The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Please Excuse Errors

An unedited version of the article I wrote today was published by mistake. Please see my site for the corrected version.

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Should All Teachers Be Trained To Teach Dyslexic Students?

This past week week a friend who is a professor at Portland State University invited me to join her and several other professors in testifying before the Oregon Teacher and Standards Practices Commission (TSPC). When she explained the need for my testimony I quickly agreed, even though I had only a day to prepare what I would say and no time left to write anything for this blog.

Well, I went, I saw and even though I did not conquer,* I’m glad I participated. I will explain everything below.

 Several months ago a local group, Decoding Dyslexia, (DD) representing the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), proposed a new set of Oregon Administrative Rules (OAR) to the TSPC, and there is a good chance that they will be accepted and put in place. Those rules would require big additions to teacher preparation programs that would substantially increase the time and cost for students to earn teacher certification, and require all colleges and universities to hire new professors and develop new courses.

It is not surprising that current professors of teacher preparation object to such extreme changes in their programs. But there is a bigger question that they and I are asking: Is there really a need for all elementary classroom teachers to be trained to teach students with dyslexia? The 46 professors who signed a letter objecting to the acceptance of the proposed rules think not. Their basic argument is that working with dyslexic students should be done in special education classes by teachers trained to teach special needs students. And, I agree.

In addition, I would argue that, based on my own training, research and experience as a teacher and school principal, there are not that many children in our schools who suffer from dyslexia. Now, I am aware that the IDA has claimed that the number is 1 out of every 10 students, but I see that claim as erroneous, based on a loose definition of dyslexia, not on research. They count any one who is not up to grade level in reading as dyslexic. I see many other possible explanations for students’ reading problems and will list them below.

Poor school attendance

Low IQ

Learning English as a second language

Not reading on their own outside of school

Not being read to regularly by parents and teachers

Too much emphasis on phonics in primary grade classrooms and too little on building a sight vocabulary

Individual differences in mental, physical or emotional growth

As a teacher and principal for 45 years I saw many students with one or more of the problems listed above, but very few with what I consider to be dyslexia, which I would define as the inability to recognize written words and/or get meaning out of print over a long period of time.

Actually, our oldest son fit that definition in his early years in school, but he did not turn out to be dyslexic. In both first and second grade he was not able to recognize most written words or get meaning out of the books he was asked to read. Well aware of his problems, I tutored him at home using books that I felt were easier and more appealing than the ones at school. Still, he made very little progress.

Meanwhile, our son was promoted from grade to grade and his teachers did not seem alarmed. Then, suddenly, in 3rd grade he began to read and made rapid progress. I never found out what his third grade teacher did to motivate him or help him crack the writing code. But, from that time on he grew into an avid reader. He completed elementary school and high school without problems and went on to a respected university. Afterward, he went through law school and was chosen as his class’s valedictorian. He has made a career as a civil rights lawyer and received many honors for his work.

At this point I think you see my professional and personal reasons for speaking against creating a “Dyslexia for all teachers” program in Oregon’s colleges and universities. The proposed OARs are the product of mostly people who have lived with others that were actually dyslexic and who share a different understanding of the disease and its scope than I do. If you wish to read about my views on teaching reading in general, which are also different from those of the IDA, please go back to my post of July 9th entitled “Reading in Hebrew VS Reading in English”.
*In case you didn’t recognize the statement starred in my intro, it is a slightly distorted quote from Julius Caesar, commonly known as “Veni, Vidi, Vinci.

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Let’s Be Grammatically Correct!

Today I will post a piece written by Vu Le and posted on his blog,”Nonprofit with Balls.” Although his piece isn’t about schools, it added to my education and I think it will do the same for you.  Incidently the grammatical error that bothers me the most is “myself” because it is used by so many people, especially rich and powerful ones.  Since Vu Le didn’t tell you the right word to use in the sentence he gave, I will.  It is “I.”  “Myself” should be used only in conjunction with “I” or “me” as in the sentences: “I wrote this introduction all by myself” and “Don’t blame me for not writing an essay myself today.”  

9 grammatical mistakes you need to stop making before I throw live scorpions at you

Hi everyone. I was writing a post on the new federal overtime law and how it will affect our sector, when I realized that I needed more time to think about it. Plus, we’ve had a string of posts on serious topics these past few weeks, and I need to give my brain a rest. So that post will appear next Monday. Today, I want to rant about grammar/punctuation/diction.

Now, all of us are highly intelligent, charming, and attractive people (#OxfordCommaForever!) Still, we are not immune to making errors in our speech and writing. Errors such as “I was literally on fire during that evaluation presentation.” Or saying things like, “Between you and I, our equity plan sucks.” (Both are wrong. See “This literally makes my head explode” and “8 grammatical mistakes even smart and sexy people like you are making.”)

Now, as someone for whom English is a second language, I make mistakes all the time. Sometimes on purpose, such as using multiple exclamation points for extra emphasis, like this!!! And I appreciate it when readers email me to help me correct errors, just like I appreciate it when people point out that I have bits of spinach hummus stuck in my incisors. I also know English is a living, evolving entity, kind of like kombucha tea. For instance, the singular they—“Someone left their copy of the strategic plan behind”—is now gaining rapid acceptance, especially in light of our growing awareness of gender identity.

Still, these mistakes below are irritating the crap out of me and colleagues on the NWB Facebook community, so please cut them out before I throw live scorpions at you:

Affect/Effect: My organization’s mission includes supporting leaders of color and helping diverse communities work together to “effect systemic change.” People keep changing it to “affect systemic change.” Arrrgh!!! Look, to effect is to bring about something. To affect is to change something that is already in existence. Even smart people get this one wrong all the time. If you ever change “effect” to “affect” in my bio when I am keynoting at your conference, I will turn into the Grammar Hulk and trash your exhibitor tables.

Myself. “My treasurer and myself agree with you completely about general operating funds.” Oh no, you did not just say that. You want to fight, don’t you? “Myself” is not a subject. It just sounds weird and pretentious, like “Lady Grantham and myself kindly invite you to our chateau for cucumber sandwiches.” Knock it off. Unless, you are Lord Grantham; in which case, carry on.

Apostrophes. “I forgot my flask, so Janice let me drink from her’s.” Or, “There are leftover donut’s in the conference room, y’all!” Please stop putting random apostrophes everywhere! Apostrophes are like containers of Activia yogurt: They help things go smoothly, but use them excessively and there will be consequences.

Its/It’s. I was generous in the last grammar rant, thinking most people are just lazy when it comes to its and it’s. But I’ve seen enough of this mistake to recognize that it is a serious problem. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is,” and “its” is a possessive. So please don’t write, “The board has reversed it’s stance on allowing live wombats at the office.”

I resonate with. I’ve been seeing this one more often lately. Instead of saying, “Your post on dating in the nonprofit sector resonates with me,” a colleague says, “I resonate with your post…” That’s weird. And it conjures up images of someone resonating, which I envision as someone vibrating. If you’re resonating, please see a doctor.

Utilize. Please stop using “utilize,” such as “Let’s utilize binder clips as door prizes at our gala.” It is one of those words that people utilize to sound important, especially when talking about missions. It usually backfires, making you look like you’re using a big word to sound important. Just use “use.” Remember, “Unless good taste you despise, never ever use utilize.” (It’s midnight; that’s the best rhyme I can create.)

Based off of. “Based off of” is kind of fun to say, which is probably why there’s been an increase in its usage: “Based off of last year’s gala, we should have a signature drink this year, and I think it should be called Equity Juice.” (This is not just an example; I’m creating the recipe for this cocktail, and it involves coconut water). “Based on.” It’s “based on,” all right?

Irregardless. Like “sustainability,” “irregardless” is not a thing. Stop saying it. In fact, carry fruit in your laptop bag, so that you may pummel with aforementioned fruit the people who do say it. Irregardless is redundant. Just say “regardless,” like “Regardless of cultural diversity and dietary needs, beet hummus is an abomination of nature.”

Service. OK, this, like “utilize,” is not a grammar mistake. It’s more about word choice. But please pay careful attention, because we in the nonprofit sector use this word a lot. And when it is used as a noun, it’s fine. When it’s used as a verb, though, it opens a hole in the fabric of space and time, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unleash themselves upon the earth. Watch: “We service low-income individuals through our employment programs.” NoooOOOooOOOooo!!! If you don’t know why that is wrong, please ask a friend.

All right, please get those down so that you don’t have to worry about being attacked by live scorpions. Meanwhile, here are a few bonuses. These are debated by grammarians and the general public, and the tides seem to be shifting on them, meaning they can go either way. However, if you are going to be interacting with people who are sticklers for grammar, especially if they are also donors, you can quickly impress them if you get these right:

Comprised of. “The board is comprised of seven people.” Nope, it should be “The board comprises seven people.” Comprises is closer to “include” than “compose.” Composed of seven people is fine. But included of seven people is weird. As I said, things are a-changing, and grammarians are not as obsessed with this one. Still, I’m in favor of “comprises seven people.”

Momentarily. It traditionally means “for a short period of time,” but it’s started to mean “in a short period of time.” So “We hired a juggler, who will be here momentarily” could mean the juggler will be there for about five minutes and then he’s gone, in which case, why did you even hire him? Just say, “In a moment” to avoid confusion.

Myriad. “We have a myriad of options for venues for next year’s gala.” Myriad is more like an adjective, kind of like “countless,” but it’s started to be treated more like a noun. You don’t say, “We have countless of options.” So, you can win major sexy grammar points by dropping the “of,” like this: “The myriad services we provide are a testament to our awesomeness.LLet



In Praise of Small Schools

 Today I am posting a piece I wrote for Diane Ravitch’s blog in 2014, a year before I started The Treasure Hunter. If you are wondering why I am going back to old stuff now, it’s because I lost the essay I had been working on for two days by hitting the wrong button on my computer.  Although I still hope my son, Bruce, can help me recover it, I am too shaken to start something new today. So I hope that the piece I am repeating will be new to my recent followers and still meaningful to those who read it before.

An editorial published earlier this month 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 posted a piece on her blog 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 can’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 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 one elementary school where I was principal we brought kids together through a school store that sold only student-made items and a noon hour of “Gifted” activities that anyone could participate in instead of going out to the playground. On Fridays we had an hour when all teachers read aloud to students.  Earlier in the week we posted the titles of the stories that each one would read, and students could sign up for the one they wanted to hear.

At another elementary school we created a playground committee with representatives from all grades that developed a set of playground rules and made a video on how to use equipment safely. After that, committee members reported back on the new rules to their classmates. On the playground their job was to remind others of the rules whenever necessary.

Teachers benefitted in both those small schools by having common planning time with others who taught the same grade. They shared their best ideas, showed newcomers the ropes, and set up consistent plans for struggling or zooming students who needed special attention.

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

In the middle school where I was principal we connected students by adopting a road alongside the school and having a road cleanup day three times a year. Students were also asked to pick up any harmless trash they saw while walking to or from school.

We also developed an in-school “jobs” program that students could apply to join. Most of the jobs consisted of 20 minutes per day assisting a teacher, the librarian, or other school employees.  A few students were allowed to work independently cleaning up the playground or tending to the school flowerbeds.  One teacher was given extra free time to monitor the workers and keep track of their work time.  The students earned points to be used to bid on desirable gift items in an end of the school year auction. That event was the most popular one of the year.  Students of all grades came to see what the workers had received for their points.

Finally, all students, including special-needs kids, were welcome to join any school sports team, or participate in school drama or musical events.

After we instituted those programs, middle school attendance and behavior improved markedly and some bullying that we had seen before disappeared. What we also saw in students was a strong expression of pride and connectedness, as if they were proclaiming, “This is our school, and we won’t let anyone mess with it.”

In a large city like New York I can see why it is difficult to have small schools, especially small high schools. But with a certain amount of creativity, it is possible. How about dividing a large school into two separate schools and housing them in one building, as has been done already with some public schools and charter schools?

In a small high school offering a specialized curriculum, such as science or the arts, all bases can be covered with fewer teachers and auxiliary personnel than in a larger all-purpose high school. At the same time, students have more in common with their schoolmates, teachers are more connected, 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, simple ones. Although, big schools may be cheaper to build and operate and easier to manage from the top down, 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 human connections for all students.





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The Problems with Large School Districts

Over the past week I’ve read two newspaper articles that troubled and perplexed me. One, in the NY Times, was about the  difficulties Mayor Bill de Blasio is having with his project  to help New York City’s struggling schools. The other, in our local newspaper, the Oregonian, reported the abrupt retirement of Portland’s School Superintendent Carole Smith, under pressure because high percentages of lead were recently found in many school water systems.  I couldn’t help wondering why things had gone bad so suddenly for both these leaders and how any similar disasters could be avoided in the future.  In today’s post I have one suggestion: smaller school districts with fewer layers of leadership, accountability and communication.

Mayor de Blasio’s dilemma is the lack of progress in a 400 million dollar program he instituted to turn around the city’s struggling schools. The program focuses on pairing schools with community organizations to provide services, such as counseling, to students and parents, adding an hour to the school day, and providing coaching for teachers. The goals set for the program are higher graduation rates, better attendance and higher test scores. The school district is administering the program.

Under pressure from the state legislature de Blasio agreed that the schools involved should show progress by the end of the program’s 3rd year, which is 2017. But it just isn’t happening. Principals and teachers at several schools have been battling each other and at the end of the school year members of both groups left their schools for greener pastures. In addition, student attendance, test scores and graduation rates in the schools in question have not improved. In some cases they have even declined. What can de Blasio do about those problems? Almost nothing. He can talk to district leaders and groups of principals and teachers, but he has no power to take action.

For Carole Smith the story is very different, but just as upsetting. After several years as a teacher and principal in Portland schools, she was appointed to a position in the school district administration, and after two years was promoted to Chief of Staff for the Superintendent. When that superintendent decided to leave her position, Ms. Smith was chosen to take her place. Over the nine years of leadership her work has been praised and supported by the media, the school board, and the public for raising test scores and graduation rates and improving the performance of schools with high numbers of students of color.

Unfortunately, approval of her leadership came to an abrupt end this school year when high levels of lead were discovered in the water systems in a few Portland schools. After that the school board hired an independent group to do an investigation of the water in all schools and found lead problems in several of them. They also discovered that some district employees knew about the lead problems but failed to tell their superiors or take any action to solve them. In their report the investigators declared, “There has been no ‘top down’ management in this area.”

As might be expected, parents were outraged by the lead levels in their children’s schools and the district’s failure to recognize and address the problems much earlier. Ms. Smith was blamed for the lapses in her leadership by the local newspaper and School Board members. The criticism grew so intense from all sides that she decided to resign immediately just this past week.

Sad as these stories are, I don’t believe that Mr. de Blasio or Ms. Smith deserve the blame they are getting. The main problem, as I see it, is the “Pyramid” structures that exist in most of our governmental bodies. There are so many layers and people between the decision makers at the top of the pyramid and the workers at the bottom that communications commonly get distorted or lost along the way. A second problem is that the one person at the top is expected to act on all situations immediately, regardless of any conflicts or obstacles at the time.

One solution I see for school districts is to operate with flatter structures: one person at the top as decision maker, with a support team available; a second level of supervisors, also with a support team; and a third level of implementers. But, I think it would be even better to have smaller districts within cities, each one running only a few schools. That way the top administrator and the supervisors in each area would be familiar with their schools and aware of what is happening in each of them. They could–and would–communicate early and often with implementers and also monitor their actions.

Maybe I’m dreaming. In both school districts where I was a principal the pyramids were much shorter. In the middle size district there were four Area Directors who often visited the schools under their supervision and met directly with the principals. In the tiny district where I was the superintendent and principal of two schools, teachers, aides, custodians, and lunchroom workers came to me whenever something was going wrong and needed to be fixed, or when everything was fine, just to talk. County support offices held monthly meetings for superintendents and provided any special assistance we needed. Because those were the “good old days” I suspect that not many short pyramids of school management still exist in these times of tight school budgets and national dominance over public education. I bet Bill de Blasio and Carole Smith miss them, too.

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