The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

It’s Back to School Time!

Around here school starts for k-12 students on Thursday, September 1st. I’ve been thinking about how I would start the first week of school if I were a teacher today. It’s somewhat different from what I did so many years ago when I was an elementary level teacher because times have changed, and I’ve learned some things along the way. Remember, readers that these are just my thoughts  based on what I remember of my own teaching and my work as a principal, and they may very well not be appropriate for your school or your personal philosophy of teaching. I would like to hear what some teachers practicing today think of my plans.

Like all teachers I see the first week of school not only as a time for teachers and students to get acquainted, but also a time to set the patterns of operation for the whole year. Because there is so much to be communicated to students the first day, I will list the actions I see as most important and describe them briefly, rather than get into full descriptions or explanations of why I chose them. Here’s my plan.

Greetings: I will  meet and greet students at the classroom door and hand each a sheet of paper with a one page essay about myself that is appropriate for the age of my students: my name and contact information, a brief -–and not too personal—autobiography, and a description of how I will teach and manage the classroom. On the screen in front of the classroom I have posted a message about where students should sit for now, do with their back packs, lunches and anything else they’ve brought with them. I will not assign any permanent seats in the first weekof school, but wait until the students and I have decided where is a good place for them to listen and learn.

Introductions: Once everyone is seated and quiet, I will tell the class that the first week of school is the time for us to get acquainted, not only as class members, but also as unique individuals with different abilities and interests. I will ask older students to read my autobiography silently or read it aloud to younger children. Afterward,  I will ask for questions and answer those that are not too personal. Next, older students will write their own biographies, using mine as a guide, while younger ones will be asked to tell some things about themselves to the class. Since it will take me a while to remember students’ names, I’ll pass out blank name cards for older students and filled out ones for the young kids. Students need to place the cards where I can read them easily over the coming week.

Getting Down to Business: The next step is explaining basic classroom rules, and practicing those that require movement or immediately stopping to listen. I’ll try to keep those rules few and simple, and tell students that we can change any of them later on if they don’t work well or are unnecessary. After that, I’ll ask students if they want to suggest any other rules. We will hold a class discussion and accept those that the majority thinks are needed. Finally, we’ll practice those rules that involve everyone at once, such as walking in line or stopping work and conversation when I ask for attention.

Necessary Actions: If there are books or other materials that we will need right away, I’ll pass them out now and explain how they will be used. I will also acquaint students with any special places in the classroom, such as the computer area, and explain when and how to use them.

Taking a Break: It feels like time for a recess, lunch or a classroom game to me.

Begin Classwork: I plan to leave time enough on that first day for a short, simple, lesson that includes a bit of homework. My purpose is to give students an idea of how teaching and learning will operate in this classroom.

Communicating with Parents: At the end of the first day I will hand out an information sheet for students to give to their parents. It will include a very brief description of my teaching/learning philosophy, what I expect of student attendance and behavior, how and when I can be reached if there is a parent concern, and a calendar for the school year.

Ending the Day: Since I believe that students, even the youngest ones, need a sense of closure, we’ll all work on cleaning up and getting the things going home collected. Then we will sing a song or recite a verse that fits with the end of a happy day. Students will leave the room while I say good-bye at the classroom door. For me the rest of the  school day is determined by the school district and/or my principal.


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Good News for Kids in Pennsylvania

It’s been a while since I was able to report any good news about education.  But today I am writing  about some good things happening in Pennsylvania. The information about legislation in Pennsylvania that will improve school conditions for students with diabetes was reported in a blog post  and the article about the change in rules for suspending young children was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

The air must be good in Pennsylvania, especially in the Philadelphia area. Early this summer the state legislature passed legislation ensuring that all children with diabetes will be medically safe at school, and just last week the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to ban most suspensions for kindergartners and all suspensions for students who violated their school dress code. In both decisions we see common sense and compassion for children overcoming the biases often ruling in public education today.

Over the past several years public schools and charter schools all over the country have neglected or formally refused to provide services for children with diabetes. In a few cases such children were denied school admission altogether. Those situations emerged when schools reduced their nurses’ time or eliminated their jobs completely because of inadequate school funding.

Under the new Pennsylvania law, however, school staff members will be trained to recognize diabetic emergencies and provide the proper care. Also, students with diabetes will be allowed to participate in all school-sponsored activities, and capable students will be allowed to self-manage their own diabetes.

Philadelphia’s rule change on suspensions offers reasonableness and compassion to all elementary school students. Up until now huge numbers of children have been suspended for minor or even involuntary actions. Last year 448 kindergartners, 500 first graders, and 1900 second graders were suspended from schools. Ninety percent of those suspensions were for non-violent misbehavior that included not wearing a school uniform.

In citing these examples of changed school policies I must add that they weren’t needed in the previous century. Almost all schools had full time nurses, and most of those that didn’t had someone trained and willing to take care of students with diabetis whenever necessary. Suspensions were extremely rare in elementary and middle schools, and most often were ordered because parents had not responded to previous notifications of student misbehavior.

Please understand that schools were not necessarily better and more compassionate in those times. They were just less likely to be publically criticized or sued for negligence or miss-treatment of students.  Moreover, whatever a teacher or principal did or said was right in the eyes of parents, and none of them thought of complaining, much less demanding special services for their children or moving them to a private school.

What has happened is a widespread decline in respect for public schools that began with the release of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 and continued.  Most Americans now believe that our schools are inferior to those in foreign countries and that a school’s low test scores are indisputable proof of teacher incompetence.  As a result,“reforming” our schools has become a major project of the federal government, a popular topic of newspaper critics, busy work for state legislatures, and a great source of profit for educational consultants, test makers, textbook publishers, and charter schools.  Most of the reforms, such as “No Child Left Behind”, have failed.  But occasionally, good things happen, like the ones I have noted in this post. Those among us who understand what good education is must keep on supporting small steps in the right direction and working tirelessly to get more of the same.





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Human Learning is Not the Product of Schools

Hello again, faithfull readers.  I hope you missed me as much as I missed you. Today’s post was born when I read an article in the New York Times on July 30th entitled “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages,” by Alison Gopnik.  The article described a number of scientific studies that examined the learning processes of infants and young children. I found the results fascinating and only wished for more experiments to explore children’s abilities when they were not taught that there is only one right way to reach a desired goal.

Right at the beginning Ms. Gopnik reminds us that human learning is not the product of schools: “Young children were learning thousands of years before we had ever even thought of schools. Children in foraging cultures learned by watching what the people around them did every day, and by playing with the tools they used. New studies show that even the youngest children’s brains are designed to learn from this simple observation and play in a remarkably sensitive way.”

She also suggests that traditional teaching methods are far less effective than learning by observing real people in action. In a number of studies, even babies could repeat strange adult actions that worked, also detect mistakes or wasted efforts and correct them in their own actions. For example, when 14-month-old toddlers watched an adult turn on a light inside a box by tapping the box with her head, they did the same. But when they next saw a person whose arms were wrapped in a blanket tap with her head, they figured out that  there was a better way. When given the chance to perform, they tapped with their hands.

Even more amazing was a study with four year olds in which a demonstrator tried several different actions to get an unfamiliar toy to play music.  Most of those actions had no effect; only turning the toy over and pressing a tab produced music. When the children got a chance to manipulate the same toy, they ignored all the failed actions of the demonstrator and went immediately to the turn-over-and-tab-pushing technique that worked.

Sadly, the one type of experiment I hoped to see was not mentioned. I can only assume that it has never been tried or it was tried without success. Such an experiment would be one in which the demonstrator tries several different actions to get an unfamiliar toy to work, but is unsuccessful and ultimately gives up. After watching that demonstration I would hope to see children testing the failed strategies for a short time, but then trying out some ideas of their own. From my own experience with children, as a mother and a teacher, I believe that such an experiment would show their ingenuity when given the opportunity to move on from what has been taught to demonstrate their own innovativeness and self-confidence.  I would also hope that some of the children would would quickly discover a real solution to the problem, and that many others would keep on trying for a long time, even come back the next day to try out something new. Either way, those attempts would be examples of children’s natural learning ability.

I am optimistic because I have often seen children invent things they were not taught to do. In fact, studies show that explicit instruction, the sort of teaching that goes with school and parenting, can be limiting. When children are formally taught by an authority figure, they are much more likely to simply reproduce what that person says or does, instead of creating something of their own that is far more interesting and supportive of intellectual growth.

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A New Article to Contradict an Old One

I have chosen to post an Op-Ed from yesterday’s N.Y. Times in its entirety, rather than just take some quotes from it, for two reasons. First, it gives a different picture of an experiment in  N.Y. City than an article I read a few weeks ago and wrote about on July 22nd, in a piece entitled “The Problems with Large School Districts”.  Second, it describes the success of something I believe in deeply: community schools. 

I must also tell you that I will be taking a break from writing for the next week or so.  Our oldest son and his family are  coming to visit, and I want to spend as much time with them as possible.

To Teach a Child to Read, First Give Him Glasses

David L. Kirp AUG. 6, 2016

Half a dozen police cars ring the entrance to the Morris Educational Campus in the Bronx. To enter this venerable Gothic-style building, I have to make my way through a phalanx of policemen and be scanned by a metal detector.

But the show of force doesn’t signal that the high school students inside pose a threat. It is intended to protect the students, who fear getting mugged, or worse, in a high-crime neighborhood situated in the nation’s poorest congressional district.

No one could confuse the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies, one of four small schools that share this building, with the powerhouse Bronx High School of Science, just five miles away. Some students who arrive at Morris Academy for the ninth grade are reading at the third-grade level. A quarter of the 463 students are classified as special-needs students and a fifth are learning English as a second language. Eighty-seven percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

But compared with demographically similar high schools, Morris Academy is doing well. The rate of chronic absenteeism — students who miss more than 10 percent of school days — dropped to 41.1 percent from 56.5 percent in one year. The graduation rate is 67 percent, an eight percent increase in the past two years, and the school is closing in on the citywide average. In the context of the neighborhood and its cohort of schools, Morris Academy feels like another world.

The main explanation, says the principal, Matthew Mazzaroppi, is that Morris Academy is among the 130 schools that have been converted into “community schools,” a cornerstone initiative in the crusade by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carmen Fariña, the schools chancellor, to improve public education.

A community school is both a place and a set of partnerships with local organizations intended to deliver health, social and recreational supports for students and their families. The idea of a school that serves as a neighborhood hub holds widespread appeal, and 150 school districts, including Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Okla., and Lincoln, Neb., have bought into the idea.

The community school is the contemporary version of the 19th-century settlement houses founded by the progressive activist and sociologist Jane Addams on the theory that social ills are interconnected and must be approached holistically. The mission of community schools is to confront the dogged persistence of conditions like untreated asthma, vision and dental problems, and emotional trauma, which mar the lives of children in hardscrabble neighborhoods.

“You wouldn’t think it’s acceptable to send a child to school without having glasses or without dental care, but it’s O.K. for that child to take a reading or math test,” Mark Gaither, the principal of Wolfe Street Academy, a justly renowned community school in Baltimore, told Maryland lawmakers. “But that’s the situation poor parents face.”

A growing body of research establishes that community schools can have an outsize impact. City Connects, which operates in 79 elementary schools mainly in the Northeast, has erased two-thirds of the achievement gap in math and half the achievement gap in English, compared with the Massachusetts statewide average. Students were substantially less likely to be chronically absent or held back, and the high school dropout rate was cut nearly in half. Other nationwide models, such as Communities in Schools, have succeeded in substantially reducing dropouts and raising graduation rates.

City Connects costs less than $800 per student annually — about 6 percent on top of the typical cost to educate one. An analysis of the program carried out by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education at Columbia found that it generates a return of at least $3 for every dollar spent. “Providing the program to 100 students over six years would cost society $457,000 but yield $1,385,000 in social benefits” — higher incomes, lower incarceration rates, better health and less reliance on welfare, according to the analysis. If City Connects were a company, Warren Buffett would snatch it up.

Morris Academy opens early — breakfast is provided, along with before-class tutoring. It’s open until 6:30, as well as on some Saturdays and during the summer. Students can choose among clubs for chess players, step-team dancers and bloggers. The robotics team competes with high schools nationwide. During lunchtime and after school, tutors offer one-on-one help to struggling students. An in-house clinic provides medical, dental and psychological services.

Community school funds enabled Mr. Mazzaroppi to deliver the emotional support that battle-scarred children badly need — recruiting a squadron of social workers, training teachers to counsel students and teaching older students how to mentor their younger classmates. “Our problem wasn’t lack of an academic strategy but our inability to answer students’ pleas for help,” he says. Now, remarkably, Morris Academy students are more likely than their peers citywide to say they feel safe in school and believe that their teachers care about them.

After-school and summer programs not only keep poor kids off the streets, but they also give them the academic leg up and the array of opportunities that better-off families can afford to buy. When he was the chief executive of Chicago’s public school system, Arne Duncan, the former United States secretary of education, opened 150 community schools. “Making every school a community school — that’s got to be our collective vision,” he asserted.

Results-hungry policy makers expect test scores to rise overnight, but getting students engaged in their own education must come first. A recent evaluation of Baltimore’s community schools concluded that the schools whose students did best academically were those in the program longest.

“The key is perseverance,” says Mr. Gaither. “When you hold the course, you get more than what you pay for.” His experience bears him out. Since adopting the community schools strategy a decade ago, Wolfe Street Academy has moved from being the city’s second-worst-performing elementary school to its second-highest.

New York rarely does things by halves, and community schools are no exception. In the span of just two years, 51,616 students started attending schools like Morris Academy — more students than in the entire District of Columbia school system. Most of them go to one of the 94 “renewal schools,” the city’s lowest-performing schools. Patience is in short supply in New York, however, and these troubled schools have just three years to show substantial progress.

“Ailing schools often struggle to turn around, even with an influx of new energy, resources and staff,” says Aaron Pallas, a Columbia Teachers College professor. An evaluation of 602 Communities in Schools programs reinforces this point. The model increased grades and graduation rates — but only in schools that followed it with “a high degree of fidelity,” with closegrained assessments of students’ diverse needs and high-quality supports to match those needs.

New York’s experiment is drawing attention among educators nationwide. If the venture succeeds, other cities may follow suit, but if fails, the community schools movement will take a hit. The impressive evaluations will recede in significance, and critics will dismiss the strategy as just another failed fad. Fingers crossed, then, that the city gives the experiment enough time before rushing to judgment.

David L. Kirp is a professor at the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.


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The Magic of Turning Children into Readers

Every Sunday I make sure to read the opinion section of the New York Times, which is filled with op-eds on various topics. Two Sundays ago I read a piece entitled, “The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read” by K.J. Dell’Antonia, which I  quote from extensively below. Then, I will add my own thoughts about the best way to get children to read more all year long.

 Ms. Dell’Antonia begins by explaining why she believes her own children need to read over the summer vacation: “Kids who read over the summer lose fewer skills than kids who don’t. This is especially important for children from low-income families and those with language problems, like my younger daughter. “

Sharing the same beliefs, many parents bribe their children to read. Some pay their kids by the book, others by the time spent, and one parent Dell’Antonia knows gives her girls a penny a page for reading. A survey she found reported that “60 percent of parents of 3- to 8-year-olds admitted offering their children rewards for reading.”

However, most researchers believe that paying children for reading is not a good idea: “Research, though, suggests that paying children to do things they once enjoyed can backfire. Study after study shows that kids who are rewarded for activities like coloring or solving puzzles, set the coloring books or puzzles aside when the reward dries up, while those who aren’t rewarded carry on with the activities just for fun.”

Finally, Dell’Antonia concludes that “Money may be motivating, but so is living in a home where books and reading are part of family life — and it’s that, rather than the various reward programs, that I plan to focus on at our house.” “Reading together, choosing books, talking about words and stories, or even going to the library is a lot harder than taking a dollar out of our wallets,” she says. Ultimately, she believes, children come to think of reading as a part of their lives.

Although I agree with Dell’Antonia and the other parents who believe that continuing to read over the summer is important for all children, I am opposed to bribery of any sort. Not only does it tend to bring on the problems that researchers have cited, it suggests to children that reading is a chore not worth doing for its own sake. I’m also not convinced that the  solution the author has chosen is the best alternative.  It may be too onerous a ritual for many families. I think there is a better way to achieve the important goal of making reading a part of children’s lives.

From my own experience I have come to believe that reading aloud to children at home and in the classroom is the best way to encourage them to read on their own. My parents read to me and I read to my children.  We all turned out to be avid readers.

When children listen to fascinating stories or absorbing non-fiction, they want more of the same. Also, they may be moved to read the materials an adult has read aloud in order to enjoy them again. Reading is not just a skill; it’s also an addiction—a healthy one—for those of us who were first introduced to it by adults reading aloud.

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