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Fun at the Department

If Dante were alive today, one of his circles of hell would have to be your boat getting stuck in Disney’s “Small World” ride and having to listen to “It’s a Small World After All” for all of eternity. 

So I guess we should be thankful that callers to the Department of Education who are put on hold will listen to “Conjunction Junction” from Schoolhouse Rock instead.  It’s catchy and clever, but only if you’re on hold for just a minute or two. 

Still, “Conjunction Junction” is certainly better than the elevator music we usually get when we’re on hold, interspersed with a cheery voice telling us how important our call is to them even if it doesn’t seem like that. 

ROCKY  Department Deputy Chief of Staff Matthew Yale says that “Conjunction Junction” is just one sign that “fun at the department is back.”

If that’s the case, let me make a few suggestions for songs that would promise even more fun while a caller is on hold.  For starters, how about “The Wheels on the Bus Go ‘Round and ‘Round” sung by local kindergartners?  There are hundreds of songs to choose from on Sesame Street, but I’d stick with the perennial favorites, “One Two Three Four Five” and “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.” 

For boomers who call (and are placed on hold), there’s “It’s Howdy Doody Time” and the Mickey Mouse Club song (“Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me?”).

There are so many other ‘fun” options:  music from Saturday morning cartoons (“Here I come to save the day!”), music from “High School Musical” or “Glee.”

But the MOST fun for callers would be …… if someone answered the phone immediately.













Teaching Civility

Lana Taylor is a veteran principal at a large middle school.  Her student population is 80 – 85% military or military related.  It’s situated right outside the gates of Fort Drum, a large military installation in upstate New York.

She was speaking to a group of administrative interns on the topic of diversity.  Her student body at the middle school is made up of students from many cultures, states, and countries.  Before the base expanded a few years ago, the population of the county was overwhelmingly white, so Lana has become, over the years, an expert on “diversity.”  She is known throughout the area for her many school activities that feature diverse customs, ethnic foods, and different languages.  She works hard to accommodate the needs of military families and to make her school a safe harbor that celebrates differences.

Diversity_Matters_photo_without_wording__  Today she wanted to talk about diversity’s partner – tolerance.  “What I’ve seen over the years, “ she says, “is an increasing lack of simple civility.”  National “discussions,” she points out, have become shouting matches with little regard for facts.  Students watch and listen and begin to think that that’s how matters are resolved.

As Kate Shuster notes, “We live in a climate ripe with noise.  Media outlets and 24-hour news cycles mean that everyone with access to a computer has access to a megaphone to broadcast their views…. It’s difficult to hear anything when everyone has a microphone.”

Teaching Tolerance, suggests Lana, offers teachers a thoughtful curriculum on Civil Discourse.  The curriculum teaches students the difference between an opinion and an argument, the three parts to an argument, and the four-step refutation.  Teachers who would like to use real debate in the classroom can follow the steps suggested in the curriculum.

Lana has been an educator for 40+ years.  She began her own education in Kansas when schools were still segregated and made the long journey to where she is now.  She's been teaching tolerance for a lifetime.


Student to Student

The largest employer in my area is the military base with 27,000 military and military-related persons associated with it.  Children of military families attend local schools; almost 85% of students in the district closest to the main gates of the base are from military families.

The school liaison officer reports that military children move an average of 9 times during their school career.  Needless to say, both the social and the academic aspect of a student’s life can be tenuous for these kids.

It’s difficult for any student to transfer to a new school.  Leaving friends and having to find new ones and Militaryfamily   become accepted all over again is tough on all kids.  Children of military families have the added stress of parent deployment, and some of their moms and dads have seen multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Our local schools have learned over time to do an outstanding job of working with military families.  One of the programs adopted by schools with the greatest number of military families is called S2S (Student to Student).  The program is sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition, and its goal is to help transitioning students become quickly assimilated into the new school culture with the help of peers.

Other schools have implemented similar programs, and quite a few have adopted Rachel’s Challenge.  These are programs that help all kids be more accepting and tolerant, but we need to be particularly attuned to the needs of our military families.


It’s all about texting. 

That’s what the Pew Research Center discovered last week in a survey of teen cell phone users.  The Center found that teens are more likely now to text friends than to call them or meet face-to-face.  Here are some interesting statistics:

•75% of 12 to 17-year-olds now own cell phones.

•72% of all teens text; 88% of teen cell phone users text. Text_Messaging_200  

•One in three teens sends 100 texts a day.

•Older girls text most.

•Seven of 10 parents with cell phones say they text their teens.


Regarding  cell phone use at school, here is what kids say:

*12% of students say they can have their phone at school at any time.

*62% say they’re allowed to have the phone at school, but not in class.

*24% say their school bans cell phones on campus, but 65% say they bring them to school every day anyway and 58% say they text during class (there’s something to think about).

Personally, I love texting.  It’s quick, it’s efficient, and it’s convenient.  No more telephone tag.  As I’ve mentioned before, I learned to text from my 5-year-old granddaughter and now use it regularly with adults as well.

Of course, various social observers worry that kids will be unable to socially interact face-to-face with others because of their reliance on texting.  Most of our current politicians grew up without texting.  Practice in personal interactions doesn’t seem to have led to particularly civil discourse.  That ought to put people’s minds at ease.













Forecasting Charter Schools

Ten years ago Jan Hammond and I published an article called “Competitive Strategy for Public School” in Education Week.  Jan is the chair of the Education Administration department at SUNY New Paltz.

 “Imagine the options that may be available for children in 2010,” we began.  Here are the choices we foresaw:

Charter technology schools

Religious schools

Charter cultural/ethnic schools

Home schools

Public school with university collaboration

Private industry charter schools

Crafts/apprentice charter schools

Local public schools.

The reality, we said, was closer than people thought.   Chicago_charter  The point of the article was that public schools would no longer have a monopoly on education and to survive, they must learn to compete more successfully.

Well, we were half right.

In ten years we’ve seen a proliferation of charter schools, each with a different focus.  Yet the NY Times reports that charter schools are a mixed bag in terms of success.  According to comprehensive studies over years the majority of the 5000 charter schools nationwide appear to be no better than local public schools in terms of student achievement.  In some cases they are worse.

We were wrong about competition among public schools, unless you include RttT.  When we wrote the article, what we had hoped to see was that students would have a choice among many strong, focused schools.  Ten years later, there are more choices, but they don't seem to be much better than they were before.

Hail Virtual High

Several years ago my school district was part of a consortium of districts to institute distance learning.  The impetus for distance learning was the local community college. 

I was (and still am) a member of the board of trustees of the college, and the trustees felt that distance learning was a win-win for the college and for the local schools.  The college would offer courses to students at their high school at roughly one-third the cost of taking the same course on campus. High school courses might even be offered from one school to other local high schools.

Distancelearning  Local teachers were less than excited about the prospect.  They had two concerns:  losing jobs and being forced to teach students from other districts.  In the end, no one lost a job because of distance learning, and hardly any courses were offered school-to-school.

The upside to DL is that it allowed students inexpensive access to college courses.  Another big advantage was that the DL room had other uses, like allowing elementary students to take virtual trips to other sites – the Bronx Zoo, the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii, the Holocaust Museum.  The down side was that the DL costs were substantial.

Distance learning was the forerunner to online courses and virtual schools.  Wisconsin and Oregon, states that at first capped enrollment in virtual schools, are rethinking their positions.  Online courses are cheaper, but quality is harder to monitor.  Students who take online courses need a fair degree of self-discipline or an adult to monitor their effort.  Teachers worry about loss of jobs and districts worry about loss of funding that is tied to enrollment.

But it’s another step along the technology highway.  Change is inevitable.  DL rooms will be dismantled and students will expect to take courses online.  Caps will be lifted and some kids will stay home, roll out of bed, and log on to English.  Others will still want the high school social life.  Understandable.






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