The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

School Ain’t the Way It Used To be

Although my husband and I returned home last Saturday evening, It took some time to get my head on straight after ten days living out of a suitcases and then spending 13 hours in air ports and planes in order to get home. On top of that the newspapers I read while away were of poor quality and gave me nothing on education I could write about. But, since I’m now slowly returning to reality, I do have an article to review today. It was waiting for me on my computer among 157 other messages. The article was written by Janet Meckstroth Alessi, a long time high school teacher, and published in the Palm Beach Post on November 6, 2017. Since she plans to retire soon she felt free to publically express her views on many of the situations at her school that she believes are destroying quality education.

Janet Meckstroth Alessi has taught English successfully and with pleasure at the same Florida high school for 34 years.  But now she finds her situation-–and that of many of her fellow teachers—intolerable. She believes that the major problem for both teachers and students today is the over-emphasis on testing; not only preparing students for year-end tests, but also constant “teaching to the tests” and having students make up tests they missed. In addition, she thinks it is wrong when the school gymnasium and media center are closed to regular classes without warning because some unscheduled testing must take place there.

From Alessi’s perspective testing is not only unending, it is the heart of today’s concept of education. One thing that has changed drastically at her school is the use of high quality literature as the main focus of classroom study in English classes. More than once she and other teachers have been told to cut back drastically on their use of novels and plays in order to spend more time on the skills and information that will be tested.

Another thing that irritates her deeply is what she sees as coddling of students. More specifically, she feels that students are being spared any strong discipline or expectation of hard work. When a student is suspended, he or she is now allowed to make up missed work assignments. Also, students who are expected to pass the FSA test (Florida Standards Assessment) in order to graduate, may satisfy the school requirements by earning a high enough score on the SAT or ACT, and thus  graduate on time. Because of this possibility teachers are expected to spend a large amount of class time trying to improve students’ SAT, ACT and FSA test scores.

In reading Alessi’s full article it seemed to me that a part of her anger and pain were the results of changes in public education over time. Because teaching, grading, testing, and disciplining students are now so different from what they were twenty years ago, she blames school leaders, students, and parents for destroying education when there is actually another stronger body  actually in control. For the past several years a school’s effectivenessand perhaps its continuing existence, have been determined by public officials’ judgments on students’ test scores and graduation rates.

Although I agree with Alessi that most of the school changes are not in the best interest of students or public education as a whole, I think she is exaggerating their frequency and intensity. I must admit that I, as a former English teacher, would not be pleased with being told how and what to teach or with the amount of test preparation I would be expected to carry out, but I think she is blaming the wrong people when she attacks students and parents, and to some extent, the school administration. The foolishness, cruelty and destruction of school learning are the work of our federal and state governments and the so-called experts who have been given the power to determine what should be taught, when, and how.








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Bits of Treasure Found in a Few Schools

Today’s post gives information from an article written by Linda Jacobson and posted in Education Dive on 11/6/2017.

P.S. Because I will be attending the NCTE Convention later this week and visiting family for Thanksgiving I will not post anything more until December 1st.

Only one day after writing about how bleak the public education world looks to me, I stumbled on an article about what is happening in some states, school districts and individual schools. It gave me hope that those actions will increase and spread to schools around the country

To be specific, the article reported on the activities of certain school districts and schools in various states that were reaching out to students to get their opinions and give them the power to change things they disapproved of in their school.

I was deeply impressed by what some schools are doing to give students a voice in decision making, creating new courses and changing unpopular school practices. Unfortunately, however, there was too much information in the article for me to cram into my post.  What I have done instead is list the areas that were covered and mention the names of a few schools and students that stood out. I urge readers who want to know more to go to the original article and get a full picture of school executives’ actions and students’ participation in determining what should be included in a schools’ program.

School Districts and Schools Responding to Students Concerns and Seeking Student Voices

Greece Central School District near Rochester, NY, has removed requirements for uniforms in physical education classes

Arcadia High School has given 13 minutes to all classrooms at beginning of school day for students to hold discussions

Alcott College Prep in Chicago is one of 60 high schools to add student voice committees as part of the Chicago Public Schools’ civic

Lawrenceville School in N.J. seeks student participation in decision-making; polls students on school practices

Thirty Chicago elementary schools have committees that meet after school to discuss student leadership and make proposals for change to administrators

Helpful Organizations

“Joe Foss Institute” campaigns to get states to make civic education a more prominent part of the curriculum.

“Sound Out”  works with schools to increase student voice

“Youth Truth” does student surveys in  schools that reveal students’ positions on many issues, such as bullying and academic rigor. It also uses surveys in developing Local Control Accountability Plans, which include parents

Students’ Actions

Students at Arcadia High school organized a National African-American Read-in one year, and afterword designed a 12th grade English course that would focus on interests of marginalized populations. Three other high schools in the district also adopted such a course.

James Wellemeyer, a senior at Lawrenceville School created a 150- page e-text book on youth involvement in politics. He also reported that “My school polled students about workload and reduced weekend homework as a result.”

Anthony McCall, a 12th grader at Arcadia High School says, “Activities so far this year have included a field trip to a public market to learn about the history and the cultures represented, as well as discussions over issues such as not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.”


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No Treasure to Find in Education Today

Over the past year I’ve regretted naming my blog The Treasure Hunter. I should have called it The Disappointed Educator or, better yet, The Sad Sack. As I read about what is happening in our public schools, and what the plutocrats are demanding of students and teachers, I find almost nothing that I am happy with. These are sad, sad times for our schools, our children and, consequently, our nation

Although I am not visiting schools any more to see first hand what is happening, I read enough in several news sources to be convinced that today’s classrooms are more like torture chambers than places for students to mature, learn some stuff, feel good about themselves, and become successful adults.

Over the past several years, even before I had a blog, I publically criticized “No Child Left Behind” and “The Common Core State Standards” for asking the wrong things of students of all ages. I have also complained about the time and money wasted on high stakes testing and the judgments made about the significance of test scores.

Another thing that has bothered me is the ubiquitous worship of data. I cannot understand how the experts can pass judgment on the competence of teachers and the quality of schools on numbers alone, without ever visiting them to see what is really going on and why.

To be honest, I admit that an article I read this week pushed me over the edge of tolerance and civility about what is happening in our schools. It was about a high school in Ohio that has started a program to help students avoid thoughts of suicide. Because three students have killed themselves recently, the school decided that a program was needed to discourage further suicidal urges. I was outraged. Maybe the school leaders should have looked at themselves, the school rules, the current curriculum, and their student expectations,

After that I thought about some of the other programs being used in many schools today: Mindfulness, Social and Emotional Learning, and Grit. Why are they needed? Such beliefs and behaviors are learned naturally by children who are treated well at home and in school. Rather than providing programs to fit the interests, needs, and growth patterns of young people, schools are trying to re-shape them to fit the pipe dreams of the “experts,” and decision makers, all in the interest of making our international test scores look as good as those of some other countries.

Is there really something wrong with American children? I don’t think so. They are the products of our culture, and over the past centuries most of them have displayed the qualities needed to function well in our world. The only serious problems we have are poverty and too many guns.

Unfortunately, I am not empowered to change our country’s politics or re-educate our school decision makers. All I can do is suggest to readers that the most important things we can do is opt-out our children from high stakes tests, pay attention to what our school board is doing, and vote wisely.

Oh, and get off the data train!

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It May Be Time to Scrap the Traditional High School Curriculum

Some time ago I read an interesting article in Valerie Strauss’ blog titled “Why Kids Hate School—Subject by Subject”. In it the author, Roger Schank, a university professor, names several high school courses that he believes should be eliminated, and briefly states why each one is no longer appropriate for high school students. Today I will describe his opinions and explain where I agree or disagree with him, and why.

Professor Roger Schank claims that every subject taught in high school today is a mistake; and goes on to list courses that he finds especially bad. He names four of them that do not interest high school students because they deal with skills and information that have no connection to their lives today or the foreseeable future. In that group he puts Algebra, Chemistry, Biology, and French. Three other courses he names could be worthwhile, but he thinks they are now badly taught.

Schank does not take the time to explain the origins of the courses he names or why high schools still require them. I see them as deeply embedded traditions, originally put into the high school curriculum because most of the students in earlier times were planning to go on to college and aiming for specific careers. But they had not yet become familiar with the types of college courses available.

Today is a different world for most high school students. They are living their lives outside of school with cell phones, television, Face Book, and activities on line or in their neighborhood. College is far in the future for many of them or not even a possibility for others. Very little of what is being taught in school has any meaning for high school students.

The second group of courses that Schank criticizes are  History, Economics and English. He alleges that all of them are being improperly taught.  In my opinion the problem with  History is that the content is focused completely on the past. High school courses that cover several wars, many government leaders, war heroes, and the expansion of territory are not relevant to young people today.  But they would be meaningful if they connected past events to the present and the possible future, and featured only the most significant events and individuals. In fact, American history should probably be replaced by World history, which would give students a bigger and better picture of how the U.S. has affected other countries and they have affected us.

I also agree that Economics is a course that should be re-designed. Looking at how and why wealth and financial power are distributed in the U.S. and other countries today could be very meaningful for young people. Even better would be examining their personal dealings with money.  Figuring out how to earn, save, spend, and invest their own money might be very interesting and change many students’ lives for the better. Too many adults missed out on having such an economics class in high school.

In considering high school English Courses Schank gets rather nasty.  He vilifies great authors of the past and sees no value in their books.  The only thing he finds worth doing in an English classroom is writing.  That, in itself, makes no sense to me.  How can you learn to write if you don’t read good writing?  In my own experience as a teacher and a principal, having students read high quality literature, poetry, and drama, at the appropriate level, and using them to motivate and support their own writing were positive experiences. Students learned to write well and to enjoy their work.

Basically, I found Schank’s criticism of today’s high school courses worthy of consideration and action. Unfortunately, however, he tried too hard to be clever and act like a teenager. It’s no wonder that he received lots of criticism from teachers. I think he would have had a strong positive effect on teachers, textbook publishers and education decision makers if he had aimed his criticism at them rather than high school courses.



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