Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Looking for Treasures in the Tall Grass

Looking for Treasures in the Tall Grass

                Time Magazine’s recent edition revealed the victims of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 strewn across the field in the Ukraine like discarded rag-dolls.  One still strapped in his seat, lies in the tall grass rotting in the hot summer sun.  Another woman sprawled across a shanty floor next to a bed where she fell through the roof.  No one would deny the tragedy: the loss of brilliant minds fighting the AIDS virus, the loss of infants and children and entire families.  No one would deny the loss of the futures of all of all of these people..  Yet, the loss of opportunities and futures for many children living in the inner cities of the United States goes unnoticed.

                I have taught in inner city schools where I have heard other faculty members say, “Ninety percent of these students will never to college and of those who go, maybe five percent will last longer than one year, so why bother offering an academic curriculum of any substance?"   I have heard these same faculty members claim that by third grade, schools can identify students who will be imprisoned for felonies. I attended a school just like this.  Although the teachers may not have communicated their apprehension for the students overtly, the message was received. It sickens me to hear teachers label students as failures.  Teachers need to act as student advocates.  Teachers need to be looking for treasures even in the tall grass.

                I have also taught in upper-middle class schools in the affluent suburbs where all of the children, even the special education students, are expected to go to college.  In these neighborhoods, parents are advocates for their children.  There is no difference in the intellectual ability of the students in the lower-social economic neighborhoods, but there is a difference in the expectations of the students and the demands of the parents.  The parents in the more affluent neighborhood demand that their child receives all of the services he is entitled to.  They pay for outside tutors, voice lessons, dance classes, and athletic programs.  The students in these schools are often over-worked and anxious from their parents’ demands and scheduling, but they achieve and they achieve at high levels.

                Children become what they are expected to become.  The students in the inner-cities need advocates too.  Often both parents of these students are busy working two jobs to support their families or they are single-parent families.  Some of these parents do not speak English or fear deportation if they make demands on the schools.  There are a myriad of real reasons that becoming involved in their child’s education is difficult for them.  Being economically disadvantaged and culturally different creates huge obstacles for most of these students.  Their families do not have the resources to provide tutoring or voice lessons.  Some of these students work part-time or full-time jobs to help support the family.  Some of these students care for younger siblings while their parents work.  Some of these students have parents who cannot read or write and cannot help their child.  These are the parents who are embarrassed about their own lack of education and do not attend parent-teacher meetings least someone discovers.  Some of these students have families that have been involved in gangs for four generations, but it is the teacher’s obligations to find the treasures even in the tall grass.  Look hard for them.  Help these students discover their treasures.  Teach them to be ready for college and show them how to get there.  For me, it was my high school counselor, Dee Anderson who showed me how to apply for scholarships and colleges.  He took the time to walk me through the procedures and when I hesitated (because it is difficult to be the first in your family) he did not give up on me.  Students who live in the tall grass need an educator to be their advocate.

                These students will surprise you.  When I was teaching in California at an alternative high school, I had a 300 pound fourth-generation gang member who could paint the most delicate watercolor landscapes.  I had another student whose parents could not afford to pay for his A.P. exams, so all of his teachers chipped in and paid for them and the principal helped them find a legal counselor to help the family stay in the country legally.  Educators are greatest asset these families have.  Give them hope for the future.

                Those of us who have taught in  the inner-city schools have known the seventeen year old girl pregnant with her second child who misses school to care for her children working eight to ten hours a day in the fast food industry.  Those of us who have taught in the inner-city schools have known the teenage boy who is running drugs to support his siblings because his only parent is incarcerated.  We have heard him rationalize that even if he does graduate, he is unlikely to find any job and if he does find a job, it will probably be a minimum wage job in fast food.  Could he really feed is family on that?  Our children are rotting in the tall grass too and no one seems concerned.  As a country we cannot afford to waste the futures of these children.  As a teacher, you can make a difference.  Be an advocate for a child wasting in the tall grass.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Never Play Another Man’s Game

Never Play Another Man’s Game
            In 1983, I went to New Orleans with my former husband.  A group of twelve or thirteen year old boys wagered a bet of twenty dollars with my ex-husband shouting, “I bet I know where you got your shoes at.”  They had me hold the money while they instilled their bit of wisdom (to my delight).  They explained that, “You should never play another man’s game.” They went on to reveal that they had used the preposition “at,” not “from,” because “at” implies the location of an object, while “from” implies its origin.  Since they said, “at,” the location of his shoes were on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  Laughing I happily handed them the twenty dollars, a cheap price for the important lesson: “never play another man’s game.” 

            Teachers would be wise to learn from these pint-sized sages.  Several years ago, I had a student-teacher, Miss Greene, who was taking command of my seventh grade language arts classes.  My classes were filled with docile, well-behaved students from an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood whose parents were mostly professionals: computer programmers, doctors, attorneys, and professors. The classes were easily managed; it was an ideal teaching positon (a tub of butter).  Like most seventh grade students, they did not always listen to all of the directions given to them, but considering their age, this is natural behavior.  For those of us who have gone through the change of life, we know what it feels like for our ability to concentrate to turn on and off randomly like a dysfunctional light switch.  Being an adolescent is very similar, but additionally their bottoms and feet are growing so fast that sitting still is a near impossibility. Do you get the idea of what being a hormonal, emotional teenager is like?  Apparently, Miss Greene did not.  She had just given them directions, but they did not immediately comply.  Instead they began clucking like chickens turning to their neighbors to ask what those directions were.  They were confused, but instead of clarifying, Miss Greene burst into tear screeching, “You children never listen!”  Then, she ran from the room leaving me and the bewildered students wondering what had just happened.  I took over and got the children on-task, but the damage was done.  Word spread from period to period.  We made Miss Greene cry and run away.  Suddenly the students realized they had power and they could make Miss Greene play their game.  They began planning bad behavior, manipulating Miss Greene into playing their game and soon my well behaved seventh grade classes became manipulating monsters.

            Most bad behavior can be prevented if the teacher learns the wisdom of those pint-sized sages of New Orleans:  “never play another man’s game.”  Instead make the children play your game.  Come on, you’re the adult.  You’re smarter than a pack of twelve or thirteen year old children.  Use your power of manipulation.  Miss Greene could have easily avoided her mistake.
            First, the best way to avoid the chicken clucking sound is to check for understanding.  Each time you give instructions, select a random student and ask him to repeat your instructions.  If he doesn’t know, call on another student.  Offer rewards like a small pencil eraser with a smile on it or a piece of candy.  There are a myriad of cheap rewards available at The Oriental Trading Company.  If you don’t have a budget for erasers, print off small reward tickets. Mine were “Jenkins Jewels” worth one point when attached to an assignment.  Students never noticed that one point is not worth much when there are 3,000 points available each quarter and does not make much difference in their grade, but they still loved getting them. It doesn’t really matter what the reward is as long as everyone knows that each one is a “winner. . .winner. . .winner. . . chicken dinner.”  Class becomes a fun game and they are more than willing to play your game.  They will pay attention.  Better yet, you are in charge because they are playing your game. 

            Another way to make certain they are playing your game is to break your learning into ten minute segments.  This will force them to pay attention to what is going on in class instead of scheming against you.  “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Most students have very short attention spans.  If you keep them busy with a variety of different kinds of activities that appeal to a variety of different learning styles (kinetic, visual, audial etc.) you will reach more of your students, but then there is the problem of transitions. How do you create smooth transitions between these activities?  There are several easy methods.  One is to hold your hand up and repeat, “If you can hear me, raise your hand.”  The goodie-two-shoes children will break their backs to be the first to raise their hands, the less confident ones will follow and even the child who is never listening will stop talking and raise his hand (even though he has no clue what is going on, but he doesn’t want to be left behind.) Another method that my neighboring teacher used to use is to clap her hands on the desk once, clap her hands together twice and put her hands in the air.  All of her students would imitate her and they got all of their wiggles out.  I bought a xylophone from Rick Smith author of the Conscious Teaching.  I play three notes on it and they are ready for our next activity. The sound clue tells them to stop, look and listen.  They are playing my game.

            Why do these children play these games?  Often they want someone to set boundaries and stop them from acting out.  They are testing the limits to see how far a teacher will allow them to go.  Other times, they want attention: negative or positive.  I was the third of five children, born one year after John, my brother who had birth defects requiring several surgeries.  A year later, my brother, David was born.  My mother had her hands full with children so close to the same age, but she also cared for her mother who was dying of cancer. I was a child who needed attention. The circumstances made it difficult for my over-worked mother to give it. There was so much squabbling over breakfast that she unilaterally passed a mandate that there would be no talking to each other during breakfast.  We were all to read our cereal boxes and not even look at each other.  While we ate, she was busy cleaning the house and doing the laundry so she could go to our grandmother’s house while we were at school.  As a result, she was not paying much attention to us, except to bark orders to keep eating and stop looking at each other.  To get her attention, I collaborated with my older brother, John, against our younger brother.  While we all appeared to be eating our breakfast quietly behind our cereal boxes, I slid beneath the table, untied my younger brother’s shoes and retied them to the legs of his chair.  Then, ever so quietly, I crept back to my chair.  Everything was quiet until David decided to stand and leave the table.  His chair flipped over, upsetting his milk and our father.  My older brother and I denied any knowledge of this and enjoyed a good show of our parents’ anger.  Do not allow students to be unattended during your class or they will plan some calamity for their own entertainment.  Do not allow them to control the show. 

            When students take control of a class they are not learning the academic curriculum, and they feel frustrated.  Their behavior can become out of control making the situation unsafe for all of the students.  Don’t play another man’s game.  Create your own game and invite the children to play. If you don’t create the only game in town, your students will create one that you do not want to play.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where Should States Invest Their Educatonal Dollars: Technology or Teachers?


Where Should States Invest Their Educational Dollars:
Technology or Teachers?

    With the current economic situation many state legislatures are forced to make difficult decisions when allocating their educational budgets:  technology or teachers, but is this really such a difficult decision?  Assuming that all students come to school to learn (which they don’t)more technology: more computers, more IPads, more Smart Boards and more computerized education program seems like an easy fix.  Seriously, would you set your five years in room with a plethora of educational toys and no responsible adult to direct his learning?  I don’t think so.  Computers, IPads, ITVs, Smart Boards, Voice Enhancement Equipment, and any number of computer generated testing and teaching programs may enhance education, but they aren’t the core of education. 

                Schools are not learning factories that can be manned by robots and machinery to turn out high quality students.  Students are people.  Some students are highly motivated to learn and can learn virtually independently of others. Often these students learn, but do not develop social skills like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, absolutely brilliant person, but completely socially inept.  In our society, it is not enough to be brilliant.  Students need to develop the communication and social skills to work in a diverse world.  Most students are not highly motivated.  Most people (students included) need someone to direct their learning; someone to spark a flame of curiosity; someone who can be proud of them when they succeed and give them emotional support and encouragement when they fail.  Most of us need a teacher. 
                Technology can enhance learning.  It can make learning exciting and fun, but if a teacher gives students a computer without appropriate direction, the student zips to  to play mindless games.  Students need teachers who are passionate about their subjects, who can instill in them a love of learning.  Computers or any other electronic gadget cannot do that.  Anyone who has a teenage child who is texting under the table at dinner can tell you that technology used incorrectly can alienate teenagers more than it can connect them with others.  If you look at the suicide rates among teenagers, or the violent crimes in schools, the last thing our society needs is more alienated young people.  There are far too many deaths of youths from violence and drug over-doses for us not to recognize that there is a problem with youth alienation. Teachers add the human interaction that all people need to learn and grow into responsible adults. Schools need good quality teachers, not more computers.

                How do we attract the right people to be teachers?  Teaching used to be a highly respected career. States have cut salaries and benefits for years. Media has vilified teachers blaming them for every problem in society.  To attract the right kind of teachers, we need to stop thinking teaching is a short-time career that women waiting to get married settle for. Good teachers take a long time to develop, yet some have implied that a teaching career should last be no longer than seven years and be a stepping stone to another career.  What that really means is states don’t want to be responsible for teachers’ retirement.  That is not a good way to attract the brightest and the best to become educators.  Spending money on lavish building and  bulky microphones to hang around teachers’ neck while teachers’ pay is so low that teachers are in the faculty room begging the water department to not turn off their water or are working two jobs to support their families deters the brightest minds from pursuing a career in education.  Where should states invest their educational dollars? Try high quality teachers.