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Spelling as a Competitive Sport

This year for the first time ever competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee not only have to spell words correctly, but will also have to know what those words mean.  This seems to me to be a reasonable move, but I’m predicting that it will also be one that opens the door to controversy.

“In regards to vocabulary being added to the tests, it’s a big change but a natural one that has largely been embraced by our spellers and their parents,” reports Chris Kemper, the spokesperson for the spelling bee.The key word here is “largely.”

In my area (and I suspect we were not outliers), student winners from various schools came together for an area spelling bee to determine the local champ who would represent us at the state bee.  Parents were allowed to sit in the audience, and a local school administrator gave kids the words to spell.  A panel of Spelling bee three other school people determined if the word was spelled correctly, and one of those three had the onerous task of hitting the bell if there was an error.

Some years were without controversy, but many saw parents challenging the judges.  They hit the bell too soon, there was an alternate spelling, the word wasn’t clear, it wasn’t pronounced correctly, etc. etc.  School people who volunteered to help out at the bee were finding it to be a sometimes thankless job.

Now add vocabulary definitions to the mix.  The fans will come armed with the Miriam-Webster dictionary downloaded on their Ipads, ready to challenge the judges at the first bell.  The only thing that will slow parents down will be their inability to spell the word to look it up.

The fact that the top prize is no longer a certificate and parental bragging rights may add to parents’ willingness to challenge officials.  This year the winner of the competition will take home $30,000 in cash and an engraved trophy as well as a $2500 savings bond and $2000 worth of reference materials.  In keeping with the spirit of the competition, the championship round will be broadcast tonight on ESPN.  (Something about this reminds me of ESPN OCHO from Dodgeball.)

Scripps has been sponsoring the bee for over 70 years.  This year all 50 states are represented along with competitive spellers from other countries like Ghana, South Korea, and China.  Needless to say, parents will have plenty to complain about it the champion ends up to be a foreign student whose native language isn’t even English.  Interestingly enough, spellers say that math, not English, is their favorite subject.  And according to the competition’s official site, some of their favorite words are flibbertigibbet, conquistador, and gobbledygook. 

This week NPR profiled some of the former champs from decades ago.  Many have gone on to successful professional lives as doctors and lawyers; some have even hit it big on TV game shows.  But Karla Miller, who competed in 3 national bees in the eighties, says, “It’s a very intense experience.”  Will she watch it on TV?  “I can’t handle it,” she says.  "When I see it on the news, I see the clips and have to turn away because it stresses me out too much.”

We wish all the kids well, and hope it all runs smoothly.   In addition, I hope everyone remembers that while they’re great spellers, they’re just kids. 

High Stakes Testing: One Kid's Perspective

Tingley-021 color webI pick up the fourth grader after school.  We’re driving along and suddenly she says, “Guess what happened in math today.”

“I don’t know,” I say.  “What happened?”

“Well,” she says, “We’re STILL getting ready for SOLs [Standards of Learning --Virginia’s version of high stakes endurance testing for little kids].  So my teacher says we’re supposed to write down 5 things we don’t understand in math so far this year.  But I could only think of three.  So I raised my hand and I said, ‘Miss Moss, I can only think of three.’  And you know what she said?  She said, ‘Well, you better think of two more or you’re going to get a 60 on this assignment.’”

“Huh,” I say, the response I have taught myself to give instead of saying, “What an idiot.”

“So,” she continues, now a little outraged, “it’s like I get penalized because I understand it.”

“Huh,” I say again.

On a roll now, she continues:  “Then Miss Moss says, ‘Who doesn’t understand factors?’ One kid raises his hand out of maybe 24 of us.  So we all have to go over factors, which I got months ago.  If there’s only one kid, why can’t she just go over it at recess?  So we’re all going over it AGAIN, and I start doodling on my page and she says to me, ‘Am I boring you, young lady?’ and I want to say, ‘Yes’ but I thought that wasn’t a good idea.”

This is the ongoing saga of prep for the state tests. Often when I pick her up, I ask the same question:  “So what did you learn at school today?”  For the last few weeks the answer has been, “Nothing.  We’re reviewing for SOLs.”

Is anyone paying attention here?  All that beautiful instructional time wasted on this nonsense. Individualized instruction?  Enrichment?  The creative process?  Fun?  Once testing season begins (and it’s beginning earlier and earlier), it’s all over.

So we continue to drive, and I hear myself say, “Well, maybe after the tests are over your teacher will give you something fun to do.”

“Huh,” she says.


Below, a short, enlightening, and entertaining video about time, kids, and creativity:


Letting Kids Find Their Own Way

What’s the best time to intervene in a barroom brawl?

My choice? Never.

But a study by Penn State’s Michael J. Parks, a sociologist, suggests that it depends on how drunk the participants are.  Parks found that bystanders typically intervene when the self-control of the fighters is seriously compromised by drink.  In other words, other people get involved when it becomes clear that the brawlers need help to end the fight because they are unable to do it alone.

This study made me think about the handful of times in my career when I had to break up a fight between high school students – usually boys, usually bigger than I am.  What I discovered was that they were often (if reluctantly) glad for the intervention so that they could save face by being forced to back down.  The intervention, however, had to occur at the onset of the fight, before the heat of battle had sapped their reason.

Moving beyond brawls of any sort, the question of when to intervene is an important one for teachers and for parents.  How much help should adults give children and when should it be given?  The answer demonstrated in a couple of other new studies besides Parks’ work seems to indicate that parents and teachers should offer help only when kids are absolutely cannot do it themselves. Too much help too soon tends to produce negative results.

A recent study by sociologist Laura T. Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, finds that the more money parents spend on their child’s education, the worse grades their child earns.  A second study by Mazepsychologist Holly H. Shiffrin of the University of Mary Washington finds that the more parents intervene in their college student’s life – selecting the student’s major, choosing their courses – the less satisfied the student is with his or her life.

Recently I accompanied a group of first graders on a field trip to a local grocery store.  The kids were divided into groups of four or five, each with an adult to help guide them.  Each group had $15 to purchase fruit, drinks, and snacks for a picnic at the park afterwards.  In nearly every group the adult  (usually a mom) made all the decisions while the kids watched.  Only one mother actually insisted that the kids do the work.  Her group took a long time just to weigh bananas, figure out the cost, and subtract that amount from the total allotment. Choosing snacks and drinks took even longer.  They were the last to board the bus, each kid carrying a bag because this mom, unlike all the other adults, refused to schlepp all the stuff herself.   It took a while, but this group of first graders actually learned something on the field trip that the other kids missed.

Eli J. Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern, and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, an associate professor at Duke, say,  “Help has to be responsive to the recipient’s  circumstances;   it must balance their need for support with their need for competence.  We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts.”  In their New York Times opinion piece, the doctors offer this advice to adults in a position to help kids:  Help, but don’t let your action replace their action.

This is a tough position for many of today’s parents to take, but kids need to be allowed to work through problems and make mistakes. Otherwise we rob them of a sense of accomplishment.






Hiring Season

Tingley-021 colorIt’s hiring season in schools around the country.  Time for some lucky administrator to sift through piles of applications and credentials, extricate the most viable candidates, call references, and look for volunteers (or draftees) to serve on interview committees. 

If you an administrator fortunate enough to get all your hiring done before school is out, you will have a busy spring but an uncluttered summer.  Hardly anyone manages to have all the new hires in place before the end of the school year, however, and there are always surprise retirements or resignations around August of each year.  The end of summer often brings a round of musical chairs as experienced teachers move to neighboring districts that offer higher salaries. 

Being able to interview in the spring rather than in late August usually gives an administrator a better selection of candidates.   Another big advantage to interviewing candidates while school is still in session is that you can have finalists do a demo lesson while kids are still in school.

In his Education Week blog David Ginsburg asks, “Should the demo lesson be a deal breaker or deal maker?”  Ginsburg insists that taken alone it should be neither although he admits that a candidate who is clearly unprepared or unable to connect with kids should be eliminated.  Still, he says, a great lesson doesn’t necessarily mean you have a great hire.  I agree, but neither does a great interview. 

In my experience a demonstration lesson can be very revealing in terms of a candidate’s eventual classroom performance.  It’s hard to draw any real conclusions about classroom management from these command performances because typically kids are respectful and cooperative – maybe even sympathetic – with the candidate auditioning for the job.  In addition, typically in the back of the room is a row of other teachers Teaching and maybe an administrator.  Despite these unusual circumstances, I think you can tell a lot about the candidate’s knowledge of her subject, her organization skills, and her rapport with kids.

When candidates begin their demo lesson by giving kids nametags or name cards, it’s clear that they’ve thought about interacting with students.  I’m impressed when a candidate identifies for kids the goal of the lesson, explains what they’re going to do, and saves time for closure at the end.  Materials should be organized and easy to distribute.  Despite their nervousness, candidates should be friendly, ask thoughtful questions, and check for understanding.  Experienced observers aren’t easily fooled, so we like it when candidates are honest when they’re asked a question they can’t answer.  A sense of humor helps, of course, but frequently the candidates are too nervous to be funny.

Does a good demo guarantee an excellent hire?  No, of course not.  But it does reveal whether the candidate has nailed down the basics and whether he or she has potential.  It also reveals whether the candidate has thought about what he’s going to do and put some effort into making it work.  As a principal, I want to be able to imagine what it would be like to have this person on my faculty.

So if you’re lucky, you may be able to get a look at what candidates can do in the classroom before you actually hire them.  If not, now is the time to set aside time in the fall to get into the classrooms of the new hires to see how things are progressing.

New York’s Truth in Testing Act

Tingley-021 colorProbably the best time to consider the cost and effect of Common Core might have been BEFORE adopting it, but better late than never.

In April the Truth About Testing Act was introduced in the New York State Assembly and Senate.  In short, the bill calls on Education Commissioner John B. King to compile information for each school district – over 700 in the state – regarding the cost to the district for Common Core testing and the amount of time students are missing in direct instruction due to the tests.  The study would include an anonymous statewide survey to find out how much time is spent on test preparation and its effect on the quality of instruction.  Teachers would also be asked for their opinions about how student assessment could be improved.

The data collected from the field would be disaggregated into several groups:  students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, general education students, for example.  In addition to the Truth About Testing Bill, a second bill would require the commissioner to develop regulations regarding the administration of tests to children in grades K-2.  The bill would allow testing in those grades for diagnostic purposed only.

The push for the bill comes from truthabouttesting.org, sponsored by NYSUT, New York State United Teachers.  Despite the concern about self-interest, few can argue about the need to evaluate what Common Core is costing kids in terms of time, effort, and stress.  In addition, we need to get a composite Testtaking-exam picture of what kinds of instructional experiences have been jettisoned in order to make room for test prep and testing. 

Adding to concerns about Common Core testing are the difficulty of the tests themselves and the widespread technical failures and interruptions experienced in numerous states that attempted to test kids online, a requirement in 2014-15.  Scores themselves have yet to be released in New York State, but members of the state board of regents cautioned back in March to expect lower scores.  Technical failures were experienced in many of the other 45 states that have adopted Common Core.  Thousands of students found computers slow to load questions or experienced being closed out of testing as they were answering.  Still others were unable to even log in.

I expect that enthusiasm for the passage of New York’s Truth About Testing Act will increase as scores are released and schools are ranked later on this year.  Actually acknowledging the educational and financial impact of all this testing would add a new aspect to the testing argument – factual evidence instead of bias, opinion, and blame.  Too bad we had to put all our kids through this nonsense first.  I’m optimistic this bill might bring things into perspective, especially since NYSUT is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest political contributor in the state.

The Organic Curriculum

Tingley-021 colorCommon Core brings with it new tests and new curriculum.  However, there are only so many hours in the day, leaving teachers to consider what can be left out to make room for new requirements?

Cursive writing instruction is on the chopping block. Proponents of cursive say that it’s a traditional skill that has been passed down through generations almost as an art form.  They note that children love learning how to sign their names.  Some even say that if we don’t teach children cursive, they won’t be able to read the Declaration of Independence in its original form.

Common Core allows individual states or communities to make their own decisions regarding teaching cursive, but many schools have abandoned the practice, calling it “obsolete.”  I, of course, was taught cursive in elementary schools and remember, as some of you do, the black and white posters of cursive Cursive capital and small letters posted above the blackboard (why did the capital “Q” look like a giant 2?). 
  Today I use cursive to sign my name and make out a grocery list.  As for reading the Declaration, I had to phonetically memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in college and I couldn’t read or write Old English.  So as kids learn to use computers and text on smart phones as preschoolers, maybe the need to teach cursive is more sentimental than practical.

Abandoning cursive will allow more time for one of Common Core’s additions:  more nonfiction.  Reading and English teachers have complained bitterly about not getting to teach novels that have been part of the curriculum for the last 40 years.  Some worry that the “dryness” of nonfiction will turn kids off.  As a former English teacher, I believe there’s room for reading of all kinds, and some of today’s nonfiction reads like an interesting story.  Take, for example, Mary Roach’s new book, Gulp:  Adventures on the Alimentary CanalEarlier books are Stiff, about cadavers; and Bonk, about – you guessed it.

If you had the good fortune to see Roach’s latest interview on The Daily Show, you know that she is entertaining and funny.  You understand the science behind the book, but you’ll also discover how Elvis Roachreally died in the chapter entitled, “I’m All Stopped Up.”  She investigates the day-to-day work of scientists and shares some of their experiments – like the one to find out if a mealworm can eat its way out of a toad’s stomach.   In an NPR interview, Roach said that she wants readers to say not, “This is gross,” but instead, “I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting.  OK, and maybe a little gross.”  Kids don’t care whether a book is labeled fiction or nonfiction; they care if it’s interesting and readable – and maybe just a tiny bit gross.

Curriculum is organic,fluid, constantly changing. We need to be continually adding some items and subtracting others to fit our current students’ needs.

Do Family Dinners Improve Child Behavior?

Research shows that kids who regularly have dinner with their families are less inclined to engage in risky behaviors.  Or maybe not.

New research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health indicates that the more frequently families have dinner together, the better kids do emotionally.  McGill University of Montreal researchers sampled over 26,000 Canadian children ages 11-15.  The researchers found that frequent family dinners had a positive correlation with fewer behavioral problems, more helpful behaviors, and higher life satisfaction among the children.  “The effect doesn’t plateau after three or four dinners a week, “ said Frank Elgar, an associated professor of psychiatry at McGill.  “One is better than none, and all up the scale.  The more dinners a week, the better.”  Still, the researchers admit, they don’t know if family dinners contribute to good mental health or if kids who are having problems tend to avoid eating with the family. 

Another study conducted last year published in the Journal of Child Development, however, found no correlation between dinner and positive outcomes for children.  The study was based on information gleaned from over 21,000 children in grades K-8 in the United States.  But, said Daniel Miller, the author of Modern-Family-Thanksgiving-Rockwellthe study, eating together as a family might just be one of the activities that families engage in that help kids feel grounded.  Other research has found that there is a connection between family activities such as dinner and lower risks of smoking and binge drinking.  But again, researchers are unclear whether the effects are causal.

In this age of technology, I find it hard to believe when I watch families out to dinner that the experience is necessarily having a positive effect.  The kids are looking down at their hand-helds or have earbuds in their ears.  Parents frequently check their smart phones.  Nobody talks to anybody else.  Nobody shares food and some kids only order soda.

I also find it hard to believe that simply engaging in family activities produces a positive effect.  Living near Busch Gardens and Water Country, I’ve seen numerous family outings from hell, with parents shrieking at their kids and kids talking back or ignoring them (earbuds in, iPhone out).  As one mother said to her child last summer, “Quit hanging on me!  It’s hot, I’m sticky, and I don’t want you touching me.”  Out-of-towners are spending a bundle to visit here in historic Williamsburg, and they often act like it’s a sentence.

So I have to think it’s not dinner or the activity in and of itself, but the attitude that adults bring to the table (so to speak).  Put the tech away.  Talk about what you did that day.  No criticisms.  If a kid knocks over his or her drink, so what?  Get a paper towel and refill the glass.  If it’s a family outing, plan it so it’s not a 12-hour day with kids whining and adults exasperated.  It’s not the dinner together per se; it’s spending time together as a family, communicating with one another, and acting as if you care about one another.




School Bus Cameras Detect Bad Motorist Behavior

Tingley-021 colorFew things make me more angry than watching a motorist pass a school bus despite its flashing red lights, swing out stop sign, and children beginning to load or unload.

A few years ago as one of my district’s school buses stopped to pick up kids at a children’s residential center when a car swerved around the bus into the center’s parking lot.  It was the director of the center.  The bus driver called the transportation director, who called the police.  The director’s response?  “I was in a hurry.”

At least in this case no one was injured, but no job is worth risking the life of a child.

Now in an attempt to cut down on such violations, some school districts are equipping their buses with cameras not only inside the bus to detect student misbehavior, but also outside the bus to identify motorist misbehavior.  Like red light cameras, school bus mounted cameras snap pictures of motorists who fail to stop for the bus when its red lights are flashing.  The pictures are then transmitted to the police, who issue citations.  Violations tend to be expensive, ranging in some areas from $300 to $1000.

All of this is just fine with me, with the exception of one little wrinkle:  The cameras are installed by a company called American Traffic Solutions, and the company receives 75% of the revenue generated from these traffic citations.   The financial results have been, unfortunately, pretty lucrative for all concerned.  In Cobb County, Georgia, for example, from last November through January, citations resulted in about $133,000 in revenue.  The company got about $100,00 of that money, the rest going to the county and school district.

So far the response from motorists has been muted compared with the negative response many have to red light cameras. The set-up is the same, with the camera companies sharing in the revenue generated from citations (unless prohibited locally by law).  According to industry data, the use of red-light cameras has Kids-getting-on-bus-3 burgeoned over the past few years from 155 contracts in 2005 to nearly 700 last year.  Motorists complain that camera companies have calibrated traffic lights to shorten the yellow in order to catch more motorists; the companies retort that the length of the lights is not their responsibility.

John Bowman, of the National Motorists Association, which opposes traffic cameras, believes that people aren’t complaining about school bus cameras because “everyone wants children to be safe.”  Still, he says, instead of cameras, schools should be “looking at the training and support we give out school bus drivers.”

School bus drivers are licensed and well trained, and in many states are required to have additional training throughout the school year.  But no school bus driver, however well trained, can keep a thoughtless motorist from swerving around a stopped school bus.  Frankly, I think sharing the citation fines with the company that puts the cameras on the bus or on the red light can encourage unscrupulous behavior on the part of the company, but that behavior pales in comparison to the risk of carelessly injuring a child getting on or off a school bus.


Giving Poor Kids a Chance at an Elite Education

A growing concern of American’s elite colleges, according to David Coleman, president of the College Board, is that classes are filled with predominantly upper class students.  Researchers at Stanford and the University of Virginia decided to explore whether high achieving, low-income students didn’t apply toselective colleges because they did not want to or because they did not understand that they could.

Researchers sent admissions information to 40,000 high achieving, low-income students during their senior year.  Included in the packet was information regarding admission standards, graduation rates, and financial aid policies.  For the purpose of the research, application fees were waived if students applied.  A control group with similar demographics did not receive the packets.

Within the control group, researchers report that only 30% were admitted to a college matching their academic qualifications.  Among similar students who received the packet, 54% were admitted to the most selective colleges.  Researchers concluded that there are many low-income students who are well prepared College for selective colleges and would opt to attend if they understood the process.

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times, says that the packets that students received presented the important information that selective colleges frequently cost less than local colleges because they have more resources for scholarships.  Leonhardt is quick to point out that low-income students who graduate from less selective colleges still do very well, but graduation rates from these second or third tier colleges are lower.

While recruiting low-income students will add to the diversity of the student body, it will also prove more costly to the universities.  However, some feel that the efforts would resonate with alumni and result in more alumni giving.

One issue that neither Leonhardt nor the researchers consider is how well low-income students adjust socially to highly selective colleges.  Getting in is one thing; staying in is another.  In my experience in rural upstate New York, hard working guidance counselors could help bright kids gain acceptance to selective colleges.  However, often students would drop out or change colleges not because of the academic challenges, but because of the social disparities they felt.  If selective colleges are sincere in wanting to increase diversity, they need to help students adjust socially as well.  Not every student at 18, however bright, can negotiate the social systems without guidance and a strong network of support. 






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