The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How Children and I Learned to Learn

Over the past month I’ve had a lot of trouble finding anything about education to write. So I decided to go back to some of my past experiences that I haven’t written about before (I hope). Today I will recall my first teaching job, which looked like becoming a disaster, but turned out to be a success.

In 1952, the year I graduated from college, I took an extra class to become a teacher. My first job was in a third grade class at an elementary school in a small town where most families had low-paying jobs, and their children were often behind in their learning.

When I went to look at my new classroom for the first time I saw that it had bare walls, beat-up desks, and only one set of reading books for the 28 children assigned to learn there. When I spoke to the principal about the scarcity of teaching materials and decent workplaces in my classroom he assured me that everything had worked out fine for the previous teacher and would certainly do the same for me.

Fortunately, another teacher was willing to lend me some books she wasn’t using and materials she didn’t need. But, since I still needed more, I also went to a nearby public library to tell them about my problem, and they agreed to lend me books from time to time. On top of that I created a weekly newspaper that I printed on the chalk board for my students to read. It told of some good things they had done recently or that had happened outside of school. Their job was to read it silently and then discuss it as a group with me.

Near the end of that school year my students and I felt that we had made good progress and wanted to show it off to parents. We decided to produce a play that involved making puppets and clothes for them, then learning how to manipulate those puppets on the stage for the whole school to see. The only thing I didn’t ask the children to do was recite the puppets’ words because it was too much for them to handle all at once. Instead we pre-recorded their voices on tape.

I have long forgotten the details of that play, but below is a newspaper’s photo–unfortunately damaged over time–of my students with their puppets and an explanation of their performance. Although I am still proud of my teaching, I am even prouder of what my students accomplished that year.

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American Education is Off the Track in Some Places

In today’s piece I’m not going to reveal the name of the town I’ve written about because it was only one of several others I could have described. Also, I don’t feel that any of those towns are evil. They are just normal representations of the long existing cultures in many American small towns..

A few days ago our newspaper,”The Oregonian”, posted an article about poor school attendance that was very different from the one reported by government officials. Although the leaders of the”Common Core Standards” and state officials are still calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and post-high school training, their message is falling on deaf ears in many small, isolated, towns. For lots of kids, and their parents, school is just not that important.

The place featured in the article is a rural town with a high rate of human illness and poverty. Last year 40 percent of the schools’ first graders were often absent, and 70 per cent of high schoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials were questioned about what caused so many absences they came up with some strange answers: family hunting trips, business needs, or the local scarcity of doctors and dentists for children who needed them. But the answer most often given by teachers was that most parents didn’t care whether or not their kids went to school regularly.

Strangely enough, the majority of adults in those towns have no college education or not even a high school diploma, yet they are working at jobs they like, earning good wages, and living lives that satisfy them and their families.  One mother who was questioned about her son’s absence from school for a hunting trip by citing family values. She told a reporter that “What they are getting from that experience outweighs three days of school–the bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours”. According to teachers and school officials that explanation was more reasonable than the ones they usually hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school. Those responses boil down to “So what?”

Without comparing the student absentee numbers with those of other small towns all over the country, I’m convinced that every community has it’s own culture, customs, and beliefs that influence behavior more strongly than any government message. Take for example, a high poverty area in a big city where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they don’t expect their kids to live differently than they did when they were growing up. On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on student’s misbehavior and truancy. But when a couple of kids decide to take a day off they don’t hesitate and their friends figure they should join them.  It’ would be a lot more fun than going to school.  Although some parents might object, the kids will do it anyway. Other parents ether don’t know what’s going on or figure that it’s just normal kid behavior. So goes the culture of many small towns and it’s hard to argue against it.

In fact, high poverty communities are not the only places where such behaviors rule. There are whole states that cling to traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own environments and customs. For most local families, school is okay as long as it fits with their personal values.

At present I don’t see much hope of changing local cultures. America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today.  But I feel it is still possible to have schools become more appealing to kids and their parents without diminishing their quality. Almost always there are some similarities between a local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that would lure students and their families back to school. Below I will suggest a just a few things that would have a small cost and bring large benefits to children

For example, high schools could provide more electives, especially courses related to available local jobs, but also courses in arts and crafts. At the same time they could stop requiring students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language. For many young people those courses don’t serve their present interests or their future aspirations. One of such a basic course is enough for them.

In addition I would like to see schools open their buildings to parents more often by holding events that would make them aware of the value of children’s learning, such as music, drama, and intelligence performances. I believe those events would persuade parents of the value of high quality education and get them to support it.

To some readers the changes I’m proposing may look like a return to a worn-out past. But what I hope for instead is to open doors that have been closed by powerful government forces that misunderstand the different situations and needs in many parts of our vast country. Wounded government pride, much more than a concern for our place in the global economy, has brought a number of ineffective changes in public education and produced a vast chasm between government policy and the true needs of children in many places where there may be great poverty or lack of parent education.

After some 20 years under a barrage of school reforms, we are left with nothing more than failed government policies, stagnant test scores, a growing body of opt-out parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers, and a serious lack of high school graduates prepared for good jobs or further education.  Ask yourselves, is what we now have truly democracy or just the wrong education for many of America’s children?”


Understanding the Results of Grade Retention

Today’s post is a revision of a piece I wrote several years ago, when I was a school principal. The events described are true, and I remember them clearly. My only regret is that I don’t know anything about the later life of the boy involved.

In our schools the decision to retain a child in grade is made by the Teacher Assistance Team (TAT). But in Tommy’s case the TAT had great difficulty in making a decision.

Tommy came to us in mid-year as a 5th grader from a city school where he had been in a self-contained class for emotionally disturbed children. Before that he had spent four years in a residential treatment center where he lived and went to school. When his mother regained custody of Tommy she wanted him in a regular classroom in a public school. We had one week to get ready before Tommy arrived.

After reading Tommy’s thick file, we were all frightened. Especially concerned was his new 5th grade teacher, who already had 27 students, several with problems. But we made a plan for him, hired an aide, cleared a storeroom to be a “quiet place” for him when he needed it, and waited for Tommy to make his entrance.

Fortunately, Tommy’s behavior was not as bad as advertised. He was a smart kid who may have realized that here was a chance for normalcy that hadn’t been offered to him before, and was not likely to come again. Yes, his attention wandered–along with his feet–in the classroom, and he did get into some arguments on the playground. But after a few weeks it was clear that he did not need an aide or the “quiet place”. Academically, Tommy made progress, and by the end of the school year he was almost up to grade level in reading and language arts, and about a year behind in math. Should we promote him we wondered?

That question hinged on academics. Our curriculum, teaching methods, and classroom structure were flexible enough to accommodate students with deficiencies more serious than Tommy’s. But the TAT was concerned about whether his level of social and emotional behavior would allow him to make a satisfactory adjustment to the demands of middle school. In that building Tommy would have to get himself from room to room on time, adapt to the personalities and styles of new teachers and students, go without morning and afternoon recesses, and have to manage his own assignments. Wouldn’t it be better for Tommy to spend another year in the elementary classroom where he had formed strong bonds with his teacher and his playground companions who would also be staying there, than to move on to a more challenging situation? Maybe.

On the other side of the coin was the fact that using the definitions provided by state and federal law for the education of handicapped children, we could provide an “appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” by sending him on to middle school. Tommy would be academically grouped with the students in his classroom. An aide would be available to help him get to other classes and do his assignments on time. And the sixth grade teachers were willing to modify their expectations to fit his needs.

After talking through all the arguments, the TAT and middle school council members were still undecided. It was not just a matter of divided opinions; both groups leaned one way, then the other, then back again. Finally, we decided that the critical issue was Tommy’s view of what was happening to him. Would a child who had already been battered by circumstances see grade retention as the worst possible blow, just another minor setback, an opportunity to stay in a safe place, or an insignificant event? To find out, we set a conference for Tommy, his family, and the school counselor who had been working with him and gained his trust.

Surprisingly, the conference was a short one. As the counselor reported to me afterward, Tommy’s mother and stepfather were sure what was best for him and got right to the point: Tommy should stay in the 5th grade because he wasn’t ready for the 6th. Both of them had been held back in grade school and it hadn’t done them any harm. On the other hand Tommy was sure that he wanted to go on to middle school with “his” new class.

Finally, the counselor reminded Tommy that he had some problems getting along with other students. Although Tommy acknowledged that this was true, he said he was ready to try harder. He didn’t argue with his parents at all. He understood that the deal was between him and the school. The counselor did not argue either. He asked if there was anything else that Tommy would like him to tell the school superintendent before she made her decision? “Yes”said Tommy, “Tell her ‘please and thank you.” End of conference and end of dilemma! Tommy started sixth grade the following year with support systems in place.

Although I am aware of the emotional impact of this little drama–which is all true except for Tommy’s name–that is not why I tell it. Through his story I hoped to suggest the the complexity of promotion/retention decisions and make clear that each child’s case deserves to be decided on it’s own merits. I also wanted to emphasize that retention is not, as most adults believe, merely a matter of giving a slow learner more time to succeed or a recalcitrant one a taste of the real world. For a child, retention is an earthshaking event that shouts to him–and everyone else in his world–, that he is not an adequate human being. When a school chooses to “retain in grade” any child, it should do so not only with fear and trembling, but also with a plan to make things better the second time around, so that a negative verdict can be reversed.

As for Tommy’s results, I want you to know that he did well in sixth grade and from then on.

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Building Community in the Classroom

Having students work and play together in the classroom and on the playground is good because it brings everyone together physically and socially. But conditions don’t always stay that way. Differences in abilities and interests or bad experiences for some students, can dissolve a community and damage everyone’s learning.

To me, a community is more than a bunch of people living in the same physical territory. It’s a group of comrades bound together by purpose, cooperation, and trust. Even a school can become a “community” when t students and teachers are devoted to a particular cause–such as building a new playground.

The key to creating a classroom community is a teacher who is respectful to all students; and the most obvious respectful teacher action is not listing students’ test scores for everyone else to see. That information should be shared only with the students who earned it and their parents.  But it is just as important for teachers to not criticize the work or behavior of any student publicly. All such messages should be delivered privately.

At the same time teachers should do their best to notice positive student actions, such as helping someone pick up a bunch of pencils dropped on the floor by someone else or joining a partner in moving a heavy desk. However, a teacher doesn’t have to draw public attention to every act of helpfulness. It’s enough to let those involved know she noticed and appreciated what they did.

Another positive thing a teacher can do is assign different students to work together on new assignments. It’s also a good idea to encourage them to choose new partners for ordinary work from time to time, rather than always working with the same people.

In a classroom where a true community exists, cooperation, production, and learning soar. Those things happen because each student is willing to work with others and support anyone who needs help. Also classroom leaders do not have to see all classmates as new friends. But they should come to believe that everyone deserves the same consideration the teacher gave them when they were new in the classroom, lonely and afraid.

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Foolish Decisions for Philadelphia Schools

Today I have chosen to describe what I see as mistakes being made in attempting to solve serious school problems. It seems to me that a prosperous and rising American city could find better ways to serve the families supporting it.

In the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the school district’s major plan is to study school problems over four years and seek “national experts” to make school change decisions, which I consider a foolish and expensive mistakes. No matter how skilled those experts turn out to be, they would also be very expensive starting from scratch in an unfamiliar territory and unqualified to make large and locally sensitive decisions

In addition, it seems to me that the four year examination of Philadelphia’s schools, determined by district officials in order to plan for the future, is an insult to teachers, students, and parents, who have been hurting for some time already. The right thing to do would be to examine now the schools that have been losing students, and to figure out how to enable them to recover as soon as possible. For several schools it is very likely that only minor changes will be needed, but for any badly damaged schools the proper solution is complete replacement. Despite the greater costs, it might be the only way to convince parents that the school district had fulfilled its obligations.

Finally, the impression I got from reading the article was that the district chose to do everything wrong in planning to spend so much time studying school situations, selecting the wrong group of specialists to do the job, and taking only minimal actions. Personally, I see no advantages for students, parents or the school district. Someone will have to explain all of that to me before I can be pleased or supportive of the district’s actions. What do you think ?


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