The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning is a Personal Decision

Today’s piece is the reposting of an essay I wrote two years ago–with a few changes. As I mentioned before, friends and family members are visiting at this time of year, so I have little time left to write.  Because I think that many readers have little time to read for similar reasons, I don’t feel guilty right now.

I am sorry to have to say it, but the formalizing of students’ actions and behavior is a waste of time for students and teachers. What I am referring to is the teaching of grit, mindfulness, resilience or the switch to “personalized learning” that has become so popular recently.  Why don’t trained educators recognize the fact that all human beings– including young children—choose how they behave and what they learn?

Although we adults may influence children’s actions by our own actions, we cannot force them to like and retain all that we teach.  One strong example from my own experience is the weekly spelling lists that we practiced daily and were tested on every Friday. Although most of us wanted to get good grades in spelling, we did not care at all about retaining the correct spelling of the words taught.  Our motto every Friday was ” Forget the old words so we can learn the new ones”.

If we want students to like being at school, put effort into their assignments, and enjoy what is being taught we’ve got to make those things meaningful and worth working on in their eyes. And, we have to recognize that much of what is taught in schools stays with students only temporarily, not for the long run.

Let’s consider for a moment our adult use of school learning. Can we still speak or read the foreign language we studied in high school? Do we use algebra to solve our personal math problems at home? Do we remember why the War of 1812 was fought and against which foes? Which place became our 49th state?  Can you explain what is a gerund, a transitive verb, or a reflexive pronoun?*

The kinds of knowledge and skills solidified in school are the ones that are important to us personally, such as cooperation, kindness, listening and art, music, and sports.  Those are the kinds of things that good teachers practice regularly in the classroom, and by doing so, teach their students well.

We have a big problem in this country because the officials advocating for traditional education do not realize how shallow and ephemeral much of it is. Over the past twenty or so years what we have heard most often from the decision makers at the national and state level, and the critics, is that the standards for American students must be raised. Why?  “So we can compete with other countries,”they say. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we should be giving health care and free college to all American students.

In this blog I have written as often as possible about the good things I see or hear about in schools, and I wish every day that there were more. What I appreciate most is that my readers are realists who know the difference between fads, pipe dreams and the lasting things that can be learned in schools.

*Don’t feel bad; I had to look up most of those things. I didn’t remember them.

Leave a comment »

Reading Aloud to Children Creates New Readers

Summer is the time when many people travel or are visited by friends and relatives. Although I am not traveling this summer I am having the pleasure (and hard work) of entertaining relatives and friends that I see rarely because they live so far away.  The other side of the situation is that I’m so busy with visitors that I have very little time to write.  Right now is one of those times, and I feel guilty about it. So I am selecting peaces I wrote in the past that appeared to be popular with readers. Here’s one of them.

Rick Joseph, who teaches a grade 5/6 class in Birmingham Michigan, has a personal love of reading that he shares with his students and other children he comes in contact with by reading aloud to them as often as possible. Not only does he choose books that he enjoys personally, but also ones that will be new and inspiring experiences for young people.  For example, in selecting “The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco as the Official Book chosen by “The “Michigan Teacher of the Year” in 20i6, he hopes to spread the book’s message that all people are geniuses in their own way and should use their abilities to make the world better for everyone.

Joseph believes that all people love stories and benefit greatly from reading them or hearing them regularly. He says, “Our stories have always helped us not only to communicate, but to make sense of our world and realize our place in it.”

From his viewpoint as a teacher, he also believes that reading aloud to children is a strong factor in increasing their learning: “Stories expand children’s vocabulary, improve their ability to learn to read, and—perhaps most important—foster a lifelong love of books and reading.”

Joseph also recognizes that reading is only one element competing for attention in the lives of children. Every day they are free to choose from a number of recreational experiences is a true gift, so it is essential that children think of reading as a pleasure rather than a chore. Teachers can do a lot to encourage this belief by reading aloud to their students on a regular basis.

In addition, Joseph recounts a personal experience when he read to a 5thgrade class at another school. When he returned the next day, a number of students greeted him eagerly, holding their own favorite books and asking if he had read them. He felt that his single episode of reading aloud to them had created a bond between him and those students that would last and encourage them all to read more.

In many ways I wish I had written this essay myself. I also wish I had read to my students more often when I was a teacher or a principal. I agree completely with Joseph’s beliefs and would go even further by exhorting teachers at all levels to do what he has done. Even high school teachers and college professors could read aloud to their classes once or twice a week. Their key to getting students to read more of those books would be stopping right before an exciting event in the story, then telling students where they could find another copy of the book.

All too often parents and teachers believe that reading aloud to children should stop when they can read on their own. They do not realize that there are strong reasons for continuing this practice, even if it must be less frequent. Because I believe as strongly as Rick Joseph in the benefits of adults reading aloud, I will list the ones he mentioned below in more formal educational terms, and add a few more that I believe in and think he would agree with.

Teachers and parents should frequently read aloud to children of all ages in order to–

Introduce them to books they would not choose on their own

Broaden their range of reading

Build their vocabulary

Increase their knowledge of unfamiliar people, places, and experiences

Encourage the belief that reading is an enjoyable everyday activity

Accustom them to various literary structures by reading short stories, poems, novels,  and other types of literature appropriate for their age

Improve their knowledge and use of proper grammar and sentence structure

Help poor readers get the information and skills other students have acquired through reading

For now, we should all take off some time and read a new book.


One response to “Reading Aloud to Children Creates New Readers”


Thank you so much for affirming the power and importance of reading aloud at all ages and stages. I deeply value your insight, experience and wisdom. LuAnn McNabb sent me the link to your blog. Keep advocating for literacy in all its forms!

Rick Joseph

Leave a comment »

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.”




Leave a comment »

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.


%d bloggers like this: