The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

My Photo Mystery

Some of you may be wondering what the dark spot is on my face in the photo at the top of this blog and why I chose to be known by that particular photo. Let me explain. The spot is a Painted Lady butterfly that was one among many raised in our first grade classroom at the rural Oregon school where I was principal from 1988 to 2000. I chose that photo as my emblem because it expresses my love and faith in our public schools, our children, and our teachers.

The photo was taken by first grade teacher, Rachel Sudul, on the day the butterflies hatched in her classroom. A month or so earlier she had come into my office asking if she could have some school funds to buy a butterfly larvae kit and a tent to keep the butterflies in. I was surprised and fascinated by her plan to raise butterflies in her classroom and use them as a tool for student learning. Of course I gave her the funds she needed, never suspecting what a great teaching tool they would be.

Rachel’s students, just beginning to read and write, followed every step in the growth and development of the larvae and the behavior of the resultant butterflies. They drew pictures, wrote about what they saw, made up butterfly stories, and sought out books in our school library to learn more. Although I can’t remember everything the teacher or the kids did as part of this project, I do know that it was a total success. Our first graders, mostly from poor families, who had come to school with few skills and little academic knowledge, were now learning the basics of reading, writing, science, and research. I continue to be proud of Rachel, who is still doing great things as a teacher at a different school in rural Oregon.

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The Other Purpose of Education

Far too many politicians and ordinary citizens have forgotten that the purpose of American education is as much to support a democratic society, as it is to produce students who are “college and career ready.” They have also forgotten that the proof of the pudding is not how well one school’s test scores compare with another’s or the level of respect our national system of education receives from the rest of the world, but the proportion of young Americans who are leading honest, productive, and caring lives.

No question, children’s civic learning begins and continues in the home through watching, listening, and imitating what their parents do. But home cannot offer children the full range of experiences. They need to interact with adults and children of other backgrounds, behaviors and beliefs. In the past, schools picked up the reins for civic learning where parents left off by providing social interaction through recesses and some classes, such as physical education and art. But nowadays the pressure to raise test scores and the tightness of school budgets have forced most schools to stop providing those opportunities. In enacting harsh discipline policies, and in putting so much importance on test scores, schools have all but wiped out the possibility of students learning and practicing citizenship. What can be done to restore this emphasis?

Above all, teachers need to set up ways for students to participate in classroom planning, decision-making, and organization. There is no reason why students shouldn’t be able to add their own interests, if appropriate, to the topics to be investigated in a unit or to choose between teacher-suggested projects. And only a little training will get students to put their classroom back in good order at the end of the day. When kids feel that “this is our classroom” rather than the teacher’s personal domain, they become good citizens in their own small community.

At the school-wide level it is up to administrators to establish policies that respect students’ civil rights and personal dignity, even when they have broken the rules. One regular practice should be to give misbehaving kids a fair hearing before deciding what the consequences should be. I chose to use the word “consequences” rather than “punishment“ because I believe that in most cases the next step should be to have the misbehaver work on “fixing the problem” rather than undergo punishment. If there is a way to repair the harm that was done or to make the person who was harmed feel better, that’s what a misbehaver should do. He or she will start on the road to better citizenship as the result of a positive action.

The next step in civic education is having students participate in school decision-making in ways that are age-appropriate. For example, children from elementary grades can work with a teacher to choose playground games and set the rules of participation, while high school students can serve on committees that make decisions about what is best for them, such as which non-required subjects should be offered and how parent/teacher conferences should be structured. In their spare time older students are capable of joining with parents on local projects such as preparing and serving food in a homeless shelter, encouraging people to vote, or building a playground in a neighborhood that has none.

Once more, I remind you that giving all this attention to student citizenship is not an unreasonable expectation. Until high stakes testing took over our schools, demanding that every school day and every bit of student and teacher effort be dedicated to raising test scores, citizenship training was common. Remember the Safety Patrol  that monitored street crossings and the mechanical  equipment helpers who delivered movie projectors to your classroom, set them up, and took them away when you had finished with them? But now, the legislators concerned about school “accountability” have no interest in how students treat each other, serve the school, or how schools treat their students. Concern for the growth of responsibility and humanity in our children should never be out of style.

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No News is Good News?

If you have been wondering why I am posting old pieces already posted elsewhere, it’s because school hasn’t started yet around here and even the news about education elsewhere has been sparse.   Bragging–just a little bit–I want you to know that I subcribe to two newspapers outside of Oregon just to find out what’s going on around the country.  The answer is not much.

What I hope to do, starting in mid September, is to visit the classrooms of teachers I know and others that have been recommended to me.  When I see good things happening in their classrooms I will take notes and report on them here.  Until then, I hope that my current readers will hang on with me and find value in my older articles.  If you do, I will  be rewarding you with a new essay tomorrow on the “other” purpose of education.

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Schools Need More Vigor, not Rigor

As I promised when I began this blog, today I am giving you another dose of my basic philosophy of education. Yes, this essay was published before, a few years ago in Valerie Strauss’ “The Answer Sheet,” but I have revised it somewhat, and, for me at least, it is timeless. If you are a teacher and like this piece, why not copy it and slip it under the door of your principal’s office. Better yet, send it to your superintendent and school board.


Though my years in the classroom are long past, at heart I am still a cranky old English teacher who bristles at some of the neologisms that have crept into public language. I never tack “ly” onto ordinal number words, or say “myself” when I mean “I” or “me.” I won’t use “access” or “impact” as verbs because I consider them still to be only nouns.

Even so, I remain politely quiet when others commit such grammatical transgressions. But there is one word I dislike so intensely when used in connection with education that I can’t remain silent under any circumstances. That word is: rigor. Part of my reaction is emotional, having so often heard “rigor” paired with “mortis.” The other part is logical, stemming from the literal meanings of rigor: harshness, severity, strictness, inflexibility and immobility.  None of these things is what I want for students at any level. And, although I don’t believe that the politicians, scholars or media commentators who use the word so freely really want them, either, I still reproach them for using the wrong word and the wrong concept to characterize educational excellence.

Rigor has been used to promote the idea that American students need advanced course work, complex texts, and longer school days and years in order to be ready for college or the workplace. But, so far, the rigorous practices put in place under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Common Core Standards, and various school reform plans have not raised test scores or improved high school graduation rates.

Since I believe it is time for a better word and a better concept to drive American education, I recommend “vigor.” Here my dictionary says, “active physical or mental force or strength; healthy growth; intensity, force or energy.” And my mental association is to all the Latin-based words related to life. How much better our schools would be if they provided classroom activities throbbing with energy, growth and life. Although school buildings have walls, there should be no walls separating students from vigorous learning. No ceilings, either. To learn, students need first-hand experiences with real-world problems — not only in math and science, but also in civics and nutrition; knowledge garnered from multiple sources– not only from textbooks and the internet, but also from talking to people of all ages and different backgrounds. They also need a variety of skills: the traditional school ones plus at least a taste of the skills of farmers, craftsmen, mechanics, athletes, business managers, and sales people.

Instead of aiming for higher test scores, a vigorous school would care more about what students do with what they have been taught. At all grade levels such schools would foster activities that allow students to demonstrate their learning in real contexts, such as serving in the school lunchroom or checking out books in the library, organizing playground games for younger children or reading to them, making items to sell in a school store, creating a school vegetable garden, painting murals in the halls, adopting a nearby road, or running a school recycling program.

Schools could also encourage students to use their abilities and interests beyond the classroom and beyond  traditional extra-curricular activities.  Offer them opportunities to create a musical group, write and perform poetry or plays, draw and post political cartoons and humorous comic strips, make informational or artistic videos, or work with adults on community projects.

As a result of the vigor that these activities exemplify, there will come the intellectual intensity, precision, critical alertness, expertise and integrity that the critics of education are really calling for when they misuse the word “rigor.” These habits of mind, body and spirit are the true fruit of educational excellence. In the end, vigor in our schools is the evidence of life, while rigor is the sign of an early death.

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New Yatvin Commentary Posted on Diane Ravitch’s Blog

On August 21, 2015, Diane Ravitch’s blog posted an article by Joanne Yatvin:  A Sharp Contrast Between the U.S. and Korea in Attitudes Towards Public Education and Children.  Click on link to read.

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