The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Creating a Community in a Public School

To me a “community” is more than a mass of people living in the same physical territory. It is a group of comrades bound together by communication, cooperation, purpose, and respect. In a classroom it’s fairly easy for a smart teacher to create such a community. Even a whole school may achieve it when devotion to a particular cause brings people together. But it doesn’t always stay that way. Differences in classrooms or bad experiences for only a few students can dissolve a community and severely damage the learning of those who are affected

What kinds of differences am I talking about? Well, they could be harsher discipline for some students than for others, larger amounts of homework in a classroom than in the one next door, limited opportunities for participation in extra-curricular activities, bullying on the playground, or even ability grouping in a classroom.

The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the students who earned them and their parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not publically criticize the work or behavior of any student. When necessary, those things must be done privately.

The key to creating a classroom community is a teacher who knows how to respect all students and figure out ways for even the most struggling ones to shine. The most obvious respectful action for a teacher is not listing students’ test scores for every one else to see. That information should be shared only with the student who earned it and his or her parents. But it is just as important for teachers to not criticize the work or behavior of any student publicly. When necessary, such messages must be delivered privately.

On the other hand, teachers should make it a point to praise positive actions such as when a student has gone out of his way to help a classmate who is struggling to learn what others have quickly absorbed; or one who is new in the classroom, appears confused, and seems too shy to ask for help.

Another action that good teachers choose to take is assigning desirable classroom jobs, such as distributing new books, to a shy child who usually works alone. Still, the teacher must be sure the student is ready to bloom. She talks to him or her, explains the new job, and makes sure that the student is willing to take it on. Or maybe that student is only ready to be an assistant to someone else. Okay, that works for now. Leadership can wait for the future.

In a classroom where a true community exists, cooperation, productivity, and learning soar. Those things happen because each individual is willing to work with others whenever necessary, and to support anyone who needs help, is shy, or has been treated badly in the past. Classroom leaders may not consider everyone their new friend, but they do believe that all classmates deserve the same consideration the teacher gave them when they were new and scared.

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A New Way to Serve Students With Special Needs

Today’s post I wrote and published elsewhere some time ago. I am repeating it today because I’m not finding anything about education in the newspapers I read. If you can suggest any good sources for me now, I would be very grateful.

Several years ago we closed our special resource room for disabled students and set the inmates free.  Although most of those children are still with us, no one remembers just who it was that once inhabited our back ward.  Those children now are in regular classrooms full-time, where they work shoulder to shoulder with regular students, where teachers modify the teaching for their particular needs, and where a specialist comes in to observe students progress and also teach them—along with their regular classmates—in small groups. All this has happened not as a result of the national movement toward “full inclusion schools” but because we, as educators could not tolerate the old pullout and self-contained systems any longer.

What you would have seen if you visited our resource room before we closed it was a relentless dance of students drifting in, filling out workbook pages, getting grades on their daily work records, and drifting out again. Their teacher could not attend to the wide range of needs in the students that had been sent to that room all at once, as was expected.  He felt he had no choice but to use commercial self-instruction programs that required little or no teaching. To both him and me, the principal and outside observers, it was clear that kids weren’t learning much, but at least they were quiet and occupied.

At that time our rural school had about 20 students classified as disabled. Most of them were “learning disabled,” four or five were “emotionally disturbed”, and two or three, “mentally retarded.”  In my opinion, most of those kids might have been more accurately called emotionally battered.  The cruel irony was that our school was battering them even more by isolating them from their regular classmates and filling their days with assignments that were meaningless drudgery.  Worst of all, there was no way out; nobody ever got “unclassified.”

Like most people in and out of education, our teachers and I originally held three misconceptions about special education: (1) the teaching was truly “special”.  (2) It can make handicapped children “whole, and (3)” teaching is the best thing we can give disabled children.

The truth is that good special education teaching is no different from regular teaching. Although the teachers rely more heavily on behavior control than are normally used, their teaching methods are no more magical than those used by teachers in ordinary classrooms.  They plan, struggle, and react; then plan again, trying to capture all children’s attention and hold it until there is a breakthrough of understanding.

Another truth is that all children have learning problems at one time or another. Those who become successful as adults have learned how to work around their deficiencies and emphasize their strengths. Our fate is decided by the number and severity of our learning problems, as balanced against our strength and self-esteem, and the quality of education we get in school and at home.  If lucky, we learn to cope and compensate, but no one is ever cured.

Good teaching is only half the story, the other half is good learning, and that depends more on psychological factors than intellectual ones. Handicapped children need to be persuaded that what they are being taught is worthwhile and they are capable of learning it.  Such beliefs are essential to learning, but hard to come by when you are a student in a resource room.

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The Trouble With Textbooks

Some time ago I read an article: “What to do about terrible textbooks,” and I quickly replied. But, apparently, my response was too late, and didn’t get published. Although some of the responses were similar to mine, I felt that they did not go far enough in explaining the problems of most textbooks.  In the first section I post my initial submission. In the second section I expand by recounting my own experiences, which had convinced me to avoid buying textbooks. Here they are below.

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My immediate reaction to this week’s question, “What to do about terrible textbooks” was: Throw it in the trash!  It will do more harm than good to your students if you use them as directed.  However, it took me only a few seconds to realize that neither a teacher nor a principal could get away with such an action in today’s top-down run schools.  Somebody in the school district office chose that textbook, believing it was of high quality and appropriate for students at your grade level, and other officials had approved that decision.  Even though you, as an experienced teacher, are more qualified to judge the educational value, it is better not to go into open revolt against your superiors. You will certainly lose the battle and, perhaps, your job. Instead, you should go over the purchased textbook with your fellow teachers and see what the group can extract from it that would be meaningful for students. Then, use only those portions for teaching and supplement them with other sources—maybe, even an older textbook of better quality. If little or nothing appears appropriate, shelve the new textbooks entirely and allow them to collect dust while you improvise using your personal knowledge, past experience and materials you have found elsewhere. It might also be worthwhile to suggest to your principal that it would be better to have a teachers committee select the textbooks the next time around.

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I have never been a fan of textbooks. Over all my years as a student I resented carrying them back and forth to school every day, reading their long, boring chapters, and having to search for the answers to the meaningless questions at the end of each chapter   On top of that, many other students had written inside the covers of my textbooks such things as: “In case of fire, throw this in.”  Although they were joking, I understood that those words reflected the feelings of many students.

When I began teaching, one of the first things I did was to collect all the textbooks that the students had in their desks and store them in a classroom cabinet. No students complained about my actions, and a few cheered them.

Several years and jobs later, I was hired to be the Chair of the English Department at a new high school.  When the school district decided to buy new English textbooks for everyone, none of my teachers were pleased. The old books were still serviceable, and the teachers wanted to get single pieces of literature instead that would give them more freedom to teach.  Besides, textbooks were getting increasingly expensive, which might mean that we would get less money for other things that we needed. As a group we rejected the new textbooks and requested funds to buy a variety of paperbacks instead. The only hardback books we needed to teach English were the poetry collections we already had.

Later on, in two elementary schools where I was principal we also opted for paperback literature instead of textbooks and workbooks.  My teachers believed that they could teach both English and American history using those materials and the other materials we had accumulated over time.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance, but a firm conviction that the materials we chose and the other less expensive materials we collected were better for teaching than textbooks. In all the schools where I worked over time we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve our teaching preferences and students needs.  We also found that paperbacks— their covers strengthened with Scotch tape– lasted just as long—if not longer–than far more expensive textbooks.

Please understand that we were seeking the best things for our students, not lower spending. The problems that haunt all commercial textbooks are the impossibility of meeting the needs of schools all over the country, and the fact that those who are creating them are far removed from the reality of students’ needs, interests, and abilities. It is sad, but true, that you can’t effectively teach a student you don’t know personally.

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