The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Restructuring Classrooms in Small Elementary Schools

After re-posting a piece recently about the research that led teachers to believe that certain students were smarter than they really were, I started to think about some of the things I did as a school principal to help teachers and students succeed, think well of themselves, and be motivated to take on new responsibilities school-wide. Although, I’m sure I have mentioned some of those actions previously, today I will try to describe more fully one set of actions I took that made a big positive change in both schools where I was principal. In the future I will describe other actions that produced positive results.

Right after graduating from college with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and the Dramatic Arts, I decided to become a teacher and enrolled in a summer-long class that qualified me for a basic teaching license. Over the next several years, as my husband and I moved from New Jersey to Puerto Rico, back to N.J, and then to Wisconsin, I gained experience by teaching in eight different schools at many levels from grade 1 to 12. In addition, I took many university courses and earned a Doctorate in Curriculum Development and Applied Linguistics.

Among the things I learned from my university courses and classroom experiences was that small elementary schools inevitably have uneven class sizes, some so large that teaching and learning cannot be as good as they should be. I also learned that having teachers working alone at a single grade level was not a good idea. Not only was there a wide range of experience and competence among teachers at any school, but also little coordination because of their isolation, differences in training, and previous teaching experiences. Also, at a small school there were only rare opportunities for teachers to observe each other’s teaching or work together.

In 1974, when  I decided to leave teaching and become a school principal, I applied for an opening at a small elementary school in a middle class community in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital, base of the state university, and home to a large number of educated people.

I spent most of my first year as a principal getting acquainted with the teachers, students, and current practices in my new school. I observed in classrooms,  sat and talked with teachers during their lunch hour, and held group discussions about things teachers or I saw as school problems. However, I did not formally formally evaluate teachers or castigate any one for problems I had observed in their classroom.

Near the end of that school year I held some meetings with teachers to explain what I saw as problems in our school structure , and described the changes I wanted to make to improve students’ learning and teachers’ jobs. Through those discussions teachers slowly came to see the same problems I saw and to agree with my plans to ameliorate them.

I also asked teachers to join me in a large parent meeting to be held at the beginning of the new school year, in order to explain the changes to be made and how they would improve our school.  In addition, I suggested a seating plan for the meeting in which all parents would be at round tables with a teacher. First, I would describe the school changes we intended to make to the entire audience. Then the teacher at each table would talk with the parents about the details and do their best to convince them that our school restructuring plan would work better for everyone. By having parents discuss the proposed changes with teachers they knew and trusted, we were able to convince most of them that our school and our students would benefit by the planned restructuring.

Over the following school year we were able to put second and third grade students into common classrooms and do the same for fourth and fifth graders. Unfortunately, we could not combine kindergarten and first grade because kindergarten was only a half-day class. However, much later, at my second school, we received enough funding to hire an additional teacher which enabled me to create two K-1 classrooms.  Those mixed classes met every morning to work on basic school skills and appropriate classroom behavior.  They also ate lunch in the cafeteria together. In the afternoon, after the kindergarteners had gone home,  first-graders met with their teachers in two small classes that emphasized reading, writing and math.

Over the 25 years that I was principal at two small schools we continued combining grades and having two teachers at each grade level.  We  believed –along with parents—that our new structures were successful. Below are the major positive effects we saw in this  form of classroom structuring:

Reasonable size classrooms at all levels

Good combinations of students in each classroom

Teachers at each level able to plan together and  help each other solve problems during daily common planning times

 Inexperienced teachers teamed with experienced teachers

 Students in mixed-grade classrooms soon losing awareness of grade differences                                   and working  well together

 A mixed -grade classroom providing more time and support for lagging students to                          catch up and avoid being held back in grade

There was really no disadvantage for students in combined grades

P.S. For those readers who are wondering about the curricula for mixed grade classrooms, here’s how we handled them in the years before the CCSS and yearly testing. Each classroom covered two years in subjects such as math, geography, science, etc. For reading all students were grouped by ability, regardless of their official grade. Every year the students who had been in a classroom for two years moved on to the next the higher two-year classroom. The students who had been there for only one year stayed put for the second year and were joined by a new group of students from the previous grade.



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Believing in and Supporting Students is a Big Part of a Teacher’s Job

Throughout this week I have been laid low by a terrible cold, so I wrote nothing. Today I don’t feel quite ready to innovate, but I also feel guilty about letting a week go by without  standing up for the things I believe in about education.  So, here’s a piece I posted more than a year ago that recalls an important research study done 40 years ago, and, incidentally, reflects what I strongly believe.

“High expectations” is the mantra of today’s school reformers, who are convinced that the trouble with public education is that students have been allowed to slide by with little effort. Their version of high expectations is requiring college-preparatory courses, advanced subject matter, more-difficult assignments, and a longer school day and year for all students. They believe that research and the records of selected schools show that demanding more of students brings the desired results.

But do they understand the research, or know what successful schools really do?

The original research on teacher expectations tells a far different story from what today’s reformers are calling for. More than 40 years ago, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a California elementary school that produced what they called “The Pygmalion Effect”, in a reference to a Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s famous play,“Pygmalion.” All three highlight the amazing transformation of an ordinary person into someone special. In their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, they described the study in detail and interpreted its lessons for education and other human interactions.

 The experiment consisted of giving false information to teachers about their students and then sitting back to see what happened. On the pretext of testing the reliability of a newly developed test to predict future student achievement, the researchers administered a traditional IQ test to all students at the beginning of the school year. Afterward, they reported to teachers, based supposedly on the tests, the names of students who were about to have a spurt in academic performance.

In reality, those students were a randomly selected percentage of the student body, and their scores showed nothing but their current IQs. At the end of the year, and again two years later, all students were retested, and the results showed that a significant number of the identified “spurters” had in fact made unusual intellectual and performance gains and maintained them over time. Teachers’ grades and written reports also recorded marked improvements in learning and behavior for most of those students.

Although the researchers did not examine what happened in classrooms that year, teachers’ written reports were clear about what did not happen: no extra time, no advanced curriculum, no individual tutoring, no differentiated instruction or assignments.

Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that what teachers gave their spurters—but not other students—were unmistakable signals of their faith in them: smiles, nods of approval, more opportunities to ask and answer questions, and a kindly tone of voice. Teachers’ expectations of student success, and their unconscious communication of those expectations, made all the difference.

In its time, this study, along with its replications in three other schools and similar behavioral studies, garnered widespread and authoritative attention. Although there was some criticism of methodology and score interpretation, critics did not contest the researchers’ conclusion that the expectations in teachers’ minds were the determining factor in the success of the identified students

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P.S.Writing is an Art, Not a Technical Skill

Having written about my own theory of how to teach writing earlier this week, I will take this opportunity to add a P.S.

 Just yesterday I read an advertisement for a seminar offered by someone well recognized in the field of teaching writing. It introduced her as “an engaging “speaker who has a vast amount of experience in the field of children’s writing and is a published author.” Then it listed her major teaching strategies “appropriate for all grades.”

  1. Use the traits to dive deeply into student writing.
  2. Use writing folders to practice revision and editing skills.
  3. Use reading to improve writing.
  4. Use warm-ups to scaffold writing practice
  5. Use RAFTS to inspire strong writing in the content areas
  6. Use the modes to clarify the purpose for writing
  7. Use focus lessons to develop targeted skills and strategies

Huh? I have no idea what she means in strategies numbers 1, 4, 5, and 6. by using the words “traits.” “diving deeply” warm-ups’ “RAFTS” or “Modes”. Couldn’t she, as a recognized expert in the teaching of writing, have used language that was more meaningful to the teachers who might be interested in taking her seminar?

Although I could also describe the teaching strategies of other writing experts I’ve met or read about, I don’t think they would be much better. From my experience they would be likely to emphasize focus on improving vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation and revision and not succeed in improving students’ writing much at all.

The problem is that is that writing is taught today as if it were just a group of technical skills, when it is really a wide range of artistic abilities, comprised of different forms suitable for certain purposes and audiences. Students, as they go through the grades should have experiences with many of those forms, their purposes and how they differ in structure, language, tone, etc. Since students read pieces of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, business writing, and political speeches as they go through the grades and in their personal lives,  shouldn’t they also have opportunities to learn how to write most of them? In my opinion becoming adept in  many different forms of writing is as important as anything else in preparing students for college, careers and their personal lives.


Teaching Writing More Realistically than Prescribed by the Common Core State Standards

Today’s post may seem aimed at today’s teachers, but my purpose in writing it was to remind readers to speak out against the Common Core State Standards one again.  Although I have often said before that the CCSS was too much focussed on rigor and not at all on vigor, it remains the basis for determining the reading and writing curriculum in our public schools. 

In writing about writing today I had planned to begin by quoting the descriptions provided in the introductions to The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for elementary and high school grades. But when I looked them up once again, I saw  them so stuffed with elegant language that they would have filled up this page and left many readers uninformed. So, for your sake–and mine– I will try to give you a shorter, more understandable interpretation:

The CCSS expects K-5 students to improve their writing skills each year while reading  longer and more difficult stuff. It expects Grade 6-12 kids to do the same

Instead, I have a far different opinion about what is reasonable to expect from students of different ages, grades, and abilities. I say that they should read a wide range of age-appropriate professional writing, and then be encouraged to use their topics, structures, styles, and vocabulary as supports for their own writing.

Such was our philosophy of teaching writing in both schools where I was principal. And it worked very well. In our classrooms writing experiences started with students reading a piece of professional writing they could understand and appreciate . As a group they discussed it’s features and then each person decided to which ones to use in his or her own writing.

One piece of professional writing I have referred to before because it was–and still is–very popular with primary grade teachers is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No good Day” by Judith Viorst. Students are told they should use as much of its structure, style, and language as they need to describe a day of their own experience, one that was bad, good, funny, boring, or just worth remembering. Not only did almost all the pieces students wrote turn out to be well crafted, but also many of them were highly original, using only the base story’s structure for support.

Teachers at higher grade levels used the same ways to get students to connect their writing to the things they were studying.  They might be asked to produce poems, business letters, descriptions of historic events, or scientific observations, all based on a piece of professional writing they had read.

Earlier, as a high school English teacher, I had used a similar approach to help students write well, but I was careful not to propose pieces that were clearly beyond their reach. For instance, my students sometimes read works by Shakespeare, but I didn’t ask them to produce elegies or poems or use the language of his time. Instead a typical assignment might be to write diary pages for a character in a piece of fiction students were reading or to produce a speech on the same topic a famous person had chosen. An even more common assignment was to respond to a news article we had read and discussed in class.

To summarize, the principles I advocate for teaching writing at any grade level are to have students read pieces of professional writing they can then use as guides and support for their own writing. Pardon my egotism, but I think this approach is  far more effective for teaching writing than the CCSS, which focuses solely on making reading and writing more difficult and boring every year.


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The Bumpy Road for Poor Children

Today I write as a career-long educator, a researcher, and a frequent visitor to all kinds of schools in the U.S. and some foreign countries.  

I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a great smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?   Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support they are given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them potholes are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while roadblocks are the school practices that do not serve their needs, aptitudes, or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are others just as dangerous and less visible. Significant research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in welfare families lagged far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that the children in poor families heard almost 1,500 words less per hour than their wealthier counterparts, and were rarely engaged in conversation with their family members. As a result, many of them entered school at a great disadvantage, which proved to be a big pothole in learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority when you’re working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, another big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are more potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring kids in the neighborhood and hope that one day they will be like them.   Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in their streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

The adults in charge of running high poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose remedies that turn out to be “roadblocks” instead. The general strategy of school reformers today is to work at changing students from the outside-in by prohibiting the behaviors they consider dysfunctional and replacing them with a narrow set of “right ways” to learn and behave and a body of “good for everybody” lessons.

We see this approach in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where individual desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases contain only the prescribed textbooks. In those classrooms teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and demanding “all eyes on me.” We see it also in teaching methods that present only facts and algorithms, define learning as memorization, and ask questions that have only one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please the test scorers.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be another roadblock. Although those programs are good in theory, for the children involved they are disruptions to the continuity and consistency they need. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be seeing up to a hundred students a day, they miss the work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support of the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many of today’s education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that efforts of some non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to do what I can through writing about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggesting more effective and humane ways to educate all our children.



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