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The Tom Thumb Brigade

Patrick Heagerty was a Civil War buff, and every year he entertained his eighth graders (and himself) with stories of the Tom Thumb Brigade. On Tom Thumb day, Mr. Heagerty would bring in “artifacts” from the Brigade, which was, he said, completely composed of hundreds of little people.  He would show the students the tiny canteens, the little rifles, and very small plates and cups from the “mess kits” the brigade carried with them during the Civil War.

The Brigade was a great addition to the Union Army. “Oh, they were stealthy!” Mr. Heagerty said.  They were so little they could slip around enemy lines completely undetected. A grateful President Lincoln even invited General Tom Thumb and his little wife to a reception at the White House.  Here Mr. Heagerty whipped out the famous picture of the little couple with the President.Tom-thumb  

The students were fascinated.  History came alive! The only problem was, none of it was true.  Oh, there was a Tom Thumb, P.T. Barnum’s greatest side show, and he and his wife did visit the President at the White House, but there was no brigade of little people.  And the “artifacts” had been picked up as novelties at a Civil War conference.  Mr. Heagerty never told his students it was all a joke, and if any student looked askance, another student would say, “Oh yeah?  Well, what about the little rifle?”

What made me think of all this was the Texas School Board’s recently released history standards.  Some suggest that maybe the way to reconcile the very conservative views of the Texas board with the work of real historians is to present both sides of a “controversial” issue (Education or Indoctrination?). Students might be mature enough to find their own truth. 

There are a few problems with that idea.  First of all, some of the issues are “controversial” only in the minds of the Texas school board.  Secondly, complex issues have more than one “side.”  And thirdly, kids tend to believe what their teachers tell them.  After all, what about that little rifle?




Another Voice: Lisa Parsons - Show Me the Carrot

I recently finished reading Daniel Pink's book Drive.  As an administrator in a residential facility for at-risk youth, I've been thinking about how I could incorporate what science says can be effective in motivating the learners I work with.

My students live on the far end of the reluctant learner continuum.  Most don’t have the supportive home environment research recommends for school success.  These are Teflon kids who never bought into the scratch and sniff sticker rewards of primary school.  The frustrations of not learning literacy skills onCarrotsgross pink-1   schedule with their peers lessened their ability to be compliant while they moved along on the conveyor belt of our factory model education system.

Before working in a residential facility, I worked with kids with similar issues in public school.  I felt strongly that all students were entitled to learn and regularly told my students that no one has the right to interfere with the learning of others.  But, hey, wait a minute --  doesn’t our present day school system interfere with the right of these at-risk kids to learn at their own pace, in their own way, on their own time? Haven't we taken away what Pink calls their “autonomy” for learning?  It’s one of the concepts Pink contends works as an effective motivator.  Pink's view is that autonomy isn’t independence, but choice and interdependence.  Isn't this what all our 21st century learners need?

Cornell professor Kirabo Jackson suggests that "paying for grades,” may work with some high school kids.  My experience with kids in residential placement suggests  that extrinsic motivators don’t work.  Instead, maybe we should ask the kids what they know, what they want to learn, and where they want to go.  Let's think about how we can put them in the driver's seat for their own learning.  Add to that a teacher’s personal investment and maybe we could actually make a difference -- one kid at a time.


Capturing Future Customers

Colorado’s Jefferson County Schools, the largest school district in the state, will allow First Bank of Colorado access to its students in the form of advertising on its buses, on its website, and in every high school gym.  Company promos will be made during varsity sporting events. For access to the district’s 84,000 students and their families, the bank will pay $500,000 over four years. 

School bus ad  It should be noted that Jefferson County Schools aren’t the only ones that are trying to close their budget gap by allowing various businesses to advertise on buses.   Another half-dozen states including Florida, Tennessee, and Texas also allow advertising on school buses and other states are considering it.

Some have joked that maybe the district could raise even more revenue by requiring teachers to wear uniforms with the Nike logo.  Or maybe they could wear Pizza Hut hats and aprons so that everyone has equal access to our kids’ developing ideas.  And the naming possibilities are endless:  Exxon Middle School.  Lysol Elementary.  Honda High.  Kids will surely learn that if these companies and their products are “endorsed” by our school, they must be good, right? 

One has to wonder where exactly that additional revenue will be applied. Salaries?  Benefits?  Even materials and supplies aren’t worth it. This is the kind of attitude that elevated Ronald McDonald to his beloved status among elementary kids – right below Santa Claus. 

We’re supposed to be helping kids develop into lifelong learners, not lifelong customers.




Looking for References

Reference-eles  Over the past few weeks I’ve gotten several requests for letters of reference from teachers whose jobs have been eliminated or cut to half time in a district where I once served as an administrator.

At this point in time, no one knows how state aid to education will finally play out.  The Governor, involved in numerous scandals, no longer has (if he ever did) the power or charisma to move the budget process along.  The state legislature, memorialized in the noted “Send in the Clowns” cartoon last year, lacks the leadership and the courage to act.  Speculation about when a state budget will be actually adopted is wide open.  In the meantime, districts find themselves planning for a worse case scenario based on early estimates of reduced state aid.

While state government officials dither, teachers are worried about how they will make ends meet.  Most of them have over 10 years’ experience in the district.  They started families and bought houses based on the understanding that they would have jobs to pay for them.  They are competent.  They never expected to be looking for new jobs at this stage of their lives.

Of course and unfortunately, they are not alone.  They’re just a microcosm of what many teachers are facing nation-wide.  It’s not just teachers in turnaround schools who are losing their jobs; it’s teachers who have worked hard with good results.

A few weeks ago I said I wondered how things would go in Central Falls, the Rhode Island turnaround school from now until the end of the year.  Last week a teacher there was fired immediately for hanging in effigy an Obama doll.  That unsettling lack of judgment will certainly make getting a letter of reference a little harder.


I sometimes think of teaching as “Showtime!”  You choreograph the lesson, you practice it, you collect your props.  You make your entrance on time and you capture the students’ attention. The show is exciting and funny; the audience is engaged.  When it’s over, everyone applauds.

In your dreams.  Oh, I choreographed, practiced, and collected my props.  I was prompt.  Sometimes the show was smart and entertaining, sometimes only modestly so.  Sometimes not at all.  Applause was scarce, even after a boffo performance.Tony_danza  

Well, a Philadelphia high school has become the setting for a real showtime performance. Tony Danza of “Who’s the Boss” fame is teaching a high school English class for a new reality show called "Teach."  It turns out that teaching every day, even only one class, isn’t as easy as he thought it would be. “As a first year teacher,“ Danza says, “you don’t always know what you’re talking about.  Sometimes you look like a jerk.”  His candor is engaging.

Six months into the gig, Danza’s instructional coach noted that at first the actor relied more on performing than teaching.  After a while he realized that teaching isn't exactly improv, and he began to prepare for class, recognizing that he was responsible for his 10th grade English students learning something about Julius Caesar and To Kill a Mockingbird.   After a successful class, Danza says, he feels like he “just scored on Broadway.”  After a not so successful class, he says he’ll “just be sick.” 

I never watched Danza's show unless I was stuck on the treadmill at the gym and it was in rerun on the only TV I could see.  It was one of those shows you could watch without headphones, and even mute you could tell what was happening.  So I surprise myself by actually looking forward to seeing "Teach" when in finally appears on A&E, partly because the actor committed to this class for the entire year and partly because he readily admits the job requires more effort, skill and time than he ever thought it would.  





The Silver Bullet

When I was a middle school teacher my principal had the habit of leaving handwritten notes in teachers’ mailboxes when we had done something worthy of praise.  The notes were always short and specific:  “Great job on the spelling bee” or “I appreciate the work you did on the curriculum committee.”  I always kept my notes in my desk drawer, but some of my colleagues taped themLone Ranger to filing cabinets or tacked them on bulletin boards near their desks.  Everyone, even the burn-outs, appreciated his notes, and he went out of his way to find positive things to say about all of us.  It made us feel that he was paying attention to the small things we tried to do to improve kids’ lives. Leaving those notes enhanced his image as a leader who had a vision of what the school should look like. It was like the Lone Ranger leaving behind a silver bullet.

I remembered the warm feeling those notes gave me when I became a principal myself.  I always carried a notepad with me when I did walk-throughs so I would remember some small detail of a classroom visit for a follow-up note.  And I noticed that some teachers still taped them to file cabinets near their desks.

Verbal praise is always appreciated, but written praise is more powerful.  Of course, the converse is true:  Verbal criticism is painful, but written criticism can be even more so.  Another principal I knew also left written notes in teachers’ mailboxes.  He would fold them in half so they looked like little tents.  “Oh, no,” teachers would say to one another.  “I’ve been tented.”  His notes tended to say things like, “Remember to keep all the shades in your room even” or “Students should remain in their seats until the bell has rung.”  I never saw any of those notes taped to file cabinets.

Written classroom observations are further proof of the power of the written word.  Despite a generally positive review of a lesson, teachers will dwell on the one line of criticism or suggestion for improvement.  I know; I did this myself.  Even when I was a principal, while my annual review from the Central Office was 98% positive, I’d focus on the 2% and agonize over what I needed to do to improve.  Knowing this reaction to criticism, as a principal I always met with the teacher first and talked about what I had seen in the classroom before writing anything down.  Teachers could be assured that nothing would appear in the written document that wasn’t talked about in the post-observation conference. 

I know we’re busy, but a quick, positive, specific one-line note can make a person’s day.












Last week the school board met to discuss closing the elementary school my children attended years ago.

It was an outstanding neighborhood school at the time.  The kids got plenty of personal attention.  After school there were intramurals, art classes, musicals.  There was an elementary orchestra.  The principal taught an accelerated sixth grade math group.  The kids could walk to school.  We felt lucky that we were able to send our children there.

Of course, that was years ago.  Today the district is suffering the pains of tough economic times likeCourage  everyone else. 

At the board meeting emotions ran high as they nearly always do when a school board contemplates closing a school.  Some of the attacks on board members were personal.  The board president, a 70-year-old former high school teacher well-respected in the district, was committed to allowing everyone to have his or her say. Tempers flared, and a security guard had to be summoned.

Finally, the board president called for a vote.  It was unanimous:  All 9 board members voted to close the school.

It isn’t easy for a board member to sit in the line of fire and then make an unpopular public decision.  It requires courage and courage takes its toll.  In addition, between cuts and contentious contract negotiations, tension at board meetings has been high since last summer.

Shortly after the vote, the board president collapsed.  She had suffered a heart attack and died a few minutes later.  The Syracuse Post Standard reports that Pat Mouton, President of the Liverpool School Board, was known for her love of children.





Kody the Elephant

Kody the Elephant is a paper elephant about 5 inches tall who has spent the last week with me.  Kody has gone with me to the grocery store, to the ski slope, to the bank, and to my office.  A couple of days ago he went with me to give blood. 

In every venue I took a picture of Kody with my cell phone so I could email it to Michael, a developmentally delayed student in Ohio.  Here’s Kody in our backyard.  Can you believe the snow?  Here’s Kody wedged between a couple of grapefruit at the grocery store.  At the ski slope Kody wanted to tube instead of ski, so here’s a picture of him atop the inner tubes.  At the Red Cross blood donation center, I gave blood so sick people could use it and Kody gave blood so sick elephants could use it.Kody the Elephant  

Silly?  Sort of.  But Kody’s teachers and aides tell me Michael can’t wait for the day’s picture and email.

Kody is the brainchild of Michael’s special education teacher and his aide.  Michael is severely disabled and doesn’t speak.  He doesn’t have a lot of interaction with others at school besides his teacher and his aide, and he hasn’t traveled much outside of school and home.  So engaging him via Kody has resulted in a rare show of interest in other things and people.

When Kody leaves me in a couple of days (I’ll say good-bye and email Kody’s picture back to Michael), someone else in another city will have the tiny elephant as a guest for a week.  By the end of the year Michael will have traveled to lots of cities thanks to his creative teacher, his aide, and a few friends scattered around the country.  This school initiative costs nothing and only requires commitment by a good teacher to her kids.  And a 5” tall paper elephant.

38 Minutes for Print

A recently released Kaiser Foundation survey finds that young people ages 8 to 18 spend seven hours and 38 minutes using media in a typical day.  Of course, that’s outside of school.

Those hours break down as follows:

• 4:29 for television

• 2:31 for music/audio    

• 1:29 for computers

• 1:14 for video games

• 38 minutes for print

• 25 minutes for movies

The survey indicates that some of this participation occurs simultaneously (whew!).

Headphones  The survey results, released in major newspapers including USA Today, indicate that daily book readership remains steady at 47% since 1999, but only 35% of kids say they read magazines daily (down from 55%).  Only 23% say they read newspapers daily, a drop of 20% from ten years ago.

Vicky Rideout, the director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Media and Health says that electronic media is “part of the air that kids breathe.” 

Rideout isn’t quite sure what it all means, but notes that “anything that takes up this much time, we really do need to think about it and talk about it.”  Especially since the survey indicates, according to USA Today, that the more media they use, the less happy young people tend to be.  Still, it’s kind of a “chicken and egg” thing:  Do unhappy kids use media more or does using media more make kids unhappy?

The survey results raise lots of questions, including whether it’s actually possible for kids to spend this much time with media even if some of it IS simultaneous.  Also, if the results are accurate, schools that fail to integrate technology into the classroom are depriving kids of “part of the air they breathe.”  And I have to admit that I’m wondering how a high school student manages to take care of all his/her homework in the 38 minutes allowed for print. 









Paying for Grades

I don’t want to believe this, but it turns out that paying kids for grades may actually work in some cases.

High school kids in Texas were paid for passing Advanced Placement exams.  A long-term study showed that these kids not only had better GPAs, but also more of them went to college, performed better, and Dollars  were more likely to earn their degrees.  Minority groups were most affected by pay-for-grades, with African-American kids 10% more likely to go to college and 50% more likely to graduate than previously.

Cornell professor Kirabo Jackson, author of the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, thinks that paying kids to for grades gives them practical, tangible results that make their studying easily explainable to their less academic peers. 

The cost of the program was about $200 per student. 

Cynics (including me) would say that paying kids for grades is inherently unappealing in that it undercuts the idea that some things – like learning – are inherently valuable and worthwhile.  And I have long disliked the idea of paying kids to do what they should be doing anyway, from making their own beds and taking out the garbage to paying attention and behaving themselves in school.

So what to do with the results of this study?  Well, first of all, I do have to wonder about the applicability of these findings.  Kids who take AP classes are fairly motivated to begin with, and we don’t know whether kids who wouldn’t have taken an AP class signed up for one when they learned about the monetary reward for passing.  More interesting to me would be the long-term effects of paying not academically able kids, but underachieving kids to attend school and pass their courses.  I still object to the idea on principle, but if it worked, it would be a lot less expensive and much more simple than NCLB or RttT.





Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.