Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rules for a First-Grade Classroom

So I actually attended Curriculum Night for my younger daughter's school. I was interested to see rules posted on the wall of her first-grade classroom. The rules go like this:

We agree to:

1.) Take care of each other.

2.) Be good listeners.

3.) Remember that one person talks at a time.

4.) Treat others the way they want to be treated.

5.) Stop when somebody says "Stop".

6.) Be gentle with our things and put them away.

It's clear that these rules are about how the kids should treat each other, not just about how they should obey the teacher. It's a pretty sharp contrast to the rules from Whole Brain Teaching:

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.

Which classroom would you rather send your kid to?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guest Post: the Finnish Paradox

from northTOmom at Parenting is Political:

The Finnish Paradox: Is Finland to Education as France is to Health?

The French Paradox is a well-known conundrum in the field of public health. Wikipedia defines it as: "the observation that French people suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats." The reason we have a hard time understanding how the French can eat the way they do—for instance, consuming full fat cheeses at lunch and supper daily—and remain healthy is that we are looking at the problem of diet and health through a particular lens, namely, the lens of fat intake. If our perception of health revolves around the issue of fat, specifically around the notion that reducing saturated fat is essential to good health, then there is no way to understand French health statistics; they become a "paradox." If saturated fat is not the key issue—and the latest medical research suggests that in fact it is not—then the French way of eating and staying healthy becomes less mysterious. After all, in addition to consuming all that saturated fat, the French do not snack much between meals, they drink loads of healthful red wine, and they eat a far greater variety of foods, including many more types of fruits and vegetables, than North Americans.

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education "reformers" in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over "accountability." In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students' scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

What are education professionals to make of this? Here again is a paradox wherein the data do not fit preconceived theories. Yet as in the case of the French diet, the data don't lie. Sooner or later American educrats—those currently making a lot of noise about the "crisis" in education—will have to deal with Finland. They would do well, in my opinion, to read an essay published last year by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The author of this essay, Linda Darling-Hammond, explains how Finnish education officials chose a very different path to "reform" from that of their Anglo-American counterparts. Unlike Anglo-Saxon countries:

Finland has not adopted . . . standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.

In contrast, she quotes a Finnish education policy analyst who explains:

Finnish education policies are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society, in general, and within its education system, in particular... Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers.

Hmm. Equitable distribution of resources. Trust. But. . . don't Finnish kids far outscore North American kids on international tests? Paradox indeed.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Education Doesn't Create Jobs

Here's an interesting article by David Sirota: The Neoliberal Bait and Switch.

Among other things, he argues that the noise made by politicians regarding education is really just a smokescreen, a distraction from the real issues of corporate-driven economic policies. This makes a lot of sense to me.

Poles Apart?

At its worst, the education debate becomes a clash between two extreme camps, which are often represented as follows:

To the right, we have the traditionalist camp, which is all about memorizable factoids, constant compliance, and standardized tests.

To the left, we have fuzzy progressives, who at their most mind-boggling urge us to reject "the deadly notion that the schools’ first priority should be intellectual development". These folks are all about the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage", against authoritarian classrooms, and in favor of giving students control over what, when and how they learn.

I reject both of these extremes. I would prefer to carve out a spot in the middle.

With the progressives, I care about my kids' experience at school. I've already had one child fall into profound depression because of school, and we don't need to go through that again. But I stand with the traditionalists with their interest in content and intellectual seriousness. I want my kids to be fluent in a foreign language, competent with math, conversant with history, able to write a coherent essay, and able to touch-type. With the progressives, I want them to be interested in learning more. Can't we cherry-pick the best of both worlds?

At our public school, I feel that they cherry-picked the worst of both worlds: that is, they had the top-down authority, and the constant threat of punishment, of the worst of the traditionalists, combined with the fuzzy content and silliness of the worst of the progressives. The result is dumb assignments like "write a list of healthy snack foods, one for each letter of the alphabet. First write it out as a rough draft, then make a neat copy with colorful illustrations, some clipped from magazines." This was a 5th-grade science (!) assignment. We had to fight with the teacher to get our daughter excused from it.

Readers, where are you on the traditionalist - to - progressive spectrum?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Whole Brain Teaching is a Lie

from the Power Teachers Training Manual:

TRAINER: Here is another huge point.The Scoreboard game is fixed! The score never comes out to be anything other than what you want it to be. In elementary school, we reward initially with one minute more or less of recess. On the first day, be sure your students lose by one minute the first few times. Take them out to the playground with a stopwatch in hand and let them watch the other kids play for a minute. Make sure they never lose by more than a minute … they might get too upset. Sometimes, let them score come out even, neither losing nor winning a minute. Then after a few days, let them win a minute.

... Now, listen to me very carefully. The smaller the reward you give, the more valuable it is. Make my gestures. (Spread your arms out very wide. Make other graphic gestures as you continue talking.) It’s a long year. You’ve got to give small rewards at the beginning. When you finally give your students two minutes free time, it will feel enormous to them! Teach!

This amounts to mocking a child's innocence. Children are naturally trusting, and when they "lose" the scoreboard game, they will feel that they did something wrong.

What kind of sick mind wants to see kids knock themselves out for a trivial prize? Probably the same sick mind that thinks it's amusing to make kids beg (@6:08) for their reading lesson.

Also, if WBT is as much fun as its promoters claim, why is two minutes away from it perceived as a reward?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Guest Post: POV on WBT

from Suburban Chicken Farmer at Bon Mot:

Power Teaching/Whole Brain Teaching from the point of view of a nine year old third grade boy.

(email sent to teacher. Teacher and my son regularly corresponded about mainly homework through email)

Mr. H* not doing my spelling's something about the class. remember how the kids always yells at someone if they lose a point? well, I don't like that.. but I want you to do this speech tommorow:
Class! *yes!* Why do you yell at someone who loses a point? It's just some ink, nobody cares if they win the prize at the end of the day. But if the one who loses the point is your friend and you still yell at him, you will might lose him/her. So, do you think you like losing friends? I guess not.
You must do it tommorow. Please! Im trying to help the class!


This email was my introduction to Power Teaching. I was at the school at lunchtime when the school's director came up and said, "I read the email your son sent Mr. H and we'll have a meeting!" Since she was very upbeat, I assumed my kid had written something really good. I rushed home to read it myself. Wow! I was so proud to be related to such a wise person.

Mr. H was not as impressed. He took my son out into the breezeway and lectured him that this was Power Teaching and was developed in college by experts who knew far better than he, a mere child and further more the "I guess not." part of the email was, in Mr. H's opinion, sarcastic and not appreciated.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Constructivist Math and Abstraction

I'm not against the concrete approach to learning math, especially in the early grades. I think the building blocks, the scales, and the plastic pizzas can all be useful for understanding basic calculations.

But math is more than a system for sharing pizzas equally. It is also an abstract language with a consistent logic. And this is where constructivist math curricula fail miserably.

What I saw of Trailblazers was that they never took that next step to the abstract level. If the kids could divide a pizza, they were done. All too often they were asked to write about what they did in words, in a misguided attempt to cross disciplines.

But the language of math, like any language, must be learned on its own terms. Kids need to become fluent in the language of math by manipulating numbers and symbols.

One of the great benefits of math education is in teaching logic. A person who can construct a decent proof is on the way to clear thinking in any field.

Extra Credit for Overachievers: A man named Gödel proved that any logical system must be either inconsistent or incomplete. If you were going to design a system of arithmetic, which would you rather have it, inconsistent or incomplete? Which one is the system that we actually use, inconsistent or incomplete?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Where I Part Ways With Alfie Kohn

As I discussed previously, I am often in agreement with Alfie Kohn in his writings about education.

One big disagreement is over the issue of Chicago Math, aka "constructivist math". Kohn is a proponent of this approach, and he has written with contempt about the parents' groups that oppose it (see "Only for My Kid".) I've done a lot of reading about Chicago Math (on sites like kitchen table math and Out in Left Field), and my daughter suffered through two years of Trailblazers at her private school. I have come to the conclusion that on this issue, Kohn is just plain wrong.

The Chicago Math curricula are really terrible. Why? Because they contain hardly any math, and a great deal of pointless wankery, such as "write an essay about your favorite number". (True!) Kids can have years of this stuff, and still be unable to do even the simplest computations. When my daughter had Trailblazers, I went out of my way to tutor her at home with Singapore Math (I recommend it). Several of her classmates are now taking remedial math classes.

So, much as I want to like progressive ed, I also genuinely care about content. I want my kids to be capable and confident with math, and Trailblazers won't get them there. I want my kids to learn stuff, and I also want them to enjoy their childhood and not be overburdened with homework, pressure and competition.

In a similar vein, I really wanted to like this essay, "Turning Schools Into Robot Factories". And I did like it, right up to the point that the writer complained that upper elementary students "were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing)". I want my kids to be able to divide by a fraction. It's part of the logical system known as arithmetic, and I think it's basic for any educated person. Is that too much to ask?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The business of America

[From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool]

Martha Nussbaum:

Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought. . . .

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills.

The White House last week:

Today, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. . . . In his remarks to day, the President emphasized the importance of providing American students with a solid foundation in these subjects in order to compete in the global economy:

“As I discussed this morning with my Export Council, our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”

News reports also noted:

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released recommendations Thursday: Over the next decade the federal government should help recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers, support the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, and reward the top 5 percent of STEM teachers.

I think the survival of democratic values in our country is more important, not to mention more genuinely at risk, than our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Why is there no blue-ribbon panel trying to ensure that our schools serve that goal? On the other hand, I shudder to imagine the top-down “pro-democracy” curriculum -- with its own standardized tests, no doubt -- that such a panel would probably propose. (On that, more here.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Guest Post: northTOmom on "Curriculum Night"

I just got back from "curriculum night," at my daughters' school, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The girls' main (grade 6) teacher spoke at some length about having decided to adhere as closely as possible to the Toronto District School Board's homework policy, which I reviewed in a guest post on Sara Bennett's now sadly defunct StopHomework site (see here and here). The teacher explained that his goal this year is to attempt to cover the bulk of the curriculum, especially the overstuffed math curriculum, through in-class work. To that end, he has scheduled double math periods a few times a week. He noted that according to the revised 2008 homework policy, work completed at home cannot be assigned a grade, but is reported on only in the (non-graded) learning skills section of the report card.

In the two weeks since school began I had noticed that the girls were not bringing home much homework, just the occasional math problem that they hadn't managed to finish in class. But I was surprised at the teacher's admission that this was a conscious change of practice on his part. Last spring I interviewed the principal of our school for my post about the homework policy, and she told me that she fully supports the revised policy, and that at the beginning of each year she reviews it with the teaching staff. I'm wondering if our "chat" last spring, had anything to do with the changes I'm seeing this year. If so, it gives me hope that as a parent I can effect change, even by doing something as non-confrontational as writing a blog post about a particular policy. Nonetheless, I have to give credit where credit's due. In a handout the teacher distributed to parents, he further explained his position this way: "I have a young family and believe that spending time with your own children is very important. Spending less time on homework should allow children to do more of their preferred educational activities at home." How refreshing!

(re-posted from Parenting is Political.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Alfie Kohn: Yes and No

There's a new article by Alfie Kohn here.

I've read a lot of Kohn's work, and I agree with much of it. His The Homework Myth should be read by everyone involved in education. I appreciate his focus on how schooling is actually experienced by real kids.

But I part ways with Kohn when it come to traditional vs. progressive ed. Real progressive education is vanishingly rare. I've never experienced it myself and it's not available for my kids. One of the few places it's still going on is at the University of Chicago Lab School, where Sasha and Malia went before their father got elected President.

While real progressive ed is rare, badly implemented faux progressive ed is ubiquitous. All those dumb poster and coloring projects, and the group projects that feature the one smart kid doing all the work, were started by people who thought they were embracing progressivism. Hah!

In my opinion, progressive education is so rare, and so poorly understood, that it's a lost cause for most American schools. It won't be anything more than a boutique choice for a long time to come.

I don't think traditional education is necessarily a bad idea, either. A thoughtful, well-designed lecture can be more engaging than a dumb group project. And there are some things that I think all kids should learn whether they're deeply interested or not (basic math and history come to mind.) Of course, a good teacher will make the material as interesting as possible.

I've noticed that Kohn himself travels around and gives ... lectures! He doesn't seem to mind "sage on the stage" when he's the sage. His lectures are very well-received, but have no apparent effect on the audience. The principal at the public school that we left claims to be a big fan of Alfie Kohn, but you'd never know it by the way she ran the school.

In my opinion, the goal for most public schools should be a good traditional education. Pushing progressive ed is just a waste of time at this point. Your thoughts?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guest post: Helicopter parents and hothouse flowers

(From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool)

Are “edubloggers” too harsh on their own kids’ teachers? In response to that question (posed here), Doug Johnson argues that by intervening in our kids’ problems at school, we might be

depriving them of some necessary experiences in which they could develop the whole-life dispositions of patience, adjustment, subversion, recognition that the world is sometimes unjust, and discrimination of the important and unimportant. Children raised as “hot house flowers” by parents who step in at the first sign of problem may well fall apart when encountering the first college professor or supervisor who is challenging to work for. Self-reliance is a lovely attribute too often acquired through ugly experiences that are hard for a parent to watch.

I do think that edubloggers are wrong to focus their discontent on teachers. In my opinion, teachers aren’t the problem. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but I have found them to be well-intentioned and trying their best to treat the kids well. When I don’t like what’s happening in the classroom, it’s almost always because of what the teachers are pressured to do because of decisions made at higher levels, usually in response to No Child Left Behind and related policies.

I agree to some extent with Johnson’s points. But I also question some of his premises. I think it’s easy to overestimate the prevalence of “helicopter parents” because they are more noticeable, especially if you’re a teacher. As a parent, I know far more parents who would never consider intervening in their kids’ classroom situation than parents who would. A lot of people who talk about the need to “pick your battles” seem to end up picking none. I guess I’m afraid that, rather than helping the child learn to cope with imperfect situations, that parental strategy often ends up encouraging the child to deny that there are problems at all, to blame him- or herself, or to become passively resigned to the futility of trying to change anything.

It’s also worth asking what coping strategies, other than passive acceptance, are available to a student who has a justifiable complaint about how he or she is being treated at school. It’s certainly worth encouraging the student to raise his or her concerns with the teacher. But then what? Schools are notoriously not democracies. I wonder what lesson gets learned from such an encounter. Is it really about the value of self-reliance? Or is it that resistance is futile?

If today’s kids are insufficiently assertive, it’s probably not because of all those parents intervening constantly in their lives and classrooms. It’s probably because passive acceptance in the face of authority is the lesson schools teach day after day after day.

Johnson gives several examples of “constructive” ways to intervene in a problem situation -- “partnering with the teacher” in parent-teacher conferences, asking for more information about a homework project, making sure the child has satisfying extracurricular activities, or even choosing an alternative school or homeschooling. There is a conspicuous absence from his list: Isn’t there sometimes value in confronting the institution and arguing that it should change? As a parent, isn’t it important to at least sometimes model that behavior? For all the talk about helicopter parenting, the idea of actually complaining about what goes on in the school to a teacher or principal -- public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love -- seems to strike an awful lot of people as an unpardonable breach of etiquette and decorum. Who is the hothouse flower in that situation?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Update: Conversation with a First Grade Teacher

So, I went in and had a long talk with my younger daughter's first grade teacher. It went quite well. The teacher says that she will support any decision we make about homework and it's not a big deal to her if we don't get to it. I said my daughter needed to hear that from her, and she said she would have that discussion.

I would still rather live in a world where homework in first grade wasn't part of the landscape, but we can't have everything. So far my daughter really likes first grade, and is eager to learn to read.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest post: Elephant in the room, continued

[From Chris at ABlogAboutSchool]

After my last post, a reader asked me to explain what it was I disagreed with about the article I linked to. FedUpMom asked me to pass my response along here:

Yeah, it was a smart-alecky post, granted. I deserve to be called on it, if only as a reminder that I shouldn’t act as if I’m writing only to people who already agree with me.

The reason I felt provoked by that seemingly innocuous article was that, like so much other commentary about kids who have trouble “adjusting,” it never seemed to consider the possibility that it might be the school, and not the kid, that has the adjustment problem -- that “school refusal” might be a perfectly normal and even healthy reaction to the conditions of today’s schools. (Echoes of Peter Gray.) Yes, the author acknowledges that sometimes the school environment needs to change, but she refers to things like “a bully, a bathroom with no doors on the stalls.” How about an environment where learning is seen as “work” that no one would freely choose to do, or where kids have little or no autonomy over what they learn about or how they spend their time, or where “being good” is defined primarily in terms of being quiet and obedient, or where recess is cut back to a minimum and used as a punishment tool, or where education is conceived entirely in terms of one’s ability to score well on standardized tests in math and reading? Given the environment of our schools, I wonder as much about the kids who aren’t “school refusers” as the ones who are.

Am I exaggerating? My kids tell me they like going to school (though they sometimes have their complaints about it, and they never seem sorry to see summer vacation arrive). I know that some good things go on there, and I like the teachers and often think they are doing their best under difficult conditions. Yet there have been times when I have observed my kids in school and seen looks of boredom on their faces that I never thought possible. It seems to me that their happiness in school depends an awful lot on their ability not to think -- not to imagine how things might be different, not to wonder whether there might be more valuable and fulfilling ways to spend their time, not to notice the everyday petty unfairnesses of institutional life, and not to credit their own perceptions and experience. The child who thinks “I’m just not good at paying attention” might actually be happier than the one who thinks “I’m confined to a boring institution.” But is that the kind of happiness I want for my child? And do those have to be the choices?

I don’t want my kids to be malcontents, but I don’t want them to be Stepford children, either. Why is it only the malcontents who are sent to the school psychologist?

I get a stomachache just thinking about it. I may have to go see the nurse.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Platitudes from the President

President Obama gave his back-to-school speech today at Masterman High School in Philadelphia. It was a strange choice -- Masterman is a high-achieving, exclusive school whose students hardly need a pep talk. However, that's what they got.

Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.

Oh really? If you graduate from your fancy college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and there's no job to be had, lots of things will be beyond your reach.

But here’s your job. Showing up to school on time. Paying attention in class. Doing your homework. Studying for exams.

It's insulting to tell hard-working, ambitious, cream-of-the-crop kids that they should show up to school on time. They know that already. That's how they got to Masterman. Even when the President visits a high-achieving school, he's talking to low-achieving kids.

My concern for schools like Masterman is that the kids are working TOO hard at mostly unnecessary tasks and are under too much pressure. But that possibility is never addressed by educrats.

Elephant in the room

Obviously, if your kid doesn’t like school, there must be something wrong with your kid. I mean, what else could it be?

[--From Chris at ABlogAboutSchool]

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reading without Comprehending?

From a teacher's comment on I Hate Reading Logs:

But in school ONE of our requirements in the teaching of reading is to teach the skills of reading. One of the goals of the reading assigned inside and outside of school is to get the students to stop and think about what they are reading (ask questions, make inferences, make connections, understand the author’s purpose and possible bias). As older readers, we do all of this naturally. Most younger readers have not made these skills automatic. They are just enjoying the story ...

...they simply cannot enjoy reading until they have been given the tools & strategies in which to do so.

How is it possible to read without comprehending? Here's one way. I've studied a little German, and I understand the phonetics well enough that if you gave me a German text I could read it out loud and a German speaker would probably understand me. I, however, would not understand most of it, because my knowledge of the language didn't get that far. So I can read, but not comprehend, a German text.

But how is it possible to read a text in a language you speak, without comprehending it? You might be missing a few words you don't know, or perhaps you don't have the needed background (for instance, you might not understand a story about a baseball game if you don't know the rules of baseball.)

But if you speak the language, and you've got the vocabulary and the background knowledge, can you still fail to comprehend the story? I don't believe it. Story telling, and story listening, are innately human and part of life in every culture.

If you watch the brilliant Billy Connolly tell the story of Eggbert and the Knockout Punch (warning: adult language!), you can see how universal story telling is.

Is Connolly a great story teller because he learned how to analyze a story in Language Arts class? When you listen to this story, do you stop and ask yourself what will happen next, or what's motivating the characters? Would you appreciate the story more if you had to write a response in your reading journal? No, no, and hell no.

When Language Arts teachers claim that kids "don't comprehend" what they read, what they really mean is that the kids can't produce the answers that the teacher wants to hear. This is completely unrelated to true comprehension.

Friday, September 10, 2010

E-mail to a First Grade Teacher

Sent today.

Teacher Z -- I was disappointed to read in the newsletter today that you plan to assign homework. I am opposed to homework for young children. In my experience, it causes stress in the family and turns the child off to school, while adding nothing positive to the child's education. I agree with the arguments against homework set out by Alfie Kohn in The Homework Myth and Bennet and Kalish in The Case Against Homework.

If DD wants to do the homework, I won't stop her, but if she doesn't want to do it, or forgets about it, I am not going to bring it up. If she comes home from Extended Day and falls asleep, I'm not going to wake her up to do a math worksheet.

DH reads to DD every night, and has since we brought her home. It is their special time together. If DD wants to read a book from school, that's fine, but if she doesn't want to, I don't see any point in letting school intrude on a family tradition. DD won't keep a reading log, because she's tired by the end of the day when she reads with DH. I'm opposed to reading logs in any case because they take something that ought to be a pleasure and turn it into a chore.

In conclusion, I am no longer a homework cop. I've turned in my badge; I'm done. Please don't scold DD for a decision I have made. If you have any questions just let me know. Thank you -- FedUpMom.

I am beyond sick and tired of this.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Guest post: Don't Sign the Homework (part 1)

From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool:

When I was in school, my homework habits were halfway to abysmal. I had no routine. I worked on the floor, at the dinner table, in my bed, almost never at my desk. I frequently did my homework, as I did many, many other things, in front of the television. (A disproportionate number of my vocabulary sentences involved Mork and Mindy.) If the television demanded my full attention, or if my brother offered to play gin rummy or ping pong, the homework could wait. I didn’t pace myself; I put big projects off until the eleventh hour, then lost sleep to crank them out. I raced through great novels on the day before we had to discuss them. I wrote reports on books I never read; once even on a book that didn’t exist (Up Mount Everest). My performance wasn’t terrible -- I generally did well in school, and I almost never missed a deadline -- but no one would have called me disciplined.

Homework was a pain, the deadlines were sometimes stressful, and in retrospect a lot of it was probably unnecessary busy work. But I don’t remember ever being genuinely bothered by it, ever feeling any real angst over it. The only time homework caused me any emotional turmoil was when my mother would nag me about it. “Did you do your homework?” “Don’t you have homework to do?” She couldn’t help herself, even though she knew it was counterproductive -- the last thing I was going to do, in response to those questions, was pull out the books -- and even though it caused ongoing tension between the two of us. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why I got so upset about it; she might only ask about it once or twice, and she certainly never asked me to show her that I had done it or, God forbid, to let her read it. (I don’t recall showing any of my homework to either of my parents, ever.) Yet I can still feel the agitation her inquiries provoked in me. As I saw it, my homework was my business, and my mother needed to mind her own business.

I look back on that time and I think: be grateful for what you had. I was lucky. My mother’s compulsive inquiries aside, the people who constructed my world -- my schools and my parents -- gave me something that today’s kids aren’t often given: autonomy. I was in charge of my schoolwork. If I succeeded, the success was mine. If I messed up, it was my problem. I was allowed to make mistakes, and to decide for myself whether I regretted them. It’s funny what you learn from mistakes when someone else isn’t telling you what to learn from them. I never did develop good work habits, but I learned my limits. I learned my own ways of doing things. I think it’s served me well, and even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher required her students to have their parents sign their homework before they turned it in. This practice -- which I never heard of as a child -- is apparently increasingly common. I have a number of objections to it, which I’ll spell out in part two of this post. But here, I want to make this one point: The teachers who use this practice may be well-intentioned, but they are taking something from your child. I don’t just mean educationally, though I think learning to manage your own affairs without unsolicited help is important. I mean psychologically and emotionally. Some degree of autonomy over your own life isn’t just an educational strategy, it’s an essential ingredient in human dignity. To take it away is demeaning and dehumanizing, all the more so given that most kids would probably be unable to put those feelings into words. That little island of autonomy in the sea of compulsory education went a long way toward keeping me a sane and relatively happy kid instead of an alienated teenage burnout.

Were my standardized test scores as high as they would have been if I had been made to conform to more conventional study habits? Who knows. Should I care?

Not Again!

So here I was peacefully minding my own business, with the kids happily back at school, when I receive a newsletter from younger DD's 1st grade class:

...Once we know the children’s reading levels, we will begin sending home “just right” books each night for them to read with you and record in their reading logs.

... Homework in first grade consists of up to 15 minutes of reading each night and usually a math page. These should be completed when they come home and returned the following day.

Ow! I sprained my eyeballs rolling them back into my head!

Next: the obligatory e-mail.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I Knew it Wouldn't Work

According to this article from the New York Times, Research Upends Traditional Thinking on Study Habits, it's actually a BAD idea to always study in the same environment.

This comes after decades of that stupid advice to mothers, "set up a consistent time and place for homework", as if that will solve something.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Guest Post: Back to Jail -- Ugh!

From northTOmom at Parenting is Political:

Back to Jail—Ugh!

Between the ages of eight and eleven I kept a diary. Although I like to think I was a fairly imaginative kid, my diary entries are strikingly unimaginative and repetitive. But they are interesting to me nonetheless for one reason: every weekday entry during the school year started this way: "I went to jail, ugh." Throughout the entire course of the diary I never referred to school by any other term. The reason this interests—or rather confuses me—is that I didn't actually dislike school. I didn't love it, I may have been a little bored, but I had several good school friends, and I was comfortable there. My elementary school, and even my middle school were second homes to me. I do not remember experiencing them as places of stress or undue misery.

As I prepare to send my own daughters back to school, I've been reflecting on what a difference two or three decades makes. My daughters are in the throes of back-to-school dread, and for good reason: to them school does indeed feel like a sort of prison. Despite the "progressive," child-centered rhetoric of the last thirty years—rhetoric that is especially prominent in school boards such ours (Toronto District School Board), which pride themselves on their forward-thinking approach to education—I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid. Take lockdown drills, for instance, which every school in the TDSB is required to conduct twice yearly. This is a practice that originated in prisons as a means of containing riots by controlling the movement of the inmates; its adoption by school boards throughout North America is justified by citing hypothetical threats to "security." When my children were subjected to their first mock "lockdown" in grade 2, they were traumatized, their minds filled for days with images of potentially violent intruders skulking around the schoolyard or wandering down hallways. Around the same time, the school implemented new anti-bullying policies and procedures, the literature for which was full of references to "safe" schools. Could the administrators not see a contradiction between the two policies? How is subjecting children as young as four to lockdown drills conducive to creating a psychologically "safe" space? Have school boards ever performed a cost benefit analysis of the practice in terms of psychological harm versus physical security? (When kids get to high school, the "lockdown" effect is in many cases compounded by the presence of armed police officers enforcing "zero tolerance" policies. But that is a subject for another post.)

Today's schools are punitive and authoritarian in a subtler but arguably more harmful manner as well. Without much debate or any overt change in policy, schools have begun in recent years to exert more and more control over children in the most basic, bodily of ways. In the playground there are rules against running, against using the playground equipment in an unapproved manner, against play fighting or roughhousing of any kind. Within the school and classroom, access to the bathroom is even restricted. If a child asks to go to the toilet before or after recess, his or her request is likely to be denied. I witnessed this policy being enacted in a junior kindergarten class a few years ago while I was volunteering in the school library. A junior kindergartner (i.e., a four-year-old child!) had the audacity to ask the teacher if he could go to the bathroom soon after recess. I didn't hear everything the teacher said in response, but I did hear her when she began to yell loudly at the child who was slinking down the aisle toward the nearest bathroom, "No, it's not okay. You know you're supposed to go at recess. You know the rules. It's not okay!" When Michel Foucault wrote about the ways in which the state exerts it power at the micro level, including at the level of the human body, he probably did not have this scenario in mind. But for me, it is a perfect example of the early "disciplining and punishment" of the human soul.

A few more anecdotes to drive home the point, especially the under-acknowledged fact that schools have become more, not less, authoritarian in recent years:

My older brother recently told me that when he was in elementary school—this would have been in the late sixties—a teacher berated him in a manner that he felt was uncalled for and unfair. My brother's response? He simply left the school and walked home at recess. The school called my mother, who actually defended him!

Fast forward forty some-odd years. I picked my daughter up from school one day in fourth grade and upon seeing me, she immediately burst into tears. She'd been feeling physically ill for the final half hour or so of school, and upon arriving home she promptly threw up and took to her bed. I later asked her why she hadn't told the teacher she needed to call home. "It was close to dismissal time," she explained. "The teacher would have said I had to wait."

On another occasion, my daughter had a total breakdown after she accidentally dented her trombone. Even though my daughter considered the band instructor to be one of the "nice" teachers, she claimed he was nonetheless going to "murder" her for denting the instrument. I have rarely seen her so distraught. She cried for one hour straight, repeating over and over again "he's going to kill me." I asked her why she couldn't just tell him the truth: that someone had accidentally bumped into her and the trombone got dented. She looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "I can't just say that, because he's an adult and I'm not, and teachers don't believe kids." I went into the school the next day and talked to the teacher, who nonchalantly told me he'd send the trombone out to be repaired. He even provided another trombone for my daughter to use in the meantime. But I was left wondering whether he would have responded as casually had my daughter actually done the explaining herself. What is it about him, I wondered, or more generally, what is it about school that makes my daughter feel so utterly dis-empowered as a human being?

This, I believe, is the kind of question we, as parents and as citizens who pay for public education, need to be asking not just about specific schools, but about the current culture of public school in general.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kindergarten is the New Military School

Here's an utterly depressing article about kindergarten in the Washington, D.C. area: Surviving Kindergarten. The curriculum keeps getting pushed younger and younger. Daily homework has become the norm for 5 year olds. The author concludes that the tedious busywork her daughter is doing in preschool will at least prepare her for kindergarten.

One "moderate" voice in the article came from Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood. Just for laughs, I went over to the Alliance for Childhood site and found this allegedly helpful article: Helping Your Kids Avoid Stress. Joan Almon is quoted again:

"I always hear about third and fourth grade," she said. "A friend had her twins in first grade last year, and the teacher said, 'I love teaching first grade because the children are so alert and interested in everything. I look across the hall at fourth grade, and the light is out.'

The article is, IMHO, useless, because it doesn't consider the possibility that the school needs to change, and instead gives the usual patronizing advice about avoiding extracurricular commitments.

I know I'm repeating myself, but why do parents put up with this? I'd like to see a parents' strike, where a group of parents announce that homework is completely inappropriate for kindergarten, and they won't do it.

Friday, September 3, 2010

There's Always Money for More Tests

An article in the New York Times, U.S. asks Educators to Reinvent Student Tests, and How They Are Given, explains that the U.S. Dept. of Education is about to spend $330 million to devise new tests. The tests are supposed to involve higher-order thinking skills, while being "computerized" so that they can be taken several times a year (oh joy!). If they're scored by computer, how can they test for higher-order thinking skills?

In a bad economy, there must be a million more productive ways to spend $330 million on education. Our kids spend too much time and energy taking tests already. When will this madness end?