The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Let me concede, even before you read this post, that I am biased in favor of small schools.  Before teaching in a small high school and becoming the principal of three small schools, I taught in some big schools and felt the sense of neglect and the emphasis on efficiency rather than what was best for students and teachers.  I don’t blame the administrators; creating and managing a big school is complicated, and the resultant structures isolate them from the unpleasant realities that many in “the trenches” face.  Still, having more small schools, even in big cities, is possible and would better serve the people who want or need to be there.

An editorial published a while ago in the New York Times heralded the success of three small, specialized high schools created by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. A multiyear study showed that disadvantaged students at those schools did better academically than those in large, traditional high schools and were more likely to enroll in college.  Within a few days Diane Ravitch’s blog posted a piece written by an unnamed researcher at the NYC Department of Education who questioned the verity of those results. He claimed that the study was financed by the same organization that funded the schools and was not peer reviewed. He also thought much of the data looked suspicious.

Based on these two articles alone, a reader couldn’t be certain which type of school is better for students and teachers. But I am biased by my own experience teaching in both large and small schools early in my career and ending up as the principal of two small elementary schools and one small middle school. What I saw in those small schools were the positive effects of what sociologists call “social capital” which means, simply, the benefits derived from being connected to other people.

But, let me be specific. At the small high school in Wisconsin where I taught English for 11 years, teachers of all subjects taught at only one grade level and had no more than 100 students.  Also, our principal was able to structure the English program to provide small seminars for each English class once a week. Because our teaching loads were manageable, we came to know our students well and had time for individual conferences with many of them over the school year. Also, I was able to assign and critique written papers every other week all year long.  Because I felt that I knew my students’ strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments through their written work and class participation, I decided not to give end of the year exams, but to grade students on the evidence I had.

Later, I became the principal of a small elementary school, also in Wisconsin.  There we brought kids together through a school store that sold only student-made items.  Children from all grades created those items under the guidance of a teacher who was given extra planning periods in order to manage the program.  We also created a voluntary “Gifted” program by holding special classes during the noon hour that any child could participate in instead of going out to the playground.  Among those classes were a book club, which I led, and art appreciation and weaving groups, led by parents.  Classes met two or three times a week and  continued over a month or so; then they were replaced by new classes.

At the second elementary school where I was principal, in rural Oregon, we created a playground committee with student representatives from all grades that developed a set of playground rules and made a video on how to use equipment safely. Members of the committee also became leaders of various playground games.

Across the road from the Oregon elementary school was a small middle school where I was also the principal. There we started to connect students by adopting a road alongside the school and having whole-school cleanup days twice a year.  Later we developed an in-school “jobs” program that students could join.  A job consisted of 20 minutes per day assisting a teacher or other school employee. Workers earned points that could be used to bid on desirable items in an end of the year auction.  Finally, all students, including special-needs kids, were welcome to join any school sports team and could participate in drama or musical events.

Although I have no research data to confirm that any of these programs led to better learning, it was clear to us that behavior improved markedly and bullying disappeared once they were underway. What we also saw in students was a strong sense of pride and connectedness, as if they were proclaiming, “This school belongs to us, and we are proud of it.”

Because there were only 12-15 classrooms in both of those schools, I could visit them all frequently, not only to do formal observations but also to just get a feeling for how things were going and see the work and behavior of any students I was concerned about.

Finally, teachers in all of these small schools benefitted by having common planning time with other teachers who taught the same grade or course. They shared their best ideas, showed newcomers the ropes, and set up consistent plans for struggling or soaring students who needed special attention.

In a large city I can see why it is difficult to have small schools. But with a certain amount of creativity, it is possible. How about housing two separate schools in one building, as has been done already in New York with some public schools and charter schools?  Some remodeling may be necessary to make sure that each school has its own gym, library, and lunchroom, but doing so is still more economical than building two new big schools.

Another possibility for a large city is to create more small high schools offering a specialized emphasis, such as science or the arts. In those schools all bases can be covered with fewer teachers and auxiliary personnel than in a large all-purpose high school. At the same time, students have more in common with their schoolmates, teachers are more connected to each other, and the principal is more involved with both groups.

Traditionally, cities, towns, and even rural areas have chosen to have large and elaborate schools rather than small, plain ones because they represent prestige.  Although big schools may be able to offer a greater variety of courses, they also suffer from more misbehavior, dropouts, and the inability to serve many individual student needs. Policy makers and school officials should consider the greater ability of small schools to provide better working conditions for teachers and, more important, better learning opportunities and a sense of community for students.

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Beware of Educational Research!

Like most teachers I was always respectful of educational research–until I became a member of the National Reading Panel and started to read about how most studies are done.  I found out that many reports of successful teaching practices overemphasize very small positive results, that often researchers rely on flimsy evidence, and that many studies have never been replicated.  In today’s post I will explain why educational research, in general, is less trustworthy than medical research.

When the National Reading Panel began its work in 1998, one of its goals was to bring reading research up to the “Gold Standard” of medical research. Unfortunately, reaching this goal was –and still is–impossible because reading researchers, unlike medical researchers, cannot separate treatment effects from effects caused by other factors, such as classroom distractions, student hunger or illness, home culture, work habits, and personal feelings.

Medical researchers have the advantage of being able to remove or minimize outside factors by assembling very large groups of potential subjects (often lab rats) and then forming randomly selected treatment and control groups. Just as important, they are able to use a “double blind” procedure in which neither the subjects nor the people applying the treatments know which doses are the experimental ones and which are placebos.

Rather than trying to explain how all the factors present in Educational research may skew results, I have chosen to focus on the one I think is the most troublesome: the “Hawthorne Effect.” This term derives from a series of studies done in the Hawthorne Works Plant of Western Electric near Chicago from 1924 to 1932. There, researchers manipulated various physical conditions, such as high or low lighting and the number of rest breaks for workers, to see which ones most decreased their output. What they found was that almost any change–good or bad– increased production, and what they concluded was that knowing you were a part of a scientific experiment created feelings of importance and belonging that were a more powerful determinant of productivity than any change in conditions.

It is hard to believe that the outcomes of much reading research are not similarly affected. In most studies both the teachers and their students know when they are part of a research plan and whether they are in the treatment group or the control group. In many studies both groups are also in the same school. There is no way to “double-blind” such a study when the teachers are the people applying the treatment, only one group of students has new materials, and the type of instruction given to those students is different from what is going on in the rest of the school.

Under such conditions, the feelings of the experimental group of teachers and students are pretty certain to be positive. After all, being chosen to implement a scientific experiment is an honor. It implies that the researchers and the school’s administrators think you are intelligent, competent, and trustworthy enough to do it well. Add to this the special training often given teachers in an experimental study and the frequent classroom visits of researchers monitoring implementation.

In contrast, neither the control group teachers nor its students get any extra attention, new materials, or special training. They may also feel dishonored by not being the chosen ones.   Their feelings could be called a “Negative Hawthorne Effect”

Just as production increased in the Hawthorne studies, we can expect that the results will be better for the experimental group in the type of reading study just described, whether or not the new program or strategy really is any better than the old. This explains why so many studies report positive results for the treatment applied, and it should make us cautious about accepting those conclusions.

But, hold on! There is a way to do education research that limits the influence of the Hawthorne Effect: have two or more treatment groups, with each one trying out a different program and receiving the benefits of being  part of an experiment. Ideally, there is also a control group using the old program. Fortunately, a few research studies do follow this two-treatment format, but not enough of them. It is more expensive and more complicated to carry out, and most researchers—being human—believe before they start their research that one type of program is superior to all others and want to prove what they already believe when they design their studies.

The lesson for us as consumers of education research is to consider not only results but also how studies were carried out, especially how likely it was that the “Hawthorne Effect” came into play. If you have the time and access to the full reports of reading studies, read them or their abstracts to find out how they were conducted. But if you don’t—and what classroom teacher does—let me try to be your surrogate. From time to time, I will identify those studies that most strongly influence government mandates, published programs, or current trends in school practice and examine them for the flaws that make their results questionable.  In this blog I will let you know what I find.


What is a Good School?

Almost thirty Years ago I was invited to write a critique of a book, “Mc Donogh 15: Becoming a School” by Lucianne Bond Carmichael. Reading that book reinforced and expanded my own beliefs about what a good school does to empower students and strengthen teachers. As part of my review I wrote a definition and description of a good school, based partly on Carmichael’s experience as a principal and partly on my own. From time to time I go back to it to remind myself of the qualities of a good school as it contrasts with many charter schools and high scoring public schools. Today, I am taking the liberty of reminding the readers of this blog that there is a difference.

A good school is a place where students learn enough worthwhile things to make a strong start in life, where a foundation is laid that supports later learning, and where students develop the desire to learn more.

Specifically, a good school mirrors the realities of life in an ordered, adult society; it is rational and safe, a practice ground for the things people do in the outside world. The school creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of social responsibility. It focuses on learnings that grow through use, such as communication skills, decision making, craftsmanship, and group interaction.  It makes students think of themselves as people who find strength, nourishment, and joy in learning.

A good school has a broad-based and realistic curriculum with subject matter chosen not only for its relevance to higher education and jobs, but also to  family and community membership and personal enrichment.  It uses teaching practices that resemble, as far as possible, the way people live and work in the world.  Students are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and extend their skills.  They initiate projects, make their own decisions, enjoy using their skills, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

Any school can become a good school when its teachers have made the connections to life in the real world that I have been talking about. It operates as an organic entity—not a machine—moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.  A good school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots deep into its native soil: it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun; it makes its own food; it heals its own wounds; and, in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

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Because Literature is Life

Today’s post was written by high school teacher Lea Mathieu who teaches language arts classes at Ione Community School in Eastern Oregon.  I was so impressed by her presentation at the recent Oregon Council of Teachers of English conference in Portland that I invited her to write about her teaching.  Now that I’ve read this piece I’d like to hear a lot more from Lea.  How about you?

There’s a homemade sign in my classroom that reads “Because Literature is Life, That’s Why!” It started as a sort of joke in response to whiny students asking, “Why do we have to read this?” But recently, I’ve come to realize that the phrase sums up my entire teaching philosophy and purpose.

Maria Montessori claimed that education was the best weapon for peace, and I couldn’t agree more. I define peace not as the mere absence of conflict, but as the absence of fear and the presence of justice and even – dare I hope? – love.

The greatest fear is inevitably of the “Other” and the “Unknown”.  And that is what literature – and history, if it’s done right – addresses. Meaningful education invites students to experience what others have experienced, to understand the motivations and consequences of choices they have never had to make (yet), to get inside someone else’s head and culture, to imagine a world of their own making beyond what they’ve been given. To feel with, and as, an “Other” is the definition of empathy.

I moved around a lot as a kid (12 schools in 12 years), and I now like to think of myself as a world citizen. Most of the students in my small rural school, on the other hand, are limited in their experience; what they know of the “Other” is largely second-hand, and often their information is, let’s say, unreliable. Literature – which I broadly define as anything we read – is their key, gate, and world all in one.

To introduce my students to people they’ve never met, I teach civil rights through primary sources and the works of Lorraine Hansberry and Maya Angelou. When it comes time to do independent projects, my blue-eyed blondes line up for Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

My students admire the Hmong people, though they don’t know a single one, and can make impassioned pleas for multicultural understanding in medicine because of Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

My new psychology in teaching literature is very popular because students thought we’d just read about “crazy” people; they’re now starting to realize that “They” aren’t really so different from “Us.”

I’m introducing argumentative writing with posts on my own Facebook page about the refugee crisis in Europe. I’m also sharing a slew of online articles my students can use in articulating their own conclusions from research they’ve read.  I only hope that when they’re old enough to vote they keep up the process they now use: research the issue, evaluate sources, engage in discussions, be clear in their writing about the kind of world they want to live in and the kind of people they want to be.

There’s no “Smarter Balanced” test for this stuff, which is enough proof for me that nationalized testing is a stupid waste of time and money. The standard for empathy will be the world our students create later in the 21st century. Will it be one of fear or of true peace; of ignorance or understanding? Their lives may well depend on what they’ve learned through literature.


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Are You Sure Your Students are Learning?

Today’s post is about the difference between using academic exercises in the classroom that  produce grades, but not much else, and authentic classroom experiences that generate true and lasting learning.

I certainly do not discount the importance of students reading complex material in the classroom, as prescribed by the Common Core Standards, holding class discussions, or analyzing texts. I just believe that those actions do not go far enough. So, if your students have read Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery” and identified its theme as “the evil in blindly following cultural traditions,” but they aren’t bothered by traditions that harm people in the real world today, such as female genital mutilation, honor killing, or the refusal to validate same sex marriages; they haven’t learned anything.

If your students have no trouble with the math problems you assign, and most of them scored “Proficient” on last year’s math test, but they can’t estimate the total cost of the items in their shopping cart before getting to the store’s checkout counter, and only then realize that they haven’t enough money to pay for everything; they haven’t learned anything.

If your students wrote strong argumentative essays last week on why or why not the U.S. deal with Iran is a good decision, but then put together a dull and unpersuasive letter to the local school board on why they should adopt a new system minimalizing school suspensions and expulsions, they haven’t learned anything.

Unfortunately, School classrooms are not the real world, so most of the time teachers cannot provide students with tests of real learning like the ones I’ve mentioned above. But they can enable students to come close to reality by providing activities that simulate actual life experiences or explore a topic beyond the assigned reading and ordinary lessons.

Let me help to make my argument for real world learning clear by describing some ways I have seen teachers move students at various grade levels away from academic exercises and toward authentic life experiences.

Gr. K-1 When the teacher reads her class a fairy tale or folk tale the children often ask her to read it again another day. After a couple of readings and some discussion about what happened, she often asks the children if some of them would like to dramatize some part of the story. Often there are several volunteers who want to act out the scene where Hansel and Gretel fool the wicked witch or the scene where the Little Red Hen tells the other animals that they can’t have any of the bread she baked by herself.  As performances are repeated by different children, they grow longer and more detailed, and the children’s portrayals become more complex.

Gr. 2 in this classroom the teacher sets up a terrarium and has children plant clover seeds in it, water them as needed, and move the terrarium from time to time to make sure it is getting enough sunlight. When the plants are well sprouted, the teacher adds several grasshoppers to the terrarium. Then she sets up an observation schedule for pairs of children to observe for five minutes at a time, discuss what they see, and write down some notes that include the date and time of their observation. At the end of each day the class discusses changes they are seeing and what they think is happening. As the plants shrivel and die over time, the students conclude that the grasshoppers are eating them and also absorbing their moisture.

Gr. 3-4 After reading several of Aesop’s fables and discussing their meanings as they might apply to their own lives, students write and illustrate fables of their own and then compile them into a book for the school library.

Gr. 5-6 After reading about the problems early American settlers had traveling west in wagon trains and discussing them, teams of students play a board game in which they encounter various problems, such as running out of drinking water or being attacked by a native tribe. Each team’s job is to make decisions about their actions after each mishap in order to get to their goals successfully. Some teams succeed, and others fail.

Gr. 7-8 While studying plant biology in their science class, students start their own vegetable garden next to the school playground. They plant some of the same seeds in different areas with various exposures to sunlight and using different fertilizers. As the plants grow, they measure their growth and compare the size and color of the vegetables that emerge. In class they draw conclusions about the factors that work best for producing good vegetables and those that do not.

Gr 9-10 In their English classroom students are given time to read parts of the local newspaper once a week, including the comics. The teacher has them analyze and discuss a different type of article afterward, moving from national politics, to sports, to local elections. Each month they also put together their own newsletter for parents, based on what they’ve learned about newspapers. A few students volunteer to write informative articles about what is going on at school. Other students  choose to create comic strips focused on their own experiences, and two students collaborate on a health column. Anyone is free to contribute other features that might be interesting to parents.  When the writing and drawing are finished, some students write headlines.  Another group assembles the material produced and prints it out. All class members take home several copies for their family and friends.

Gr: 11-12 After reading and discussing Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like It”, students break into small groups and choose short scenes to rewrite the dialogue into modern colloquial English. After working on their scripts for a couple of days they are ready to perform in front of their classmates. Most of the performances are quite funny, but also true to Shakespeare’s intentions. The teacher praises their work and suggests that they might want to take it to the next level by molding it into a public performance for the whole school.

I could go on listing examples of real learning experiences, most of which I ‘ve seen in classrooms over the years. But I think these are enough to help you understand what I mean by “learning” and persuade at least some of you that learning, as I’ve defined it, is an important part of every child’s education.

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