About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Welcome Back, Ferris

Yeah, I couldn't resist.  Clever and referential to one of my favorite "education" movies. 

Keeping Kids in School

Tingley-021 colorIn his State of the Union address, President Obama urged legislation requiring all students to stay in school until they graduate or until they turn 18.  A handful of states already have such laws, but for most states the age of compulsory attendance is 16.

In New York State, where I spent my administrative career, the law was modified a few years ago so that students could not simply quit school as a birthday present to themselves on the very day they turned 16.  Instead, the new law required them to remain in school until the school year ended.  Students I knew who officially dropped out at 16 had actually dropped out academically and emotionally years before that.  It seemed unlikely that we would be able to cajole them or even force them to stay for even a day beyond 16, and frankly, we didn’t have the resources to drag them back to class if they refused.  Many of them were so far behind in amassing credits for graduation that even two more years wouldn’t allow them to walk across the stage and receive a diploma.

Poor attendance was just a symptom of a dearth of compelling programs that made kids want to stay in school until they had acquired the academic and emotional skills to be out on their own.  Our programs for at risk kids have been woefully inadequate; in 2009, six million young adults were neither enrolled in school nor had a high school diploma according to a report by Jobs for the Future, an organization that works to develop Graduateseducational opportunities and job skills for young adults.  Six million.

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of states are encouraging students to graduate early by offering them scholarships to for college. The move is controversial and financially driven.  State governments who base school aid on enrollment see the initiative as a way to save money; school districts see it as a loss of aid.  Students who want to graduate early and get on with their lives are grateful for scholarships, but some worry that students may be academically ready but not mature enough to be successful on their own.  Still others note that the initiative is an incentive for students on the high achievement end of the spectrum, but offers little to students ready to drop out as soon as they can do so legally. 

What all of this tells us is that we need diverse programs for diverse student populations.  We need more high schools partnering with their local community colleges so that students can begin the transition to post-secondary education seamlessly and  sooner.  We need technical centers that provide both training and academics so that all kids have choices.  We need more work study programs so that kids can see practical applications for the skills they are learning in school and maybe earn some money at the same time.

The real tragedy about school reform is that the focus and the money have been spent on tests and evaluations of the current system.  Imagine what we might have done if the focus had been on developing programs to meet kids’ needs.


The New Literacy

It’s a formula.  The first sentence is the thesis sentence.  The next few sentences give reasons to support the thesis.  The last sentence sums up what you already said and transitions into the next paragraph.  Each of the following paragraphs is devoted to expanding upon the reasons to support the thesis.  Each follows the same format.  The last paragraph sums up and/or restates the thesis according to the formula.  Repeat depending on the length of the assignment. (Even reading this paragraph is boring.)

 “As a writer, it [the formula]  offends me deeply,” says Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University. 

Me too.  Especially when the formula frequently produces paragraphs like this one and hundreds just like it:

“Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers.  Their families didn’t like one another.  They accidentally killed themselves.  In the end their parents were sorry they were star-crossed.”

Davidson has written a new book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  The book focuses on teaching writing in digital times.  Davidson is a proponent of moving away from the old pre-technology literacy, including the dreaded 20-page research paper, into a new literacy that embraces short papers, websites, PowerPoint, and blogs.

I have no problem with high school or even college students abandoning the research paper.  I stopped assigning it years ago, and as an administrator encouraged the English department to give it up too (with not a lot of success).  It’s the rare student who can refine a topic, gather pertinent research, come to her own conclusions, and present the whole argument in clear, cogent, lengthy prose.  Researchpapertable-main_Full

In addition, time management is always a problem.  No matter how many weeks a teacher gives her students to complete the paper, no matter how carefully she monitors their progress, many will try to slap the paper together in the last few days.  The time crunch leads to papers rife with ignorance, mechanical errors, cutting and pasting, and plagiarism, which now must be dealt with as a disciplinary issue.  No thank you.

This is not to say that I believe we should abandon all formal writing and replace it with student blogs.  Students can practice thinking and writing in shorter traditional formats.  But as Matt Richtel notes in his excellent article in Education Life, choosing to have students write either traditional papers or blogs is another false dichotomy for which educators are famous.  Students can actually do both, and teachers can choose from a panoply of formats.  Still, even in my doctoral courses, I found that blogging is often more about self-expression and less about actually thought, the literary equivalent of the difference between “The Bachelor” and “Downton Abbey”.  But it doesn’t have to be, Richtel notes.  While blogs are “a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression,” [they] can also be well-crafted and meticulously researched,” he says. On her blog Davidson herself says, “My larger point is that ‘blogs vs term papers’ is a nonsensical binary.  There are good and bad ways to use blogs just as there are good and bad ways to use term paper or any other assignments.“

One big advantage blogs have in teaching writing is that the audience is greatly increased from just the teacher to all of the students’ classmates and maybe beyond.  In addition, blogging is interactive, and many students don’t trouble themselves to criticize gracefully.  So publishing written work in any form is a strong impetus to revise and correct.

This is an interesting time to be teaching writing.  So many choices, so many ideas.  And the teacher doesn’t have to drag a 10-pound briefcase home every weekend filled with samples of sorry writing.



OMG, What Is Up with the Ghost?

Tingley-021 colorIf you believe, as I do, that writing helps you think and that reading helps you write, then you may be as amused as I am at some recent developments in teaching both.  I say “amused” so I don’t have to overreact with words like “aghast” or “appalled” or “repulsed.”

It seems that reading the ridiculously watered down and frequently inaccurate Cliffsnotes versions of the classics takes too much time and requires too much effort, so the company has produced short videos (about 7 minutes) of six commonly taught Shakespeare plays including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and MacbethCliffsnotes Films are co-produced by Mark Burnet, whose production credits include “Survivor” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”  You can see the logical career path.

Let me give you an example noted in EducationLIfe of just how accessible Cliff has made Hamlet, for example.  Here’s the original:

Gertrude:  Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted

            colour off,

            And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark…

Here’s Cliff’s translation:

Gertrude:  So turn that frown upside down!

You don’t even have to know the original text in Romeo and Juliet to get the full impact of Cliff’s version:

Juliet:  OMG, that was like so hot.

            Let’s totes get married.

Romeo:  I’ll get a priest.

Pretty amusing, right?  I say “amusing,” of course, instead of “shoot me now.” 

Hamlet-colorCliffsnotes have been around since 1958, and I’m not going to pretend that none of my students ever used them while I was teaching high school English (not in 1958, of course).  And I understand that companies have to evolve to survive (see Kodak).  Cliff is now an action figure who calls the public library the “Fortress of Bookitude.”  In addition, the company also offers notes on every subject, including math and foreign languages.  I should point out that it’s much harder to dumb down those two disciplines than it is literature.

Still, if you remember ShrinkLits (Seventy of the world’s towering classics cut down to size), you know that publishers have never been able to resist the urge to reduce great literature to a McNugget.  ShrinkLits, however, were pretty clever and didn’t pretend they would prepare you for the unit test.

Here’s the opening of the ShrinkLit version of Beowulf:

“Monster Grendel’s tastes are plainish.

Breakfast:  Just a couple Danish.”

Here’s King Lear:

“Daughters three had aged Lear,

Two were rotten, one sincere.”

Some students have always looked for a way to reduce literature to a simple plot, a couple of characters, and maybe a theme (not what the author was trying to say, but what he said).  But we read literature to think, to open our minds, to reason, to understand how the world works.  That’s the teacher’s challenge.  Thanks a lot, Cliff.  Like totes useless.


Later this week:  Modern writing instruction.


Modern Parenting

“Delightfully obscene,” says Newsweek.  “Incredibly appealing,” says NPR.  “A parenting zeitgeist,” says The Washington Post.

So I read it and decided I must be neither cool enough nor hip enough (or perish the thought, young enough) to understand how any of these accolades for Go the **to Sleep by Adam Mansbach are justified.  Still, I have to admit that I can see its appeal to certain cool and hip self-indulgent parents, the kind who righteously wheel those hydraulic strollers bigger than a small car into a crowded elevator, smashing everyone else up against the walls.  The kind who let their kids run wild in restaurants because they’re sure everyone is charmed by them.  The kind who give a two-year-old a reasoned explanation about why she can’t crayon on the walls and then let her do it anyway.  The kind who are afraid to tell their kids not to pull the leaves off the plants in the arboretum so they tell them the guards will come and get them if they do it.  That kind.  But I digress.

My new granddaughter was born last week, and her parents received a copy of the book as a baby gift from some cool, hip friends who are not themselves parents.  It seems like a lot of money to spend for a book that will never be read as a bedtime story to a little one snuggled up next to you, although it turns out that you can get an audio copy read by Samuel Jackson.  An audio version? Would parents listen to it in the car? This is the kind of book that parents will read once when they get it and then put it away someplace, hopefully not on the baby’s bookshelf. Go to sleep

Forget for a moment the book’s trope.  The book is a one-trick pony and the verses are clunky.  Some scan only forcibly.  The graphics are just OK.  It’s supposedly a take-off on Goodnight Moon, the sweet book that’s used to be a traditional first gift for new parents and is something they can actually read to their baby.

Still, Mansback has made a bundle on this one idea, and it’s a New York Times bestseller. I’m just hopeful that it is not the first of a series (Get the ** to School, Eat Your **ing Peas, Kick the **ing Ball).   I will admit that like thousands of other writers, part of me says, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But I know the answer to that question.  I would never have thought of it.  As I said, I’m not cool enough.




Trefoils, the Drama

Tingley-021 colorI’ve already given my cookie order to my favorite Girl Scout and can’t wait until they arrive.  Samoas, Thin Mints, Do-si-dos, Thank You Berry Much, and my all-time favorite, Trefoils, which a dear family member derides as the “un-cookie.”  Be that as it may, it’s not hard for me to wolf down nearly a whole sleeve of them with a good cup of tea.  But this year, sadly enough, some Girl Scouts are boycotting cookie sales for what seems to me to be kind of un-Girl Scout reasons. 

In Cleveland Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, some Girl Scouts are refusing to sell cookies to protest the closing of several rustic camps and replacing them with more modern facilities.  “It was a tough decision,” says Alisha Trammell, a Girl Scout troop leader, “ But we talked about it and what it means and what the consequences might be.”

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Scouts keep about 60¢ for every $4 box sold, and Trammell’s group raised about $800 for the troop last year.  Girl Scouts of the USA, the national umbrella group, says the annual sales yield about $700 million nationally is the “largest girl-led business in the country.” Girl scout cookies

The mothers of the girls boycotting the sale say they would like their daughters to experience the more rustic camping experience afforded by the old camps.  But the Rebecca Shaffer, director of marketing for the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, says that they surveyed the girls themselves a few years ago and the number one response regarding the camping experience was that the girls wanted inside plumbing.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast a California Girl Scout is calling for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies because of the national decision to allow a 7-year-old transgendered child to join a Colorado troop this past fall.  Claiming that the profits from cookie sales are furthering the agenda of a “small handful of people,” the teen expresses her concern for the “safety” of girls in a video seen on a website “concerned with the alarming choices” the Girl Scouts have made.  In truth, Girl Scouts of Colorado waffled about admitting Bobby Montoya, but finally released a statement saying, “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.” Three Louisiana-based Girl Scout leaders promptly resigned and dissolved their troops.

In the meantime, thousands of girls across the nation are having a great time in Girl Scouts, selling cookies, earning merit badges, and reciting and believing in the Girl Scout Law:  “I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others ….” 

The Girls Scout law, folks.  It would be great if we all lived by it.  Boycotting cookie sales is a grown-up response to conflict, not a kids’ response.  Leaders need to think about the example they’re setting.  In the meantime, I’m waiting for the Trefoils to arrive.





Remembering The Stupids

When my kids were little, they loved the Stupids and so did I.  The Stupids Step Out, The Stupids Have a Ball, even The Stupids Die.   For the uninitiated, the Stupids are a family that takes everything literally and foolishly, ignoring even the most commonsense conventions.  Even today, when something turns out not exactly as planned, someone in the family will observe, “The Stupids buy a car” or “The Stupids cook dinner for twelve” or even, “The Stupids start grad school.” It’s a long-standing family joke.

I was sort of delighted to discover that the series ranked #26 on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged or banned books during the 90s.  Challengers claimed the books depicted families in a derogatory manner.  Of course, that’s exactly what kids love about them. Stupids

So I’m wondering if authors James Allard, Jr. and James Marshall might be considering a new book:  “The Stupids Are Elected to the Legislature.” OK, just a little joke.  Parody, protected under the First Amendment.

The idea popped into my mind (ha ha) with the news of the Florida Legislature considering allowing advertising on school buses.  This move is nothing new, of course; other states have done it to defray the costs of busing.  I’ve written about what a bad idea this is a couple of times because no matter what they say, advertising on buses carries the implied product  approval of the school to an audience not old enough to be critical.  But Florida legislators presented some new, unusual reasons to advertise on school buses beside additional revenue.

Senator Thad Altman, R-Viera, said that he believes that plain yellow school buses are boring.  “I’d like to see them jazzed up a little bit,” the Senator said.  “If it’s done right, it could be fun.”

In all my years as a superintendent making sure all our buses passed the yearly state inspection, no one ever criticized our buses for being “boring.” But what a concept! Think of all the buildings and landmarks that could be “jazzed up” with a little advertising.  The Washington Monument.  Mount Rushmore.  The Alamo.  Everything could look like Times Square!

In another original take on the problem, Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto worried not about pandering to children, but about how advertising on school buses would exacerbate feelings of economic inequality among students.  In other words, kids who could buy the products advertised on the bus would make fun of kids who couldn’t.  “Ha Ha, my family can buy a Lexus 350 and yours can’t,” kids might say, for example, to kids whose families can only afford a Ford Focus.  That’s my example, not Sen. Benacquisto’s.  She probably has a better one.

State Senator Larcenia Bullard worried about ads for alcohol on school buses, but the proposed bill prohibits ads for alcohol and tobacco as well as other products inappropriate for kids.  With a third of our children overweight, you have to wonder if McDonald’s and other fast food franchises fall into that latter category or whether they will have even greater access to children than they already have in many schools.

So you can see why I think there are possibilities for a new Stupids book – maybe a series of books.  If you can laugh at it, it won’t make you crazy.






School Leaders Need to Speak Up

Tingley-021 color-1“The movement to reclaim public education will catch fire when school leaders decide they have agency and the moral fortitude to push back against policies they know are harmful to kids … If school leaders would get over their reservations and start … speaking powerfully from their hearts and minds – we might have a chance to turn things around.”

I’m not sure if Nancy Flanagan is totally right about this, but the sentiment surely is appealing.  When I think about all the fine schools in which I’ve worked, the outstanding teachers I’ve known, and the strong leadership I’ve seen, it almost seems as if school people themselves have the wherewithal to reform and improve schools.  Almost.  We know that we’ve done good work for kids, and we know that critics of our schools paint with a very broad, hairy brush.  And we know that the argument could be made that, school improvement has been highjacked by business people, politicians, union leaders, and others wishing to enhance their own reputations at the expense of kids.  So like Nancy, I’d love to see education leaders – those who actually do the job in schools – take stronger, more articulate positions on what’s good for kids. 

Here are just a few topics I’d love to hear education leaders address in measured and thoughtful tones this year, their arguments based on experience and concern for children:

1) Accountability.   Let’s admit it’s a good thing, and a portion of it can be measured in kids’ test results.  But test results are only one measure of a teacher’s success, not the whole enchilada.  It’s unfair and unrealistic to make test results more than 20% of a teacher’s evaluation.  And let’s focus on reading and math, areas in which test results are readily accessible.  We can figure out how to test other subjects later if necessary after we’ve had some experience with reading and math.  And let’s ignore the argument that all teachers have to be evaluated “equally” from the start.  Nonsense.  Why start now?

2) Piloting change.  Districts need to time to pilot changes instead of having to commit hundreds or thousands of employees to plans that haven’t been field tested first (see above).

3) Time.  Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight, and that the possibility of lasting reform takes time to implement while you get everyone on board.  You can’t legislate commitment. Districts are reeling from unrealistic deadlines set by lawmakers. School and parent

4) Civil dialogue.  People outside of education may actually have constructive criticism or suggestions to offer.  Defensiveness is counterproductive.  But while I’m at it, I have to say that every time I hear or read the word “reformy” I have a visceral reaction.  The term is snide, condescending, and evokes a Palinesque attitude towards intellectualism and compromise.  It’s hard to have a civil dialogue using uncivil terms.

5) Refutation.  Critics talk as if every school is terrible.  Some schools are.  They should focus on them.  If your school is doing a good job for kids, make sure the world knows it.  And ask out loud why your school is being punished for the failures of others.

The point here is not that school leaders should defend traditional practices by circling the wagons.  It’s not about defending the institution.  It’s about directing the dialogue, being active rather than passive.  Reform and improvement have been part of the ethos of many, many schools for years.  We shouldn’t allow outside critics to behave as if they just thought of it.




It Is Not All Roses

Tingley-021 color-1It’s not all roses in California although the parade here in Pasadena on Monday might make you think so.  It was a picture-perfect day with brilliant blue skies, temperatures in the low 80s, and the Sierra Madres looking like a movie backdrop.  What you don’t see on TV are the thousands of people who camp out along the parade route the night before with chairs and mattresses and hibachis and even area rugs and sleeping bags. 

The floats were magnificent, of course, and the marching bands appropriately stirring.  As a school person I was more fascinated by the high school bands from out of state with 250-350 band members plus flags and drum majors, not to mention all the parents who were there to help out along the parade route.  It’s hard to overestimate the amount of fundraising it took to bring all of those kids and adults to Pasadena.  The parade, by the way, is over 5 miles long, and you have to hand it to the kids for stepping sharp and looking good and maybe not passing out.

The theme of this year’s parade was, “Just Imagine …” and it was easy to go with that thought.  Just imagine how great it would be, for example, if every day were like this.  While we’re at it, just imagine how great it would be if all kids had the opportunity to march down Colorado Avenue, proud to be there, proud of their school.  Just imagine how great it would be even if a kid didn’t march down Colorado and was still proud of his school and the learning opportunities it provided.

Rose-bowl-parade-176Well, we can imagine it anyway.  A new study released by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning describes the status of the teaching profession in California in 2011.  Among its findings is that more than $20 billion in cumulative cuts to school districts have occurred since 2007.  Schools have had to increase class size, lay off teachers (about 13,000), reduce professional development (by $100 million), and even cut the number of instructional days.

Administrative layoffs have increased the responsibilities of principals remaining in the schools.  The study notes that in 2008-09, California ranked 48th out of 50 states in its ratio of principals and assistant principals to students. California principals report working longer hours and focusing more on management than leadership. With cutbacks and retirements, more than half of California’s principals have fewer than 5 years’ experience.

Of particular interest is that regarding teacher evaluation, about a third of principals reported that they had insufficient time to complete classroom evaluations and give teachers feedback.  And about a quarter of principals say they feel as if they don’t have the competence or experience to evaluated teachers anyway.

Of course, as we all know, a decrease in funding is concurrent with an increase of expectations for schools.  A possible result of this situation is that between 2001-02 and 2009-10, enrollment in teacher preparation program declined by more than 50%.  Retirement, on the other hand, increased over 20% in 2010 from the previous year.

So it’s not all roses – or flowers and sausages, as Mimi says.  The disconnect between what is and what could be – the cognitive dissonance – could make one look askance at the pomp and circumstance in Pasadena.  Or it could make us say, “If people can work together to pull this parade off, why can’t they work together to find reasonable solutions to our kids’ education?” Just imagine.






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