The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Double Header Today: Dealing with Kids’ Misbehavior

Both today’s post and my letter in the New York Times were prompted by the disaster in a South Carolina classroom where a teenager was brutally treated by a school police officer.  In my letter I speak generally about what can happen when an adolescent is publicly rebuked and given punishment.  Here I describe two incidents where kids reacted violently to teachers’ actions and what another teacher and I did to calm them down.

As the principal of a school in Wisconsin, I happened to be present when our special education teacher did a great job of calming down an angry student who was having a tantrum in the hallway. She got behind the boy, put her arms around him and held his arms across his body. Then she pulled him down into a sitting position and put her own legs over his. At that point the boy was fully restrained, but not injured or in pain. While he struggled and yelled, she whispered over and over in his ear, “It’s okay. I won’t let you hurt yourself,” Finally the boy calmed down and she released him, saying that they would talk to his teacher about what happened later when he was ready and no one else was around.

After witnessing that incident I vowed to copy the special ed teacher’s technique if I ever faced a child who was out of control. Fortunately, that never happened. The closest call I had was at my second school when an angry teen-ager was sent to my office because of his misbehavior.  He barged in red faced and shaking with anger. He declared that he was ready to start screaming, and I believed him. “All right,” I said. “Why don’t you go into my private bathroom over there, shut the door and scream all you want to.” He did as I suggested and came out a few minutes later calm and ready to talk. We discussed what had happened in the classroom, and he agreed to go back later and apologize to the teacher. I guess he did those things because I never heard any more about the incident from the teacher or the boy.

Yes, all of us get angry at one time or another, especially when we feel that we have been misjudged and exposed to public ridicule. But most adults–not all, unfortunately–have far more self control in such situations than kids and can predict that things will only get worse for them if they explode.  It is also fortunate that lots of teachers, school officials, and police officers understand kids well enough to calm things down before they get out of control. But as the situation in a South Carolina classroom illustrated this past week, not all are so wise.  Let’s hope that the outcome of this sad incident teaches all adults to take the high road instead of muddying children and ourselves in a violent confrontation.


English Language Learners in Regular Classrooms

A few days ago a piece I wrote on teaching English language learners (ELLs) was posted in “Classroom Q and A with Larry Ferlazzo,” an on line feature sponsored by Education Week. I had dashed it off at the last minute after reading responses from other contributors that I found disappointing.  Almost all of them focused on teaching high schoolers and suggested strategies that seemed inadequate to me.

In my submission I wrote about what I had observed in high poverty elementary schools in Oregon where there were large numbers of ELLs.  In the early grade classrooms I visited many of those kids appeared to have had very little experience with reading or writing in English.  It was also clear that a few of them had arrived in this country recently and could not communicate in English at all. I felt that those realities should be recognized in any posted essay along with the strategies the teachers I observed used to work with such children. 

As a result of my haste in getting my piece off to Ferlazzo, there were several typos in it that embarrassed me, and I did not say anything about my qualifications to write about my topic.  So now, to make up for my haste, errors, and omissions I present you with a newer, more complete version of my essay on teaching ELLs in regular classrooms.

Helping ELLS who enter high school knowing little or no English is very difficult; not only because they tend to use their native language socially outside of school and stay silent in classrooms, but also because high school curricula demand more competence in English than they can reach in so short a time. Having a specialized class for English learning, in addition to regular classes, does help students somewhat, but it is rarely enough for the fast transition they need to be successful in high school.

On the other hand, helping ELLS learn English at elementary level is doable when teachers have the right training. Over five years I visited classrooms in four high poverty elementary schools in rural Oregon with large numbers of English language learners. Because those schools had students who came with many different native languages, it was not possible to have special introductory English classes for each language.  Therefore, regular classroom teachers were charged with doing the full job of teaching English to their ELLs while teaching the regular school curriculum in reading, writing, math, etc. to everyone.

Early on, I found out that elementary teachers in this school district were required to take a weeklong course called Project GLAD (Guided Literacy Acquisition Design), so I decided to take the course myself. It was excellent, and it helped me to appreciate what the teachers I was observing were doing.  My own background in applied linguistics also supported me. I had written my doctoral thesis on the teaching of English in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands where I visited classrooms in 30 schools. After receiving a Ph.D. I taught English to foreign graduate students at the University of Wisconsin.

In those Oregon classrooms I visited it was common for a trickle of new ELLs to arrive throughout the school year, many of them with no English or even no schooling at all.  When a student arrived, the teacher’s first job was to pair him or her with an English speaking partner who would help the newcomer with the basic routines, such as finding materials in the classroom, standing in line in the lunchroom, and using essential language such as “Where is the …?”

From the beginning and throughout the year, what teachers did was to present new material visually and orally, as well as in written form.  For example, a chart of common forest animals posted on a classroom wall would include animals’ names under their pictures, and might also have some body parts labeled.  Most of the work that the students did, including their tests, involved their own drawing and labeling.

As students grew more competent, they might be asked to draw a series of pictures illustrating the important parts of books they had read with a sentence or two under each picture. Teachers also read aloud frequently, choosing books with illustrations, and stopping from time to time to let students comment or ask questions.

Another frequent practice was to create verses or songs that contained the basic information of a unit taught.  For example, students who studied the lives of native American tribes might be led to put the tribe names, the names of their dwellings, and where they lived into a familiar song pattern that they would sing every day during the unit.

Another basic component of teaching ELLs in those schools was consistency: using similar formats and language to present new material and assign student work, modifying them somewhat as students become more familiar with them.  When unfamiliar words appeared in the material, teachers might draw a quick sketch of a noun on the chalkboard or act out a verb.  I remember seeing two students in one classroom illustrating the word “prey” by one chasing the other around the classroom and catching him.

Over the course of my observations the most amazing thing I saw was a 5th grade class, with about a third of it ELLs, perform a modified version of the play, Macbeth, for a parent audience at the end of the school year.  The boy who played the title character was an ELL, very bright and advanced in his use of English.  The narrators also seemed very much in control of the difficult language.  Other actors had much less to say, but they all did a good job.  The teacher played music and sound effects on the classroom piano while the class performed.  It was clear to everyone that those kids were ready for middle school.

As a frequent observer in a few classrooms where the teachers were especially skilled, I was able to write two books about what I had learned: “English Only Teachers in Mixed Language Classrooms: A Survival Guide” and “Teaching writing in Mixed Language Classrooms.”

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Florida Superintendents Revolt Against Testing Madness

Today’s post is the major portion of an article in yesterday’s New York Times.  In my view the revolt of school district superintendents in Florida against the use of test scores to rate schools, students and teachers is a major step in the right direction.  In other states, such as New York, similar revolts are growing and putting pressure on legislatures to change their  unreasonable mandates.  In addition, parent  voices against testing are increasing, and even President Obama made a statement this past weekend favoring the reduction of testing.  His suggestions were both too vague and too mild, but at least he has become aware that the testing mania is a serious problem for our country, not a blessing.

I haven’t posted the entire article here because it is very long and covers the history of testing in Florida. However, you can read it by following the link at the bottom of this post.

When protests from parents and teachers erupted against the new Common Core tests here, Florida thought it had a solution: It dropped the tests. But it abruptly switched sources for the exams, hoping the substitute would be more palatable


Now, nearly six months after students finished taking their exams, Florida faces an even worse rebellion, led by the state’s 67 school superintendents. In speeches, letters to the editor and appeals to state officials, they are arguing that the tests were flawed — first, because they were developed for Utah schools and based on the curriculum taught there, and second, because of a string of disruptive technical glitches when they were rolled out here.

The superintendents are challenging the state’s plan to use the scores to give schools grades from A to F and to influence some teachers’ evaluations. Standing behind them are the Florida PTA, the state’s School Boards Association, teachers and administrators.

The scores have not been released because state officials have not yet set grading standards, but the dispute has already boiled over. Under a preliminary recommendation, little more than half of Florida’s schoolchildren would pass the new math and English exams in most grades. With some members of the Board of Education pushing for even tougher scoring, the grades could drop further.

“This is probably the most important issue facing all of us,” Alberto M. Carvalho, the Miami-Dade County schools superintendent, said at a recent school board meeting. “The fight is not over. But I can tell you the state seems pretty adamant in moving forward as quickly as possible, even in the face of incomplete, inadequate, possibly corrupted, invalid and unreliable data.”

Framing it as a battle over the future of accountability in schools, Mr. Carvalho added, “If there was ever a time to press the pause button, this is the time.”

The state has already suspended most direct penalties associated with the new tests. Students’ scores will not be used to hold them back a grade, and school grades will not be used to punish failing schools.

But superintendents and others are angry that the state plans to move forward with the school grades at all, and to use student scores as a factor in some teacher evaluations. School leaders want the scores to be used simply as a baseline to better measure learning gains in next year’s scores.

For Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, and Republican-controlled Legislature, this year’s clash is the latest over an accountability system that was pioneered in Florida by former Gov. Jeb Bush and has long served as a model for other states.

Last year, lawmakers and state officials here, like their peers in other states, were criticized over the adoption of the Common Core standards. But they were also faulted for increasing, little by little, the consequences tied to low or high test scores.

“I’m just frustrated as a parent,” said Joseph Gebara, who has two children in public schools and is the head of the PTA for Miami-Dade County, the fourth-largest school district in the country. “In the state of Florida, you wonder, is anybody listening?”

A version of this article appears in print on October 26, 2015, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Superintendents in Florida Say Tests Failed State’s Schools, not Vice Versa.

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Once Again, We Need Catchers in the Rye

Readers, I must warn you that today’s piece is going to sound dated because it was written and  published in “Education Week” in 1994.  Back then I was an elementary school principal in a small rural district where there were many children neglected and/or living in poverty.  The status of our public schools was different from what it is now, yet there were many similar problems and bad “solutions.” When I first decided to post this piece, I planned to make some changes to bring it up to date.  But then, I changed my mind instead.  I hope that as you read it you’ll see why.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” many years ago, the catcher metaphor struck me as silly, a clumsy device invented to justify a meaningless title. Would any real teenager see himself — as the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, does—as a rescuer of children, and why were children in need of rescue anyway?

Today, although I am still cynical about Salinger’s creative motivation, I find the “catcher” image far more poignant and real. In today’s world, in contrast to the early 1950’s world of Holden Caulfield’s rye field near the cliff, there really are many children who are economically, socially, physically or psychologically in danger. Statistics don’t tell the story of many children’s sad lives.  But we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning.  Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, educators must be today’s catchers in the rye.

I have lost faith in any and all large-scale, organized solutions to educational problems. They just put more paperwork, regulations, and job titles between children and the help they need. Where schools are failing, it is not because they don’t have enough programs and consultants, but because they have lost the human touch. Children mired in the morass of family and community decay can’t benefit from higher standards, instructional technology, or plans for reform; they need caring adults to pull them out of the muck and set them on solid ground–one at a time.  Only then can each child, in his or her own way, begin the adventure of learning.

I have no magic formula for child-catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. It probably doesn’t matter if the means are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough, as long as at least one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child. I do believe, however, that there are some conditions that are essential for child-catching to work. The framework of operation must be small, physically close to children, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. We need small schools or schools that are divided into small community units; classroom time, space, and organization that allow personal relationships to flourish; legitimacy for play and conversation in school; authority in the hands of front-line practitioners; and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.

Within such a framework, educators are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each child as an individual and see most of the things that are happening to him or her. Kids hang around and tell them what they cannot see. Educators also find time to talk to each other and to teach children about the world without having to “implement” or “assess” anything. They make exceptions to rules and change foolish ones. They do things differently. When the behavior of children or bureaucrats becomes intolerable, teachers can even stamp their feet and yell, “This has got to stop!”

Although permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick, dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wart theory of education.” In essence, that theory states that children’s problems are like warts: if you can destroy just a few of them, the rest may get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of poverty, family dysfunction, bad learning habits, and social ineptitude may shake them off in the space of a few weeks when a caring teacher takes time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one small skill.

I have seen schools that do an impressive job of rescuing large numbers of children over time. Ironically, they are not the same schools that win awards, attract researchers, or produce remarkable test scores. Mostly, such schools don’t even worry about whether the data on achievement and behavior makes them look good. Who cares? Catching children is its own reward when you’re out there in the rye.

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Parents Care More about Schools than Politicians

Today’s post appeared first in Valerie Strauss’ blog,”The Answer Sheet.  I read her blog and Diane Ravitch’s blog everyday to learn what is happening in education, but also to see if I can find some positive news.  Only once in a while does that happen.  But it’s not the bloggers’ fault.  It’s hard for anyone to find  good news about public education today, including bloggers like me.  So, I appeal once again for your help.  If there is something positive going on in a school near you, write about it or give me the facts and I will write the essay.  I will also give you credit in BIG BOLD LETTERS!

A Seattle parent  is donating $70,000 to save the job of a teacher he doesn’t know — all to make a point and “shame” Washington state lawmakers who have failed to adequately fund public education.

The state Supreme Court ruled this past summer that the legislature has for years shortchanged public schools, and it imposed fines of $100,000-a-day. In Seattle, where fewer students enrolled this fall than projected, the district is trying to manage a $4.2 million loss in revenue and recently announced it would have to cut teaching positions at dozens of schools.

One parent became so disturbed by the news that he decided, on a whim, to do something about it. Brian Jones, who owns a reality film production company, decided to donate $70,000 to help one school, Alki Elementary, keep a first-grade teacher — even though his own 6-year-old child is enrolled elsewhere.

Parents with children at Alki said that authorities told them they needed $90,000 to keep a first-grade teacher — to cover salary and benefits — and some began to raise money. Jones saw a story about the school and told WIRO that he decided to take a stand even though he is not a wealthy man — “I’m not Bill Gates”  —  and that a $70,000 donation means no vacations for a while.“My broader goal was to shame the administration and the legislature and the mayor, for the fact that a private citizen and parents are putting up money to support children, because they’re doing nothing.”

Some parents opposed the idea of privately funding a teaching position because it is the job of the legislature to do it and the systemic problem remains unaddressed.

So here we have it: Despite billions of dollars poured into corporate education reform  — to pay for the opening and expansion of public charter schools, the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards and new standardized tests, teacher evaluation systems linked to test scores, the rise of alternative teacher training programs, etc. — traditional school districts still find themselves without adequate resources to do the basic job of educating kids.

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