Saturday, July 30, 2011

Save Our Schools March

There's a big march going on in Washington today -- the "Save Our Schools" march.  I couldn't get down to Washington (family stuff) but it sounds wonderful.  Unfortunately, everybody's so worked up about the debt limit that the Save Our Schools march isn't getting much press.  The New York Times apparently hasn't heard of it.

James Boutin of An Urban Teacher's Education has blogged the march.

Anthony Cody of edweek has blogged the march.

lodesterre of Conducting the Inner Light  has blogged the march.

@#$%#$! Spam Filter!

Following a tip on kitchen table math, I looked into the kid-friendly blog spambox.  There were 4 comments there.  I don't know why they were labeled spam. I hit the button marked "publish", which unfortunately publishes the comments where they should have gone originally.  I have no way to find them now.  One was from Jenni on the "Chris Biffle Lies ..." thread.  Otherwise, who knows?  If you find one of the previously spammed and now restored comments, please let me know.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Meeting with the Public School Principal

I've just returned from our meeting with the new principal at Local Public Elementary, where Younger Daughter will start next year. 

Back at Natural Friends, the Head of School and teacher seemed helpless.  Everyone was throwing up their hands.  "This kid is impossible!  We don't know what to do!"  All their recommendations were further demands on our time and bank account.  "Try this therapist and that therapist, send her to summer school so she'll learn to read, fill out a mountain of paperwork on the off chance that YD will qualify for a 1:1 aide to take her out in the hallway when she's acting up." 

At Natural Friends, one of their recommendations was that we could try an Occupational Therapist.  I'm pretty skeptical of OT, and we're running around to therapists enough already, so we never tried it.  At Local Public Elementary, they've got an OT on staff, so if they feel Younger Daughter would benefit, they will try OT on their dime and their time.  Fine, give it a shot.  Surprise me. 

Our entire public district is about to bring in Investigations Math, one of the most notorious of the new fuzzy math curricula.  I said, "YD has language delays -- if math is all about language, that's a struggle for her".  New Principal said, "that's OK, we can do more traditional math with kids like that." (Wow!) 

I told New Principal that I don't believe in homework, and even if I did, Younger Daughter won't have time for it, with her therapy and (I hope!) athletic pursuits.  She made a little note on her pad ("Impossible Mom!").

New Principal said, "There may be some hiccups -- even with all this information, it may take a while to find the best methods to work with YD."

I said, "Look, if I talk to the teacher and she says, 'Last week we tried Technique A and it didn't work too well.  This week we're trying Technique B.  We've got Technique C lined up for next week if this doesn't work', I'm fine with that.  What I don't want to hear is, 'Last week we tried Technique A and it didn't work.  This week we're still using Technique A, and it isn't working.  Next week we'll keep using Technique A, because we can't think of anything else.'"

New Principal said, "You won't hear that."

I'm guardedly optimistic.  Time will tell ...


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How Rote Learning Got a Bad Name

I read somewhere the memoirs of a writer who went to Catholic schools as a kid. He reports that he was made to memorize a list of the popes, and it was only after he graduated that he discovered how difficult and contentious it is to write such a list. For several decades during the middle ages, there were actually two (or three!) simultaneous competing popes, which the ruler-wielding nuns had neglected to mention.

That's why Blackadder's Baldrick claims to have an all-purpose pardon "signed by both popes!"

When you reduce learning to memorizing factoids, you can't handle ambiguity or complexity.  There's no grappling with meaning or ideas. You wind up dumbing down content.

For a painful example, here's Farrah Shipley using Whole Brain Teaching to inflict "fractions" on a kindergarten class.

WARNING!  Side effects include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, despair, and suicidal ideation.  If uncontrollable ranting persists for more than four hours, see a doctor, psychiatrist, or bartender.

I have thrown myself on the grenade by listening to this "lesson" so you don't have to.  Here's what the hapless 5-year-olds are memorizing:

A fraction is when we cut something into equal pieces.  [Grammar, anyone?]

A fraction has two parts: a denominator [low silly voice] and a numerator [high silly voice].

The denominator tells us how many pieces in all.

The numerator tells us how many pieces are shaded.

Think how confused these kids will be when they actually need to understand fractions, and nothing's been shaded!  We can only hope they forget this whole nightmare over the summer.

At one point in the video, Mrs. Shipley actually grabs a little boy's wrists and forces him to do the gestures.

At another point, she asks the class, "wouldn't you like to know what the numerator does?" and a bunch of the kids yell back, "NO!"  Then she tells them to beg her.

For a rousing climax, she walks the kids through the "genius" segment, where they're encouraged to produce sentences that nobody would ever actually say, like "I eat watermelon, but first I cut it into fractions."

The way she reaches into her jacket pocket for a dry-erase marker reminds me of a dog trainer reaching into her pocket for little treats.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

We're Not Alone

I derive some comfort from reading stories of families who have been through similar problems. Here's a comment from a thread at dcurbanmomsforum called "Counseling Out" (edited slightly for readability):

I think the percentage of parents who are completely dismissive about their child's issues, perceived or not, when the consequence could result in being counseled VERY SMALL. Most parents would never want to place themselves in a situation where their child is sure to be counseled out and will [do] whatever it takes to keep him in school.

Saying 'thats just how my child is' or 'he'll grow out of it' are not dismissive comments. Oftentimes comments like this are used to explain a child's behavior when a parent just does not know what else to say or do. And it may not be a lie either.

I think I represent the typical parent whose kindergartener is being counseled out and I have hardly been dismissive. In fact, we were told by their incompetent school psychologist that our child is developmentally delayed by a couple of years and that he has significant issues. Well, not according to the psychiatrist we saw and not according to a developmental pediatrician we saw.

The school and particularly the teacher stressed him out so much he was at his worst. And it is strange that schools are more apt to work with learning issues but not beh issues as most learning issues are neurological based and harder to 'fix' or work with and require much more ongoing oversight whereas beh issues require coaching and beh therapy and are generally easier to fix.

Speaking of incompetent school psychologists -- the psychologist at Natural Friends is a piece of work. She spent a lot of time during Older Daughter's first year there trying to blame me as a hysterical mom. I have never heard any parent say a good word about her.

I hope the commenter is correct that behavior problems are actually easier to fix than learning issues.

A Decision Gets Made For Us

So, the private school that we applied to for Younger Daughter, the one that specializes in language disorders, won't take her. Sainted Husband talked to the Admissions Director, who told him: "our psychologist reviewed the application and feels that this is a child with no learning disabilities, just emotional and behavior problems." That's been pretty much my feeling all along.

So it's back to the public schools; the very same elementary school where Older Daughter had a traumatic 5th grade year. At least there's a new principal, so we can start (sort of) fresh.

We have a conference coming up with the principal in 2 days. I want to make sure that the school is reasonably prepared for Younger Daughter.

Friday, July 15, 2011

John Holt on the Old New Math, part 2.

From How Children Fail, by John Holt. This was written in 1961!

A very skillful public relations job has been done for the so-called new math. Everyone talks about it, and any school or teacher who isn't doing it seems hopelessly old-fashioned. Some of this new math is really very good. Here and there, truly revolutionary and constructive changes in math teaching are being made; children are finding out things for themselves instead of being told answers or hinted toward them with leading questions. But these places are few. Most of the New Math is just what the Bad Old Math was -- cookbookery. The difference is that the cookbooks are newer, more up to date -- which may be a good thing, if cookbookery is what you want. Some of the cookbooks are not only newer, but better; but many, including some of the most highly touted, lavishly financed, and widely used, are not. Some I have examined are unclearly written; they contain many ambiguities; their examples are often ill chosen; they assume understandings that many children don't have; they do not make sufficiently strong the bridge between the known and real and the unknown and symbolic; they have too much material in them; they are too disconnected, too linear, too answer-directed. They are, in short, not worth all the fuss that is being made over them, and some of the children I know who are using them are as confused, baffled, and frightened as ever.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

From a comment at dc urban moms forum:

Over the years, with experiences at three different private schools, I have been truly surprised by the ability of school administrations to delude themselves into thinking that if they say the right thing but do nothing that parents will be mollified.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cherry-Picking Charter Schools

In today's NYTimes, Charter School Sends Message -- Thrive or Transfer.

The article is about a young boy who was pressured to leave a Harlem Success Academy charter school.

The boy was made to stay after school to "practice" walking in the halls correctly. According to a spokeswoman for HSA:

“Practicing walking through the halls is the opposite of a punishment,” she wrote. “Just as in math, when a child does not get a concept, we re-teach. We don’t let the child fail. We ensure he gets it. We take the same approach with behavior. If a child is struggling, we re-teach. This is an example of when the school went out of its way to help Matthew be successful.”

Oh, please. If you force a kid to do a boring, repetitive, pointless task, that's a punishment. You can call it "practice", you can call it "consequences", you can call it whatever you want, but it's still punishment. No, it isn't less punitive if you smile and speak with a gentle voice when you tell the kid he's going to practice walking silently in the hallway. It's the same old abuse that's been perpetrated by those with power against those without power for centuries.

I'm not surprised young Matthew was throwing up most mornings and asking his mother if he was going to be fired from school.

The good news is that Matthew is now doing very well at his local public school.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Back to the Salt Mines

We've now been back home for a week. Recently I had lunch with my mother (Hi, Mom!), and she asked, "was the trip the right decision?" My answer was an unhesitating "Yes."

Before we left I had my doubts. I was worried that we were planning to spend 2 months together in a small house, without any organized child care or backup in the form of friends or activities for the kids. I could see myself in a newspaper headline: "Mother of Two Goes Berserk", you know the sort of thing.

As it turned out, we got along pretty well. It was a welcome chance for all of us to have the pressures of school lifted. I was able to stop fretting about Younger Daughter as a problem to be fixed, and see her for who she is. She's a bright, athletic kid with an active, thoughtful mind. She's not verbally precocious in the way that schools reward, but she can certainly express herself, as in: "I know I'm supposed to think about God, but I mostly think about feeding the ducks."

Before we left, I was planning to work hard with Younger Daughter to make up for the subjects she had not learned at school. But it was such a struggle to get her to read every day that we wound up reading maybe once or twice a week, and I wonder whether it's worth the fight. What she gains in reading ability she loses in the desire to read. Now I'm inclined to just give her the rest of the summer off, and let her next school deal with her reading in the fall.

For Older Daughter, the absence of school meant she could catch up on her sleep. She missed her friends, but she was able to chat with them through texting and Skype.

A friend asked me, "What was your favorite part of the trip?" For me, it was the chance to be in a new environment, far away from the preoccupations of our usual life.

Friday, July 8, 2011

John Holt on the Old New Math

I'm reading "How Children Fail", by John Holt. I like this passage:

We say and believe that at this school we teach children to understand the meaning of what they do in math. How? By giving them (and requiring them to give back to us) "explanations" of what they do. But let's take a child's-eye view. Might not a child feel, as Walter obviously did, that in this school you not only have to get the right answer, but you also have to have the right explanation to go with it; the right answer, and the right chatter. Yet we see here that a "successful" student can give the answer and the chatter without understanding at all what he is doing or saying.

P.S. "How Children Fail" is an in-depth description of John Holt's experiences teaching in an elementary school. I've read a lot of the book, and I haven't seen homework mentioned once. The book is copyright 1964.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

No Surprise

In today's NYTimes, Systematic Cheating is Found in Atlanta's School System.

Wow, who could have predicted that high-stakes, punitive testing would be met with widespread cheating? Well, anyone, really.