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So Only Middle Class Kids Can Learn?

Tingley-021 color I was the principal of a very large, poor, rural elementary school for a few years.  We can debate about which is worse, urban poor or rural poor, but suffice it to say that some of our children came from generations of poverty.   During my first ride around the school district I saw that people lived in houses I didn’t recognize as houses.  The school was 20 miles from the nearest town and the first time many of our kids went there was on a school field trip.  I learned a lot from Ruby Payne.

I used to stand in the main hall and greet the kids every morning as they got off the buses.  I remember vividly one morning in December when lots and lots of kids came running in the building wearing brand new sneakers that they couldn’t wait to show me.  The sneakers were gifts from the local Lions Club at their annual Christmas party for kids.  They could hardly believe their good fortune.

Many of the faculty, mainly women, had grown up in the general area, had gone away to the nearest state college, and had come back home to teach.  Maybe it was because they were from the area.  Maybe it was because they often married working men without a college education.  Or maybe it was because it didn’t occur to them to even think it.  But never, in the years I was principal, did I ever hear a faculty member say that the kids couldn’t learn because they were poor.

The district’s motto was, “All children can learn.”  We were fortunate to have innovative leadership at the central office, people who were willing to support new initiatives in the classroom as long as it was economical.   And one big benefit I had as principal was a social worker who did outreach from an office in the school.  Teachers cared, put in the time it took, and achieved success.  Never – and I mean never – did anyone use poverty as an excuse when a kid failed.

Currently, however, it has become fashionable for educational pundits and union leaders to cite poverty as the main reason for lack of student achievement.  State legislatures in Alaska, California, and Indiana have even taken action to punish poor parents if their kids don’t do well in school.  Republican State Representative Kelli Stargel of Florida, for example, introduced a bill requiring parents to spend three hours a semester volunteering in their child’s school.  The bill, thankfully, failed, but Stargel noted,  “Teachers were telling us, ‘We can only do so much in the classroom. We have no control over what happens with these kids at home.’”

Well, when DID teachers have control over what happened at home?  News flash:  Never.  The teacher’s job is to do the best she can with the raw material that enters her classroom.  If she can’t help a kid make progress unless the kid comes from a middle class home, the teacher is in the wrong school district.

Representative Stargel also thought it would be a great idea if teachers could grade parents on their parenting skills and post their grades on the school report card.  See below for a few teachers’ take on that interesting suggestion.

Poverty is not a quick fix.  Improving teaching and leadership isn’t either, but it can be done is less time than it will take to make all kids middle class.  In the meantime, it’s hard to understand why someone would accept a paycheck for work they say can’t be done – helping poor kids learn. 


Twitter Makes You Stupid

“TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss,” tweeted NY Times editor Bill Keller.  “Give a little credit to our public schools!” was one response.  “Nuh-uh!!” was another.  In the end Keller concludes, “Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.”

Keller gracefully argues that the new technologies may be eroding useful parts of our brains like the capacity for reflection, empathy, and a sense of community just as the invention of the Gutenberg’s press reduced our ability to memorize huge quantities of prose.   Keller’s concern, he writes, “is less about the cerebrum than about the soul.”

Keller has reason to be concerned, I think.   “Digital writing,” writing using a computer or other device Computer and kid connected to the web, is the technology terminology du jour.  A new book by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl at the University of California, Berkley, suggests that schools need to focus on communication through integrated media, required in college and later in a student’s career.  And tech savvy teachers report they are integrating film, visual aids, and other multimedia techniques into their students’ reports and stories with great success.

The other day I wrote a about the capacity of kids to understand that different media have different rubrics.  I do not think that tweeting or texting or using multimedia or “digital writing” will make our kids stupid.  My concern is that the technology alone cannot take the place of thoughtful reflection and analysis and cogent reasoning.  Giving second graders iPads to write stories will not magically make them better writers and thinkers.  (Remember the pictures of members of Congress tweeting during the President’s State of the Union address?)  The technology, however, may encourage kids to write and they may have a lot more fun in the process.  And they will be particularly pleased with their final product if the teacher has taken the time to work with them on the critical thinking skills necessary to produce writing worth reading.

BAM In other news, I had an interesting radio interview yesterday with Rae Pica on the BAM radio network.  The topic was,"Are parents different now from the way they used to be?" Pica seemed convinced they were,and wondered what advice I would have for teachers.  The other interviewee was Lenore Skenazy, of "free range kids" fame.  Not so sure we had a lot in common, but it made for interesting conversation. I'll let you know podcast time. 









What We Can Learn from Horse Poop

Tingley-021 color It’s field trip season and I highly recommend that principals get out of their offices and get on the big yellow school bus to go with the kids and their teachers for a day.  (The school can run without you for a day, and if it can’t, you’ve got real problems.)  A day with the kids will give you a greater appreciation of what real life kids care about and how their teachers work with them everyday.  And it might remind you why you went into education in the first place.

I was asked to help chaperone the second graders when they went to Colonial Williamsburg a couple of days ago.  A trip back in history!  Artisans and craftspeople plying their trades!  Original costumes and a wealth of information about our country!

We had a wonderful day, but the history of the place kind of escaped most of the kids.  What did second graders like best about their trip to Colonial Williamsburg?   Squirrels, hills you could roll down, and poop.  Colonial Williamsburg 2 They were delighted with the horse poop in the streets, and they speculated loudly to one another about whether there could be 300-year-old poop in the jail latrines that once housed Blackbeard’s pirates.  Second graders first thought it could be – gasp! – 2000 -year-old poop, but their teacher reminded them that Colonial Williamsburg depicts a settlement from the 1700s, not from the Pleistocene Era when dinosaurs walked the earth.

To pique their interest in the various arts and crafts being demonstrated, the kids did a scavenger hunt (“Find someone wearing a white wig.  Find a way people traveled besides by foot.  Find the stocks and try them out!”)  They ran around without whining, complaining, or hitting anyone, and basically a good time was had by all.

Colonial Williamsburg The following day I accompanied a class of preschoolers to Colonial Williamsburg.  They were immediately
interested in the wooden barrels that serve as trashcans and the gravel in front of the palace (“Michael!  Stop throwing stones!”).  And, it goes without saying, they loved the horse poop in the streets.  They did the nursery rhyme tour, reciting “Baa Baa Blacksheep” at the farm and “Jack Be Nimble” at the candlemaker’s shop.  At the well they recited “Jack and Jill,” and lying on their backs in front of the palace, they pretended it was night and sang, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  They petted the horses and threw bread in the pond for the fish.  Another wonderful day.

Were these the most educational field trips I’d ever seen?  No.  Did I love every minute of kids asking silly questions, touching things, running through the grass, squealing with feigned disgust (horse poop again), and just being kids?  Yes.  Every so often teachers and administrators need to see kids in their natural habitat, which is not a classroom with books, papers, and tests. It helps keep us grounded and it helps us make better decisions when we remember what kids are really like.



Lighter Look: Tweets, Blogs, and Real Writing

“Errors in punctuation in your memos or reports can make you look stupid,” I tell my graduate students.  “Or at least less intelligent than you are,” I add, thinking I had perhaps been too harsh.  “Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s the way it goes.” It’s even worse, I add, with blanket emails because usually no one proofs them but the computer and you can easily ignore the red and green underlines.  Hit the send key and it’s gone.

I tell them (again) about faculty rooms in which the principal’s memos are posted on the bulletin board with errors circled in red pen and caustic remarks written in the margins.

I used to have my students read Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, but the humor escaped most of them.  I don’t find signs that say,  “Apples’ 89¢/lb.” amusing either, I guess.  But what really gets to me is the current idiotic use of quotation marks.

On the menu is the Friday night special:  “Fried shrimp.”  So it’s not really fried shrimp, but you just call it that?  (It’s actually fried cardboard, but we call it [ha ha] “fried shrimp.”)  Also on special is “Bud Light.”  (Wink wink.  We call it that but it’s really Old Milwaukee.)

The overuse of quotation marks can also be seen in the writing of those who want to appear excruciatingly erudite.  As one principal wrote to his staff, “Please bring a dish to pass at the end-of-year faculty party.  We can all “let our hair down” for one night!”  (I just want you to know that I know we won’t literally be unpinning our hair as some can’t even do that; I know it’s just a figure of speech.)

Unless it moves And don’t even get me started on its and it’s or whose and who’s.  It’s a contraction, stupid!  It’s = it is.  Who’s = who is.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me turn to my current read, Roger Rosenblatt’s Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing.  A much more tactful and witty professor than I am, Rosenblatt takes us through a writing course that he teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook.  Students explore and examine the art, perfect the craft, and share what they’ve accomplished with the help of their professor.  Their questions are both profound and simple, and Rosenblatt pushes them to think about what writing is and how the various forms of writing differ.  It’s a slim volume that you want to read slowly, and he eschews telling his students they will look “stupid” if they can’t punctuate properly.

I am not one who worries that tweets, texts, emails, and even blogs will turn our kids’ brains to mush and make them unable to write.  There is, after all, a difference between writing to communicate quickly and writing to make you think thoughtfully and critically.  Each form has its own rubric.  But traditional prose requires that you punctuate well.  And I don’t mean “well.”


 ••On a far more serious note, a quick update:  Teacher Sean Lanigan appeared on the CBS Tuesday Today show (see Monday’s blog).  He’s been transferred to another school so he can “start fresh” according to the school district.  He noted that he’s in therapy and trying to get his life back in order.  A cautionary tale for every school person. and some suggest an impending lawsuit against the district.



Reputation at Risk

Tingley-021 color Every school person who read with a shudder the story in Sunday’s Washington Post about teacher Sean Lanigan probably thought, there but by the grace of God ….

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Lanigan, a Fairfax County physical education teacher, was accused of molesting a 12-year-old student.  The incident occurred, the student said, during free time in gym.  Lanigan, a respected coach and married father of three, was found innocent in a jury trial, but the damage to his reputation and his career is lasting.  In addition, he incurred legal fees of $125,000 that the school district has refused to cover. 

At his trial Lanigan described his physical contact with the girl:  “I scooped [her} up by her knees, put my hand on her back, just spun her around, ‘whooo,’ and put her down.”

According to the Post, after his acquittal, the district presented him with “guidelines and expectations” regarding physical proximity to students.  “Do not touch … students as a means of greeting, playing with, showing approval of, or otherwise interacting with them,” the guidelines state.  “Do not be alone in your office with them ….”

Ahhh, helllloooo?  It took something like this for the district to come up with guidelines for its teachers and, one assumes, administrators?  Nobody thought of this before?

We don’t touch the kids, especially older kids.  You should not be alone with kids, any kids, in a closed space with no windows.  Coaching situations (as well as any other after-school activities) need to be carefully monitored.  One of the first things I do in every new position is to make sure all administrators have large Apple windows in their offices.  I remind teachers every year to use good judgment in their interactions with kids.  No after-school work behind closed doors.  No dropping kids off in your personal car after school.  I once sent a student teacher back to his college because he was buying candy bars for a tenth grade girl and giving them to her after school.

So maybe a teacher is just an enthusiastic, compassionate person who just wants to physically show his or her affection for kids.  Use words.  Use appropriate words.  In my years as a school administrator I’ve known a few people who like to hug kids or pat them on the back.  Some of that behavior is innocent, some of it is not and frankly some of it is ambiguous.

Sean Lanigan was found innocent, but his reputation is ruined.  His district is not so innocent in ignoring situations that allow a teacher to be vulnerable.






Reforming Teacher Preparation Programs

The director of student teaching at the local state college calls my office a couple of days before school starts in the fall.  Would we take a few more student teachers?   She has lots of elementary education students (way more than will ever get jobs).  And do we have any math or science teachers (especially physics)  who would want a student teacher?

Student teaching The director knows we take more than our share of student teachers because that I believe it’s part of our obligation to the profession and a chance to influence the next generation of teachers.  Besides, I think that the teacher who agrees to take a student teacher learns something too while she is serving as an example and a mentor.  She needs to be able to explain her plans, her decisions, and her judgment.  She needs to be able to offer cogent and specific suggestions to the beginner.  Having a student teacher is real work for a good master teacher who takes her responsibility seriously.

But at best the student teacher process is haphazard.  Coordination between the college supervisor and the master teacher is rare.  Placement depends on the good will of the  school.  Master teachers may receive vouchers for college courses, a small cash stipend (and I mean small), or maybe nothing at all. The college supervisor appears in the classroom maybe twice during the semester and seems to barely know who the student is. 

Schools hire about 200,000 new teachers every fall.  By the following summer 22,000 have quit.  Another 60,000 leave after three years, and by the end of 5 years nearly half of the original hires have left the profession.  Two years ago Arne Duncan referred to the nation’s nearly 15,000 colleges of education as “mediocre.”

A report sponsored by the National Council For Accreditation (NCATE) last year calls for teacher education programs to make field service the most important aspect of training.  The report pointed out that currently programs are long on theory and short on practice.

There are, of course, teacher training programs that work better than the ones I worked with.  Some use the school as a field center and coordinate training between professors and practitioners.  Others treat the classroom like a lab, conferring adjunct status (and pay) on participating teachers.  Still, in many cases, what should be the culminating experience for a teacher in training turns out to be catch as catch can.  And frankly, even under the best circumstances, a semester of practice just isn’t enough to prepare teachers to be effective in the classroom.

As teachers retire, new recruits will take their place.  Without reform of teacher preparation programs as well, sustained change seems unlikely. 



Local Schools and Teacher Evaluation

Tingley-021 color If you want to reform teacher evaluation in the worst way, don’t involve local teachers and administrators.  That’s the worst way I can think of.

With the focus on school improvement, teachers and administrators have a rare opportunity to work together to improve instruction using common language and common understandings regarding what constitutes a good lesson.  As a practitioner, here’s what I think would improve teacher evaluation:

A state mandate:  A mandate means it has to be done, so there’s no point in whining about it.  It’s simply good practice.

A reasonable timeline: States like Ohio, New Jersey, and Florida are guaranteed to have difficulty in implementing new protocols in the short timeframe they've chosen.  It is hard to understand why, when teacher evaluation is so important,taking the time to do it right takes a backseat to doing it quickly.

Technical assistance:  Teachers and administrators have a terrific opportunity to work together and learn together about the art and craft of teaching.  If they can agree on a common vocabulary and on characteristics of a good lesson, the entire operation is elevated.  Teachers know what to expect when the principal comes into the classroom and principals know what is expected of them.

This is where technical assistance from the state education department or state boards of education or consultants comes in.  These are the folks who can provide information, programs, prototypes, and research for local schools so they all don’t have to do it alone.

Funding:  Did I mention that the mandate should be funded?  Because learning the new protocols will take time, and time is money.  Teachers will need to be paid to work outside the regular school day, or substitutes will need to be paid if teachers are taken out of the classroom to work during the regular day. Schools also   need money for materials (like books by Danielson, Marzano, and Reeves) and for training.  Not everyone has an improvement grants or RttT funding.

A simplified, timely way to remove ineffectual teachers:  Once protocols are agreed to and put in place, it shouldn’t take years to remove an ineffective teacher and it shouldn’t cost thousands and thousands in lawyers’ fees and salary paid to the teacher while he or she is sitting at home waiting for the hearing. 

KidsReading No value added at this time:  Value added is proving to be a can of worms.  While I agree that students’ test scores should be a part of teacher evaluation, no one yet has a firm understanding of how the metrics would work.  Researchers are calling for longitudinal data and caution about the margins of error.  Then there are those who want to somehow quantify demographic characteristics, an idea that, I think, has dangerous implications for education.

Professional educators rarely take the principle of Occam’s Razor to heart:  the simplest solution is often the best solution.  When I compared all the second grade teachers’ test scores, for example, it wasn’t hard to tell which teachers over a 3-year period had generally excellent results and which had generally poor results. I know that isn’t technical enough to satisfy critics, but it certainly provided a basis for discussion.

For many schools putting in place teacher evaluation protocols that everyone understands and accepts will be a rigorous task even without value added.  Why not get the first part right and then add test scores when we have a better handle on what they mean?

We have an opportunity to work together to improve instruction.  The opportunity will be lost by ignoring local input and efforts and instead relying on a top-down, one size fits all approach.






Code of Silence

When Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel, so the story goes, she learned that there was an ongoing problem of women being assaulted on the streets at night.  Her cabinet ministers had the solution:  For the safety of women, the government should impose a curfew for them at sunset.  The Prime Minister responded:  “Why should the curfew be imposed on women?  They are not the problem.  Impose the curfew on men.”

Golda Meir This story resonated with me because at the time I was attending a college where women had “hours” and men didn’t.  In other words, female students had an evening curfew; male students did not.  The administration justified its position by saying that it needed to “protect” women.

That blatantly sexist attitude towards women wouldn’t be acceptable today -- the blatant part, that is.  But protecting women by curtailing their rights remains what some still consider a "common sense," even chivalrous solution to keeping women safe -- or unable to compete on a level playing field.

If you saw Lara Logan’s gut wrenching and gutsy interview on 60 Minutes last Sunday, you had to be struck by her sheer courage not only in doing the work she does, but also in breaking the “code of silence” for women reporters.  As Kim Barker explains in her piece published simultaneously in Pro Publica and the NY Times, women reporters have long endured sexual harassment, sexual threats, and sometimes even assaults as they do their jobs as overseas reporters.  Still, she writes, “I would never tell my bosses for fear that they might keep me at home the next time something major happened.”

Closer to home we have the shameful and equally gut wrenching stories of sexual harassment and attacks that Lara-logan-2 some of our female soldiers have had to endure in addition to putting their lives on the line for our country.  The difference between them and female reporters, of course, is that the sexual threats for our military women come not from enemy combatants, but from their fellow soldiers.

Every time these kinds of awful things happen, one knee jerk reaction is to curtail women’s rights to participate in dangerous situations “for their own safety.”  I understand this; as a mother myself I know how hard it is to let your daughters take risks (and your sons too).  Things don’t always end well. Hearts are broken. People get hurt and even killed.

But … making your own choices for good or ill always trumps having to let someone else make them for you “for your own good.”   Curtailing women’s choices starts small, from praising little girls in school for “sitting quietly” to continually whining about Title IX to dividing class activities into boys’ teams and girls’ teams.  We need to keep firmly in mind a motto of the Wellesley Women’s Center:  A world that is good for women is good for everyone.


Modern Family Time

Tingley-021 color The seven-year-old camped out overnight with her Girl Scout troop.  “Man,” she said, “we weren’t allowed to bring any electronic stuff.  It was tough.”

I can imagine.  OK, not really.  Not at seven anyway.  Although I wouldn’t go anywhere overnight without my computer and my phone.

It’s no longer unusual to see families sitting together at the same table in a restaurant while each person, kids included, is checking his or her phone.  We know the statistics about the importance of families eating together, but does this really count?

“Family time” may be in the process of being redefined.  There are some families, according to the New York Times, who insist that having everyone in the same room, even if each person is fully immersed in his or her own reality on the screen, is a kind of family togetherness.  After all, they say, now and then someone will look up and say, “Wow.  Look at this.”  Advocates also point out that it’s better for parents and kids to be in the same room together instead of everyone in his or her own room, making it easier to parents to monitor what their kids are doing.  They have a point with that one.

In addition, it’s not as if every family dinner is a quality experience.  We may long for the days of yesteryear Kid texting (when was that exactly?) when the dinner hour was time for polite, interesting conversations regarding everyone’s day.  I don’t actually remember a lot of those moments either as a kid or as a parent.  What I remember is squabbles between siblings, complaints about the food, refusal to even try a bite of something, and on occasion someone being sent from the table in tears.  That was as a parent.  I remember family meals when I was a kid about as fondly as I remember having to say the rosary as a family during Lent while all the other kids were outside playing Kick the Can because the family that prays together stays together.  I used to envy my friends whose families got to eat off trays in front of the TV.

But the seven-year-old, who looked at the picture of the family in the Times, each with his or her own tech device, said, “You know, you can do both.  Talk and text.  Or talk and play on your computer.”

“You think so?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “When me and my sister and Mom and Dad play Guitar Hero we don’t have to talk about it.  We just do it.”

No point in bemoaning how technology is ruining family time.  It is what it is, an integral part of life, and that includes family time.







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