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Bentley Snowflake

(Snowflake photographs by Wilson Bentley-ca. 1905)

I teach the fifth grade. There are approximately 5 million fifth graders in schools across the United States. Some of those schools have money and some are very poor.  At some schools the parents show up and volunteer. Some of the students at these schools bring food to school everyday. Many don’t. Some of the parents at these schools read to their kids at night. Some of the parents can’t, because their work schedule doesn’t allow it. Some schools attract students who take pride in learning and care about the results of their matriculation. Other schools attract students who can’t make it anywhere else. This list could go on and on.

The new assessments, set to be in place by the 2014-2015 school year, will be based on “Common Core Standards” across the nation. How accurate can these tests be at defining a school’s success with so many unaddressed variables in play? How accurate can they be at evaluating teacher effectiveness with such inconsistent conditions?

Before every test I give my classes all a special talk about different skills, some children can run fast, some can paint beautiful pictures, some are terrific secret keepers. They mostly just stare at me anxiously. They already know something that it’s taken me a long time to get: those wonderful traits that I talk about before every test actually don’t matter, because they don’t show up on the test scores. The only thing that matters is whether that number that will flash on the screen at the end of the test will be high enough to make them worthwhile in the system.

The move further and further toward unilateral standard based education assessment has deeper and far more fundamentally insidious effects on the children of our nation.  Through our new and incredibly one-dimensional testing system, we are teaching our children to devalue their own feelings and intuition. We are teaching them that somebody else knows the answer. Their job is to memorize it.

When I hear politicians speaking about education reform I hear words like innovation or inspiration. If every question has a “right” answer and a child feels unable to choose it, that child will begin to doubt his own intelligence, bending instead to the knowledge of those around them. The child will either begin to learn to play the game of “what do they think is the right answer?” or they will live with constant anxiety about their abilities or they will give up. Even the children who don’t struggle with the tests learn the language. If we are trying to encourage flexible and innovative young people who are able to think critically after matriculation, why are we requiring them to think inside the box?

Bentley Snowflake 2

I took my class on an overnight field trip to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. We stayed at Jawbone Flats, an area that has year-round residents. Because of this, my students were instructed to not run outside between the cabins. Knowing of my group’s proclivity for running both outdoors and indoors, I asked them what they would do if they saw a friend running where they weren’t supposed to. They were quiet for a long moment as they pondered this question, then, when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to feed them the answer, one girl raised her hand and said, “Stop, stand still and wait for instructions?” I smiled a little and told her that was a good answer, but I was looking for something a little more practical. Her friend then raised her hand and said, “Find an adult and ask for help?”  It took another bit of reasoning to get them to understand that all I wanted them to do was to remind their friends that they shouldn’t be running. They wanted so badly to say the “right” answer that they were unable to think logically about what they would actually do in real life. They’ve been well trained in the one-dimensional, purely analytical response to the question. They’ve been taught to question their own intuitive reasoning so much that now they bypass it, certain that there must be a different right answer.

I know that, in certain cases and at appropriate levels, standards and accountability are imperative. I know that education reform is meant to help our nation’s children fare better in the world and to ensure that every student has the same access to information. But the policy makers are not listening to the data. The test results are showing their failure. Many extremely knowledgeable and experienced people are letting us know that competition and test-driven education curriculums do not make better, happier or smarter students. Furthermore, a system that values only one kind of learning will eventually destroy the other kinds through natural selection.

John Gatto, an award winning schoolteacher who retired after thirty years of teaching, said that he has never met a special education student. I agree with him. I had a boy in my class once who spent most of the fifth grade playing with little scraps from his desk. He would sit and make tiny sound effects as the scraps battled each other, effectively blocking out any instruction from my ever-important lessons plans. He failed to meet achievement standards on test after test. We began the process of having him tested for an Individualized Education Program with Special Ed. I could tell he was anxious. He told me multiple times that he was stupid. Before we completed the IEP process, he ended up moving schools. I see him every once in a while around town.

The interesting thing about this boy is that if you gave him a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, he could make beautiful snowflakes. I’m talking professional grade snowflakes. I’m terrible at making them, myself. I always cut the wrong side and they come apart into multiple little snowflakes. I sat with this boy once and watched him as he considered the folds, held the paper this way and that carefully deciding where he would cut, explaining to me what pattern each shape would make when we unfolded the paper. He was right, and it was beautiful.

What if I could have stopped teaching him fractions and instead learned about his own genius with patience, symmetry and balance? Who would he have become as he understood that the things he was good at are of value as well? (I know, there isn’t much of a market out there for paper snowflakes, but when Henri Matisse did it, it was called gouaches découpés, and they sold for millions.)

Who could our children become if we stop forcing them to learn the same thing as everybody else and let them explore their own skill sets? How much anxiety could we allay? How much confidence could we produce?

Perhaps most important of all, how can we actually reform education so that it supports and values the skills that our children are born with in order to create a system based on respect and confidence, rather than competition and fear?

Our education policy has been on the path of high pressure, high competition, high standards and low results for long enough. It’s time to try something new, something different, something truly innovative. The health and prosperity of our children depends on it.

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I recently ran across a quote from American educator and youth rights advocate John Holt: “The main effect of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think.” The quote gave me pause in its stark contrast to another quote that I keep on a card in my lesson plan folder. “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates said this 2500 years ago.

For the third year in a row Eugene Public Schools did not meet required goals as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Forty-eight percent of the nation’s public schools also did not achieve adequate yearly progress in 2011, the highest percentage since NCLB took effect in 2002. Because of increased concern regarding school’s failure to meet adequate yearly progress, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the decision to offer flexibility on certain No Child Left Behind requirements to states which would otherwise have failed to make student proficiency goals.

I’ve been teaching middle school for seven years in a public charter school in Oregon. One thing that I’ve come to believe during this time is that few things stand more solidly in the way of imparting a meaningful education to the children in my class than the present system of curriculum standards. Unfortunately education reformists in the United States government are determined to create more and more uniform “high standards” across the nation.

With the shift toward George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2002, curriculums across the nation became more focused on math and language arts proficiency as was defined by “standards-based education reform.” The trend didn’t end with George Bush. In 2009 the Obama administration launched the Race to the Top, an education reform plan that Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch called “an aggressive version of Bush’s No Child Left Behind.” The Race to the Top offered cash incentives in the tens and hundreds of millions to states that adopted Common Core Standards designed to “ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy and mathematics no later than the end of high school.” The Race to the Top was a program meant to spur reform by inducing the states to compete with one another over which could make their education program most attractive to the federal government by making a plan for reform, improving teacher performance, adopting the Common Core Standards, promising to turn around low performing schools.

What the Race to the Top amounted to in reality was a competition in which the states were pitted against one another to win government funds, as if they were performers in some sort of perverse reality show in which the outcome was deciding whether or not our children have the money for a quality and meaningful education. The amount that the 50 states were competing for? Phase one winners received $20-$75 million dollars and phase two winners could receive $350-$700 million, the total final sum of which added up to $4.35 billion dollars. The final end product? For the first time in the history of standards-based education, forty-eight states adopted common standards.

In 1965, when the first plans for education reform were born, the writer’s specifically made rules against the government having any control over directing elementary or secondary school curriculum, specifying in particular national standards. Why would they do this? Because they knew that different people have different needs, ability, and starting places. Therefore, they need different measure for success. We sold our individuality to our own government for a shot at a few million dollars. How much did Oregon come away with? Nothing. We didn’t win the competition. And now we–children, teachers, and administrators–face even more stringent (read impossible) standards than ever before.

What would Socrates think of an education system that forces teachers to treat every child as if they were exactly the same? What would he think about the death of creativity in teaching?

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I just got back from spending a night with twenty-one 5th graders and eight parents. We had really good food, thanks to the selfless devotion of one Jason B., who held a “food prep night” before we left. Fresh greens, garlic bread with real garlic, tomato sauce with fresh oregano. And real meatballs. Then liege waffles for breakfast. And quiche. With bacon. The kicker? He made home-made marshmallows. Seriously! I thought that only machines and chemicals could make marshmallows! But no. And boy howdy, do they ever make good ‘smores.

The trip was well organized, thanks to the help of Luminara S. We did a plant and animal scavenger hunt (organized by Pat B.) in the woods, an intuition game  (you get blindfolded and have to walk through the group of classmates who stand like trees), built tree limb shelters and we did a talent show. We found a dying baby squirrel who was parted from his mamma. We walked under two waterfalls. We got dumped on and checked into the lodge an hour early. We sang Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow around the campfire. It was great.

The lack of cynicism was amazing. They sang along with that ukelele like nobody was watching. They walked toe-heel through the forest, quiet like foxes, as the Whole Earth Nature School instructor had  shown them. They wiped the spit off the spit bug to see what he looked like under there (the spit comes out of his butt!). They assiduously stuffed the chinks in their dead wood shelters with moss, then tore it all down without complaint when we were done.

One of my favorite teachers, a man named Dennis Klocek, said that children are able to rest through appropriate play. I don’t think I fully understood that until this weekend. They are resting from the pulling of the world, from media telling them who they are supposed to be, and from the feeling that they just aren’t measuring up to that invisible standard. In play, they are able to let their imaginations and curiosity take over for a moment, without feeling like it’s wrong or stupid. They can relax within themselves.

As always, this weekend my students taught me more than I could ever hope to give to them. I am very blessed.

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