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?

What Exactly is Culture?

I was very lucky years ago when I attended my first symphony. I was taught beforehand not to applaud between movements. It’s just not done. During the performance, however, a few poor souls clapped in between movements. Rather than use that opportunity to teach them something I had only learned earlier that day, I swear a hundred heads shot backwards and fired daggers out of their eyes. The first time I went to a jazz club, I had no idea what the expected culture would be, but the people I was with encouraged me to participate and interact where appropriate. There are many different cultures in this world. Many whose manners would seem opposite to what we were taught. I’ve noticed that there are cultures that are inclusive and those, usually originating from societies with class-systems built in, that are exclusive. What then, is the culture of your school?

Cover of the summer issue of Independent School

In the summer issue of Independent School, Hugh Jebson and Carlo Delito write in an article titled ‘Trust, Accountability, Autonomy: Building a Teacher Driven Professional Development Model’

“We believe the strongest and most effective models — those that promote professional growth and outstanding teaching and learning — are found in schools where there is a shared sense of ownership for student outcomes. The culture in these schools is one of trust among the various constituents, where accountability is embraced and autonomy supported.”

Another article from the same issue discusses the culture of collaboration. Alexis Wiggins writes,

“I think we can — and must — do better. Independent schools pride themselves on providing a top-notch education, but the dirty secret is that they often produce smart, interesting, capable students because they admit smart, interesting, capable students. It isn’t enough to be a passionate, knowledgeable teacher. There are very knowledgeable and passionate teachers who aren’t actually effective at helping students learn. We need to constantly think about the quality of education we’re providing overall, not just what we are each doing in our classrooms.”

So what’s the culture in my school? Is it an inclusive or exclusive one? Is it one that fosters collaboration? Our constituents include students, parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and the greater community. Can we define that culture and make everyone feel included? Do we teach someone how to eat rice with chopsticks or laugh at them trying?



PDF: Playtime, Downtime, and Family Time

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, a few colleagues and I were at an incredibly inspiring panel discussion about education which featured a diverse group of speakers from the Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Nick Hanauer, to Tyrone Howard. One thing that struck me was how each said very similar things, but each clearly had their own focus. This post focuses on Denise Pope’s angle.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s School of Education,  stuck to her main issue that schools today do not foster healthy children – both physically and mentally. She is featured in the movie “Race to Nowhere”  and has written the book, Doing School: How We Are Cheating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

I’ve only read parts of it, but here are a few things mentioned in the book:

  • homework has no correlation to success at the lower elementary levels
  • kids today don’t get enough sleep
  • they are more concerned about how to get an “A” than what they are learning
  • they are becoming more disengaged
  • they are more stressed and as a result, she concludes, have a higher rate of weight loss due to not eating, drug abuse (usually the use of stimulants), low self-esteem, and so on.

Denise Pope (image from Seattle U's website)

Pope co-founded Challenge Success to redefine what ‘success’ means. She asked us to imagine if our bosses would suddenly give us a test about something school related, had it timed, and then told us the stakes were high. Is that really what happens in our life? Tasks and learning for students should be authentic and relevant. She remains adamant that standards should be high for all students, but that the way we are going about it is unhealthy for all.

She gave us an acronym to remember: P.D.F. (and it’s not a document)
P = Playtime – kids need unstructured play (well-meaning adults structure their lives too much)
D = Downtime – just chilling
F = Family time
Our school has one half-day inservice devoted to community building. Today we enjoyed playtime, downtime and family time. I say family, because my colleagues are indeed like family to me. It was time well-spent.
Here’s an article Pope wrote that’s worth reading.

Which Came First: The Paper or the Computer?

For the young children we educate now, they arrived into this world where both existed at the same time. This “TED talk” below features Conrad Wolfram trying to change the paradigm of how math is taught. If you’re familiar with him, he’s the man behind the website Wolframalpha. It’s quite a fascinating website. If you’re a math nerd, or even a teacher wanting to make math relevant to kids, it’s a great website. Just type in any equation like “2+2” without the quotation marks, or “2,5 torus knot” and see what you come up with. Then get crazy and try entering your birthday or an historical event.

For those of you who remember the quadratic equation, ask yourself when was the last time you used it. More importantly, if you do remember it, ask yourself, how, why, and when you would use it? I think I’m safe with 2nd grade math, even though it’s important to stretch kids in every possible way. For middle school teachers and beyond though, he poses a very good argument. One thing I certainly agree on is that we all need to support kids with estimation, reasonableness, and mental math strategies. It’s well worth the 18 minute video, especially if you’re interested in math ed. reform in this country. Alternately, with TED talks, you can click on a link to get the transcript, if that’s your prefered method of learning.

Here’s the blurb from TED about the following video titled, Teaching Kids Real Math with Computers.

From rockets to stock markets, many of humanity’s most thrilling creations are powered by math. So why do kids lose interest in it? Conrad Wolfram says the part of math we teach — calculation by hand — isn’t just tedious, it’s mostly irrelevant to real mathematics and the real world. He presents his radical idea: teaching kids math through computer programming.


Sustainability Includes Preservation

Yesterday afternoon, I took a tour of the Dearborn and Stimson Green Manors on First Hill in Seattle. There are really only four manors left in this area of Seattle which is filled with apartment buildings, condos, and hospitals. Seattle is a fairly new city. We do not have 16th century monasteries converted to apartments, so much of our old buildings, what we do have, is often worth preserving. Of course in a growing city, land becomes more valuable and the values of historical preservation and economic value often compete with the latter winning. I am grateful that we have some non profits like the Washington Trust for Historical Preservation, And others like it.

I love old things (my house is 100 years old) – but I also love the new (ipads in the classroom)

Our school is about to begin a new chapter with a state of the art green building. I couldn’t be more excited. We’ve preserved an older building and  connected it to the new by skybridge. Rather than razing the houses that were on the land that was purchased by the school, two were moved and relocated.

Progressing forward without forgetting the past is important. Our school is 50 years old. We have some great archival artifacts. I wonder if there’ll be a space for those in our brand new and inspiring library.

Stimson Green Mansion in Seattle

Why We Need the Humanities

There is a quote that educators often like to use: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This fire, drive, way of thinking, passion, or whatever you want to call it (Shaggy Monster) is what sets people apart. One of my favorite columnists, David Brooks, wrote a great piece about that today:

History for Dollars

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

So it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

To read the rest of David Brooks’ column, click here.

Stuck in Training

The final two chapters in the first section of the book Transforming Professional Development in to Student Results finish up what Reeves writes is wrong with today’s professional learning. I will take a break from posting this book before heading in to section two where he discusses HOW to create high impact professional learning.

In these two chapters he highlights the following things to be wary about.

Schools should invest not in brand name programs, but in people and practices.

Reeves states that the research suggests that “when it comes to instructional interventions, a few specific decisions by school leaders have a disproportionate effect on student learning.”

  1. Teacher Assignment
  2. Monitoring Practices (not just test scores)
  3. Time Allocation (implementation of most initiatives take more than one year)

In terms of time allocation, Reeves says the following ways time is misused in schools is common, but “absurd.”

  1. Pull outs where students are taken from a literacy class to get ‘extra literacy’
  2. Announcements (there should be no announcements over the school PA unless it is an emergency) – “Faculty and department meetings can potentially offer an environment for professional learning, but not if the first third of a meeting is consumed by oral announcements that could have been made in writing.”
  3. E-mail (forces real priorities to compete with ads and other distractions)

He criticizes many schools for talking about the importance of distributed leadership, usually at conferences where only senior leaders are invited. (Quite a departure from the norm, my school sent me and 6 other colleagues to this year’s NAIS conference).

Effective learning happens if we work towards mastery of fewer but essential disciplines which include: focus, repetition, and effective practice.

Reeves states that there are two essential questions every educational leader must address:

  • “If I require every teacher and admin to ‘get trained’ in my latest enthusiasm, what great ideas of last year am I going to displace?”
  • “Are the students in our schools better served by teachers and admin who have deep insight and knowledge of last year’s skills, or superficial exposure to this year’s fads?”

Finally, he lists 5 ways to assess your professional learning: Continue reading