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In Transcendental Mode

Tingley-021 color-1Life is nonstandard.

The current push to standardize “institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages” will never succeed.  Standardization is a goal that dehumanizes people and squelches creativity, and the “heavy hand of bureaucracy makes people powerless, then listless.”

Vaclav Havel, the former Czech activist, writer, political prisoner, and eventual president, outlined his thoughts about trends in Western democracies during a series of speeches in the nineties. "There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another.  ... I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honor one another, just as we are," he says. Havel died earlier this month.

As the year draws to a close, Havel’s words resonated in an unlikely way when I read EdWeek’s list of top ten most memorable curriculum
stories from 2011.  Story #1 according to EW, is  “Multiple ‘Curriculum’ Meanings Heighten Debate over Standards.”  Writer Catherine Gewertz in an article last March begins,  “Calls for shared curricula for the common standards have triggered renewed debates about who decides what students learn, and even about the varied meaning of the word ‘curriculum.’"Vaclav-havel-big

The common standards in English/language arts and math have been adopted by all but seven states.  But exactly how the standards will drive local curriculum remains to be seen.  Some believe that the core standards provide a framework so broad that all states will be able to work within them in their own individualistic ways.  Others feel that common standards imply common testing, which will then require standardized lesson plans and general curriculum.  And, of course, hovering over the entire debate is the question of teacher evaluation and how core standards, core curriculum, and core testing with standardize teacher evaluation and teacher education.

The definition of curriculum, then, is an abstract contender for the world’s biggest ball of string, a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.  States’ rights, federal meddling, unions, politics, RttT, supervision, evaluation, -- and oh, yes, student learning, nearly an afterthought.  The transcendental aspect of standardization that Havel worries about exists on another level, rarely reached in our national discussions about education.  It seems unlikely, then, given the polarization of thought that has taken over our national discourse, that we will see real reform or wholesale improvement in our children’s education any time soon.

Still, insists Havel, the difficulty of changing an entrenched system is no reason not to try. "I do not know whether or not the world will take the path which that reality offers,” he says. “But I will not lose hope."  And I will not either as we begin another year in education.






Classroom Stories

Reindeer ornamentThe third graders were ready for their holiday “how to” presentations.  The teacher had divided the class into groups of four or five, and each child was to show and tell how to make something for the holidays.  Children were to make a poster outlining the steps of the project.  In addition, each child brought enough supplies so that the other children in the group could make the project too.

There were plenty of adults in the room, mostly mothers who had slipped over to school from work to watch or assist their child with materials.  In the group I observed, mothers of three of the four children were present.  The teacher announced that those kids would go first so their mothers could get back to work.  “I’m not going last!” protested Antoinette, the only child without a parent present, but she had no choice.

Child number one showed her group how to make a reindeer ornament.  The others set diligently to work.  The project was clear and simple, but there was a problem with the glue and the popsicle sticks refused to stick together.  Her mother helped with the glue, but the child managed the rest herself.

Child number two’s mother started by telling her child what to do, but very quickly just took over the project herself.  The project was how to put together an instant hot chocolate mix so that it looked like an ice cream cone and required lots of measuring various ingredients.  Mom did a good job.  Her daughter did nothing.

Child number three’s project was how to braid hair.  Mom distributed brand new Barbie dolls to all the children so they could practice on Barbie’s hair.

Antoinette was reluctant to do any of the projects at first but eventually came around.  She couldn’t get the ornament to stick together and eventually gave up.  She dropped the bag of hot chocolate mix on the floor, leaving a fine grit for the custodian.  She was awkward trying to braid Barbie’s hair and basically complained that it was a stupid project and she wished she had a doll dressed in purple rather than pink. 

Finally it was time for Antoinette to present her project.  Her project was how to make a bird feeder out of pinecones, peanut butter, and birdseed.  The poster explained the steps, so Antoinette handed out the supplies, neatly bagged by her mother, and said, “Look at the poster.”  That’s all she said.  Then she set to work making a bird feeder of her own, ignoring the other kids. The rest of the group had no trouble making this project, and they loved slathering the peanut butter on the pinecones and rolling and rolling and rolling it in the birdseed.  There was birdseed on the table, on the chairs, on the floor, and all over the kids.  It was glorious. If Antoinette was pleased, she didn’t show it, but she got the job done.

During clean up, I thought about the teacher’s job in this classroom.  As I observed some of the other groups, similar scenarios unfolded in each one revealing a huge range of abilities, interests, attitudes, and family support or pressure among this class of 22 students.  The teacher’s job was to make progress and find success with each child.

This is what school looks like on the ground, not from 30,000 feet, the fly-over view many politicians have.  Before voting on NCLB renewal or revisions, each lawmaker should spend a little time in a real classroom.  Maybe slather a pinecone with peanut butter and roll it in birdseed.  Tough on the suits though.

Happy holiday, folks!









The Problem with Teacher Preparation Is Not Admissions

Tingley-021 color-1In yet another politically simplistic solution to a complex problem, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad proposed in October that applicants to teacher preparation programs should have at least a 3.0 average.  Under this guideline, one in five prospective teachers currently enrolled in one of Iowa’s 32 teacher prep programs would have been denied admission.

Well, here’s one problem with that idea (besides turning away hundreds of aspiring teachers):  a B average in first year of college doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be a great teacher.  And a C average doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be a poor teacher.  The first few semesters of college aren’t exactly the best predictor of success in life in any venue.  Anyone who’s been to a 20-year high school reunion knows that and so does anyone who has reunited with former classmates on Facebook

More than one politician cherishes the belief that high school must prepare every graduate for the next level of accomplishment.  However, in my experience, some kids who leave school at 18 are still developing into the people they will eventually become.  Those who enter the military, for example, frequently come back entirely grown up after two years of service.  I was often deeply moved (along with my staff) when these young adults came back to visit us at school to show us they weren’t the delinquents some had predicted.  Likewise, high school graduates who attend the local community college have a little time to grow up too. 

Says Iowa Department of Education director Jason Glass, however, “This [teaching] is the most important profession in our society.  We should hold a very high standard.”

High-jump_1024x768_34829Well, sure. But I would submit that the real problem with teacher preparation programs isn’t the standard for admission, but the standard for the work. If the teacher prep program were rigorous enough and focused on demonstrable skills with actual kids in actual classrooms, those who were unsuited, unwilling, or unprepared to do the work would drop out or fail out.  Teacher preparation programs that require students to work assiduously to learn the information, practice the art, and exhibit the skill will turn out stronger graduates.  My experience working with the graduates of some of today’s teacher preparation programs is that “rigorous” is not a word that would describe their studies.

Critics of the Iowa proposal say that it would disproportionately turn away Latino and black aspiring teachers, to me another seriously negative side effect.  College educators are pushing for more flexibility in the guidelines.  Still, if the preparation program itself isn’t outstanding, it doesn’t matter if only students with a 4.0 are admitted.  The problem with teacher education programs isn’t who’s admitted; it’s the programs themselves.


Bubbles and Tins

PresentsIt’s a couple of weeks before Christmas and of course there’s only one check out lane open at the Dollar Store, where I had stopped to quickly pick up a couple of rolls of wrapping paper.  The aisles are narrow and packed with the usual stuff plus all the holiday stuff. I squeeze into place at the end of a line that snakes through wreathes and candy canes and stocking stuffers.  Any holiday spirit I had when I came in is slowly leaching out, and to top it all off the woman in front of me has a cart full of a hundred little things that will take forever to check out. I shift from one foot to the other when she finally begins loading it all on the check out counter, counting and recounting each group of items.  This will take forever, I think, exasperated.  And then the person waiting in line behind me says quietly, “She must be a teacher.”

I look at what she’s buying:  jars and jars of bubbles, a couple dozen card games, packs of pencils, bags of candy – and 25 individual little tin boxes to put it all in plus wrapping paper and individual gift tags.  When she slides her personal credit card through the machine, the total is  $86.91.  She loads the bags into the cart, and clearly pleased with her purchases, prepares to haul them out to her car.

“Right,” I say to the person behind me.  “She’s a teacher.” We smile and the recognition warms us.  Plus I’m next.

As you probably know, educators are allowed to write off $250 on their taxes for educational expenses including classroom purchases.  Some may argue that bubbles and tin boxes aren’t exactly classroom purchases, but they would be wrong.  And I’ll bet that like many teachers, this teacher has spent that much already and won’t be able to claim the $86.91 anyway. 

Next August if you stop in one of those school stores that caters primarily to teachers, you will see what I mean.  The store will be filled with educators buying extra materials for their classrooms or maybe offices – posters, prints, puzzles, etc.  In some cases, they will be buying classroom essentials – chalk, boxes of crayons or pencils, tissues, boxes of glue sticks.  So keep in mind when you visit a classroom that not everything in there was paid for with tax dollars.  Some of it came out of our “overpaid” teachers’ pockets.  Holiday gifts are an extra bonus for the kids.

So I hope that teacher, whoever she was, will accept my silent apology for being impatient before realizing that she just wanted to make her students’ holidays a little brighter. I hope her students and their parents appreciate her extra effort and expense.  And I hope her students’ parents remember her for the holidays as well.



Reading More with eReaders

Tingley-021 color-1Are you thinking about getting an eReader for someone as a holiday present – a student, another adult, or maybe even yourself?  Then you might be interested in a recent Harris Poll that looks at the reading habits of those who have eReaders and those who don’t.

In a nutshell, the survey of 2775 Americans found that people with eReaders purchase more books and actually read more. 

In the general population, 2 in 5 Americans (40%) read over 11 to 20 books a year.  About one in 5 (19%) reads 21 or more books.  Among those with eReaders, however, 36% read 11 to 20 books, and 26% read over 21 books a year.

Poll results show that 21% of Americans say they haven’t purchased a book over the past year.  Only 8% of people with eReaders say they haven’t.

Pollsters admit that the sample is too small to claim real change, but insist that the numbers nonetheless reveal a trend towards changing reading habits.  Critics say, for example, that people with eReaders may download more books than they actually read and that in fact their reading habits remain the same as they were before eReaders.  However, over half of eReader respondents say they read more now than they did before while over half of non-eReader users say they read the same as they did earlier.

Ereader boyI’ve always been an avid reader, and I love my eReader.  Here’s what I love about it:  When you finish a book, you don’t have to make a trip to the library or Barnes and Noble to get something else (particularly the next book in a sequence), nor do you have to wait a few days for Amazon to deliver.  Instead, whatever you want to read next is downloaded in minutes.  This is how I managed to stop everything else for three days to read The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.  When I finished The Paris Wife, I could go directly to A Moveable Feast to compare the two points of view.  And it’s a lot more convenient on a long flight to travel with one slim eReader than the entire Stieg Larsson trilogy (of course, you need to turn it off when the flight attendant suggests so you’re not an eJerk).

How young is too young for an eReader?  Hard to tell, but I’ve seen kindergartners use them, and some, of course, are made specifically for kids.  Maybe if you can read a book you’re ready for the e-version.  The survey, of course, focused on adult respondents, so we don’t have any data on kids.  It would be interesting to see if using the eReader encouraged kids to read more.


















A Little Holiday Humor

 “I have to do a presentation next week, “ said the third grader.  “How should I start?”

“Well, right at the beginning, you want say something interesting and exciting – something that gets everybody’s attention,” I said.  “How about, ‘Alo, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die!.’”

She looked at me.  “I’m going to show how to make a reindeer ornament,” she said.

“Well, in that case,” I said, “You could just say, ‘Good morning.  Today I’m going to show you how to make a reindeer ornament.”

Inigo-Montoya-the-princess-bride-inigo-montoya-8197486-400-300She thought a minute. “How about, ‘You killed my father.  Prepare to die.  But first I’m going to show you how to make a reindeer ornament.’”

“Yeah, that might work,” I said, hoping she was just kidding.

It’s that time of year again.  The holiday season is filled with joy, but as people who work in schools know, “joy” and “fun” aren’t exactly the same thing.  Schools are in holiday mode albeit within relatively proscriptive guidelines regarding what to say, what to draw, and what to sing.  Today there are more guidelines on how much time kids can take away from the test-driven curriculum to devote to the holidays.  Still, creative teachers are figuring out ways to cover the curriculum by embedding it with holiday tasks that still meet the state standards.  “Fun with a Purpose,” as “Highlights for Children” calls it, which to many kids means it’s not really that much fun but at least it’s something different.

Still, there’s lots to do within the next couple of weeks.  Besides their regular school work, somewhere kids and their teachers are preparing for the holiday concert.  Somewhere kids are selling wrapping paper and candy as a school fundraiser.  Somewhere high school kids are planning a holiday ball.  Somewhere middle school kids are having bake sales to raise money for presents for needy families.  And teachers everywhere are looking for volunteers to help out with holiday parties and hoping that the principal doesn’t choose the last week before holiday break to do an impromptu classroom visit and evaluation.

So in an attempt to keep the fun in less funding for the holiday season, I offer the little clip below.  Not as funny as Inigo Montoya, but pretty good.





Collateral Damage from RttT

Tingley-021 color-1Let’s say you’ve had several student teachers over your career, some of them with the potential to be great teachers and some … maybe not so much.  But you do the best you can with every one of them because you like working with young prospective teachers and you think you’ve got something to offer them.  You also believe that part of your professional obligation is to work with the next generation of teachers.  So you take your share of student teachers – maybe more than your share – and it’s always rewarding when they’re finally ready to solo for a few weeks.

But that was before your students’ test scores were part of your own personal evaluation, maybe even part of your merit pay program.  So now, when your principal asks you to mentor another student teacher, you pause for a moment to think about it.  You’ll lose time with your students.  Oh, sure, at the beginning you’ll be there in the room watching the student teacher, so you can eventually re-teach any lessons that are not really ready for prime time.  On the other hand, you do at some point have to allow the student teacher to teach by herself if only for a couple of weeks to see if she can manage a classroom without your being there.  You’re sure it will be fine … but what if it isn’t?  What if turning over your class to a beginner means your students miss more questions on the test this year?  And let’s face it, working with a student teacher takes time away from your usual preparation.  So should you still agree to take a student teacher?

In Tennessee some educators are saying no.  Some are refusing to take student teachers to comply with new district policy.  Williamson County, for example, has decided to prohibit student teachers from practicing in high school subjects that have state exams at the end of the year.  The district also recommends that principals ban student teachers in grades 3-8 as well, or at least not allow them into the classroom until after standardized tests.  The Tennessean reports that even in schools where student teachers are permitted by the district, principals and teachers are deciding not to accept them. Future_teachers_of_america_sticker-p217423964308489013z74qp_152

In Tennessee 50% of a teacher’s evaluation is based on test results.  Teachers can lose tenure if they score
poorly two years in a row and can receive tenure only of they score at the top for two consecutive years.  Schools of education in Tennessee are distressed over this turn of events, but for teachers, practicality trumps altruism and you can hardly blame them.  The decision not to work with prospective teachers is, of course, short sighted, but you can’t blame classroom teachers for not taking the long view.   Blame state legislators.

It’s collateral damage from Race to the Top.  Tennessee teachers may be among the first to try to protect themselves, but they certainly won’t be the only ones.  In the meantime, what happens to the preparation of future teachers, particularly when the trend has been towards greater practice time in the field before graduating?  Maybe in a few years state legislatures will regret their knee-jerk reactions to improving classroom teaching and revert to more valid and realistic evaluation plans.  Maybe they’ll discover that frontloading the system by improving teacher preparation is a better solution than draconian evaluations.  Or maybe they’ll discover that state test results should be part of a teacher’s final evaluation -- but just a small part.  





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