Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Importance of Affirmative Action and Access to Financial Aid

The Importance of Affirmative Action and Access to Financial Aid
By Jill Jenkins

     When I was a child, my mother told me that women had three choices in life: to find a husband, get married and raise his children, to learn to type and take shorthand and become a secretary, or to become a factory worker. My mother’s limited view of the world made it difficult for her to imagine a life beyond her neighborhood. I chose to go to college and become a teacher, an opportunity that was only afforded me because of Lyndon Johnson’s dream of “A Great Society,” a system of low interest loans, the National Defense Loan and later the National Direct Loan available to low income students. Today’s students are often buried in loans because student loans have become privatized. During my college years, students who taught in Title One schools had their loans forgiven.  Since my loan had only a three percent interest rate, I paid it off as scheduled.  Racial discrimination limit many minority students. To alleviate this John F. Kennedy signed an executive order in 1961 creating Affirmative Action forcing universities and colleges to integrate.  Today, some Ivy League Schools often select wealthy African American students to make their quota instead of selecting students who lack the resources to attend college.   What is fair?  Even if the country added a financial component to Affirmative Action, more impoverished White students live in areas with better schools than those of impoverished African American students.  Better schools means better prepared students.  To level the playing field, a combination of Affirmative Action and more grants and affordable loans should be instituted. American poor need more grants, low interest loans and Affirmative Action to widen the view of all of our youth.  Unfortunately, like my mother, many children’s view of the world are limited.  What happens to these students is best described in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem:”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like
A raisin in the sun
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it sags
Like a heavy load?

Or does it explode? 

What I discovered by teaching in a variety of different socio-economic levels is our schools are not a level playing field.  Students from economically deprived groups, students from different ethnic or racial groups and from different cultures cannot compete fairly for enrollment in any college or university (let alone an Ivy League School); as a result, both adequate financial aide and Affirmative Action needs to be available.  What I have learned is students who have no hope of financially supporting their families through legitimate means turn to crime.  What I have learned is both males and females need a strong education to have access to more fulfilling careers and the greater opportunities for financial stability.  (Let’s face it, marriage is never guaranteed to last forever, nor does it always provide economic stability.)  What I have learned is people who are well educated are happier and live more economically secure lives. As a result, they are more likely to become a more involved citizen. 

            President Trump’s talk of dismantling Affirmative Action could have catastrophic effects.  First, intelligence isn’t limited to one socio-economic group or one racial group.  By limiting opportunities, America would be wasting some of the most creative and innovative minds.  Second, providing real hope and opportunity, reduces an individual’s likelihood of becoming involved in crime; thus, reducing the strongholds gangs have on some neighborhoods. Third, education increases the potential that an individual will achieve economic stability, a happy, healthy view of government and a higher likelihood he will become an active voting citizen.  This means less likely to become “a raisin in the sun”, a rotting sore or “ exploding” with violence. 

            If all students were competing on a level playing field, perhaps there would be no need for Affirmative Action or Financial Aid, but the truth is they aren’t.  I have taught in affluent schools where students live in houses filled with books and computers, their families travel the world, and their lives are enriched with private coaches, voice lessons, music lessons and they participate in an assortment of academic, artistic and athletic enrichment activities.  Some attend private schools whose classmates come from the wealthiest families and the academic demands far exceed public schools.  I’ve taught in inner city public schools where a student often works eight to ten hours a night after school in a minimum wage job to help support his/her family.  One student whose parents were both incarcerated went to school full-time, and worked full-time to support himself and four younger siblings.  These students are not lazy.  They are over-coming huge hurdles. Money can buy almost anything in America.  One year I was charged with selecting and preparing the graduation speakers. An assistant principal presented me with the name of one student and told me to make certain she was selected as a speaker because her parents had offered to donate money for the sports team. This was a public high school.  I could have followed the order, but instead created an evaluation rubric and selected three faculty members and three students to judge those seeking speaking positions.  Then, to insure a fair contest, I had the class officers tabulate the scores.  The corruption of money is everywhere.  The racial prejudice in this country makes their difficulty even more arduous.  Racial discrimination is even more prevalent. As a drama teacher, I took heat from my principal for casting Alice in Alice in Wonderland with an African American student, because some parents complained that she did not "fit" the part.   As a debate coach in Southern California, my debate team was comprised of many African-American and Hispanic students.  I would remind them that it was not enough to be as good as their adversary, they had to be undeniably better.  Unfortunately, in American, people see color before they hear what the students are saying. 

            When thinking about the effects of lack of hope, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.  In the book, Fagin has collects a group of homeless children and trains them as pickpockets in order to exploit them for his own financial gain.  To persuade young Oliver to join their illegal trade, Fagin employs Charlie Bates and the Artful Dodger to testify to the advantages. Like the Artful Dodger, peer pressure and the lack of hope encourage some students to become involved in crime to better themselves.  These students believe that their only future is a part time minimum wage job with no benefits or welfare may like Charlie Bates and the Artful Dodger believe that crime is a better alternative and holds more self-respect than allowing his family to become homeless and hungry.  As a result, they steal, sell drugs and participate in gang activities. Prejudice and economic insecurity land more people in prison than college. The United States has the highest number of incarcerations in the world for a reason.  That same child would become a productive member of society if he/she were give the opportunity to get a good education, and a well paying job. More of those incarcerated are members of minority groups.   Affirmative action could lower the crime rate and the incarcerations, saving everyone money.

            Finally our founding fathers believed that access to a free public education could create a more enlightened voter.  In today’s world to be successful, a K-12 education is not enough.  If we want an enlightened citizen who feels compelled to participate as a thoughtful voter, we need to provide affordable, opportunities for students of every racial and economic group.  People, who feel powerless in a society, do not participate in it.

            Affirmative action and financial assistance is important.  I feel that President Trump’s view of the world is as narrow as my mother’s.  He believes everyone should accept his/her birthplace in society.  Some may say that only the most qualified should be accepted to our colleges and universities; however, those with the money to afford a private education for their children or donate a million dollars would have a disproportionate advantage.  Intelligence and the advantages of wealth is not the same thing.  Creating a wealthy elite with exclusive access to higher education is not the America our fore fathers imagined. Educational opportunities provide those downtrodden with hope and a pathway to economic securities, a more meaningful and happy life while reducing crime.  Education prepares people to be responsible citizens.  Affirmative actions and financial assistance provide opportunities for a brighter future.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

I Can't Remain Silent

I Can’t Remain Silent

By Jill Jenkins

As an educator the fate of children is a responsibility I have always taken seriously.  During the past week the images of children snatched from their parents arms and incarcerated in cages and finally internment camps across the nation without the parents sickens and angers me.  Even though Donald Trump has provided some reprieve by signing his order, a grandmother who crossed legally with her granddaughter she is raising was separated because she was not the girl’s mother.  The cruelty to parents and more importantly children has left me speechless, but no more.  I cannot sit immobilized in disbelief. I cannot remain silent and neither should other teachers across the nation.

Since historically, the holocaust offers us an opportunity to see how separating children from their parents impacts them. I think many of us know people who were in hiding or in concentration camps during World War II.  Some of us know people who were interned in camps like Topaz also.  Internment of any kind causes Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in children, but especially those separated from their parents.   For example, my first husband’s family migrated to the United States from Holland where both of his parents had been hidden during World War II.  His mother, Elly, was hidden separate from her parents.  After her father was sent to a concentration camp and the family had been picked up by the Gestapo a couple of times, questioned and released, her mother gave both of her daughters: Elly, ten years old, and Rachel, four years old to the resistance. Elly and her sister, Rachel were hidden separately; as a result, for five years Elly never saw her mother or sister. One dark night a stranger escorted ten-year old Elly to train.  At the train station she met another stranger who escorted her to house.  It wasn’t until Elly was in her mid-sixties that she was able to remember that at the first house, she was hidden with a four-year old girl, the same age of her sister.  Both girls cowered in fear as they heard the Nazi going house to house rounding up Jews and shooting.  In terror, the four-year old dashed from the house.  When Elly heard the Germans shouting, the child’s screams and the blast of rifle fire, she knew the girl’s fate.  The psychological pain caused from being separated from her family and terror of the events she suffered affected her forever.  Elly had difficulty flying because the sound of engine before take-off reminded her of her time in hiding traveling from one safe-house to another.  As a nurse, she was often picked up by the Maryland National Guard and driven to work during ice storms; the uniforms and trucks brought back memories of the Gestapo picking up her family and led to panic attacks. After five years of hiding, Elly then 15 didn’t recognize her mother.  In a great sense, the period of separation resulted in a loss of bonding that was difficult to recreate. Her cousin, Jeannette, who had been in hiding on a farm during the war told me even the sight of the uniforms and high boots of Utah Highway Patrol Motorcycle Police gave her heart palpitations and difficulty breathing. 

My former husband’s father, Louis, was in hiding with his parents in the beginning.  The family hid behind a fake wall whenever visitors came.  During the high holidays, Louis father was allowed to listen to services on the radio.  On Yon Kippur, there was a loud banging on the door and loud voices yelling in German, Louis and his mother hurried to the hidden wall, but his father was too far away to reach the wall and jumped through a window and ran.  Louis and his mother listened in horror as a German Shepherd Dog attacked his father who had jumped a fence into a neighbor’s yard.  When I was helping Louis compile his memoirs, his wife told me that each time he recalled his childhood; he had terrible nightmares and would awaken sweating and screaming. The horror of being forcibly separated from a parent or the result of ruse is heard in the recorded sounds of the children weeping and calling for their parents in the detention camps.   The United States, a nation built on the idea of the value of each individual is inflicting the same long-term pain on innocent children crossing the border.  

The psychological effects can negatively affect the choices and behavior of these children.  In Jerzy Kosinski’s semi-autobiographical book, The Painted Bird, the children who are recovering from both their time in hiding and the horrors of the concentration camps, turn to violence and derail a train because they are filled with such wrath. Although the current administration wrongly believes that all illegally migrating people are members of dangerous gangs, he maybe leading these children into the hands of modern-day Fagins.  Children join gangs because they feel unsafe and the gangs offer them protection.  Children join gangs to fulfill a need to belong.  Children join gangs to replace a family they have lost.   Children who have been separated from families feel vulnerable and they will not lose the lost security.  Children who have been separated from families feel alienated and alone and that loneliness will not be dissipated over time.  Children who have been separated from families will forever feel their families can be snatched away.  That insecurity can lead children to the violence of gangs.  They will be angry and the younger they are during that separation the less ability they will have to express that anger. 

Experts have innumerate the many physical illness these children will be susceptible to, but as educators we have seen what psychological abuse does to children. We are a country of due process.  These children are not being given due process. People will say that these children are dangerous and the government is looking after our safety, but I know that is not true.  The number of students who I have taught coming from these country have been amazing students.  Victor whose arms were burned off as his family threw him from a window of an apartment building while escaping a coupe in Columbia.  Abel who was the brightest member of my debate team was seeking political asylum from a country in Central America.  All of my refugee students have struggled through horrible ordeals to come to America, but when they arrived they were bright, students who were polite with a strong work ethic.  Just the kind of people America was built by.  Stop the madness.  Children are not political pawns. They should never be treated cruelly and suffer such irreparable damage. We should no longer be silent.  We must speak for the children.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Cultivating Healthy Faculties and Staff

Cultivating Healthy Faculties and Staff

by Jill Jenkins

As a gardener, I understand the importance of balancing fertilizer, water and sunlight to create a beautiful rose garden.  As a gardener, I understand the vigilance that is required to keep the plants protected from insects, blight and fungus, but as a former educator I cannot understand how state and district administrators are blameless when fewer college students are choosing to become teachers, more teachers are leaving the profession and those who are staying are demonstrating in the streets. As in other industries, cultivating the talent of employees takes not only resources like money and benefits, but also a fair amount of fertilizer, water and sunlight.  By that I mean, treating employees honestly and fairly, keeping commitments and supporting them emotionally through stressful situations.  A blog that I recently read by Seth Nichols “Why Teachers Are Walking Out,” seems to support my observation.  In his blog, he compares teachers to abused housewife who abandons a relationship only after a cumulative effect of years of abuse.  He exemplifies this position with the many hours of unpaid work teachers willingly provide before and after contract hours, the countless resources and supplies they purchase with their own funds and the barrage of abuse they endure from parents, students and the media.  Finally, after years of endurance, educators like the abused housewife, walk out. 

For the most part, I agree with Mr. Nichols article.  An abusive spouse will often “string” a spouse along with half-truths and empty promises offering hope for improvement where none exists.  Similarly, teachers are often duped by promises made by district or state administrators.  For example, when I was teaching, the district technology administrator offered teachers “a free I-Pad and a $200 stipend after completing a six week training in the summer.”  Teachers flocked to the workshop only to discover what they meant to say was  “the use of an I-Pad provided the teacher remained at the same school in the district and a $200 stipend after the teacher completed the six week summer workshop, twenty hours of workshops during the school year and created a teacher web-site to the administrator’s satisfaction.  Many teachers completed the summer workshop and stopped.  They felt they had been hoodwinked.  I persevered.  Even though I already had a web-site, even after the district administrator rejected my new web-site creation three times and  even after I called a specialist to show me what I was doing wrong, I persevered.  Despite that, the damage was done.  I was angry and felt the district had misrepresented the class.  Like many incidents, this was not enough to make teachers quit, but the lowering of morale from a serious of insensitive, miscommunications adds to the likelihood that those who can retire early will and those who can transfer to another field will also.  Morale is important, not only for maintaing a teaching staff, but also for attracting them.

Abusive relationships are often characterized by a lack of commitment on one person’s part.  Healthy relationships require the commitment of both involved.  Nevertheless, educators are dependent on the whims of state legislatures for financing. This often creates problems.  For example, some years ago the state legislature decided that having two reading specialists in each school would be advantageous. These specialists could continue teaching and train their faculty in incorporate reading across the curriculum.   When my principal approached me and asked me if I would be willing to commit to three years of training, once a week from 4-7 P.M. at a school 30 minutes south of my school, I agreed.  In exchange for my time, I could look forward to small increase in salary when the training was complete and $200 stipends each six months during the training.  After persuading my aging parents, to pick my then ten year old daughter up from her school every Wednesday, feed and care for her,  I car pooled weekly with a collogue for the training.  The classes were valuable, but after two years, the state legislature eliminated the funding.  The state was not committed.  Only the teachers were committed, so the program ended   Even getting paid our last stipend took over a year.  The teachers were disappointed and morale was again low. During the course of my career, many programs and curriculum were discarded after teachers spent hours of their own time developing lessons, and materials.  The teachers were rarely consulted or the effects of the decision considered.  The actions and lack of commitment on the districts or state’s part affects the morale of teachers and thus their attrition.

Teaching is an emotionally draining career.  Not only do teachers spend their own time planning lessons, grading papers and communicating with angry frustrated parents, but also the emotional trauma of students’ lives affects the educators who listen to them and help them sort it out.  As a teacher, I heard about physical and sexual abuse, murder, parents who were arrested or deported, parents who were killed, and had students who committed suicide, murdered or assaulted others. Some of my students suffered other disasters. One entire families burned to death. Some were killed in car accidents.  Police officers who are not as emotionally close to the public they serve are offered counseling and time off when they witness some emotionally draining event, but teachers are not.  Teachers need to be given skills to deal with the emotional stress of teaching.  As a teacher I joined a gym, went bike riding with my daughter and walked my dog.  Many teachers are given so many extra-curriculum responsibilities, that they do not have time to de-stress.  Some districts tell teachers to put the district web-mail on their personal cell phones, so parents can contact them 24/7.  First, the district is not offering to pay the cell-phone bill and it is unwise and unhealthy for teachers to be at the beck and call parents 24/7.  This is causing teacher burnout.  Healthy, happy teachers are more effective.   School district need to recognize how overloading teachers emotionally is counter-productive.

According to ”Study Utah Has High Potential for Teacher Turnover and Shortage” by Kern C. Gardner Institute, “40% of Utah educators who started in 2011 were no longer teaching in Utah classroom at the end of their fifth year.”  If school districts and the states are serious about keeping teachers, improving benefits and pay is a start, but consider communicating with teachers honestly, keeping promised commitments and providing resources and sensitive decisions to the emotional stress teachers face. Preserving a health teaching staff is like sustaining a health garden.  Plants require sunlight, water and fertilizers; teachers require good pay, and benefits.  Plants require protection from strangling weeds and insidious insects; teachers require protection from insensitive district communications that misrepresents facts or requirements; the assurance that legislators and school districts will keep their commitments; and the resources and support to cope with the stress related to teaching.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

School Stinks

School Stinks

by Jill Jenkins

I recently visited my former school to celebrate the retirement of two of my favorite people.  When I opened the door, not only did I note that my former classroom was gone to facilitate moving the school office to the front of the school, but also that the building reeked with the pungent, sour odor of 1500 sweating adolescents.  In the wake of the recent school shooting, the school had been transformed with one main door that opens into an office, so visitors are forced to check in before having access to classrooms.  Logically this seems like a wise choice since anyone carrying an AK-47 would have to confront the school secretaries and administrators before blasting any innocent students or teachers.  The secretaries and administrators are some tough cookies for any would-be assassin, but it was the smell that would have sent any miscreant running.  The brick building was built without windows like a giant warehouse.  When I taught there, the classroom doors used to have a small rectangular window filled with wire that ran vertically above the door knob, but these have been replaced with windowless doors.  For further protection, the teachers are required to keep their doors shut and locked to keep any rifle-toting criminals from having access to the forty or so students in each classroom. Unfortunately, this significantly reduced the air-flow in the building.  The walls of each classroom are covered with carpet to absorb sound, but they have absorbed far more than that over the 30 years of the school's existence.  Every year 1500 boys and girls entering puberty run through the halls rubbing their sweat covered skin over the carpet leaving behind their rank essence.  The school's air conditioner and heater have feebly attempted to filter the stale air, but quite inadequately.  Like any pig or turkey farmer, I became nose blind to the smell when I taught there.  (There were advantages: I was thinner then because I never had an appetite and I couldn't wait to shower when I got home. Maybe subconsciously I was more aware than I thought.  Even then, many teachers, I included, tried a variety of solutions including plug-in air fresheners in our classrooms, but the fire department banned them.)  I started to wonder that if in our attempt to keep students safe from intruders are we exposing them to the health risks connected to the bacteria growing in that carpeting or extreme depression from "loathsome smells and shrieks like mandrakes torn from the earth" (Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet).  Maybe school just stinks. 

I proceeded down the hall to the library (excuse me, Media Center) to join what was left of the faculty where I spent over 20 years of my career.  The halls were darker than I remembered perhaps because the area that used to be office had windows on two sides that were always brightly lit.  Those windows had been bricked in and contained three classrooms whose dark doors were closed.  Although there were photos on the top of the walls of former 9th grade classes (too high for my eyes because I am only five feet tall about the height of the average 7th grade student), the halls looked bleak and depressing.  I wondered if these dark, colorless halls might be contributing to the unusual number of suicides that have occurred recently among teenagers.  The place was depressing me. According to research "The Impact of Light and Colour on Psychological Mood: a Cross-cultural Study of Indoor Work Environments" by Kuller R, Ballal, S, Laike T, Mikellides, B and Tonello G ,  

       "The results also indicate that the use of good colour design might contribute to a more positive mood.
       It is suggested that in future research light and colour should be studied as parts of the more complex              system making up a healthy building." 

The foul, rancid odor flowed after me down the hall and I began to wonder if I needed another shower before I congratulated my old colleagues.  The prison-like atmosphere and the over-crowded classrooms made me wonder if the psychological effects could contribute to a desperate teenager.  Maybe school just stinks. 

Working with this faculty was a real treat.  Faculty members took a team approach on everything.  If a student had a problem, his teachers shared ideas to help him overcome.  Departments worked together on curriculum as well and technology, reading and writing skills were developed in a cross-curricular method.  For example the librarian and the Language Arts Department (that's the English Department) tested and checked with each child to guarantee that each read books on his/her individual reading level. Each classroom provided the student with ten minutes of reading at school and communicated with parents on reading charts that each student read two hours each week at home.  Computerized tests determined if the student had comprehended his/her book.  As each book was successfully completed, we teachers rewarded the student with both verbal recognition and small piece of candy, continually encouraging him/her to achieve his/her individualized reading goal based on his/ her reading level. At the end of each grading period, each student who achieved his/her reading goal was recognized in his classroom and sent to the media center where the librarian personally rewarded each student with a certificate and rubber ducky.  She snapped a picture of the student wearing a crown or holding a ducky and posted it in the library for all to see. The halls were filled with pictures of the students reading. "Reading is Duckie," or at least it was.  According to the librarian, those programs have ended.  Cross curriculum projects between Language Arts Department and the Geography or the Science Department were common and the projects were displayed in the halls. Students used computerized writing programs, computerized testing programs and created movies and presentations in the computer labs for cross-curricular projects.  These projects have also given way to test preparation.  Although I was happy to see old friends and everyone hugged and talked about the old days, I was sad to see what has become to my old school.

For all those designing schools to maximize student safety, while placing a safety portal with school offices and resource police at the front of the building is a great start, there is more to think about.  Preventing a child from becoming a maniac murdering his peers should be goal number one.  Schools need to be pleasant places, not prisons.  Providing students with a clean, well ventilated, well lit and brightly colored space will help create a lively, healthy environment.  For all students school is a home away from home and each student needs to feel like an appreciated member of the community. Remember students are malodorous, messy creatures, so use building materials that are easy to clean.  Don't put carpet on the walls. Use insulation in the walls to dampen sound from room to room.  Provide colorful display areas to show students work and display happy pictures of the students in the school.   Designing safe school building is only part of the answer.

The school atmosphere is important.  Keeping the school clean and well lit will improve health and moral for the teachers and the students, but encouraging teachers to work together and find ways to recognize students' achievement will make students feel more loved and appreciated.  Even as another school shooting occurred today in Texas, think about ways of preventing others by using training teachers to identify behavior or signs that a student is troubled.  Observing changes in student behavior and referring student to social workers, counseling staff or school psychologists can prevent depression from escalating into disasters.  Changing our focus on making all students feel safe, appreciated and loved is a good start.  Schools do not have to stink.  Instead make them smell like school spirit and make every student's education a positive one.   

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Protecting Our Most Important Asset: Teachers

Protecting Our Most Important Asset: Teachers

By Jill Jenkins

    A few years ago as the department chairman of the Language Arts Department, it was my enviable job to inform my English teachers that even though our school had nearly the highest test scores in the state that all of their hard work developing curriculum maps, lesson plans and teaching assignment all had to be scrapped because the district was adopting a version of the Gates Language Arts Units.  The teachers were enraged, but eventually acquiesced to the district demands despite the fact that the district offered no money to purchase material or any compensation for the teachers’ time to develop new lesson plans and new teaching materials.  The price of this change was the loss of several great teachers who chose to move to new careers.

    In my 39 year career as a teacher, I saw this kind of change occur countless times.  Instead of analyzing what is working in schools and having educators share their successes, political powers outside the world of education decide the best reforms and teachers either acquiesce or leave the profession.  Still, the public who demonize educators are surprised at teacher shortages.  Those who enter the ranks of education are optimists who want to change through education.  Education is not a lucrative career. No one enters the profession expecting to get rich.  No one stays in the profession without knowing the sacrifices including personal time, lack of respect and even the right to visit the restroom when nature calls.  No one stays in education without expecting to be vilified by some parents or the media without loving students and believing teaching can make a difference. How can we ensure the quality of our schools when we are losing our greatest asset: our teachers?  Three methods of improving teacher retention are: first, increase financial compensation including salary, benefits and retirement pensions without increasing undue burdens; second, allow teachers academic freedom to collaboratively create meaningful projects that include oral communication, reading, writing, technology, team work and mathematics; third, fairly evaluate teachers and schools and provide access to resources to improve.

     According to the book, Addicted to Reform: A 12 Step Program to Rescue Public Education by John Merrow, the average cost of testing is 69 million dollars per state and according to Education Weeks’ article from March 2018 article entitled “Standardized Tests Costs 1.7 Billion Dollars A Year Study Shows” a 2012 study shows a much higher expenditure of 1.7 billion dollars.  If the cost of test preparation materials is added, one can see how frustrated teachers are on the low pay allocated to them.  Benefits and salaries have been stagnant for decades and retirement plans and benefits have been eroding.  According to ABC News, a teacher was removed from school board meetings for pointing out the injustice of increasing the salary of the superintendent while teachers’ salaries remain unchanged for more than a decade in Louisiana.    Furthermore, salary increases always come connected to added expectations.  For example in Utah when “career ladder” was eliminated the pay connected to the program disappeared, but the added responsibilities did not.  Many districts add pay to teachers by having teachers work nine hours a day giving up their consultation period by teaching seven periods a day.  This saves the district money for benefits and FICA.  It, also, increases teacher burn-out because these teachers now correct papers for over 200 students lugging home piles of papers to correct every night.  Teaching requires 100% of the teacher’s focus all of the time.  Without time to plan and reflect on teaching, the job can become stressful and overwhelming. At the end of my career, a former student stopped by to tell me that I had inspired her to become a teacher, but after one year she felt so overwhelmed by the additional requirements, that she quit teaching, went to law school.  She is now an attorney earning substantially more income and according to her with less stress and work.  This is not a new problem, when I began my career in the 1970’s I was teaching in an urban high school.  I taught English classes and run both the debate and drama programs.  I was often rehearsing plays until nine or ten at night and spent the weekend with the debate team at tournaments.  My frustration levels sometimes became so extreme that when I was driving to my apartment with piles of uncorrected essays, I would imagine driving off the road.  When the vice principal asked me to sponsor the yearbook as well, I began looking for a new teaching job. Furthermore, teachers are often lured by promises of new programs. For example, in Utah the legislature decided to invest in training two teachers in each schools to become reading specialists who would in turn train their respective faculties to teach reading across the curricular.  For three years, one of my colleagues and I drove forty miles every Wednesday to spend three hours on Wednesday evening after teaching all day for training.  We were compensated with a small grant months after we finished each year's training.  As we finished our final year, the legislature dropped the program. Reading specialists were no longer needed.  The state had wasted our time and energy and all of the funds used for all of the teachers training and the students never received any benefit.  Not only underpaying teachers is destructive, but so is over working them.  Fair compensation for reasonable expectation added to good benefit and a substantial retirement plan would help retain more quality teachers.   

    Teaching used to be a creative, collaborative activity where teachers worked together to design interesting lessons and tests encouraging learning while engaging students in fascinating activities.  It isn’t anymore.  District no longer trust educators as professionals, so they purchase on-line repetitive drills and require frequent district and state tests.  Before I retired, I spent one week giving state “SAGE” tests and three weeks of test preparation.  That is an entire month that could have been used to teach an additional novel, more essay writing and an entire unit on poetry, web design or anything else.  A month of learning is lost because of testing.  The math department lost even more time because they had more required district tests.  Teachers are frustrated with the lack of academic freedom.  Teachers need to be able to collaborate to create cross curriculum projects that engage students in creative expression and critical thinking involving oral communication, reading, writing, technology and math skills.  Students would learn more and they would be more engaged reducing behavioral problems.  Teachers would find their jobs more stimulating and rewarding, reducing burn-out and increasing teacher retention.

    Finally using student test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers is unfair.  Teachers have no control over who is in their classes.  ESL students, students with behavioral or learning disabilities and special needs students are more difficult to teach and earn lower test scores.  Working in an urban school with many social economic and criminal problems is a more difficult than teaching in affluent, suburban school.  Teachers who accept more difficult teaching positions should not be penalized for their students’ test scores. Improvements of test scores should be part of the schools evaluations, not the teacher’s.  Methods of teaching and students’ engagement should be evaluated by frequent unannounced observation by administrators.  Teacher leaders should help struggling teachers improve by allowing them to observe their classes, sharing techniques and lessons. 

     Our current education system is bleeding talented teachers and talented students are choosing more lucrative careers.  By returning to Lyndon Johnson’s Student Defense Loans that didn’t need to be repaid if the student chose a career in education and worked in a low income community for five years could attract new teachers.  Retaining those teachers means that teachers need to be compensated fairly with money, insurance and good retirement pensions without over-burdening them with excessive hours and responsibilities.  Second, teachers need the academic freedom to create engaging learning opportunities by collaborating with teachers from other departments and time to share projects that work.  Third, teachers need to be evaluated fairly and provided with resources and experienced educators to guide them. Attracting and maintaining a quality teaching force is essential to creating quality schools. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Scam: Lower Expectations to Increase Graduation Rates and Lower Costs

Recently I have been reading John Merrow's book Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, a book with which I don't completely agree, but a book that makes some compelling points.  (I do, however, strongly recommend it to my friends in education.)  One of the points that I found myself in agreement was how schools have lowered graduation requirements to improve graduation rates; thus these schools appear to be improving, but it is only an illusion.  During my career I saw students receiving high school credit for on-line classes (home-school) offered by an "for-profit" college and packets of meaningless grammar, punctuation and usage drills provided by the same educational institution.  Today, the news announced that students will receive credit in middle schools for activities in which they participated outside of the school: private music lessons, community team sports, and private art classes.  The effects of such decisions may save the state or district money, and reduce the time more affluent students spend in the class, but it reduces the quality of all students' education.

Students who are not intellectually engaged do not retain learning for long.  Meaningless activities like completing worksheets or digital worksheets (which the on-line classes are) is a futile act that students recognize as meaningless and quickly disregard this learning because it is not applicable to their reality. Often the instructions given in these packets lack clarity.  As a middle school teacher, past students frequently appeared at my door after school to ask for help. As a result, I met with these students for an hour or two after school to tutor them, but unlike the "for profit" college that provided these worksheets, I was not compensated financially for my time.  I was appreciative that the student recognized that human interaction is key to learning.  When my daughter was a child, her father and I took her to Florida to visit her grandfather and his wife.  She was excited to find seashells on the beach, but when we arrived her grandfather's wife was appalled at the idea of collecting sea shells because they might be dirty and insisted we buy shells in the tourist shops.  What she didn't understand that finding the shells herself made the shells meaningful to my daughter.  These students do not need knowledge shoveled into them; they need to find the shells themselves.

Second, as a educators, we should be asking what is important for students to know? Since the world is rapidly changing most educators agree that helping students become "life-long learners" is key to their future success.  After all computers were in their infancy when I was a middle school teacher.  With the exception of my math teacher Miss Penniger who told me in 1965 that learning the binary code was an important part of learning to become a programmer, computers were not part of anyones life.  As teachers, we do not know what careers will disappear and what new careers will be created.  We do know that these students will have to learn new skills to stay current.  Worksheets do not teach critical thinking, research skills and have little relevance to the the reality today or in the future.  Repetitive drills do not engage students and stifle any intellectual curiosity the child has.  As a result, the child perceives rote learning as dull and meaningless, and it is. Instead of spending tax payers' money to the "for profit" colleges to create meaningless mush, districts should spend that money on real teacher who could create summer school or after school classes for students earning high school credits. Socializing and group problem solving gives students human interaction skills that will help them in the real world.  At home on-line classes may be an appropriate option for seriously ill students, but it is a poor choice for most students and should be eliminated.

What about giving students credit for out of school activities?  Granted some of the music lessons and sports program may be quality, but as a school there is no way of knowing because they are not controlled or evaluated by the district.  I have seen some truly substandard programs when my daughter was young and I has searching for a community theater program or a sports program for her to participate.  Greed driven individuals with no credentials will be developing meaningless art or sports programs to grab some of the tax-payers money.  This is not good for the children or the tax-payers.  Quality art and sports programs enhance a school and create a sense of community.  It is through working in such programs that students develop life-time friends and an appreciation for both arts and sports.   Like any learning, students become healthier adults if their love for physical activity and creative expression become a life-long pursuit.

Education is an investment in the future of our democracy. When we short change our students by providing substandard education, we create a generation that cannot compete in the global market with highly skilled jobs in technology, medicine, science, business, finance, journalism and every other profession requiring a vast understanding of good communication skills, mathematics, technology, a sense of history and thirst to keep learning more.  We need thinkers, creators, and leaders to solve the problems of tomorrow.  Our schools need to provide meaningful challenges to every student.  Don't "dumb-down" our schools to make data on graduation rates look impressive.  THAT IS A SCAM. A scam that will cost all Americans dearly.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

How To Avoid Humiliation In Your Classroom

     In a very successful writing prompt, students described the most embarrassing moment they or a peer had suffered during their years in school. One of my students shared an event in his grammar school where he had pleaded with his teacher to use the restroom. Thinking he was avoiding a test and trying to disrupt class, the novice teacher moved the student to her seat, but children have less control of their bladders than adults.  Despite his pleads, the boy accidently relieved himself on her chair.  This is just one example of an over-zealous teacher trying to maintain control humiliated a student.

     School districts often provide too few bathrooms for overcrowded schools making access to facilities difficult for shy or less aggressive students to complete during class change or recess.  Restrooms are often places for bullying and criminal activities (like smoking cigarettes and pot or exchanging alcohol or drugs) making timid students often afraid to use the facilities during class change.  Teachers are often insensitive or unaware of the time restraints, the limited facilities and the bathroom activities.  As a result, teachers perceive a child's pleading to use the facility as a ruse, an act of defiance or an opportunity to roam the halls.  Sometimes, perhaps, it is.  However, when a shy student observes the teacher rebuking a request by another student, he or she may feel intimidated to ask; thus, the student suffers both physical and emotional trauma.

     Many teachers are unaware of the trauma many middle school girls face with the onset of their first menstrual period. Since the first few yeas of puberty is often characterized with irregular menstrual periods and the first period is always a surprise, girls often do not come equipped.  Putting sanitary supplies in the main office may reduce vandalism and thefts, but imagine how intimidating a shy twelve year old feels asking a strange adult in a busy office for a sanitary napkin or a tampon. More than once in my career, have I had a quiet girl sitting in her desk after all of her classmates have left because she is drenched in blood and embarrassed to walk through the crowded halls to the restroom or office.  I always kept an old sweater at my desk to tie around a girl's waist and escort her to the office where the secretaries allowed her to sit in the sick room while they called her mother and provided her with the sanitary supplies without destroying her delicate dignity.  A bit of advice to teachers in middle schools and high school, make sure you are prepared with a sweater and a bit of assurance for some frightened girl.  This needs to be part of teacher preparation because it is part of the reality of schools.  Also be aware that boys going through puberty often get unexpected erections whenever they feel stressed.  Asking a boy to stand to answer questions could be completely humiliating to him, because even if you don't notice, his classmates will and they will not let him live it down.

    Small acts can have big consequences. When I was in junior high, I asked my math teacher for an eraser.  He tossed it to me and it landed down my neck and into my bra.  Some students (not me) would have been devastated by the accidental basket.  If you do make a major faux-pax, apologize. Students know that teachers are human.  An unintended action can be easily corrected.  If a teacher knowingly humiliates a student, he is not only hurting his intended target, but all of the students in that classroom.  Teachers who belittle and demean students should be weeded out by administrators.  There is no place in education for anything other than respectful words and actions. Never call students names, degrade them personally or in anyway humiliate them.  Students who feel confident and cared for can achieve amazing feats.  Furthermore, teachers should be models of how to treat others.  Examine your school and your teaching and try to eliminate all of the subtle ways schools and teacher humiliate the most timid among us.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Helping Students With Learning Disabilites

In 2010 my husband, Randy, went into Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Even though the paramedics and doctors were able to revive him, the six minutes that his brain was without oxygen caused cognitive difficulties.  For a couple of years, Randy had difficulty filtering, so when we had a family gathering or his late brother Davey came over for coffee and the three of us conversed, he became confused and agitated.  I had to learn to be quiet, so he could process the conversation with his brother. (Being quiet is something I don't do easily.) He was also confused if I asked him a multiple choice question, so I had to learn to simplify every question that I asked him.  Although my husband regained his cognitive ability, it made me think about the difficulties students with learning disabilities face in our classrooms.

I had learned at workshops that many students have difficulties distinguishing between information that is important from information that is nonessential, because they don't have "crap detectors." To help them compensate,  I used both empty outlines and V.E.N. diagrams and taught students how to complete them during lectures and readings.  This helped them identify the main ideas and the supporting ideas, examples and evidence.  I had not considered how extraneous noise might interfere with their learning.  My classroom was located at the front of the school where the public came and went continually. Since I had taught there for decades, many of the parents of my current students were my previous students. As a result, they frequently stuck their heads in to wave, shout a greeting or ask a question.  Furthermore, the band was housed next door, so music or sometimes something akin to music permeated the thin walls.  For a time I was sandwiched between the band and orchestra making a cacophony of noise in my room.  To make matters worse, I have always used small group discussion, so with forty students broken into ten groups of four all talking at once, students with difficulty deciphering conversations were in real trouble in my class.

For most of my students distractions like background noise was of little consequence to their learning as long as they were engaged in a learning activity; however, for students with a learning disability that just isn't true.  Autistic students who are overstimulated by a change in routine often shut down or worse yet have a panic attack.  Still, teachers are expected to meet all of the differing needs of the students while their classrooms are overflowing with students with various learning disabilities, language acquisition skills and emotional problems. 

I am not sure what the answer is or if there is an answer, but I know some things I changed about my teaching.
  • First, give instructions in clear, simple language and use a variety of medias to communicate it: tell them, write on the white board, give them a written copy of the instructions and put the instructions on your web site so parents and special education teachers can also help them. Limit the number of choices presented to students. Costco capitalizes on that idea.  Students need to have a clear idea how to proceed.  For some students selecting which seat to sit in when faced with forty empty desks is an overwhelming decision.  
  • Second, try to keep the distractions to a minimum by shutting the door.
  • Third, arrange the room for quick access to each students individually.  When a student needs extra instruction, kneel next to his/her desk, look into the student's face and whisper quietly so the child is not embarrassed while getting additional instruction.
  • Fourth, vary the types of activities often in a class period to meet the individual needs of students with differing learning styles.  The younger the students the shorter their attention spans are.  With ninth grade students, I rarely stayed on one activity longer than ten minutes.
  • Fifth, develop routines in your classroom, so students can move from one activity to another smoothly with little opportunities for chaos.   Chaos hurts the most vulnerable students.
  • Contact the special education teachers and the school psychologist often.  Their advice on a particular child's needs is invaluable. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Ten Books Without Fairy Princesses

Ten Books Without Fairy Princesses

By Jill Jenkins

Many disenfranchised students become disenchanted by education when the literary selections they are fed in Language Arts classes depict a world through rose colored glasses.  Teachers and more often parents wish to protect students from the harsh realities of life and select novels with happy endings and little controversy and nonfiction books that avoid social problems. The truth is many of these students confront the harsh realities of life daily: crime, violence, child abuse and neglect.  Even those with seemingly perfect domestic situations may be exposed to spouse and child abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction and economic instability.  The inconsistency in the world the literature depicts and their own reality makes students question the authenticity of their entire education.  Teaching students historic novels and nonfiction that accurately illustrates the problems they may be facing or demonstrates how people from the past have overcome difficulties in their own lives provides students with life skills to overcome problems.  When I taught in an alternative school, I saw many high school aged students who felt their problems were unsolvable.  Reading about others who have faced difficult problems successful increases the likelihood that these students will develop a more positive attitude toward life problems.  Some parents complain that showing students the darker side history makes our county seem imperfect.  Some parents complain that showing students the darker side of man makes people seem despicable.  The truth is our country is imperfect and many people are despicable.  If students have a clear view of problems and are asked to develop methods to make the country, the world or people better, the world could become a better place.  Here are some books that I would suggest .

Although this Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne details the Comanche tribe violence and the violence committed against them, it captures the clashing of two different cultures and how both side committed horrible atrocities against each other in an attempt to obliterate the tribe and its life style.   Most of the tribe did not survive, but despite losing everything, a sense of pride and a sense of responsibilities to each other continued.   The book details the life of Quanah Parker whose mother, Cynthia Anne Parker, was kidnapped at  ten year old  by a Comanche chief. After having three children, Cynthia is rescued against her will, when her Native American husband and all of her companions are massacred.  Her two sons escape, pursued by the soldiers and find their way back to camp.  She and her daughter, Meadow Flower are returned to civilization.  Meadow Flower is taken from her and dies.  Her youngest son dies of fever and Quanah Parker, her older son, becomes chief.  Quanah's struggle to free his people and finally to live in peace on the reservation is never without treacherous dealings with corrupt officials. 

The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez non-fiction discusses the use of Native Americans, Asians and other minorities were enslaved from Columbus until the 1900.  Despite laws created to protect them, slavery continued by referring to it by different terminology.  The continual exploitation and murder of women and children from the Caribbean (called the Caribbean so justify enslaving Native Americans by accusing them of cannibalism) to the Navajos in Western United States (justified because whites were saving their souls by Christianizing them.)   Most students are aware of the slavery of African Americans, but many are unaware of the violence, and slavery that occurred to other minorities.  This book focuses primarily on Native Americans, but it touches on all of the different forms of slavery that occurred in the United States.  It also discusses how slavery continued by playing with language and rights.  As a result, many children and women continued to be enslaved despite laws meant to protect them. 

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin’s book The Heart of Everything That Is retells the story of Red Cloud, who waged war on the United States Government to keep his tribal way of life intact.  He was successful for some time.  It is also a violent book that describes the fight for freedom and the ferocious warriors of the Wyoming west.  Since those who believed in Manifest Destiny also believed that Whites had the right to disregard treaties and rights of the Native American, they were surprised at Red Cloud’s ability to use his forces as an effective military leader.  Eventually he destroyed the fort that was built illegally on Native American land and maintained the freedom of his people until his death. 


Another book to consider is Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee describing a horrible massacre of women, children and older men at Wounded Knee.  It is equally as violent and disturbing as The Heart of Everything That Is but reading both books together helps the student understand the anger and the violence.  Understanding why a people perpetuates violence is as important as understanding that they behave violently.  The book describes a variety of masacres that occurred through out the West and Midwest by military and westward expansion.  Reading the story of Manifest Destiny by those who lost gives students a second view of history.  

Most Language Arts teachers have taught The Diary of Anne Frank to provide students with an understanding of the suffering of World War II, but to be honest it hardly does it justice.  Lilac Girls
Caroline Ferriday
by Martha Hall Relly told through the eyes of three women: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to a Ravenbruck Concentration Camp near Berlin with her mother, her sister, and her boyfriend’s sister; Herta Oberheuser, a German doctor who performs experimental operations on the women in the concentration camp.  Caroline Ferriday is based on a real person who raised money and provided corrective surgery of the victims of Ravenbruck.

Herta Oberheuser

  Herta Oberheuser was also a real person who felt she was helping the cause by cutting into the legs of young women, removing bones and muscles, inserting dirt, rocks, and pathogens that she allowed to fester.  She believed she was helping injured German soldiers and the lives of the concentration prisoners were unimportant because they had been sentence to death anyway. 

Kasia Kuzmerick is a combination of many prisoners at the camp.   The problems and the solutions were real and the cooperation of the prisons to increase the likelihood of their survival is also true.

This is an excellent novel to discuss how people cooperating with each other can increase everyone success; however, there are some sexually explicit parts that might make it objectionable in some communities.

Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan is a true story of Pino Lella who was a seventeen year of Italian boy living in Millan whose parents sent him to live in a monastery in the Alps where he and his fifteen year old brother led Jewish immigrants, downed British pilots and others to freedom over the Alps to Switzerland during World War II.  Afraid Pino would be drafted and sent to the Russian front when he turned eighteen years old, his parents insist he enlist in the Nazi Army.  Using the skills, Pino learned from his race car driving friend, he becomes a driver for the premier Nazi in Italy where he is able to pass information to his uncle and the underground.  The book is violent and has some sexual scenes that are handled delicately.  Although this book does not have the brutality of  Lilac Girls, it could be used to demonstrate that evil can be overcome through brave behavior.  The advantage of an historic novel like Lilac Girls and Beneath A Scarlet Sky is they motivate students to research the real people.

The Orphan Tale by Pam Jenoff is another World War II story based on a true story.  A young teenage girl from Holland finds herself expecting after a Nazi soldier quartered as her parents house pays her an unexpected visit.  Rejected by her family, she travels to Germany and works cleaning train car.  Since she has blonde hair and blue eyes, she is persuaded to have her baby at a home for unmarried mothers where her child will be given to a good German family. Unfortunately, her child does not have blonde hair and blue eyes.  Depressed and fearful about the fate of her child, she returns to work cleaning train cars.  When she hears the cries of babies, she finds an entire train car of Jewish babies.  Seeing one still alive, she grabs the child and runs into the woods being pursued by the German soldiers.  Finally exhausted, she collapses in the woods where she is rescued by a circus clown.  She learns to be an aerialist by a famous German aerialist who is also a Jewish and being protected by the circus owner.  The details of the book are based a real stories from the war even though some of it is fictionalized.

Finally another book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand about World War II, is the story of Louis Zamperini  who was an incorrigible youth who became an Olympic champion. He overcame poverty and prejudice to achieve his skill with the support of a loving family.   During World War II his plane was shot down in the Pacific and he was taken to a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp where he suffered unbelievable hardship.  Despite every obstacle, he continued to endure.  Every young person needs to know that despite what obstacle one has to face, it is important to never give up.  Regardless of the cruelty of the camp's leader, Louis did not allow himself to lose hope, a lesson that would help many young people today.  

Before We Were Yours  by Lisa Winegate is based on a true story of Georgia Tann who kidnapped or usurped control of indigent children and sold them to wealthy families.  Although families attempted to retrieve their children, Georgia Tan used her political connections.  Although this nightmare continued from 1930-1950, Ms. Tan was not tried until 1950 when she died before her trial concluded.  This book takes place in Memphis in 1939 when the 12 year old Rill Foss and her three sisters and one brother are abducted by this heartless woman.    This is an excellent novel to discuss whether the rights of poor parents should take priority over the kind of life style a rich family could provide. 

A Thread Unbroken by Kay Bratt is a fictitious account of child trafficking set in modern day China.  Two twelve year old girls are abducted by a woman and sold to a family living on a junk.  The family wishes one to become a bride for one of their two sons and use both girls as domestic servants.  Many students will find the ending of this book unrealistic because one of the girl's father eventually finds them and all of the guilty parties are punished.  I used to teach Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and my students complained that they ending was too contrived.  They preferred Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame because the ending seemed more believable.   (In the book everyone dies because of their character flaw.) I think most students are too sophisticated and recognize that life is often not fair.