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Kids: Turn off the Computer and Go Outside

What will kids do for exercise this summer now that school is out and there’s no recess, physical education, or sports? 

WiiWell, some kids, maybe the kids who play sports in school, join summer baseball, softball, or soccer leagues.  Some may take swimming lessons and go to the neighborhood pool.  Some will ride bikes or go to the playground.  Some will just run around the neighborhood.

And some will do nothing except play on the computer or other tech devices, adding to their BMI over the next ten weeks.

Remember the Wii fitness games put out by Nintendo a few years ago?  They were touted as a great way for adults and kids to exercise at home without even going outside.  And it was fun to make your avatar mirror your movements in tennis, bowling, or exercise workouts.  Unfortunately, the novelty soon wore off.

It turns out that so-called “exergames” never lived up to their promise of getting couch potatoes up and moving.  According to a study by the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, active video games did little to change the sedentary life style of either kids or adults.

The Baylor research team distributed Wii games and consoles to households with kids ages 9-12 who were overweight.  One group of kids had to choose physically demanding games; the other group chose popular games that required no activity.  After 13 weeks the researchers found no difference between the two groups in terms of physical improvement.  While the first group of kids actually played the active games, they compensated for the activity by reducing other physical activities during the day.

Says Dr. Charles T. Cappetta of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness,  “It may seem that active video games are an easy solution to getting kids off the couch.  But as this study and others show, they do no such thing.”  Instead, real sports played outside “remain the gold standard to get cardiovascular benefit,” he says.

There was a time when many elementary schools had outside summer programs.  The school or maybe the local community would hire for minimum wage a playground monitor, usually a junior or senior in high school or a college student, who helped kids organize games and sports for the entire summer.   The summer programs cut down on vandalism and gave kids something to do and someplace to go.  There was no snack bar.  Usually one door of the school was opened so kids could get a drink of water.  Even today it’s still a cheap fix for kids’ inactivity and boredom during the summer.

As we pour millions of dollars into testing and academic programs that produce the same old results, we continue to ignore the research on the importance of kids being physically active.  Tell your kids:  Turn off the computer and go outside.  


What Do Bus Monitors Do?

Tingley-021 colorThe behavior of a group of seventh grade boys towards a bus monitor last week engendered outrage and sympathy throughout the country.  A video of the incident posted on YouTube horrified most adults, myself included, and resulted in the kind of instant celebrity for bus monitor Karen Klein that sometimes occurs in our social networking society.  At this writing, supporters have contributed over a half million dollars to send Ms. Klein on a memorable vacation or maybe even into retirement

At the risk of looking like a total jerk, however, I have to admit that as a former long-time school administrator, a few questions popped into my mind after viewing the video.  First of all, I wondered about the specific responsibilities of bus monitors in the school district.  Aren’t they supposed to keep order on the buses and make sure kids behave themselves?  Would Ms. Klein have intervened if the target of the bullying were another student?  One would certainly hope so.  But then we have to ask, why would she allow kids to bully her?

In my experience, it seems unlikely that what was caught on camera was a totally isolated incident, Bus monitor something that had never happened before.  It’s hard to believe that this kind of behavior hadn’t been escalating for some time as kids discovered they could be cruel with impunity.  So the question has to be, why didn’t Ms. Klein report this behavior before?  And why didn’t she report that particular day’s incident, which would have gone unnoticed except for the video?

Well, here are a few possible reasons and it’s only speculation based on my own experience.  First, she may not have wanted to say anything for fear of looking like she couldn’t handle the job (as first-year teachers often do).  Second, she may have been unsure whether anything would have been done.  Third, she may have felt humbly that she was “only a bus monitor.”  But lastly, and most importantly, she may have felt that parents would give her a hard time and it wouldn’t be worth the hassle.

Bus drivers (Ms. Klein was a driver for 20 years) and bus monitors have tough jobs.  Drivers are required to have specific training, but one has to wonder what training and what kind of support Ms. Klein had.   My sympathy goes out to her, but let’s be clear:  The district has to take a close look at why this incident occurred and whether it’s truly an isolated case.   It’s not just about four random seventh grade boys who decided on a whim to act like jerks on this particular day.  And by the way, my guess is that incidents like this are not limited to one district in upstate New York.  Maybe school districts that employ bus monitors might put training on their summer calendars. 

Consequences of the students' behavior have not yet been determined or have not been revealed.  Just let me say this:  Nothing gets a parent's attention and future cooperation like having to transport his or her kid to and from school for an extended period of time.


When Teachers Were Allowed to Use Their Own Professional Judgment

Ray Bradbury died earlier this month, and as I read the numerous articles about him, I was surprised by how many of his books I had taught during my teaching career:  The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, “The Ilustrated Man,” and my all-time favorite, Dandelion Wine.  Not so many books when you consider his lifetime output, but for one secondary teacher, more than average.

Fahrenheit 451 was a student favorite, and when we finished the book I always had students first write about and then talk about which book they would memorize if all books were burned.  I always showed the movie afterwards, and students found the last scene haunting – the hidden colony where people wore rags and cooked over open fires, all the while reciting to their children the books they had memorized so that the children would memorize them too and pass them on.  Of course, I taught that book pre-technology, so I’m not sure if the concept would resonate with students today.  Why not just download the book on your e-reader, or at the very least, put it on a flash drive?  Could students today even comprehend not having immediate access to books or information?  I wonder.

Dandelion_wine2The book I loved most to teach was Dandelion Wine.  I admit that I probably enjoyed this coming of age book more than my students did, but they did relate to some of the stories.  Perhaps young people who are coming of age themselves cannot recognize the phenomenon on the pages of books; perhaps you have to have come of age first and then recall what it was like.  At any rate, my favorite story was “The Swan,” in which a young man sees the picture of a beautiful woman in a newspaper and falls in love with her.  Later he discovers that the picture is very old and that the woman is now 92.  Nonetheless he meets her and they have daily conversations for a couple of weeks.  At times, he thinks, he can see a glimpse of the feathers of the beautiful swan the elderly woman has devoured.  Before she dies, she writes him a letter saying that perhaps they will meet again in reincarnated forms, age appropriate for one another.  OK, I can see why my high school students weren’t as taken with this idea as I was.

Remembering Bradbury, I thought about how much fun it was to teach in an era before high stakes testing, before mandated curriculum, and before publication of teachers’ test scores.  I used my own professional judgment when it came to reading choices, and I could change the book list every year if I wanted to.  I could assign different books to different students depending on their ability and interest.   My students read a lot and they wrote a lot and they did just fine on the state exams.  My real hope today is that when they read about Bradbury’s death, at least some of my former students said, “Oh, I remember we read Fahrenheit 451  in high school.  I said I’d memorize Moby Dick” (or the Bible or the latest edition of Sports Illustrated or A Tale of Two Cities or ten Archie comic books).  

Change isn’t always progress.


Fall-out from Sandusky Trial: Changes in Reporting, Statutes

Tingley-021 color-1After last week’s gut-wrenching testimony of eight young men who alleged that former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky abused them, Slate reporter Emily Bazelon writes that Sandusky should be done with it already.   “I know we are supposed to believe in the presumption of innocence and wait for the full defense to have its say,” she writes.  “This time, I don’t care.  Sandusky should end this pathetic travesty right now – by pleading guilty.”

Bazelon admits that it’s unlikely that will happen.  Instead, this week Sandusky’s lawyers may try to show that the young men who testified did so for money they might get from suing the university later.  There is speculation whether Sandusky himself will take the stand, but after his weak and murky response to Bob Costas’ question about being sexually attracted to young boys, it would seem a huge risk (“Sexually attracted to young boys?  I like young people.  But sexually attracted? No.”).

In the wake of the scandal at Penn State, some states have reviewed laws regarding mandated reporting.  Almost every state has laws designating certain professions whose members are mandated to report instances of child abuse.  These people typically work with children or have frequent contact with them.  Included in those professions are teachers and other school personnel, social workers, mental health workers, child care providers, medical examiners and coroners, and law enforcement officers according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  In most states, laws regarding mandated reporting apply to children in the K-12 age range.

New York State is currently working on a law that would require coaches in colleges and universities to report child sexual abuse both internally and to law enforcement officials.  An editorial in Sunday’s New York Times expressed disappointment that the governor and the legislature have not moved forward to extend the stature of limitations for victims reporting abuse.  The Times notes that New Jersey is now considering completely eliminating its statute of limitations on the civil side.  Pennsylvania has set the age limit at 30 for filing child sex abuse cases and at 50 for criminal cases.

Every indication from sex abuse cases in the Catholic church or in the Boy Scouts or at Horace Mann or anywhere else is that young men and women bury these memories for years and suffer from the lasting effects of being taken advantage of by older adults they respect or even love.  College kids can be as vulnerable in these situations as younger kids.  Making college coaches mandated reporters is a step in the right direction; laws extending the time period for victims to bring civil and criminal suits need to be enacted as well.

 Sports Illustrated reports that Sandusky’s lawyers can have an expert testify that Sandusky has a condition called “histrionic personality disorder” that will explain his behavior.  Glen Gabbard, a professor of clinical psychology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said,  “That diagnosis, if he has it, would be completely irrelevant to anything having to do with criminal responsibility of acts of pedophilia.”  The diagnosis suggests behavior that is highly emotional, overly dramatic, and seductive.  Dr. Gabbard says that Marilyn Monroe might be a classic example of the diagnosis.

Bazelon may have a point.


Special Is as Special Does

Modest, thoughtful David McCullough defended and explained his “You’re not special” high school commencement speech on CBS on Monday.  The clip is below, and certainly worth viewing.

McCullough quietly observes that he has been a high school English teacher for 26 years, and consequently he knows students and understands what they need to hear.  And what they need to hear isn’t that they are special in every way, but that they should start considering their responsibilities and their obligations to others and think about how they can be of service.  Noting that students have come to feel more entitled over the years he has taught, McCullough stands by his comments, but regrets that he himself has become the story rather than the graduating seniors he addressed.

Many (but not all) of those who responded to his speech praised him for his courage and candor.  The LA Times, for example, lauded his “bald honesty and overdue dose of reality,” noting that the move to promote self-esteem, which began in public schools over twenty years ago, has contributed to students’ sense of entitlement but has not been linked to better learning or better behavior. Instead, we saw grade inflation and a belief among children that they were much better students than they actually were (see Jean Twengy’s work).

I’ve written numerous articles and a book that deal with the same topic – that focusing on children’s self-esteem at the expense of actual accomplishment fosters a belief that nothing really is expected from them (and by the way, self-esteem and accomplishment are not opposites).  When elementary teachers insist on giving every child a “most improved” award or summer soccer coaches give every player a trophy for just finishing the season, it means nothing.  Of course, every child is special to his or her family, but McCullough is right to point out that neither employers and nor the world in general will have the same attitude as your family.

My own take, after watching the speech, is the same as Stephanie Hanes, writing in the Christian Science Monitor – “I admit to being a bit surprised that McCullough felt he needed a defense at all.  His words were refreshing, honest and beautiful.”  Those who took the time to listen to the entire speech will see that criticism of it is essentially unfounded.






Same Lesson: This Time from Horace Mann

Tingley-021 colorHow does an institutional culture arise to condone, or at least ignore, something that, individually, every member knows is wrong?

That’s the question, the through-line, in Amos Kamil’s article about sexual abuse at the Horace Mann School during the 1980s.  The article was published in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine.

Kamil was a student at Horace Mann beginning in 1979, and his research for the article reveals that numerous faculty members and the headmaster at the time were either actively involved in sexual abuse of students or were aware of it and did nothing.  Kamil says he spoke with nearly 100 people in researching his article including 60 former students and 15 former or current faculty members.  He found a range of responses.  Some said nothing good could come from opening old wounds; others said that the school is greatly changed from the 80s.  Some said they were unaware of any problems; others said they were surprised it took so long for the issue to be revealed.  Several students, however, admitted being victimized by specific faculty members during that time.

The fact that institutions develop their own cultures is not a new idea.  Erving Goffman produced seminal work in the 1960s.  His book, Asylums:  Essays on the Social situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, first published in 1961, analyzed life in “total institutions” – prisons, army camps, nursing homes, mental hospitals, and boarding schools.   While controversial, it focused on the conformity to institutional norms that was required for survival in these institutions, which are, in a sense, insular from the general public. Horace mann school

According to Goffman, this insularity coupled with the fact that “inmates” frequently have no one to advocate for them, often resulted in abuse that would not have been tolerated in a more public venue.  Unfortunately, we have other examples of this theory from Catholic orphanages in Ireland to Jerry Sandusky’s organization for underprivileged kids, The Second Mile.  The insularity of these organizations, the unequal power between the staff and their charges, and the vulnerability of the youngsters can result in an institutional culture damaging to kids.

Kamil writes that Horace Mann today is vastly different from what it was 30-40 years ago.  Students are more vocal and more social media savvy, more connected.  Parents are more involved.  That may be true.  But the fact remains that children are more vulnerable in schools where classroom doors are always closed, principals stay in their offices, and parents are uninvolved for reasons unavoidable or not.  Institutions that don’t fear outside interference think they can behave with impunity.











Do School Administrators Have Private Lives?

I felt obligated to give him an interview for the high school principal job. He was currently an assistant principal in another district, but his family and his wife’s family were long-time respected residents of our community. He had two children in elementary school and believed that as a district resident and local taxpayer that he had a “right” to the high school position. This was the opinion he laid out in a letter to my school board before his interview, confirming my longstanding belief that he lacked good judgment.

But timing is everything, as George Burns famously pointed out, and about a week before his interview for the job he left his wife and children and moved in with a student teacher 15 years his junior. Still, he showed up for his interview undaunted and confident that we would be lucky to have him.

JudgmentIt was a group interview with about 15 faculty and staff. What he hadn’t counted on was that his wife’s sister, a teacher in the district, was a member of the interview committee, and when it was her turn to ask a question, she went off script. Instead of asking him about his
commitment to the arts, she said, “How would you describe the moral or ethical code a school administrator should have?” He paused, and then said grandly, “What I do as a private person is between me and my God. Just because you’re a school administrator doesn’t mean you can’t have a private life.”

She then stuck a fork in him and saw he was done. It’s all about judgment.

Also done is former Des Moines superintendent Nancy Sebring, who resigned from a new position she was to start next month as superintendent of Omaha schools. It was discovered that Sebring had used district technology to send and receive sexually explicit emails from a lover. The Des Moines Register, in what I would also call a lack of judgment, printed some of the emails from Sebring to her lover. Both are married. Sebring later said, “I want to say that I do think every individual’s entitled to have a private life, even public employees.” That didn’t fly in Des Moines or Omaha any more than it did in upstate New York.

Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators Daniel Domenech called the Sebring story a “cautionary tale for all school administrators,” adding, “Particularly at the school district level, a superintendent should be beyond reproach.” Domenech thinks that the Sebring story will have ramifications nationally. I’m not so sure. Sebring isn’t the first administrator to lose her job over a startling indiscretion, and she won’t be the last. But the great majority of school administrators recognize that their private life isn’t really private. We knew that when we chose the profession, or at least we should have. In Sebring’s case, it’s not so much the affair as the complete lack of judgment that led to her resignation. And as Domenech notes, in the school business serious lapses in judgment are hard to overcome. Fair? Maybe not. True? Absolutely.

NEA Schadenfreude

Tingley-021 colorTeacher Beat blogger Stephen Sawchuk writes, “Though it’s not well known, teachers’ unions’ own staffs are also typically unionized.” 

I guess I never thought about the fact that the NEA would have to negotiate with its staff, but the idea is just a little entertaining.  Well, maybe more than just a little. As someone who negotiated numerous contracts with my teachers’ NEA affiliated union, I would love to be a fly on the wall when the NEA staffers negotiate with management. What exactly does it look like?  Is it like peeking behind the curtain at the Great Oz?

While the NEA doesn't reveal much, it appears that negotiations between union labor and NEA management look a whole lot like negotiations between union labor and school management.  Sawchuk reports that because of declining membership, the union has had to cut $17 million from its budget, resulting in an early retirement incentive and attempts to reorganize. NEA management sought more flexibility in staff assignments and dismissal.  Also on the table were questions about how to calculate seniority, which, of course, is crucial when it comes to layoffs.  Other items for negotiation were salary and benefit issues.  Union members held informational pickets outside the union’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. 


Negotiating with people who help other unions negotiate could be tough. I wonder if the NEA union negotiators used tactics similar to what school union negotiators do. Did they compare their salaries and benefits with other union members’ or with workers in private industry?  Did they insist that they should be protected by seniority? Did they question evaluation procedures?  Did they tell management they’ve forgotten what it’s like to work on the line? Inquiring minds would love to know.

As I read Sawchuk’s column, I have to admit that a little wave of schadenfreude washed over me, and my guess is that maybe other school administrators might have felt a drop or two as well. It turns out we all have to deal with the fact that reduced budgets mean adjustments for employees.  Reduction in staff means that being able to assign staff where they are needed rather than where they’ve always worked could be a huge benefit to the organization.  With the rising costs of health care, employees may have to pay a greater share.  Nobody likes having to reduce benefits, that's for sure, and nobody does it without worrying how it will affect not only the organization, but its workers and their families. Negotiations aren't ever easy, and I have to thank Sawchuk for bringing the whole matter to my attention. The irony of all of it brightened up my day just a little.

Said an NEA spokesperson, “This is a process every employer should offer.” Memo to NEA spokesperson:  We already do. 





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