leaders, war heroes, and the expansion of territory are not relevant to young people today.  But they would be meaningful if they connected past events to the present and the possible future, and featured only the most significant events and individuals. In fact, American history should probably be replaced by World history, which would give students a bigger and better picture of how the U.S. has affected other countries and they have affected us.

I also agree that Economics is a course that should be re-designed. Looking at how and why wealth and financial power are distributed in the U.S. and other countries today could be very meaningful for young people. Even better would be examining their personal dealings with money.  Figuring out how to earn, save, spend, and invest their own money might be very interesting and change many students’ lives for the better. Too many adults missed out on having such an economics class in high school.

In considering high school English Courses Schank gets rather nasty.  He vilifies great authors of the past and sees no value in their books.  The only thing he finds worth doing in an English classroom is writing.  That, in itself, makes no sense to me.  How can you learn to write if you don’t read good writing?  In my own experience as a teacher and a principal, having students read high quality literature, poetry, and drama, at the appropriate level, and using them to motivate and support their own writing were positive experiences. Students learned to write well and to enjoy their work.

Basically, I found Schank’s criticism of today’s high school courses worthy of consideration and action. Unfortunately, however, he tried too hard to be clever and act like a teenager. It’s no wonder that he received lots of criticism from teachers. I think he would have had a strong positive effect on teachers, textbook publishers and education decision makers if he had aimed his criticism at them rather than high school courses.



How Teachers and Other School Workers Went the Extra Mile

 Last week I wrote about  things I did at the schools where I was principal to create two classrooms at each grade level and insure that teachers had a partner and time to meet together. Today I will describe the innovative projects of two of my teachers and a school custodian that benefitted students’ learning and helped them to enjoy being at school.

 My greatest pleasure in being a principal was working with teachers and other school employees who were eager to do extra work to improve our school and the experiences of its students. Although I could not pay them for their efforts, I could provide them with the time and materials they needed, and make sure they received public recognition and honor.

At my elementary school in Wisconsin one of our grade 4/5 teachers got the idea of opening a school store. When she described it to me it sounded like it would benefit the students who made items for store considerably. Her idea was to use an empty classroom for a school store that would be open one day a week during the noon hour and sell only student- made products. Fortunately, I was able to grant her the time during the school day to create that store, assist students who wanted to make and sell products, and supervise the store operation.

The first parts of the teacher’s new job were to advertise for students who wanted to create items for the store and then to advise them about the practicality of their proposed items and the prices to be charged.  Although no food items would be allowed in the store,* many useful and decorative items were produced and sold. Among the most popular ones were greeting cards, wooden games, decorative magnets, soft sculptured jewelry, embroidered handkerchiefs, and rocks with painted images.

As time went by, the student item makers and the items changed, but the store continued to be popular. Some students never tired of making things to sell and others never tired of buying them. Over time, the most popular items were decorative rather than useful. The desire for a woven bracelet always exceeded that for a workbook cover.

Our store continued to operate and be popular for several years while I was Principal. I don’t know what happened after I left to live and work in Oregon, and another principal took over my job.

At the middle school in Oregon where I next became principal, our math teacher was the one who proposed having a student “Jobs” program and supervised it. Any middle school student willing to work 20 minutes a day could apply for job, which was available before or after school hours and during the school day for those who were not in a class at that time.

Interested students were required to fill out an application form, get recommendations from adults, and go through an interview with the teacher in charge. Those who completed those requirement successfully were assigned to work in the cafeteria, gym, playground, or school hallways by moving things from place to place, serving food, taking away trash, or delivering items to classrooms.  Another possibility was assisting workers in the school office in various ways. The adults at the places where students worked supervised their performance and reported on it to the math teacher in charge of the program.

Students signed in and out of the time they worked in the school office and received points for each day worked. At the end of the school year a raffle of desirable gifts was held for all those who participated. The number of points a worker had earned over the year determined which items he or she could bid for and, perhaps, win. Those who worked the most days were able to bid for items valued at as much as a hundred dollars. Workers who had put in  less time were able to win desirable, but less expensive items, such as magazine subscriptions, hats, tee shirts, decorative pieces, or even bags of candy. Students who had not been workers, or were in elementary grades, also attended the yearly raffles to watch the prizes won and cheer for the winners.

The last program I want to describe was proposed by our custodian at the Oregon school. She was a  smart, child-loving young woman who organized groups of students to help with collecting classroom trash and discarded milk containers from the cafeteria.  Many of those materials had to be cleaned and sorted for trash company pickup. As a result of students’ efforts, our school won an award for the largest amount of re-cycled paper products in our county.

In addition to the special project, our custodian was always available to students who hung around before or after school in order to work with her. She taught them skills and praised them for their work. Because she was such an important part of our school, I arranged to take her, along with several teachers, to a meeting and celebration in the state of Washington as one of our outstanding school employees.










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What is Chronic Absenteeism, and What Should Schools Do About It?

As I continue my reading of school problems “Chronic Absenteeism” seems to be the major one right now.  I can’t help wondering if our kids are all going bad at once or many of our schools  are becoming intolerable.

While brushing my teeth this morning it occurred to me that today is my 14th day of having a bad cold. Although I’m feeling better than I did a week ago—maybe because I’m now taking a medication—I’m still not operating on all cylinders. What if I were a young person who was supposed to be at school?

Well, that’s not likely, because my colds cleared up much quicker when I was a kid. But my situation made me think about school absenteeism, which seems to be a major issue for public schools all over the country these days. Among the ESSA plans submitted by all states this year, 36 of them and the District of Columbia included the goal of reducing student absenteeism drastically. Although there is no research that tells us how much absenteeism is the tipping point for any student, most states have selected 10 % of the school year as the number that is the one after which a student is likely to fall behind in his work and fail one or more classes. They have labeled this number as “chronic absenteeism” and introduced various school actions to get students to school more regularly.

In case you’ve forgotten how to figure out percentages, my calculator says that 10% of the usual school year (180 days) is 18 days. So chronic absenteeism may now be diagnosed in students who are absent for a day or two in some months and those who are absent for long periods of time. In my opinion some students’ patterns of absences  affect their learning  negatively and others’ patterns not at all.

For those reasons I think that the best approach for a school is to have one or more officials–depending on school size– to keep track of student absences and meet with those students who appear to have problems. The official would also contact parents to find out what is causing the absences and if there is any way to reduce them.

Beyond those actions, any school that feels it has an absenteeism epidemic should look internally to see where it might be making school too difficult, unappealing, or even unbearable for many students; then work to make some positive changes.  Such changes could be reducing bullying, providing a wider range of classes for students to chose from, or introducing more social activities. When there is an epidemic of absenteeism in a school it is not only students that need to be healed, but also the school.

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