The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning is Not Climbing Someone Else’s Ladder

Since I am not dealing with new school events right now, I’m explaining some of my personal thoughts about education for your consideration—and, I hope, to give me some feedback.  

In the heat of an argument about education with another high school student–who was also a friend—I put my core belief into a few words: “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder”. What I meant was that the same classes should not be forced on all students. Despite the wealth of knowledge and skills taught in those four years high school many of us would not use or even remember most of them. At that time I was not able to explain my belief in language that might persuade my friend– or anyone else. So I just stopped arguing and changed the subject.

Despite my belief I got through the algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, and foreign language classes in high school that I had been required to take. But I really cared only about getting good grades. Once I graduated from high school much of what I had been taught began to slip away. Algebra, and geometry particularly, went fast. I had no need of them in my private life or four years of college, where I majored in English and the Dramatic Arts.

After college I got married and bore four children. As those children grew up they needed less attention from me each year, and I began to want a job. The one in my heart was to be a teacher. But first I had to learn new skills in order to get that job. So I started to take night courses at a nearby college. I also began to write letters to local news papers, supplementing or criticizing what had appeared on their pages. I had realized as I reached maturity that I wanted to write as well as teach.

Although it took me three years of night classes and summer programs to be fully qualified for a teaching certificate, I didn’t find the process onerous. It was what I was meant for all along, until high school got in my way and “prepared” me for the type of future I was not meant to have.

My argument—in case you haven’t figured it out by now—is that high schools should be structured differently, not putting students into a fixed set of classes based on a tradition that is disappearing rapidly. The concept of preparation for college is changing these days—much faster than high school programs. Along with the fact that college students become adept in certain traditional skills, many colleges have added one or more occupational programs to their offerings.

So what should high schools do to bring their programs up to date and begin to serve the needs of all students? A few high schools in large cities have already become specialized, but the range of what any one school can offer is limited.  Another possibility might be to allow beginning high school students to select the classes that most appeal to them. The school could offer new 9th graders a few weeks of introductions to the classes available and allow them to make some choices–along with one year of the basics of English, math, chemistry, and a foreign language. That opportunity would give students an idea about which classes would be available and then allow them to choose the path most attractive for the four years of school to come.  On the other hand it might be better to do what a few large cities have done: turn each high school into the base of only two or three different programs and let students choose which school they want to go to. I’m sure that others have even better ideas for high school change, and I’d like to hear them.

Let me close today’s message by letting you know that I was was finally able to complete the saying that expressed my beliefs about the way people learn: “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder. It is weaving your own web from the scraps of meaning and beauty you pick up on your journey through life.”




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You Can’t Quantify Kids or Teachers

Yesterday I wrote a terrific piece for this blog. And I was almost ready to check it and post it when I accidentally wiped out the whole piece and could not recover it.  I’m hoping I can remember enough to write it again—but not today.  Instead I am posting a piece I wrote more than two years ago that I hope will be new for some readers and a good reminder for followers who read it back then.

Although I was determined to post today’s essay for a long time, I have also been nervous about how pompous it may sound to many readers.  What has moved me to take the risk is the continuing idiocy of evaluating teachers on students’ test scores, even when they didn’t actually teach some of those students.  To me the basic principles of teacher evaluation today are utterly without validity because it is not possible for one person to control the behavior of another unless the first person is a master and the second is a slave.  Even that doesn’t work all the time.

Most of us, I think, can name the qualities that go into being a good cook, a good friend, or a good driver. But could we convert those qualities into quantities?  Would each quality have the same weight? And what if our two best friends had different qualities, that when tallied up showed a wide discrepancy?  What if one friend added up to a 95 and the other added up to 63?

All of this must seem hopelessly complicated and, very likely, inane. Who would want to measure one friend against another? But that is exactly the inanity going on in states and school districts bent on measuring the quality of students on their test scores.  Even worse than that is the practice of judging the quality of teachers by their students’ test scores so one teacher can be labeled “effective” and another “failing.”

To make matters worse, the people setting up the measurement formulas don’t seem to know what the qualities of a good teacher are. Most of them can name only the ability to generate high student test scores, while the rest go blank after adding the ability to manage classroom behavior.

Although I can’t resolve the numbers dilemma, I can, from my own experience as a teacher and a principal, name a set of qualities that reflect my beliefs about teacher quality, and I want to do that here.  To me the most important one is the ability to inspire students to delve more deeply into the things taught in class, whether that is math, writing, science, or civility.

To help you get a fuller picture of my concept of teaching excellence, below is a list of teacher qualities that I believe are important. They are what I looked for in my teachers when I was a principal.  Be warned, however, that they were never a “rubric” for me and should not be one for today’s principals or other evaluators.  They are ideals that very few of us can live up to all the time, the “A plusses” of performance.  And even if some teachers could do them all, every day over the years, an evaluator might not recognize them or give them the same value I do.

A good teacher

  1.  Is aware of each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses and home or community problems
  2. Establishes a system of small group and independent learning that allows students to experience the roles of leader, follower, partner, and innovator
  3. Plans lessons designed to cover the range of students’ instructional needs, connect to their interests, and strengthen their current knowledge and skills or move them into new territory
  4. Adjusts lessons while teaching in response to students’ questions and actions
  5. Makes an effort to include positive suggestions for improvement when critiquing a student’s work
  6. Demonstrates respect and trust for students and expects them to give the same back to her/him and their classmates
  7. Discusses problems about behavior, attendance, or classwork with students privately, out of respect for their rights and personal dignity.
  8. Develops professional relationships with fellow teachers inside their school and also with some who teach elsewhere
  9. Develops good communication and partnership relationships with students’ parents to serve the children’s best interests
  10. Continually works to improve and expand one’s own professional knowledge and skills.

Although I suspect that my list is incomplete, it is long enough to convey my concept of good teaching and make clear why it can’t be measured or even perceived by evaluators who don’t know a teacher’s work first-hand through many classroom visits and observations outside classroom actions.

In any school, the ideal evaluator is a principal who has the time to visit classrooms regularly and observe teachers informally in many different situations.  As a result of those efforts a good principal knows which teachers to move into positions of greater responsibility, which ones need help to improve, and those few who are not suited to continue in this profession.

I am well aware that throughout this essay I have been speaking of ideals, not reality.  Neither I nor the teachers I have supervised met all those ideals every day.  But we tried, and we recognized many of our own weaknesses as individuals and as a group.  We did our best to respect, support, and forgive each other, knowing that– like our students– we were still learners.



Some Skills Not Taught at School

Now that schools are closed for the summer not much attention is being given to education, and I don’t blame anyone.  It’s only natural that teachers, students and parents are worn out with trying to deal with all the school problems, complaints, criticism and inadequate funding. I still want to write regularly, but there is nothing much for me to say about what has happened in the past and been endlessly talked about.  For the time being, at least, I will turn back to my own thoughts, complaints, and ideas for the future of education

As a critic of many of the current teaching practices in today’s schools, I am concerned about the lack of critical thinking, creativity, and independence in much of the teaching methods used today.  Although the Common Core Standards demand higher performance from students than in the past, they still overlook the importance of encouraging—or at least–allowing students to think independently about what is being taught in the classroom.  Although independent thinkers may use their own experiences or beliefs when alone, they are not encouraged to do so in most classrooms. Although such abilities may not be “taught’ in the traditional sense, they can be accepted as appropriate in classrooms and be the best tools for delving more deeply into new subject matter.

For your consideration I will cite and briefly explain several skills that are practiced by independent and creative learners , but not encouraged in most classrooms where specified skills and knowledge are the only things valued.

1. Curiosity: Going beyond the lessons taught to find out more about assigned   topics and the answers to questions that may not be included in a text.

2. Skepticism: Mentally questioning the truth in what you have read or been told, either because it doesn’t fit with other things you know or because you don’t trust the accuracy of the new source.

3. Using alternatives: Thinking of other ways to do things that might be quicker or more accurate than what is specified by a teacher.

4. Perseverance: To keep on trying to do a difficult task or solve a serious problem that others have given up on.

5. Revival: To bounce back after a failure or a poor performance. Tomorrow may be a better day.

6. Differentiation: Seeing the differences between things that appear similar at first, especially helpful when you are faced with something that could help or harm you.

7. Dedication: The willingness to put sustained effort into something you believe is worthy of it.

8. Organization: The ability to group things by importance such as: which piece of homework should I do first while I’m still sharp?

9.Open-mindedness: The willingness to explore the usefulness of things that    most people avoid because they are difficult or not apparently worthwhile.

10.Prediction: Guessing that something specific will happen from previous experience and deciding whether or not to get involved.

Actually, I can think of other skills that smart and independent people use. All students should be encouraged to try-out some of these things, not because you are lazy or disobedient, but because they can serve you for the rest of your life.


How I Became a Teacher of Reading

In the year 2000 after retiring from being a school teacher and a principal, I worked part time for a few years as a supervisor of student teachers for Portland State University and also spent much of my own time visiting classrooms in several schools. Unfortunately, most of the teachers I watched were using commercial materials that emphasized the technical components of reading, such as phonics, speed (fluency) and vocabulary. Largely, getting meaning or pleasure from reading was not emphasized in the classrooms  I visited.

I especially remember observing in a classroom while a 1st grade reading group went through a story titled “Eve Sees an Eagle” without showing any personal response to the story.  Actually, that was no surprise because the story had no charm or interesting information. It was filled with words in which the long “E” sound was conveyed by different letter combinations. As I watched the children read through the story I could see that they found no pleasure in what was essentially a phonics lesson.

I had begun my own teaching career in a third grade classroom in a rural school where several students were not yet reading competently. Although the only preparation I had for teaching reading was a one-summer university course, I knew what good stories or poems could do for readers. My own experience with reading had begun when I was about three years old and my mother read poetry and fairy tales to me every afternoon before I took a nap. Reading captured me then and has never let me go.

In the short time I had before my first teaching job began, I searched my classroom, the school library, and my home for books that I thought students would understand  and like if I read them aloud. I started my classes every day by reading aloud for 5 to 10 minutes, and then stopped at a place where I was sure my students wanted to hear more. I told them I would continue the following day, and then put my book down. Most of the time some kids would go to the book afterward to look at its pictures and try to figure out what would happen next.

Later that year I was able to buy some used books and I begged other teachers for books they no longer used.  After my students had read a section of a book, I would ask  a few of  them to act out what they remembered, using a set of puppets I had bought. They loved doing that.  If we had been reading a poem instead of a story, we recited it again afterward.

I stayed at that school for only a year because my husband got a new job elsewhere.. Over the years we moved several times for different jobs, and I taught different grades, most of them with more and better books than my first class had.

Much later, as the Chair of a high school English department, my team and I turned down the opportunity to buy new English textbooks and chose to buy copies of high quality fiction and nonfiction instead.  A few years later I went on to a job as an elementary school principal, and encouraged my teachers to teach reading as I had done. We used no textbooks or workbooks, just paperbacks that were appealing and well written.

By the time I had been principal of that school for several years, we had accumulated enough books to fill a storage room. That allowed teachers to choose the ones they thought best fitted their students at the time. Teachers of higher grade classes often  chose to use books about American history or life in a foreign country in order to relate student reading to other things being taught in a classrooms.

Over time, I served as the principal of two very different schools where student test scores were high every year. That was not unusual for the first school which was in an upper middle class community, but very unusual for the second school which was in a rural area with lots of poverty and very few parents who were college educated. I attributed our success not only to our teaching practices, but also to the extra efforts of my teachers, who reached out for self-improvement continually. They were always ready to read interesting books to their classes that they had found in a library or purchased with their own money.

Throughout my long experience as a teacher and a principal I worked against one-size fits-all commercial programs and reading work books. I much preferred to persuade children to become life-long readers by surrounding them with pieces of reading that were interesting, imaginative and satisfying.  Over time I had grown  accustomed to seeing kids wrapped up in stories that amused or amazed them; ones they re-read because they enjoyed them or wanted to use them as the basis of their own writing.  After reading “Hansel and Gretel” my youngest son, who was only in first grade at the time, wrote a book that he named “The Witch Who Eats Children.” I still have that book in my home and close to my heart.





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