How Do You Measure Success?

The London Olympic games are coming to a close, and I’ve noticed a few themes/issues throughout the games that seem to spill into the realm of education: 1) How do we measure success? 2) In 20 years, other sites may push twitter or Facebook aside, but I’m pretty confident social media is here to stay. How do we promote digital citizenry and prepare kids to use these tools productively and? 3) Privilege and equity – does every country have a fair shot at a sailing or equestrian medal? Does every child have access to a good education? 4) Standards: what are the standards for commentary on the Olympics? I know very little about gymnastics, but I don’t need someone to point out that a fall off an apparatus is not a good thing. Did the opening ceremony need a play-by-play? Can you imagine giving students the answers rather than providing opportunities to grapple with, discover, and construct their own knowledge? There are many more themes that have emerged from these games, but the first one I mentioned resonates with me the most. How do we measure our own success and the success of our students?

After Michael Phelp’s fourth place finish at his first event, the USA Today had a story titled: “Sluggish Michael Phelps is not swimmer we expected in London.” Since his first event, Phelps has become the most decorated Olympian in history, but I guess if you look just at the one fourth place finish, sluggish it must have been.

Why is it that some athletes cry for joy after winning a silver and other athletes are visibly disappointment, often with tears in their eyes for winning a silver medal.

The most emailed article in the New York Times over the past three days has been one titled: Raising Successful Children. It’s a parenting article about the importance of not over-parenting and allowing children to make mistakes and build resiliency on their way to success and confidence.

I’m not a parent, but I completely agree with the statement, “HANGING back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.” It’s a challenge of teaching as well. Not all failures are equal. They need to be ones that lead to growth. So what kind of mistakes should parents and teachers let kids make?

“In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.”

Perhaps being called ‘sluggish’ and then coming back to win 4 gold and 2 silver medals can qualify as a good measure of success.

I just came back from a great three day summer planning inservice with my colleagues where we spent a lot of time looking at and practicing how we assess and give feedback to our students and to each other. I wish us all a successful school year that can be measured by the risks we take ourselves in that gray area just beyond the comfortable and by the resilience we develop in our students. 

 

My Take-Aways from the Tiger Mom

The closing keynote at the NAIS conference was Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A year ago, the press used this book to paint a portrait of a villainous mother. The media generalized the differing parenting styles of Chinese and Americans making inflammatory statements in their headlines such as the Wall St. Journal’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”

I haven’t shared my thoughts on whether or not I found value to her talk, as my opinions about Ms. Chua’s memoire continue to vacillate. Though cynical about her keynote address, I wanted to approach it with an open mind. As she began speaking, she started with a great story about how the press storm caught her by surprise. I even started feeling for her when she described being on the Today Show and the first thing Meredith Viera asked was, “Are you a monster?”

Unfortunately she followed that story with one about a trip to DAVOS that seemed more about name dropping than it did about teaching or parenting. And so even though she may have ended up with more negative press than she initially bargained for, it certainly helped her sell her book and my sympathies began to wane. Interestingly, one of the names she dropped was Larry Summers who disagreed with her by saying,

“In a world where things that require discipline and steadiness can be done increasingly by computers, is the traditional educational emphasis on discipline, accuracy and successful performance and regularity really what we want?”

Mr. Summers went on to note two prominent Harvard ‘drop-outs’ Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg may not have had that much support from the kind of strict parenting to which Ms. Chua refers.

Ms. Chua said her book was meant to be a ‘funny’ memoir rather than a parenting guide and it was a way to reflect on how her strict parenting didn’t exactly work out when her second child turned thirteen.

Overall, while somewhat charming and engaging, I wasn’t too impressed by her talk. It was still validating to come away with these few thoughts.

1) Have high expectations for your children/students.

2) All children are different and we need to recognize this.

3) Self-Esteem must be earned.

One thing I enjoyed from the conference were the illustrators that were engaged in live visual note-taking for each of the main speakers. Below is an example of Ms. Chua’s.

Who Chooses What We Teach?

Another good ‘Room for Debate’ page in the NYTimes appeared again this week. This time the question is: Should Parents Control What Kids Learn at School?

My initial response would be that parents should know their child, how they learn best, what their strengths and challenges are, and work with the teachers in the development of the curriculum. Whatever it is that kids learn in school, there are basic fundamentals that children should learn like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Teachers and parents can certainly agree on those. What it is they read, however, may be up for debate. Social/emotional learning is very important too. I wonder, for example, if the social/emotional learning of the Italian captain of the cruise ship Costa Concordia had more to with the tragedy than the engineering and ship operational training he received.

I think the most important part in this debate is that all stakeholders start first by agreeing on what fundamentals ought to be taught in schools. For early primary, the academics are obvious, but the delivery and pedagogical methods may not be. Minor philosophies on homework, etc. will always exist, but the overall goals are similar. For example, regardless when people think the correct age may be, they can all agree that kids should be able to read.

Customizing the curriculum has always been how I’ve worked (public, parochial, or private). Every year the range of abilities changes with a new set of students, so why wouldn’t you adapt your curriculum to those different needs. With the new law in New Hampshire (which I haven’t read), it seems like what bothers most is that parents can make any demands on the content. I’ve never had any issues with any parents. Even with ideological or religious differences. I can think of one family years ago, who for their own religious reasons, did not want to participate in Halloween activities at school. While the school respected that family’s ideas and suggested alternatives and modifications, Halloween would still be celebrated at school.

I think it becomes a problem when parents have a different mindset than you about what is age-appropriate content, or if the content seems too ideologically radical for some. In elementary school, it’s possible to see how a simple biography project might go awry if a parent disagreed with the teacher on whether a child’s choice were appropriate. Is a biography about Anne Frank is suitable for an eight-year old? While the biography may be, some of the events surrounding it may be considered too much for a second grader. This actually happened with a student of mine last year. She chose Anne Frank after perusing the biography section in the school library. I was just as tentative as her mother in her choice, but we both agreed that she was a child who was ready to read about those horrific events. Both me and her parents just wanted what was best for her. It would have been different if it were a different child which is why knowing your students (and their families) is so important.  If we are supposed to welcome diversity and embrace its benefits, than we cannot just go with the status quo, and we have to listen to everyone.

Will some abuse a law like New Hampshire’s? I’m sure some will try. Every once in a while, there will be a battle between the over-entitled parent and the extremely inflexible and obdurate teacher, and that is unfortunate. Like so many other things, there is often so much we have in common. A lot that we can come together and work with. If we start where our ideas and values overlap and recognize our differences as strengths to enhance those ideas and values, there is so much we can achieve.

Can an atheist enjoy Christmas carols and Islamic art?

Can someone who’s gay be a Republican?

Can someone working at Microsoft like the iPhone?

Can an epicure eat cereal for dinner one night and love it?

Of course they can, but too often lines are drawn in the sand instead of bridges being built.    Rather than objecting to the curriculum, as one of the writers in the opinion page mentions, parents should use those areas as teachable moments. Teachers should too. I remember a child years ago asking me about the existence of Santa Clause. He just couldn’t see the plausibility of it all. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to break the news to an 8-year old. What I told him was to think critically about it (I’m sure I used different words) and make that decision for himself. I didn’t defer it to his parents nor did I subject him to my thoughts. That was an example where he could make up his own mind. He could grapple with his own dilemma and reach his own conclusions.

Currently, I’m teaching a unit on penguins. What would be objectionable is if a parent insisted that I teach about emus and ostriches instead. There’s no reason why I couldn’t, but there’s no reason why I should either. A follow up question to this debate on whether parents should control what kids learn at school is if teachers can control what their students do at home?

Eating Together: It Matters

“Children who eat with their families have stronger vocabularies than those who do not. They do better in school.”

 

That quote comes from a short NYTimes Sunday Magazine article that appeared today. It’s a great article, and one that doesn’t surprise me. It did get me to think about all the school reform efforts and studies underway to try to link student performance to teacher pay.

Of course I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t think I could contribute somewhat to a child’s academic and social development. I play, however, only a small part in that development. Too many other factors such as genetics, family life, affluence, the influence of different teachers, and many others also contribute. All of those things are beyond my control. As a classroom teacher, the students I have see me for one academic school year. They may, however, see the same amazing subject specialist for 6 years. How does one go about creating comparable metrics on something like that? It’s an interesting question, but one that is too complex for me to even consider. Do I really want my paycheck linked to whether or not a child eats dinner together with his or her family? I don’t think so.

Eye of the Tiger

President Hu of China’s recent visit to the White House, reminded me of an article in the WSJ about Chinese moms that appeared a few weeks ago. Not that I really needed a reminder. This article has sparked debate everywhere. It continues to be forwarded, and discussed across the web. Published on Jan. 8, it is still the number one read and emailed piece in the WSJ. That article, by Amy Chua comes from her new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (it’s already on several bestsellers lists). Even this coming weekend’s NYTimes Magazine has an story that continues to weigh in on this particular parenting style. I think the idea that the Chinese have it right in terms of parenting and education, is one that is fueled by the media and full of misconceptions and stereotypes. Even Chau herself says, “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.” I have not read her book, but I have read the WSJ piece. There are indeed so many stories in the media trying to pit eastern and western philosophies against each other. Some are about China’s rising economic growth, some about math test scores, parenting, and language. Within the article online, the WSJ has a binary opinion poll: “Which style of parenting is best for children? ‘Permissive Western parenting’ [or] ‘Demanding Eastern parenting,’” implying that there are only those two extremes. If the words ‘permissive’ and ‘demanding’ don’t seem carefully chosen to polarize people, the title of the article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” should.

According to this CNN article, many schools in the US are being funded by the Chinese government to teach Chinese as the second language. While I believe learning a second (and even third language) is important, especially when kids are young and wired for language acquisition, what that second language is should be meaningful and useful.  For some it may be that one of their parents speaks French and the other speaks English. For others, it may be purely about learning something new and different. Many in this country would argue that Spanish would be a more meaningful language to learn than say Japanese (not that there’s anything wrong about learning Japanese). Predicting what will be the most useful second language for your child when he/she grows up seems a little short sighted. Suppose they end up falling in love with a Finn and moving to Finland (neither of the second languages I mentioned would be terribly useful there). Is the world changing? Yes. Do I think everyone is going to speak Chinese? No. But I may be wrong. I just don’t predict it happening in my generation. For one, learning to read and write Chinese is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, I have read about the demise of languages in smaller communities. Many people learned Russian during the cold war, I wonder how many use it today. Teaching kids to read English, especially kids who struggle with reading, involves getting them to make the connection between the letters and the sounds they make.  There is some rote learning involved too. For some kids it may be the common sight words or homophones. With Chinese, it differs considerably. It’s not a phonological writing system. Chinese is a language based on individual or compound characters. You can’t “sound out a word” in Chinese. There have been phonetic schemes based on the alphabet for Chinese, but that was developed for foreigners.

This op-ed piece in the NYTimes this weekend was written by a correspondent who worked in China, and whose children went to school there. While he agrees that kids were way ahead of his kids in math, there was something missing about an important way it differed from western education: western education fosters and promotes creativity and innovation.

Educational reformer Yong Zhao certainly took exception to this article in his blog post titled, “You’ve must be joking, Professor Chau: An open letter to the Chinese Tiger Mom.” They say there is no tone in text, but one can tell there is a lot of emotion behind his response. Here’s a part of it: “I am sure you know that your children’s success—Carnegie Hall performance and other kudos and trophies—may have more to do with you as a Yale professor, the community you live in, the friends and colleagues you have, the schools they attend, the friends they have (oh, I forgot, they are not allowed to have friends, well in this case, the classmates they have), than your parenting style. There are at least 100 million Chinese parents who practiced your way of parenting but were unable to send their children to Carnegie Hall.”

The Winter edition of Independent School Magazine‘s focus is on the ‘model minority’. An article from this issue, titled “The Model Minority Myth” reminds us of the dangers of stereotypes.

There’s enough variation in parenting and education within any culture.  One could argue the picture Chau portrays in that initial article is an extreme one – not too different (according to this piece in the Seattle PI) than the “Mama Grizzlies produc[ing] tabloid stars.”

I agree that you can’t let children have free reign, and you have to keep your expectations high. But we also have to learn about each child as an individual and know that those high expectations are going to be different for every child. According to the recent literature out there (Drive, Mindsets, Brain Rules, Nurtureshock), Western research shows that praising your child specifically for effort is what counts, not just praise for the sake of praise.

For me, this was a good reminder of how easily one can fall into the trap of stereotypes and a reminder that teachers must check any pre-conceived notions at the door.

In the meantime, here is a TED talk by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (in a way, a book about Chinese mothers) speaking about her own creative process. While completely different, you might see from this video why certain stereotypes persist.

Children Will Listen

Earlier this week I went to a play called God of Carnage. Having won the Oliver in London for Best Comedy and the Tony for Best Play in 2009. I don’t know if it’s because bullying is such an important topic right now, but the play, even though it was a dark comedy, left little for me to laugh at.

I’m about to give away the premise of the play, so stop reading if you intend to see it.

It’s starts out with two couples who have gathered at one of the couple’s home to talk and resolve a conflict about one of the boys bullying the other. What happens over the course of the evening (a 90 minute one-act with no intermission) is that the adults end up bullying each other (including their own spouses) and devolve into child-like behavior themselves.

It reminds me of a song from South Pacific called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Short and simple, but very powerful the lyrics (written by Hammerstein over 50 years ago) are as follows:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I also happened to stumble across a post by a parent at my school who wrote about a personal story about what parents/teachers/adults teach our own kids. You can read it here at her website.

Schools cannot necessarily undo everything, but they can work at creating a climate of safety and make learning spaces ones where ALL children feel they are welcome, belong, and add value.

If you’re unfamiliar with the song, here’s a video of Mandy Patinkin recording it.

Gifted or Precocious?

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book Nurtureshock is a great parenting book – it’s like a Freakonomics for parenting. What I liked about this book is that the authors keep reminding us that things are not always as they seem. Humans by nature make far too many assumptions that they believe are true, but in fact, are wrong. Unfortunately, in trying to simplify their explanations, some of their claims are presented as generalizations which may lead the reader to assume that there are no exceptions to their theories. They claim. for example, that it’s usually just precocious kids that do well on IQ tests before the age of 8 and schools that admit based on this principle don’t give late bloomers a chance. In general, that is what the research says, and from my own experience, I would mostly agree. The problem with generalizations is that I have worked with many young students who are truly academically advanced kids. Their needs are different and they need to be met.

Having said that, this article that appeared in the nytimes today with the headline, More Pre-K Pupils Qualify for Gifted Programs got my attention. How many of these kids have the potential to be part of solving some of the globes big problems? How many are just precocious? I hope you answered ALL to the first question.

Nurtureshock is definitely a good read. Any author that uses Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets as a catalyst for a book, is worth reading.