The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

An Educator Repents

Today Michael Langan, an assistant principal in a Pennsylvania middle school, saved me the work of writing my own contribution to this blog. His piece is a reflection on the errors he made as a young teacher that he now regrets, and I found it worth re-posting here. The “dumb” things he said and did as a young teacher are not unique; we all made mistakes and spouted baloney at times when we were inexperienced and alone in front of a class of sassy kids.

This piece first appeared on a website called “Alternatives to School,” and was later posted by Valerie Strauss in her blog, “The Answer Sheet.”

Below are five dumb things I used to say. I considered calling them something less caustic, like five misguided things or five illogical things, but when I think of how and why I thought them, the word “dumb” really feels appropriate. Does that mean I was dumb? No; it just means I tried to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. So here are five dumb things I used to think/say:

1. School is your job. Just like I have a job and your parents have a job, you too have a job.

I said this to kids often in my role as a teacher and parent. I said this to answer the question: “Why do we have to do this?” I said this as a reason to explain grades. The thinking behind it is that we all have jobs, and school is to prepare kids for future jobs that they probably are not going to like, so they had better get used to school. It is unreasonable to expect kids to be paid money, but they can be paid in grades. We adults all went through school. We realize that much of it was boring. We realize that like us, the student will forget much of the content because it is irrelevant to everyday life. So, we rationalize the purpose of school, and all we can come up with is that it must be to prepare kids to be disengaged employees.

       What I believe now: School can be so much more. School can be a playground for a kid’s mind. School should not be a job but can be an exploration of life. We do not need to make things hard to justify a professional’s salary. All we need to do is supply a child with space, safety, resources and time. Why we have this notion that learning is serious business is now bewildering to me. Learning is joyous. Learning can cause dissonance, but in an engaging way, like walking through a haunted house at Halloween and wondering what could possibly be around the corner, while at the same time wanting to run backwards to the safety of the known. Grades are not needed and, in fact, they are a problem. Learning for learning’s sake is rewarding. We need to trust a child’s natural instinct to learn. We need to trust a child’s innate curiosities. We’ve tried trusting adults to pave the way, and it isn’t working. Let’s start trusting the children and stop acting like school is a child’s job.

 2. Algebra teaches you how to think differently.

This was the answer I gave to students when they asked me why they had to take algebra. I believed this because it was the only thing my brain could come up with that made sense. I could never think of an actual example from my life of when I used algebra, but I just figured I wasn’t aware of the algebra in my life. 

What I believe now: Algebra is a gatekeeper. School is a filtering system, and algebra is one of the ways we filter kids. We create two tracks for kids — a track for kids that would like to go to college and a track for those that would like to go into a trade. Algebra is one of the classes that we use to determine which track a child goes on. It doesn’t matter if the kid wants to study philosophy in college, or if a child wants to go into hotel management. If one wants to get to college, one must get through algebra first…and of course, feel free to forget everything you learned in algebra after the course.

 3. Homework will teach you how to do things you don’t want to do.

I would say this to kids who didn’t understand why they had to do 20 math problems they already knew how to do, or to explain why they needed to cut and paste various items onto a piece of poster board. My thinking was that students needed to learn how to “just do things” without wasting time thinking about the value of what they were doing. I would add: “Life is filled with things we do not want to do; do you think I want to do my taxes?”

What I believe now: Homework is something teachers give for several reasons. They may give homework just because they need some more points for the gradebook. They may give homework because they think they are supposed to give homework, because that’s what teachers have always done. They may give homework because some parents expect homework and it is viewed as making the teacher a “hard teacher.” These parents falsely believe that the students’ having to manage all this work, combined with other obligations, is preparing them for the future. Again, It is one of those “we must teach the kids how to deal with things that suck so they know how to handle things that suck” types of things.  Some teachers think that if you do the homework, then you are more likely to remember the content for the multiple-choice test (but then feel free to forget the content after the test; the rest of us adults did).

Homework may also be about control. How can we have some control over the student outside of the classroom? How can we still maintain a small piece of the child’s mind? Through graded homework, of course. What all these adults are not taking into account is that many students do what they don’t want to do from the moment they wake up on a school day. They drag themselves out of bed much earlier than they’d like. They get on a school bus with kids they may or may not like. They move from class to class sitting, listening, and regurgitating all day, every school day. Isn’t that more than enough? Aside from that, they have plenty of opportunities to learn to do things they don’t want to do when they are not at school. Like brushing their teeth, being dragged to the grocery store and sitting through Aunt Betty’s retirement party.

 4. My strict deadlines are teaching them accountability and responsibility.

The thinking behind this comment is very prevalent in school. There are deadlines in life, and we must teach kids that deadlines are serious business. “My deadline could be saving you from prison for not filing your taxes. You will thank me later.”

What I believe now: Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback. We all have our own set of priorities. If a student hands work in late, it may be for many reasons. It may be due to a major personal life issue, or it may simply be that the assignment was very low on their priority list. Teachers use strict deadlines and high point values as a means of coercion, to raise the threat in the hopes of making their assignment higher on a kid’s priority list. We don’t think of raising the relevance of the activity, or finding more engaging activities; that would be too difficult for the adult, so instead we raise the point value and become inflexible. If they don’t do that activity on time, they will get a zero.

5. Difficult/strict teachers help you learn how to deal with those types of people…it’s good for you.

This is what I told my students or my own kids when they complained about having certain teachers – those that appeared to not like kids very much and appeared to be inflexible, angry, and argumentative. I thought “iron sharpens iron, and whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger. The more you have to deal with these types of people, the more you learn how to deal with these types of people.” I would even go further with that statement: “I have people that I have to work with that are difficult, and some of my bosses may be unreasonable.” This statement confirmed the “school is your job” narrative.

What I believe now: Difficult teachers help the child hate school. Difficult teachers confirm the fact that the kids are powerless. Difficult teachers are the worst kinds of bullies in school because they can hide behind their title, their inherent power, and their rationalizations that they are being rigorous vs. unreasonable. If I have a difficult, inflexible boss, I can choose to get another job. I can choose certain avenues against the employer with a lawyer. I have many choices, but the child has very few if any choices. The child is stuck with that teacher for the entire year. That child is missing opportunities to learn, and that child is missing opportunities to have a positive relationship in an environment of his choosing. School should be a place where a child feels safe to grow, explore and investigate interests. It should not be a place where students “learn” how to endure angry adults.

Inspecting these basic, commonly held beliefs has led me deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. As I continued thinking about and questioning the concept of traditional schooling, more and more of our practices and beliefs seemed illogical (dumb?). I do not yet know what grand thing I am going to do because of these realizations. I wish I could write a glorious statement about how I will be creating a new school, etc., but I can’t. What I have been doing in the meantime is talking to other educators and to other people interested in education. These five beliefs are a good place to start when I have these conversations. I do know that through these conversations, I have changed the story that many people believe about education, and I feel that each time the story gets changed, it gets us closer to the tipping point. The more people who truly inspect and question the traditions of schooling, the sooner true change can occur.


A New Blueprint for School Reform

Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that rule the day, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work better. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched plans now in place.

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its problems are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are those best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Here’s my plan!

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends year round, schools could provide necessary social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring building use the only adjustment to the daytime program I suggest would be the addition of basic health and dental care services for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms and computer labs would be open to adults and children, offering a variety of  clubs, arts classes, and sports. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious family meals would be available in the school lunchroom,  supported by local charities and food banks. Finally, local residents should be encouraged to hold citizen forums that would identify and organize movements for better conditions and more services in the community.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into struggling schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, experience, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities. Those who take on new responsibilities should be given additional planning time during the school day, and their accomplishments should count toward future salary increases.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not lack of ability but meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. As far as economically possible, schools should bring back field trips, music and drama performances by local groups, and summer camp experiences.

Cut reliance on expensive commercial materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities to increase their expertise.

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable and short-lived materials (i.e. workbooks and textbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature and non fiction linked to the curriculum,  improved technology, and basic reference books for students.   At the same time, they could purchase a few copies of new textbooks for teachers to peruse.  Also, rather than paying for professional development sessions provided by outside experts, school districts  would help teachers more by purchasing school subscriptions to professional books and journals of their choosing, and offering rewards to outstanding teachers of paid tuition for self-selected university courses.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and remove the time devoted to test preparation

Not only is standardized testing extremely expensive, it also allows tested subjects to crowd out other subjects, and test preparation to become almost a subject in itself. Furthermore, tests influence teaching style, making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice format. Both students and schools would be better served if such tests were given only at a few grade levels  and classroom teachers wrote their own yearly tests based on the school curriculum.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Because too many factors beyond a teacher’s control affect students’ test scores, a teacher’s performance should not be judged on those scores.  What students learn comes as much from home and neighborhood,  the state of their health,  and personal interactions as from classroom instruction.  Moreover, each student makes daily choices about what to work hard at, what to give lip service to, and what to ignore completely.

Although principals’ views of their teachers’ competence are not perfect, when carefully developed over time they are the best we can get.  Colleagues may be good judges of teacher performance, but they are hampered by their personal relationships with other teachers. Outside evaluators, however well trained and experienced, cannot make good judgements based on single classroom visits.   A good principal does much more than formal classroom observations. He or she sees a teacher in the library helping students with research, notices how often some teachers volunteer to do something extra for the school, sees a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, or catches another teacher after school meeting with a worried parent.  More than that, good principals meet informally with each teacher from time to time to discuss what they have seen, encourage, and suggest new avenues to explore.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher is a long and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step in any school district is to insure systematic evaluations of all teachers with prompt feedback and plans of assistance. Ultimately, any teacher marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, suggestions of alternative careers, and a dignified resignation process. Older teachers who have become worn out should be offered monetary incentives to retire early.  The school district would benefit by having the opportunity to hire new teachers at much lower salaries.

Although I think I could add more change proposals to my list, these are the basics–and my list is long enough. I chose to highlight ideas that run counter to much of what is being done in the name of school reform today. Since I never know whether to laugh or cry when pundits, state legislatures, and policy makers call for more testing, standardization, charter schools, academic rigor, ending teacher tenure, and implementing merit pay, I stuck to describing the major features of the good schools I have known and the great ones I still dream about.


The More, the Muddier

In the good old days when I was a teacher, I never had a class size that hit thirty. Despite my occasional dumb lessons  and those days when I when I wasn’t feeling up to snuff, I managed to teach and the kids managed to learn. How come the folks who can put their feet up on their desks for a snooze  when they’re tired or chat by the water cooler when they get bored, don’t understand what it’s like to have more than 30 students depending on you every minute  of a classroom period  and  150 or 180 papers to grade whenever you give homework?  If they really want our schools to do a better job of educating students, they’ve got to do a better job of making teachers lives livable.

I post the essay below in honor of my friend, Karen Johnson.

At a time when tight state budgets are pushing schools to increase class sizes at all levels, some of the most powerful voices in educational policymaking are telling us that size doesn’t matter. According to recent statements by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, for example, great teachers do just fine with oversize classes. So why not give as many students as possible a seat in their classrooms?

Most of the research done in the last 30 years argues against this notion, showing that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades when students are in reasonable size classrooms.

It’s clear, however, that large class advocates don’t care much for research. Their opinions are based on false analogies to their experience in fields other than education, unreliable data, and personal anecdotes.

In this case, school districts themselves are putting out misleading data. In their reports, often widely publicized, it looks like ordinary classrooms have only 19, or even 15 students, when in fact there are 30 to 35 live kids in most of them. This disparity arises from using averages that include special education teachers, counselors, and literacy coaches who work with small numbers of students or even one student at a time. But that is rarely made clear to the public.

Personal anecdotes come from many people who judge today’s education through comparisons to their own dim memories of school. It’s not unusual for a successful middle-aged person to say, “There were 40 kids in my 8th grade class, and we all turned out fine.”

But is that statement true? There were 40 students in my 8th grade class, too, which was the result of several students being held back more than once over the years.  At the winter break, two 17 year old boys left our class to join the U.S. Navy. About five more of our older classmates lasted only till the end of that year.  They didn’t go  on to high school with the rest of us. We never knew what happened to them.

Class size mattered then, and it matters now. For teachers, just managing the physical maneuvers within a large class is challenging. How do you make sure that all kindergarteners’ shoes are tied and their coats buttoned up before they go outside to a wintry playground? How do you apportion the 25 workstations in a high school chemistry lab among 35 students?

Only after the physical problems are taken care of can teachers begin to deal with the challenges of teaching. In the real world, children and adolescents encounter new information and skills all the time, but they have the freedom to reject, postpone, or learn things at their own pace. Schools allow no such choices: Here it is; learn it now; prove you know it tomorrow! And it is the teacher’s responsibility to make all that happen.

Good teachers accept their role and carry it out by moving around the classroom while students work, stopping frequently to check, give help, or just encourage. They also design lessons to accommodate the range of student competence within their classes, hold small group reviews and re-teaching sessions, meet with individuals who still don’t “get it”, communicate with parents, and reflect on how each day’s lesson went in order to make things go better tomorrow.

Doing all these things means multi-tasking during class time and putting in several hours of planning and paperwork outside the school day. With experience and smart thinking, good teachers can manage all their responsibilities with classes up to 25. But past that number things get harder and harder. And there is a breaking point, maybe at 30 or 35, certainly at 40.

If we really want all the excellent teachers that policymakers, politicians, and pundits are calling for, we have to be willing to provide the school supports that are necessary. Number one among those supports are reasonable class sizes that allow  teachers to do their job to the best of their ability, keep their sanity, and have a life.

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Let Teachers Re-invent the Wheel

Because I have several new followers this week I am posting another old essay that is still my favorite.  It was published in Education Week in 1990 when many of you were  too young to read.  As I read it over today I think it is more relevant now than it was then.  If you like it, pass it on.

As a young teacher, I served from time to time on committees charged with writing curricula and selecting new materials for teaching language arts and reading. Often, during committee deliberations, someone would come up with an idea that involved having teachers produce their own classroom strategies and activities. There was something very appealing about many of these ideas–at least to me–and we would spend a lot of time exploring their possibilities.

Invariably, however, some old hand on the committee would haul us up short and remind us that Faraway Publishers had already produced the kinds of materials we needed and that Next Door School District had already developed an efficient method for teaching what we wanted to teach.

“Let’s not re-invent the wheel,” Old Hand would say, and we wild-eyed visionaries, sobered at last, would agree. We stopped talking, adopted the publisher’s materials, accepted the other district’s method, and went our separate ways.

Nowadays, I am not so compliant. Maybe that’s because I have become an old hand myself and an administrator to boot. But I prefer to think it is because I have learned something along the way: You have to re-invent the wheel, whether you want to or not, because nobody else’s wheels will work on your wagon.

I recount this personal reflection now because it bears on a key issue in education today: Should we use “top-down” or “bottom-up” models for improving our schools? Which way works better for school districts, particularly large and troubled ones where a few people at the top are bright, capable, dedicated, aware of the newest research and theory, and well paid; and the masses at the bottom may not be any of those things?

Under such circumstances, wouldn’t it be better–no, the only way–to give those folks at the bottom a well constructed wheel, teach them how to use it, and make them accountable? Of course, some clods would never catch on but, at the very least, every teacher would be using a proper wheel, so the kids would be sure to get some benefit.

My answer to the question is swift and unequivocal: No, dammit! For three good reasons. The first has to do with the so-called “Hawthorne effect” that all those bright, well paid types may have heard about in graduate school but, in my opinion, didn’t quite understand. In that famous experiment in a Illinois manufacturing plant, dimming the lights so it was harder for workers to see was found to increase production rather than reduce it.

Many graduate students (and unfortunately, some of their professors) think that the Hawthorne anomaly illustrates the fact that human subjects who know they are part of a scientific experiment may sabotage the study in their eagerness to make it succeed. What it really shows is that, when people believe they are important in a project, anything works, and, conversely, when they don’t believe they are important, nothing works.

The second reason for championing greater creativity for all is that, through the process of inventing, people learn to understand what their inventions can and cannot do. They learn how to fine-tune them for optimum performance, and, maybe, figure out what changes are needed to produce even better models in the future. In short, they acquire the intimate knowledge of object, system, and use that makes an invention truly their own.

The third reason is simply that a big part of teaching is inventing. Good teachers invent successfully all day long, every day. They invent better ways to explain lessons, to entice reluctant learners, to bring unruly classes under control, and to fire children’s imaginations. When teachers won’t or can’t invent, believe me, the kids will–100 ways to shoot their teachers down. If we want good teaching at the bottom of the pyramid, we’ve got to let all teachers learn their craft.

But given the structure of schools and school districts we now have, changing to an inventing mode is extremely difficult. The model of school operation in use for more than 50 years rests firmly on premises of industrial efficiency, institutional uniformity, whole-into-parts logic, and worker obedience that are completely antithetical to the concept of invention. That model never takes into account the fact that the people who make up the mass of the school pyramid have professional and personal needs that–however we try to suppress or sublimate them–will screw up efficiency and logic every time.

Ultimately, the only way to improve American education is to let schools be small, self-governing, self-renewing communities where everyone counts and everyone cares. Yet the people who have the power to make that happen–legislatures, state departments of education, superintendents, and school boards–will not. Convinced that they are the only intelligent, competent, and caring people around, they fear those barbarians in the classroom, teachers and children, who, if allowed, would dissipate all our public treasure of time and money hacking away at rough stone wheels as our nation sank into chaos.

They are, of course, dead wrong. But even if they were right, those rough stone wheels, forged by people who needed to use them, would roll and carry the load of learning, while the smooth round ones sent down from the central office would languish in classroom cupboards.


The Rescue of a Pittsburgh Public School

The following story about a  school saved by parents, a school staff and the local school board was posted today by Diane Ravitch in her blog.   Originally it was an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette written by by Eleanor Chute.  On this blog I want to post information about good things happening in public schools anywhere, not just my own thoughts and experiences.

The second-grade classroom at Pittsburgh Woolslair PreK-5 was filled Thursday with children eager to hear American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten read them a story.

Having an adult read a story is an ordinary event in many schools, but the extraordinary part of this story is that Woolslair could have closed last fall. Instead, it has new life with a partial magnet program for STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — after parents and staff fought to save the Bloomfield school.

At the end of last school year, Woolslair had 104 students, but now it has about 170 present, with 184 enrolled in K-5, said principal Lisa Gallagher. It also has about a dozen pre-kindergarten students.

Although it’s too early for an official count and the numbers could change, much of the growth is in the STEAM magnet, which opened this fall for K-2 students from throughout the city. Other grades also are being offered STEAM classes, and the magnet will expand to additional grades in the years ahead.

Ms. Gallagher said she is “ecstatic,” adding, “This is what the community wanted, teachers and parents wanted.”

The school board voted in 2013 to start the process to close the school in fall 2014, but a new board rescinded that action. Parents and staff got busy, took a survey and found a demand for a STEAM program. As a result, the district approved not only the magnet but also using STEAM to enhance Pittsburgh Lincoln PreK-5 and Schiller 6-8 on the North Side this fall. It also is developing a program for Perry High School on the North Side.

Pittsburgh superintendent Linda Lane, who enjoyed a STEAM lesson at Woolslair the first week of school, said it is too early to know whether the students who chose Woolslair came from other district schools or are increasing district enrollment. However, she said, “The early signs are positive.”

Parent Valerie Allman, who played a key role in helping to save the school and whose son is in fourth grade at Woolslair, told Ms. Weingarten, “I think when it comes down to it, it was people who understood how important having a good, solid public education system in our community is.”

Ms. Weingarten also visited Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood, where a public safety program will be added to its career and technical education offerings next fall. The union’s Innovation Fund awarded the district $150,000 to help promote CTE programs.

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