Saturday, July 31, 2010

We Lurch From Fad to Fad

So I've been reading the new book by Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

I read for at least 20 minutes every night, then I log the amount of time I read and the number of pages. My husband signs the log, so as to encourage me to take responsibility for my reading, and he nags me about it if I forget to fill the log out. Once a week, I write out an answer to a question he assigns; for instance, "what do you think will happen next?" or "tell me about a similar incident in your own life."

When I finish the book, I'll build a diorama in a shoe box, illustrating an important scene. I'll most likely forget about the diorama until the last possible moment, and then the whole family will run around like the Keystone Kops in an effort to scare up the necessary craft supplies.

I love reading! Don't you?

Well, of course I'm not doing that. But that's how a lot of our kids are being taught to approach reading. Diane Ravitch gave me a name for the madness: it's called "Balanced Literacy", and it's just one of the many educational fads that she documents.

As Ms. Ravitch writes:

Such approaches had been criticized in the early days of Balanced Literacy. In 1987, educators P. David Pearson and Janice A. Dole warned: "We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitively obvious tasks into introspective nightmares."

Any parent who has lived through this regime, which hit us out of a clear blue sky like the output of a passing pigeon, can tell you the result. Balanced Literacy is a sure-fire, guaranteed technique to make even the most literate child resent and avoid reading.

There has got to be a better way.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bright Kids in Public Schools

From Losing Our Minds: Gifted Children Left Behind, by Deborah L. Ruf:

In order to deal with the wide array of learners in a classroom, teachers generally teach to the top of the lowest one-third of their mixed-ability class. By doing this, they don't immediately lose those at the bottom, and yet they still manage to hold some attention from the average group in the middle ... When teachers refine their instruction to a lower, more repetitive level in order to increase the chances of a higher overall passing rate and higher composite scores for the class as a whole, the brightest students must sit through additional repeated instruction while gaining nothing from it. These children can frequently pass tests without having any instruction in the material, and they score high despite the lack of attention. Teachers think they don't have to worry about these children. The teachers' attention is entirely consumed by those whose failure would be noticed and by which they are judged. Who can blame them?

... Throughout the intellectual range, children face learning challenges; a variety of learning disabilities are recognized and accommodated in our schools. Parents who have two special-needs children -- one a learning-disabled child and one a gifted child -- are often amazed at how much easier it is to get help for their disabled child while their gifted child loses interest in school.

Children with learning disabilities are by law provided specialists to work with them on a regular basis ... By comparison, intellectually gifted children almost never receive such consideration and accommodation and are seldom given instruction at their own level and pace. In districts that do provide something for gifted children, the programs are minimal, usually part-time -- one hour a week in a class with other gifted children -- with a specialist teacher traveling between two or more schools.

... Unfortunately, while mainstreaming helps disabled children, this practice has negative consequences for gifted children. Although it can help to motivate slow learners, it discourages rapid learners by holding them back; they aren't allowed to learn as fast or as far as they might. Many times, gifted children are placed in cooperative learning groups with other children in which the gifted children do the majority of the work and help others in the group rather than learn at the level that would fit their intellect.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Small, Homogeneous Classes in Private Schools

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland:

Typical class size in a private school is about twenty, give or take a few students -- many fewer than in most public schools. And since the students are more homogeneous in ability (children at the low end of the range were never admitted), the teacher's attention is less fractionalized. It is much harder for a child to get away with bad behavior in a smaller class; and it's harder for a child to fall through the cracks and go unnoticed when he doesn't understand something. The teacher should be able to give more time and attention to each child in a private school. If your child works better with a more personal relationship, then a private school may benefit him.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Don't Lock Up Children with Disabilities

Mrs. C. commented on an important issue affecting children with disabilities. I excerpt her comments below:

We began homeschooling because they locked my SIX YEAR OLD autistic son in a closet on numerous occasions. I wish I were kidding (though it would be a sick joke). It is called a "safe room," and there is NOTHING parents can do about it here in Missouri. In my opinion, it's child abuse.

It's way cheaper to toss a kid in a closet than it is to do that "offer a free and appropriate education" thing. You might go to the national website that fights this practice and give them a good shout-out:

Families Against Restraint and Seclusion

There is NATIONAL LEGISLATION that has passed the house but not the senate that would give schoolchildren the same rights to be free from seclusion (locking into closets) and restraint (tied down to chairs, etc) that you'd get at a mental hospital. Shame that that has to be the standard, but it's a start.

Anyway... my son is not alone in his experiences. Not by a good long way. Children with disabilities are most affected by the lack of good safeguards, as many are not good advocates for themselves and/or they are unable to speak at all.

FedUpMom again: Our schools need to be safe places for all of our children. Many schools have anti-bullying programs, but they almost never confront the possibility that the teacher could be a bully.

I would also like to add that a school that treats one group of children badly is likely not doing very well with any group.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Yes, Prime Minister

I've recently become addicted to the "Yes, Prime Minister" series. Here's the episode on education. It's surprisingly relevant today.

Yes, Prime Minister: National Education: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

A few highlights:

Sir Humphrey: "... we keep the NUT [teachers' union] happy and we educate our own children privately!"

Sir Humphrey: "The education system does all that most parents requires of it -- keeps the children out of mischief while they're at work."

Sir Humphrey: "Children? Who mentioned children? The Department of Education never mentions children!"

Prime Minister: "We're supposed to be preparing children for a working life. Three quarters of the time they're bored stiff!"

Sir Humphrey: "I should have thought that being bored stiff for three quarters of the time is an excellent preparation for working life."

(How many teachers have written in to StopHomework making this exact argument?)

For all you overachieving types, here's the Latin that Sir Humphrey quotes in vain:

1.) "tempura mutantur nos et mutamur in illis"

(Sir Humphrey's translation: "times change and we change with the times")

2.) "si tacuisses philosophus mansisses"

(Sir Humphrey's loose translation: "if you'd kept your mouth shut we might have thought you were clever". More strictly, "if you'd remained silent you would have remained a philosopher".)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Failure to Communicate

"What we have here is a failure to communicate!" If you don't recognize the quote, it's from a movie called Cool Hand Luke.

When schools talk about "communication" with parents, it's a one-way street. For example, look at Andrea Schindler's letter to parents:

Research has proven that students are more successful when there is a strong parent--teacher communication system in place. In order to communicate regularly, your child will come home every Friday with a Weekly Report ... Please read the report and return the bottom portion, signed, on the following Monday.

How Public are the Public Schools?

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland, copyright 1998 (pre-NCLB!):

In most schools, even those that pay lip service to "parent involvement", parents have no voice whatsoever in any decision that is really important to a child's educational well-being ... [The principal] remembers that when Henry Ford was the only supplier of low-priced automobiles, he could tell the customer, "You can have any color Model T, as long as it is black." Like Ford, the principal knows she is the town's only supplier of her particular product, low-priced education, so she doesn't have to satisfy the customer either. Her attitude may be polite, but the essence of her message is, "Shut up and take what we give you, and be thankful we're giving you anything at all."

We all know the public schools are truly public in the sense that they are run on taxpayer money (and plenty of it, in my district.) But why is it that in the public schools, the public has no voice? In particular, why do parents of kids attending the school have no voice?

Recently I was talking to a mother at the private school my younger dd attends. She told me she had decided to send her kids to public school, and had just moved to my neighborhood so the kids could attend our "excellent"(!) public elementary school. She said she had called the school to ask about their math curriculum, so she could ensure her kids had the needed background, but "the school hasn't called back." She was genuinely puzzled by this.

Another private-school mother, on hearing about my older dd's troubles, and the public-school principal who tried to talk me into staying at the public schools, said, "Why would the principal want your daughter to stay in a school that makes her miserable?"

I began my journey as a public-school parent, and the expectations of private-school parents are amazing to me. You call the school with a question about math curriculum, and you expect to get a call back? You expect the principal to approve of a high-scoring kid leaving the public schools, just because she's miserable? Wow.

But really, these parents' expectations are quite reasonable. They expect to have a voice.

Why can't parents have a say in our public schools? We are the public, we pay for the schools, and we send our kids there. It's time for us to take back our schools.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rewards Undermine Interest

From How Not to Teach Values, by Alfie Kohn:

In general terms, what the evidence suggests is this: the more we reward people for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Extrinsic motivation, in other words, is not only quite different from intrinsic motivation but actually tends to erode it. This effect has been demonstrated under many different circumstances and with respect to many different attitudes and behaviors.

Alfie Kohn has an entire book on this subject, Punished by Rewards.

One of the reviewers writes: "Love is its own reward. Meaningful debate/discussion is its own reward. Generosity is its own reward." And, I would add, learning is its own reward.

Classroom Management vs. Teaching

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland:

[The teacher] was taught that if she follows the approved method, she will be an approved teacher. She was also taught that the approved method leads to student learning and that the accepted method is the only path to student learning...

This is very sad for our schools, because approved teaching methodology does not equal student learning, and there are many reasons. The biggest reason is that approved teaching methodology is not even aimed at student learning; its goal is classroom management, which is a whole lot different from learning...

Having twenty (or more) children in one classroom, with wide differences in abilities and attitudes, requires that a teacher have skills in organizing and supervising children before any learning begins.

Teacher training recognizes this very real problem, and gives teachers the skills they will need to organize and manage a classroom full of children. The problems arise because the best way to manage is not the best way to educate, but given a choice between the two, principals and teachers prefer to manage rather than to educate.

Parents should be concerned if their child's teacher is enamored of approved teaching methodology...

Listen to the teacher talk. If she talks about what she is doing rather than what the children are doing, gently bring the focus back to the children. Ask how the teacher knows whether the methods are working; ask for evidence that the children are learning.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Are Private Schools Elitist?


Well, that was quick. But before you travel on to the next blog, I'd like to ask a follow-up question.

Are public schools elitist?


How are the public schools elitist? We all know what the "good" public schools are, and what the "bad" public schools are. "Good" public schools are attended by middle-class and upper-middle-class kids. "Bad" public schools are attended by the children of the poor. Are we elitist yet?

Then, even within a "good" public school, the kids are constantly being sorted into winners and losers. For instance, in my older dd's "good" public school (you know what I mean), there is a "gifted" program. The only thing the "gifted" program actually delivers is bragging rights for the parents. The program itself consists of a once or twice a week pullout, which, while enjoyable, makes no difference to the kids' education.

Starting in 5th grade, my district starts tracking kids in math. And here we reach a central paradox of the system. The "winners" track in many cases actually provides a worse education than the regular track! "Accelerated" math, for instance, races the kids through so much material so fast that many wind up needing remedial math later on. Accelerated kids are less prepared for high school math than the regular-track kids.

Going on to high school, the brightest kids are pressured to take loads of AP and "honors" classes. Again, that doesn't mean they actually get a better education, they just get a better transcript. AP classes are notorious for their shallow, regurgitative approach. And the pressure and workload that are routinely inflicted on our brightest, most privileged kids wreck their adolescence.

I'm tired of people criticizing private school parents as "elitist". I don't know of a school in the US which is not affected by issues of social class and competition. We are all elitist here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Public vs. Private

As faithful readers of the StopHomework blog know, I pulled my older daughter out of public school after she became severely depressed in the 5th grade. I now send both of my kids to private schools.

In a recent post, I described how full inclusion, as practiced by the public schools, is a disservice to above-average kids. By way of contrast, in a private school, any child with serious learning or behavior problems will either not be admitted in the first place, or will be "counseled out" later. What this means in practice is that the floor is higher. The least able child in my daughter's private-school class would have been in the middle of the pack in her public-school class.

Then, the class sizes are smaller. My daughter went from a home-room class of 25 kids with one teacher to an entire grade of 18 kids, with two teachers. This meant it was possible for her to receive much more individual attention.

The big surprise for me was the difference in the way parent complaints are handled. In her second week of private school, my daughter was held out of recess because she forgot part of her homework. I went in to the school and blew a gasket (being held out of recess for trivial mistakes was how dd's depression had started at the public school.) Within a week, the teacher announced to the class that there was a change of policy and she wouldn't be holding kids out of recess anymore for unfinished homework. Similarly, after I complained about a reading log, we never saw a reading log again. Can you imagine getting responses like this from a public school? I can't.

At a private school, parents are the customer, and it's in the school's interest to keep the parents happy. At a public school, parents are the very bottom of the totem pole, and get treated accordingly.

Obviously, private schools are not the answer for everyone. The cost is prohibitive for most American families, although there is some financial aid available. Not everyone lives near a private school that would suit them, either.

But for our family, private school is the solution, at least so far (stay tuned!). I often think of the old joke about divorce: "Why is divorce so expensive? Because it's worth it." That's how I feel about private school.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Letters to Parents, from Hell

As long as we're on the Soul Murder (aka "Whole Brain") program, I'll post some letters to parents that I found on their site. How would you like to receive one of these letters from your child's kindergarten teacher? I'd be yanking my kid out of that school so fast they'd see nothing but dust.

Here's the first, from Andrea Schindler of video fame:

August 25, 2009
Dear Parents,
I hope you had an enjoyable summer break and are anticipating this school year as much as I am! I would like to take this opportunity to welcome you and your child to my classroom. In order to begin our year together successfully, I would like to explain some of the basic principles and guidelines in our classroom:

My goal as a teacher is to provide a safe and stimulating learning environment. In order to do this, there is a reliable and consistent discipline system enforced in our classroom. I feel that a good discipline system reinforces positive behaviors and discourages behaviors that are negative to your child and his/her classmates. In our classroom we have the following rules:

The Big Rule: Listen when your teacher is talking.
Rule 1: Follow Directions Quickly
Rule 2: Raise your hand for permission to speak.
Rule 3: Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.
Rule 4: Make Smart Choices.
Rule 5: Keep your dear teacher happy.

Students will receive the opportunity to practice following our rules during class time. If, however, your child is having difficulty following the rules, he/she will be given extra time to practice during recess. If your child loses part of their recess as a result of breaking a classroom rule, you will receive a note that will indicate what rule was broken, and if necessary~ how it was broken. Please take the time to review the note and the rule with your child, sign the note and return the next day. Parent support is a valuable asset that contributes to student success, and by working together we will help your child learn to be a positive contributor in the classroom.

Homework is a valuable part of your child’s learning experience. It reinforces what is being taught in class, encourages the development of responsibility, and helps students to develop good study habits. Homework will be assigned on a weekly basis, and the expectation is that all homework assignments will be completed and turned in every Friday. If your child fails to turn in his/her homework, he/she will be sent to the office to have a conference with Mrs. King. Also, parents will need to attend an after school homework help session with their child so they parents can learn how to help their children with the homework. This after school help session is mandatory and will be held the following Monday at 3:45.

Research has proven that students are more successful when there is a strong parent--teacher communication system in place. In order to communicate regularly, your child will come home every Friday with a Weekly Report. The Weekly Report will keep you informed of classroom news, your child’s behavior, any missing assignments, and your child’s progress. Please read the report and return the bottom portion, signed, on the following Monday. Attached is your first Weekly Report !

I welcome and strongly encourage parent involvement in our classroom. I realize that many of you like to participate in classroom activities and volunteer in whatever way best fits your schedule. Please let me know if any of the following would interest you:
___Volunteering regularly in the classroom.
___Volunteering in the classroom to help with special activities on an “as needed” basis.
___Doing clerical work at home (cutting, coloring,etc).

This year promises to be a very fun and rewarding year. I am truly looking forward to working with your child! If you have any questions, concerns, or comments, please feel free to contact me either at school (XXX-XXXX), or on my cell phone (XXX-XXXX).


and here's a lovely little example from a teacher who uses the site:

Date Sent:____________
Mrs. Hufstedler’s Class Rules

1 Listen to the Teacher.
2 Follow directions quickly!
3 Wait your turn.
4 Respect others, Respect yourself, Respect your school
5 Be safe, Be honest!
6 Keep your teacher happy!

Ways you can discuss this with your child:
Which rules do you still need to practice?
What did you do? What should you have done?
How will you follow these rules every day?
Please say these rules for me until I say stop.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Help!!!!!!!! I need practice. Today at school I broke the circled
rule(s). I agreed that all of these rules are fair and I am fully
capable of following them. I would never do anything to spite my
teacher or break one of the rules on purpose; therefore, I need you to help me practice.

Student Signature:____________________________

Please have your child practice the rule at home for as long as you
feel necessary. We have practiced at school already, but
Sign and return this paper tomorrow.

If you have any questions, please give me a call or email
My son/daughter practiced for _____________ minutes at home.

Student Signature_____________________
Parent Signature______________________


Whole Brain Teaching Founder Chris Biffle Lies About His Qualifications

I got a tip from an anonymous poster that Chris Biffle, the founder of Whole Brain Teaching, lies about his qualifications. Here's the bio from his website:

Chris Biffle is the author of seven books (McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins) on critical thinking, reading and writing. He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education and served on the Harvard based Perseus Project. In the last 10 years, Chris has established himself as nationally recognized authority on teaching challenging students; he has been lead presenter at over 50 Whole Brain Teaching conferences, attended by 5,000+ educators. Thousands of instructors across the United States and around the world base their teaching methods on his free Whole Brain Teaching ebooks.

The Perseus Project is not based at Harvard. It's run by Tufts University. Tufts University is no slouch; it's a well-known, well-respected institution that most people would be happy to honestly list on their resumé.

Now I'm wondering about the whole bio. If Chris Biffle feels the need to misspell "Tufts" as "Harvard" (oops! typo!), what else is he lying about? Did he really "serve on" the Perseus Project, and if so, what did he do? The Perseus Project generates a lot of low-level data-entry jobs. There's nothing wrong with honest labor, but a Perseus job isn't necessarily a great qualification, either.

And what does it mean when he says "He has received grants from the U.S. Department of Education"? Is he still paying back his student loans? What?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Inclusion Isn't Working

Imagine you're a public school teacher. You've got a class of 25 kids. The class has been carefully "balanced", so you've got 3 gifted kids, 3 kids with diagnosed learning disabilities, and 2 kids with behavior problems, plus 17 others all over the wide range in between. How much attention do you think you'll give the quiet, introverted, gifted kid?

Now add to your sorrows that NCLB is putting tremendous pressure on all teachers to prove their students are "proficient" on a state standardized test. Your state has been quietly dumbing the test down in a (successful) attempt to boost scores. As a result, any child with above average abilities walks in the door on the first day of class able to score proficient, so they don't need any more preparation. But the below-average kids, with enough coaching, might eke out a few more points on the all-important test.

And this is why teaching in the public schools is consistently aimed at below-average kids. The test that was meant to be a floor has become a ceiling. Nobody bothers to teach beyond it.

Even during my own childhood, back in the late Jurassic, it was no fun to be a bright, eccentric kid in the public schools. I was bored to the point of almost hallucinatory daydreaming. I could not bear to do the work I was given because it seemed like such an insult, so I was written off as lazy and defiant. Teachers said, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink!" Looking back, I say, "what water?"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Comments from a Whole Brain Teacher

I would like this blog to include many points of view and be open to real debate, and in that spirit I present some comments defending the Whole Brain system, which I criticized in previous posts (Soul Murder and Soul Murder: 4th Grade Edition).

I recently had a webversation with a Whole Brain teacher, NCWBTeacher. I excerpt some of the teacher's comments below.

I teach in a public middle school. My kids cover a wide range of abilities from LD, ADD, high functioning autistic, regular ed, up to gifted. Every year the Exceptional Children department send the mainstreamed kids through my class.

This illustrates a basic problem with the public schools. It is extremely difficult to teach a large class that includes such a wide range of abilities. Someone won't get what they need, and it's often the gifted kids, who, in my opinion, will not be well served by the Whole Brain approach. Among other problems, the number of repetitions in a typical WB lesson would be stupefying to a bright student.

The parents of my students are fully aware of the teaching methods I use. I send home a newsletter, and demonstrate the methods on parent nights. They are very happy with it. The typical comments from parents and kids is that mine is the only class that is not boring.

Well, that doesn't say much for the other classes. I'm guessing that the other classes are mostly catatonic teachers flapping their jaw at comatose students, and I can see why the Whole Brain approach, with a chance for students to talk and move around, looks like an improvement.

To my surprise, NCWBTeacher defends the teacher who makes his students beg for their reading lesson:

To anyone who actually has a sense of humor this is not offensive. The intent, joking with his students, is patently obvious.

I don't see the joke here. To me, the teacher is degrading and humiliating his students, and there's just no excuse.

Actually, I think the idea that many people are horrified by the videos is a misconception. In fact, a majority of viewers see the utility of the method.

The Whole Brain videos function as a kind of Rorschach test. Some people, myself included, have an immediate, visceral, negative reaction ("Oh my God NO!"). Others see engaged students and a dynamic teacher.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teaching Recent History

Having read the sad tale of a commenter who never got past 1850 in her world history class, I've been thinking that schools could work backwards through history, rather than chronologically forward as it is usually done. It would make sense to teach our kids, first, what the world is like today. For US kids, it would be helpful to take a global approach, so they understand the US as one country among many, rather than the center of the universe.

Once you've got some understanding of what's going on today, you could ask, how did it get like this? Then you could study the history of the last hundred years, with special emphasis on the Depression, since we are apparently compelled to repeat it.

While I agree with the traditionalists that there is a basic set of stuff that a well-educated person should know, I also agree with the progressives that the mark of an educated mind is curiosity and the desire to know more. I think history is fascinating (no thanks to school) and I hope my kids will feel the same.

It might be interesting for kids to study bad predictions of history. For instance, there was a famous archeologist in Egypt, Theodore Davis, who announced that the Valley of the Kings had been completely excavated and there were no more important discoveries to be made there. A few years later, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

And how about the guys who wrote Dow 36,000 in 1999? Oops.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How to be Creative

I read somewhere that a large proportion of successful writers spent part of their childhoods as invalids. The theory is that forced inactivity caused these children to live inside their heads and develop a rich imaginative life.

The one element that is absolutely necessary for the development of creativity is free time. Sadly, many middle-class American kids are starved for truly free time. Between homework overload and the constant competition to get into a "good" college, there is hardly any room for our kids to daydream, wonder, and follow their own interests.

That's why I can't get too excited about a recent Newsweek article called "The Creativity Crisis." After rounding up the usual suspects (TV, video games), and describing the usual "scientific" brain studies, it calls for more "creativity classes" in school. I fear that "be creative" is just one more chore that will be added to our kids' overloaded schedules.

True creativity is a mysterious, tender plant that requires free time and free mental activity. A great deal of what is needed for creativity looks like idleness. No wonder it's becoming so scarce in our cult of overwork.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What History do Kids Need to Know?

One of the divides between progressives and traditionalists is the idea of a core curriculum, or a set of stuff that kids need to know and should be taught in school. I find myself increasingly on the side of the traditionalists on this one. Yes, there's a body of knowledge that adults have (we hope), and we need to pass this on to the next generation. For instance, I don't want my kids getting out of high school not knowing what World War II was, or the French Revolution, or (fill in the blank.)

I read somewhere that the problem began when "Social Studies" replaced "History". I don't know if that's true, but one of the few things I remember from my own schooling was 6th grade Social Studies. We spent the first half of the year studying Whaling, and the second half of the year studying India. In spite of our efforts, when the movie "Gandhi" came out some years later, I had no idea who Gandhi was.

The other day I was talking to my new neighbor. His daughter was playing with a little boy and I asked the little boy's name. He said, "Alexei". I said, "Oh, like the tsarevich?" My neighbor gave me the old dead-halibut look. Digging myself deeper, I said, "you know, the last of the Romanovs? Russian tsars? Shot in the basement?" He had no idea what I was talking about. My neighbor is actually a doctor, so he has spent many years in school.

So I agree with the traditionalists that there is a body of knowledge that educated people should have.

On the other hand, I find myself allied with the progressives when I hear traditionalists talk about their ideas of core knowledge. Often, it comes down to little factoids which are easy to isolate, memorize, and test. More than once, I've seen people get indignant that kids "don't memorize state capitals anymore." Huh? I never memorized the state capitals, and it's a lack I have never regretted. In this day and age, if I need to know the capital of a state, I can get it from Google. And if we had memorized the state capitals in school (actually, it's possible we did, and I daydreamed through the whole thing) it would have been nothing but a turn-off for me.

So, faithful readers, what history do kids need to know?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Soul Murder, 4th Grade Edition

If you can stand it (where's that bucket?), here's the Whole Brain video showing a lesson in "Critical Thinking". Did someone mention George Orwell? "Critical Thinking" sounds like something out of progressive ed, but there's nothing progressive going on here.

Whole Brain Teaching: 4th Grade Critical Thinking

The teacher lists 4 alleged levels of critical thinking, beginning with "memorization", and ending with the "genius" level, "compare and contrast". He wouldn't recognize genius if Albert Einstein whacked him upside the head with a skillet (don't tempt me.)

Clearly, the Whole Brain types can't allow actual critical thinking, which would mean letting the kids form their own thoughts and opinions.

Notice the way the teacher explicitly tells the kids, "high level of excitement!"

And here's one where the teacher makes the kids beg him to be allowed to do their reading instruction. Yes, they've memorized a "begging" gesture, so it's written in to the program.

Whole Brain Teaching: 4th Grade: The Crazy Professor Reading Game

It is scary to see the glowing comments that accompany these videos on youtube. Maybe we could start a campaign to leave negative comments? People should know that this is controversial.

Update: here's a fabulous source for complaints about Chris Biffle, the inventor of Whole Brain Teaching. It's the comments of students who took his "philosophy" course.

Chris Biffle -- Crafton Hills College --

One student writes: "I'm not sure if he wants me to learn anything or just memorize a bunch of useless info." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Soul Murder

Whole Brain Teaching is being promoted all over the web as the latest and greatest in "teaching". Watch the video, if you can stand it. Warning -- have a bucket nearby, and a paramedic crew on speed dial.

Whole Brain Teaching: Kindergarten

Can you imagine being one of those kids, having every moment of the day scripted, down to the gesture? It's antithetical to learning, because there's no possibility of actually forming a thought in your brain. As the website boasts, "students don't have any mental area left over to create challenging behavior!"

I find this video deeply offensive to everything I believe about human beings and how they should be treated. I can only imagine the levels of boredom, frustration, anger, and depression experienced by kids who are treated this way. It's hard for me to understand how anyone can watch this and think it's a good idea, although apparently many people do.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Misery Index

Instead of listing high schools by the number of students who take AP tests, I'd like to see schools rated by a "Misery Index", which would be based on questions like these:

Do the students get adequate sleep? Do they have time to pursue their own interests after school? Do they describe themselves as "stressed"?

If you ask one of the students, "what was the last book you read for pleasure?", does she look at you like you've got two heads?

Are the students engaged in learning, or do they see school as a resumé-building obstacle course? If you ask a student about a subject that she passed last semester, does she still know it?

How do the students treat each other? Is there a sense of community, or cut-throat competition? Is the school rife with mean girls and bullies?

How do the teachers treat the students? Are they control freaks? Do they teach actual content, or mostly compliance?

How do teachers and administration treat parents? Are complaining parents told that "nobody else has complained", or that "the other parents want what we have now"? Are parents treated with contempt or respect?

What's the homework like? Is there simply too much for a normal student to fit in to a normal day? Does it help the students learn, or is it busywork?

You'll notice I haven't provided a way to assign points for each of these questions. That is deliberate. We all have enough spurious numbers in our lives.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Maybe the kid isn't the problem

"It is not very productive to drive a child to anger or depression, and then blame him for being angry or depressed. But that is what schools do. Bad teachers do this, and then principals back them up." -- Guy Strickland, Bad Teachers

Suppose you have a 1st-grade child who has trouble sitting still, being quiet, and doing what she's told. Does the child have a problem which needs to be treated with drugs or behavior management? Or does the school have unreasonable expectations of very young children?

Suppose you have a 7th-grade child who doesn't always turn in his homework consistently or on time. Does the child have a problem which needs to be treated with drugs or behavior management? Or does the school have unreasonable expectations of young adolescents?

"Shifting the blame onto a child's shoulders is the work of a bully. It is, perhaps consequently, a technique more commonly used than parents may think." -- Guy Strickland, op. cit.

It is distressing to me to see how often parents just accept whatever the school demands. Schools are not infallible, and they are not beyond question. They are social constructs that change with the times. We all know that schools are different (in my opinion, even worse) than they were in our own childhoods. The curriculum has been pushed younger and younger (kindergarten is the new first grade) and the pressure to perform has been increased.

Parents, please, before you accept that your child has the diagnosis du jour (attention deficit disorder, executive function deficit) question the school. Does the school have reasonable expectations of children at their various ages and stages? Is the work the school assigns useful for your child? Are the rules and regulations actually necessary, or are they the product of control freaks and petty tyrants?

Teachers and administrators want to live in a world where the school does what it does, and it's up to kids (and their mothers) to fall into line. But there's no reason we have to accept that. Maybe your kid has a problem, and maybe the problem is a bad school.