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Playing Sports for Love or Money

Before I start let me admit to my long held prejudice about sports writers:  I think they know how to write.

As a kid growing up before Title IX, I read all the Duane Decker books (Good Field No Hit, Rookie at Third Base), much to the chagrin of my school librarian who told me they were books for boys.  As a teacher I regularly added sports books and articles to my reading lists. 

Today I read the back page of Sports Illustrated for the clear thought and rich prose by Riley, Roberts, and Byron_Nelson_505 others.  My nephew, an Ohio sportswriter, makes me feel less bad and less isolated about the Browns, the Indians, and LeBron James when he puts it all in context and in images that are direct and strong.

Somehow none of this rich literary tradition influences the large talking heads on ESPN, but it’s a different, more immediate, and much less cerebral medium.  Much less.

So I just finished The Match by Mark Frost.  The Match is a best-ball contest between two legendary pros (Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson) and two brilliant amateurs (Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi).  You don’t have to be a golfer yourself to appreciate the event.  Frost knows how to tell a story and how to make characters interesting and human.  The match takes place during the emergence of the PGA tour as a way that a golfer might actually make a living, opening the game up to poor kids as well as the wealthy, who could afford amateur status and who could play for the prestige of the win and the love of the game.

Here’s Frost’s final observation about the legendary match:

No four men will ever play such a match again.  No four men like these.  The genuine way they lived their lives makes most of today’s fast and frenzied sports and entertainment culture seem like so much packaged goods, a self-conscious, unauthentic hustle…. Some green, untested souls might be tempted to wonder why one should still care, but none of us are here forever, we’re not even here for long, and if it’s true that our collective past exists inside all of us, unless we take time to bear witness to the best of those who strived before us, our chance to learn from their lives will be lost forever, and we will be poorer for it.

Do we need to reach back over 50 years to find sports heroes for ourselves and for our kids?  Probably not.  But it’s a little trickier today to find them and a little easier when their careers are completed and there are no surprises.  

For additional thoughtful consideration of youth and sports, I also recommend George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, a story one reviewer called “the ugly side of youth basketball.”


The Best Gift Is Something You Do Not Know You Want

Arlene and I got along pretty well between suspensions.  She was always respectful, always polite, and always excruciatingly honest.  When something good happened, like maybe passing a biology test or getting to school on time every day for a week, she’d stop in my office to let me know.  When something bad happened, she’d be sent to my office where she’d sit sullenly until I could see her, and then, as usual, she’d be excruciatingly honest.

Christmas apple I don’t know how many times I suspended her for one infraction or another.  It was usually for disrespect, skipping school, or being under the influence.  Her mother fiercely defended her every time something happened. One time, before she was suspended indefinitely, Arlene came to me to say that she bought something from a kid at school.  “Listen, “ I said, “you know if you tell me that you bought an illegal substance, I’ll have to call the police.”  “Yeah,” she said, and then she pulled the stuff out of her backpack.  I called the police.  The police came.  Her parents came.  Their lawyer came.  The police were unsure the substance was illegal, and her parents were certain it wasn’t.  The parents agreed to counseling.  The intermittent suspensions continued.

When she stole some equipment from the chemistry lab, I finally had to take her to a hearing, required by state education law when a suspension is longer than 5 days.  Arlene admitted stealing the equipment and even explained what she intended to do with it. And that’s when (finally) the parents agreed that she needed to find a placement for drug rehab.  And you know what?  Arlene was OK with that.

That was 15 years ago.  Last week Arlene contacted me on Facebook.  Married almost 10 years.  Three kids, she says, and a great husband.  Working as a paraprofessional.  Living in Texas.

“I’ve thought of you many times, “ she wrote. “You were a good influence on my life.”

What a gift for the season.






Check the Box for Tenure

OK.  I’m naïve.  An innocent. 

New_york_city_metroscenes.com_94 After 25 years as an administrator in New York State, I thought all – or at least, most -- administrators made recommendations for tenure carefully, thoughtfully, even painstakingly.  Knowing how hard it is to remove a tenured teacher, I thought most of my colleagues worked hard to keep the best and deny the rest.  I’ve even blogged about a couple of mistakes I made over 25 years, wishing I could retract my recommendations for tenure.  I wrote about how I wouldn’t rehire for a third year a teacher who had been with us for two if I didn’t think he or she would meet the standard for tenure in another year.   Rewarding or denying tenure, I thought, was one of the most difficult and important decisions an administrator has to make.  After all, tenure, despite what some say, is basically appointment for life.

Well.  It turns out that administrators in New York City really didn’t have to bother themselves with all this angst.  All they had to do was check a box on the computer screen and voila!  Tenure is granted.  Who knew it could be so easy?

So now Mayor Bloomberg, always on the cutting edge, thinks it would be a great idea to have principals maybe evaluate non-tenured teachers.  He thinks maybe teachers should be rated at minimum “effective” in a couple of areas (like “instructional practice” and “impact on student learning”) before being recommended for tenure.  And principals will even have to write a couple of paragraphs supporting their recommendations for tenure.

“I don’t like the extra paperwork involved,” one principal is quoted as saying.  “But the reality is, it’s needed.” 

The union, of course, is predictably unenthusiastic.

I’m not sure how principals are awarded tenure in the City, but I’d be surprised if it looked any different.

How in the world can you expect outstanding instruction for the kids in New York with a system in which all a teacher has to do is survive three years without doing anything wholly untoward? Last year in New York 6400 teachers were eligible for tenure; 6166 received it.  Amazing.  Almost 97% were so effective they can be guaranteed a job for life as long as they stay under the radar.  Ms. Black will be perfect.






How Long Does It Take to Change a School Culture?

Last May when everyone was hired back at Central Falls in Rhode Island, I asked in a blog post whether the school would look different in three years.   Well, it looks different already, and not in a good way.

I said three years because in my experience, it takes at least that long (and probably longer) to improve a Central Falls RI school’s culture, and that’s only with good leadership, strong support from the board of education, family involvement, and a willingness on the part of the staff to be part of something better. 

Now we hear that things are worse than ever.  Absenteeism among teachers has spiked, and many of them cite stress as the reason.  Some have resigned. Teacher issues, as always, have filtered down to the kids, who are now acting out the way kids do when parents divorce and the usual structures begin to disintegrate. 

In a timely and provocatively titled report “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” researcher David Stuit of Fordham tracked over 2000 low performing schools from 2003-4 to 2008-9.  What he found was that roughly 80% of those schools were still low performing five years later, leading researchers to posit that it might be better to just close those schools from the get go.

The philosophy so far in Central Falls seems to be, “The beatings will stop when morale improves.”  Teachers, of course, have responsibility for the education of their students, but they have a valid and important point when they say that the focus has been on them to the exclusion of everyone else who bears similar responsibility for the failing school. 

It would take exceptional efforts and exceptional people working together to change the culture at Central Falls.  If culture change was challenging last year, it seems nearly impossible this year as the situation has worsened.  Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has suggested (or perhaps threatened) closing the school.  Looking at the current situation in light of Stuit’s research, it’s clear that things can’t continue as they are and we’re not even half way through the academic year.  Is there a lesson here in this painful experience?  I certainly hope so.


Ashbridge: Why Cutting School Librarians Is a Mistake

Penny wise and pound foolish.

That’s the best way to describe the recent move among schools to save money by cutting school librarians and/or reducing funding for school libraries. The actions of school boards and administrators across the country shortchange our students and our society as well.

A school library in each and every school, staffed by a professional and certified librarian, is critical to the education of our students. We cannot expect to have an informed citizenry if we neglect to teach our students to think critically and evaluate the information that inundates them daily.

Library Significant and extensive research, led by Keith Curry Lance and his team, proves over and over that school libraries have significant impact on student achievement.  More than sixty studies, beginning in Colorado and expanded to twenty-two other states, clearly document that school library expenditures are a key predictor of academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests scores. Other key predictors are the amount and level of library staffing, the size of the collection, and the time the school librarian spends in direct instruction.

The school library of the 21st century is not a book warehouse. It’s not confined between four walls and entered through a single door. Instead, it’s a portal to information, print and electronic, on site and off.  It’s the specialized classroom that teaches skills for the adult world.  Students learn to access information, critically evaluate it, and communicate it to others.  They are introduced to books that excite them to become lifelong learners and readers.  As Laurie Halse Anderson, renowned young adult author and spokesperson for the American Association of School Librarians, says, “ A school without a library is like a school without a roof.”

A professionally certified school librarian is critical to the goal of ensuring that students are effective users of information. The librarian is trained to be a curriculum, technology, and information leader in a school. The librarian interacts and collaborates with ALL staff and students. The librarian is a teacher of information literacy, creates pathfinders and web sites, and introduces new technologies to her school. The librarian builds a collection of resources that supports the curriculum. A librarian who is excited about reading and literature imparts that excitement to students. The librarian helps build the foundation for student success in school and in life. When you have a school library without a school librarian, you just have a room --  not a program.

Administrators and school boards need to realize that cutting school libraries and school librarians will be counterproductive in the long run.  Pound foolish.  And maybe, given the research, not even penny smart.

Carole Ashbridge has been a school librarian for 35 years and is active in state and national library associations.



Who Is Writing Those College Papers?

OK, be honest.  Did you ever cheat in high school?  How about college?

Whether you did or didn’t  (or will admit it), you have to read “The Shadow Scholar” by Ed Dante, a pseudonym for a person who claims to have written thousands of pages for undergraduates, graduates, and professional studies students.  He’s written both theses and dissertations and taken courses on line -- all, of course, for a substantial fee. 

Dante’s story is disturbing and cynical, but it’s also fascinating.  Here’s an excerpt that got my attention:

… it's hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I'd say education is the worst. I've written papers for students in elementary-education programs, special-education majors, and ESL-training courses. I've written lesson plans for aspiring high-school teachers, and I've synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I've written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I've completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)

Pen Of course this “writer for hire” lays the blame for the epidemic of dishonesty at the feet of college professors who blithely ignore the fact that a student who cannot articulate a cogent argument or who may not even be fluent in English can nonetheless commit to paper an essay that is well-reasoned and literate.  Professors counter that they have too many students or that yes, they recognize the fraud, but they can’t prove it.  As for the cheaters themselves, it’s stress, laziness, or ineptitude that “made them” cheat.  Ethics apparently has nothing to do with it.  (The comments are worth reading, if predictable.)

I’m not going to bemoan the obvious here.  Instead let me just say that it’s pretty disturbing that, according to Dante, future teachers and administrators can’t write well enough to feel confident about handing in a paper.  From years of reviewing teacher notes to parents before they are sent home, however, I’m not completely surprised.

Most of my graduate students in education administration are not proficient writers when they enter the program.  They are, however, when they leave.  Their professors will not allow them to be otherwise.  But I always wonder about their undergraduate training and yes, their high school preparation.  How could they have gotten this far and not be able to express themselves clearly on paper, following the usual conventions for written English?

We still do a poor job of teaching writing.  We still think that kids need to do a 25-page research paper when they can’t even do a clean 2-page paper, and they don’t understand the difference between research and plagiarism.  We teach mechanics as a stand-alone.  Writing is an “event” rather than a daily tool.  The expectation is that it’s going to be a chore, a joyless experience because that’s the way a lot of teachers approach it.  Maybe it was for them.

Still, someone taught Dante to write, and taught him well.  Too bad the writer was absent on character education day.


Too Bad So Sad: Education Is Serious Business

There’s no crying in baseball. 

And there’s no laughing in education.

A few years ago when I wanted to publish a humorous book about dealing with difficult parents, I looked around for an educational publishing house with a sense of humor.  Luckily I found Cottonwood Press, which not only published teaching materials that were helpful and kid-friendly, but which also published a few Icon definitely quirky and funny takes on education (the “No Child Left Behind Blues CD,” for example, and a few tongue-in-cheek “wanted” posters for teachers).  The chief editor and publisher also played the accordion, so it was only natural to also produce a CD called “Polka Therapy,” which featured a couple of teenaged girls singing the lyrics to the polka, “Whatever.”  My book was a fit.

Cottonwood has recently been purchased by Prufrock, a fine and serious publisher.  Their materials are thoughtful and helpful, but there’s nothing in their catalog you can polka to.

Education is serious business.  If you don’t think so, just look at the Sunday New York Times or any edition of Ed Week.  Ever see Randi Weingarten tell a joke about teachers?  Can you imagine Diane Ravitch or Deborah Meier gasping with laughter?  Do education publications run humor columns or cartoons?  Does Arne Duncan polka?  These, my friends, are grim times that call for grim analysis.

The irony is that working with kids in schools is mostly a joy (which is why the written humor that does exist can be found in a few books written by classroom teachers about their experiences). There are the joys of watching kids learn to read or problem solve or change bad habits.  There are the joys of watching a wayward kid graduate or get into college.  There are the joys of watching kids grow and realize their potential.

But in addition to the joys, there is outright laughter and endearing silliness.  Jokes.  Ridiculous answers.  Goofiness.  Stories that make you smile.  In every good school there’s laughter in the faculty room and even, if you’re lucky, during faculty meetings.

So surprise!  Education in the field is a lot of fun even though you’d never know it by listening to the national news or reading the education blogsters (myself included). 

So I am delighted to share with you today a little rare educational humor that's funny without being snarky and will make you feel good about being in education.  It's  by slam poet Taylor Mali, and it was shared with me by a colleague who, I think, still knows how much fun school can  be.






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