Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Silver Lining of the Education Crisis

As I was catching up on news from family and friends on Facebook, I came across this item from the Huffington Post,  Changing Education in an Ever-Changing World )

The author may have gotten a little carried away with other thoughts, but the bottom line of the item is that educators have a golden opportunity to teach students at all levels the skills they need to critically evaluate what they read on the Internet--using the very media that students prefer. I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would say that there are 100 pieces of garbage on the web for every 1 piece of solid information. What the author failed to address is the practical use of all the gadgets that kids use to not only "surf the net" and share photos and movie clips, but also as a means to discuss with teachers and classmates what might make the article (or clip or photo or blog) "good" or "garbage." This can be done in any school subject, whether the topic is a review of a particular book, an online posts of "how-to's" for arithmetic calculations, an "academic discussion" on the start of the US Civil War, a first aid blog on how to treat a paper cut, or a YouTube clip of a lake's ecology. Thus, critical thinking can be taught for any subject and for any level of education, using the very instruments that students use for communication already.

Of course, I have always been a proponent of using the current tendencies and behaviors within a class and use them to learning advantage. Interestingly, teaching critical thinking skills by using the latest technologies can be a great classroom and learning management tool, as well.

Your thoughts?


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Out of Poverty?

In yesterday's post, I talked a bit about the relationship between poverty and dropout.  Today, I'm posting a link to an interesting article about opportunities available to even the poorest inner-city student of color.  Read this article carefully.  It comes from a regular blogger for Forbes.

What's wrong with this picture?

Every time I read something, I try very hard to read with an open mind.  As I went through this article, I vacillated between identifying with some of his remarks and feeling frustrated over feelings that the writer does not know what he doesn't know.  Even if he has an awareness of the kids who live a few miles from him, and even if he has listed a few ways inner city kids can access some opportunities to help them rise out of poverty, I think there is a lot of information which he is missing.  Part of what he is missing is the lived experience of poverty.  I don't believe he has spent much time actually talking to these kids and learning about what life in poverty really means.  I readily admit that I am also ignorant of the level of poverty many inner city kids experience, although I know what it is like to live from parent paycheck to paycheck, and having to get a job at an early age to help fund my own basic needs.  Still, I am aware that I do not know what life actually is like for these kids, as there was always enough food in the home, and always enough money to provide me with warm outerwear in the winter.

Yet, here is a writer who has experienced nothing but "middle class" life writing about how--with enough intelligence, desire, and access to information--any inner city student can move up to the middle class.  If he were a photographer, I might think he posed the subjects of his composition.  I mean, his photo might make it into his photo album, but would never make it into an art gallery because it is so commonplace.

Or maybe I just look at life through a different lens...

Here's a different perspective...from an individual who actually grew up in the depths of poverty:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mixing It Up: How to Seat Students

Want your students to Mix It Up?  Here is a great suggestion from Teaching Tolerance about a lunch-time activity.  But I think this is an excellent strategy for getting students to know each other in any classroom.  So often, no matter how hard a teacher tries to get all students to interact, kids manage to keep "cliques" together, or ignore the "outsiders."  Maybe deliberately breaking up groups of friends and spreading them out among other groups can help forge new friendships.  Oh, the possibilities for after the winter holiday break--sharing their activities in smaller groups instead of in front of the whole class, putting together of list of ideas for the teacher to use as discussion topics, reviewing class rules, debating current events...and the list goes on.

How to Seat Students | Teaching Tolerance

Please share your thoughts.


Student Test Scores as Evaluation of Teacher Performance

There was an interesting item posted in the New York Times a few weeks ago regarding the use of student mandatory test scores as the source for evaluation of teacher performance.  The original article can be found here:

My first surprise when reading this article is that not all principals were happy with linking test scores to teacher effectiveness.  That was actually wonderful to hear.  Here in Southern California, there are so many schools within solid districts that pull the district's state standings down.  The problem is that these schools are generally in the poorest (and predominantly Latin) neighborhoods, where parents, although holding education important, hold family survival higher.  In such districts, many students come to school exhausted or hungry, mainly because they are in charge of younger siblings and cousins while parents are working several jobs each to keep even scraps of food on the table.  A tired and hungry student--no matter how old or how young--will not be as responsive in class as a well-fed and well-rested student from a household with better financial resources and only 1--maybe 2--jobs per adult.  No matter how good a teacher is and no matter how much he/she cares about the students' overall welfare as well as academic growth, the growth will be slow.

When I wrote my dissertation looking for specific characteristics of Hispanic dropouts from across the country (I used the NELS:88 database from the National Center for Education Statistics--now part of the government's Institute of Education Sciences), I missed an important piece of information that I want to explore more fully in the future.  First, among Hispanic students who had ever dropped out, whether they return to school before the age of 21 is inexorably linked to level of poverty before beginning high school.  Since I was looking for predictive characteristics in 8th grade (the first available in this database) as a regression on final dropout/completion status by traditional college graduation (8 years later), I found that the deeper the family poverty, the less likely the dropouts would even attempt to return to school.  In fact, it was interesting to note that NCES never considered that a lot of their targeted students would have already withdrawn from the school establishment before the spring of 1988 when the data was originally collected.  A more critical finding was the incredibly high correlation between reading and math skills (.97) AND the reading/math correlation to poverty indexes (.95).  My first reaction was that the co-variance of math and reading was due to the fact that much of math includes written instructions and word problems, so that reading would be the driving factor, and that reading materials are very hard to come by when staying alive is a family's major goal. 

Over the years, in speaking to educators who work with students in such circumstances, I have come to believe that there was much truth to all the ado during the late 1960s and 1970s about free lunch programs.  But even back then, a student's family responsibilities seemed to be subsumed by just how early in life many of these kids have to contribute to whatever stability a family unit can attain. Students who are actively involved in keeping things together at home while Mom and Dad are out working at incredibly poor-paying jobs for 16 hours a day are not going to do well in school, no matter the quality of academic resources.  We've all heard reports on the number of middle and high school students who come to school for free breakfast and lunch, and disappear before the afternoon classes start. Many of these students' basic skills are so low that there is no longer any understanding of class materials.  According to NELS:88, most Hispanic dropouts during that era had reading levels at or below 2nd grade, with no indication of learning disabilities (at the time, students with any identified exceptionality were excluded from the surveys), or ESL/ELL needs. 

There are depths upon depths upon depths of information that educators--terachers, administrators,researchers--are unable to fathom. Yet these have little or nothing to do with teacher quality or how effective the teacher would be in a class of less impoverished students.  It doesn't even seem to to be related to the language spoken in the home.  My suspicion is that, as a society, we are not providing for the basic human needs of our poorest citizens--food, shelter, clothing, medical care.  I cannot believe that all the nation's poor want to be poor.  I cannot belive that most very poor parents are happy about keeping their eldest children home from school to care for the youngest.  I cannot believe that most poor parents like the idea of being home only long enough to eat a piece of bread and catch a few hours of sleep before returning to one of their several below-subsistence paying jobs, while leaving the oldest child (even if only 7 or 8 years old) in charge of younger ones, in essence guarateening that the child will get no homework assignments done, and probably will not get enough sleep. 

To blame a teacher when a class of students with similar problems performs poorly on tests is unconscionable.  Most of these teachers are among the most dedicated educators I have ever met.  They work so hard to help each individual in their classes learn as much as possible.  Yet, they are threatened with being fired if her/his classes continue to score below some predetermined level.  

I guess what I am trying to say is that this is not an issue that should be blamed solely on educators and educational institutions.  This is an issue that needs to be more thoroughly explored at its social roots. 

Your thoughts?


Monday, December 12, 2011

Autism boom: an epidemic of disease or of discovery?

Before you convince yourself that your two- or three-year-old child may be autistic, please read the following article.

Autism boom: an epidemic of disease or of discovery?

Next, talk to your pediatrician. If the pediatrician determines that your child needs to be evaluated, she/he will refer your child to a developmental pediatrician or a pediatric neurologist. When you speak to the pediatrician, make certain to mention any complications that arose during your pregnancy or the birth process.  Some difficult births are associated with certain neurological problems that can be handled with medications and minimal special services for your child, and chances are extremely good that your child will outgrow the neurological problem before the age of seven.

The point is this: When attentional and hyperactivity disorders (ADD and ADHD, respectively) first began to appear in the media during the early 1970s, the proportion of diagnosed cases increased astronomically. It is not uncommon for general pediatricians to either misdiagnose, or to defer to a parent's frustrations over normal inquisitiveness and simple tendency to enjoy running, jumping, climbing, and other activities that drive parents nuts. True hyperactivity is when a child is never able to stop him/herself until physical exhaustion occurs. However, only a qualified developmental, neurological, or related specialty pediatrician can diagnose the child's activity/attention level and determine whether the child is within normal limits or truly has ADD or ADHA.

The same applies to autism. Although early intervention is always welcome, even in some milder cases of developmental problems that children tend to outgrow, the initial diagnosis by a specialist is paramount to appropriate care. No parent wants a child to receive unnecessary medications.

Before settling on a course of treatment for a diagnosed child, make certain to get a second--even a third--opinion. Make sure to ask all your questions--make a list before you see the general pediatrician and add to it as you speak to specialists--about your child's symptoms, test results, etc.  Once you have settled on a specialist, make certain to make your child's and your own needs a top priority for any treatment program that is recommended. No one knows your child like you do. Your input is valuable, and should be an integral part of whatever treatment program may be recommended. Remember that your input is also helpful in determining whether your child should be "labeled" autistic. Labels follow children around for many years, and may become a source of more gradual social withdrawal on their own.

The following list comes from some of the best sources of knowledge available on autism. Use them as reference, or to guide you to additional sound information. There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet, so you want to start with the best sources so that you can evaluate other sources.

National Institute of Health: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development:

National Institute of Mental Health: has an excellent article called "Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Sorting It Out":

From WebMD:

From the CDC (Center for Disease Control):

From the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association:

Best wishes for your child, you, and your family in determining whether your child is truly autistic!


Monday, May 23, 2011

ESL: Is Improvement at Hand?

On the US Department of Education's blog post, titled: 
ED Wraps Up National Conversations on English Learner Education

Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA)
Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE)
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS)
White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH)

Who knew there are so many special offices/accounts dealing with educational issues? I feel like I've been missing the action somewhere along the line. All these "offices" are having/holding "conversations" and I didn't even know anyone was talking!! It's as though all the old "offices" in existence long before President G.W. Bush came into office have suddenly re-emerged under new names, or have been reborn and celebrated under old ones. Glad to see there have been conversations among these areas and others since April. It may only be a month's worth of conversations, but I'm glad they're occurring. 

ESL has been in need of serious revamping for decades. It's good to see that the idea of putting together programs and creating adequate, appropriate testing are being seriously discussed again. I just wonder if the conversations will lead to action in my lifetime. I may be old, but I'm not that old yet. With the speed at which education normally moves, however, will I still be around when real change occurs?

Here's the link:
ED Wraps Up National Conversations on English Learner Education

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reading: The Foundation of a Good Education

Among the "more you can do" is arithmetic and mathematics. A student needs to be able to read directions, example text, and word problems to move ahead in math; and longitudinal data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicate an almost perfect relationship between math and reading scores. It is a fallacy that students can be proficient in math even if their reading skills are low. Rather, a student with math scores that are disproportionately higher than his/her reading scores is the exception, and represents an infinitesimally small percentage of the student population.

On another note, my granddaughter is involved in TTRR (which is a program discussed in this government post), or a very similar program, and reads well over 100 grade-level-and-above books per year. Although she complains that one of her friends attains higher numbers by reading “easy” books, she still feels an incredible sense of accomplishment each year. My only critique of the TTRR program is that it still tends to leave low SES kids in the dust. And now that RIF (Reading is Fundamental) has lost funding to give needy kids their own reading books, my fear is that the academic achievement gap between poor and middle-class kids will become even wider each year.

Reading: The Foundation of a Good Education

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Recognizing Education's Middle School Syndrome

For decades, educational researchers have felt like Cassandra--heralding the symptoms of school dropout, but being ignored. Will this diverse panel of educationalists finally get the word through to school boards and others who clench tightly the education purse strings? It is so much cheaper to educate a child to begin with than to try to remediate; yet I firmly believe that we can still turn around the potential dropout during middle school, despite the fact that many dropouts start planning their exit strategies before the 8th grade.

Click the national education department's blog link for more.

Recognizing Education's Middle School Syndrome

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Building Teacher-Student Trust

Trust between teacher/instructor and the class is an interesting issue to ponder. Younger students are easy. As yet, most have no reason not to trust a teacher to help them learn. Older kids, on the other hand, come to class lacking trust in their instructor. Many have had negative experiences with teachers, and basically challenge the teacher to prove to them that he/she is worthy of trust. The same students also tend to make it difficult for a teacher to act in such a way as to earn trust.

So where does the trust start? It has to start with the educator.

But what is it that the whole issue of trust is about? How can the educator know where to start?

That's easy. The educator needs to start by respecting every student in his/her class, regardless of the stories that precede the student into the room.

Here's the hard part. The educator should assume that there is something good about the student from Hell, and find that good no matter how small that bit of positive energy is, or how hard it is to find. No matter how many times that student disrespects the teacher, the educator must ignore the negativity and keep looking for the positive. In addition, the teacher must do so for every student in the class while maintaining a positive outlook, generating ownership of the class by the students, and trying to come up with new and interesting activities or anecdotes to share with students so they stay (or get) involved in their own learning.

The bottom line is that, if the educator does not open up and offer trust, many students in the class will remain closed up and learn little--if they learn anything at all. Often, this is the sort of experience that causes teachers to burn out or lose hope. For those educators who continue to look for the positive in older students, however, the rewards are great--often translating into decades in the classroom with a reputation for excellent lessons instead of just two or three years and a reputation for not caring enough.

Interestingly, the teacher does not have to be a fascinating talker or presenter. The teacher can have terrible elocution skills and still become a favorite, and from whom students learn. It's the caring and the continual strife for improvement that holds the students' interest. It's the fact that the teacher cares about what the students want to learn, or is willing to try means by which the students say they learn better. It's the teacher's work toward ensuring each students' educational growth that earns him/her respect. Once there is respect, the foundation for trust has been laid.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Give the Class to the Students!!

What??? Give the class to the students?? What does that mean?

Giving the class to the students gives them a sense of ownership in the class and its contents. To give the students the class, a teacher does not just sit back and let the students do as they please. Instead, the teacher talks about what the official expected outcomes are for the class, what he/she would like to cover, and what the students would like to include. As long as some of the students' input is included in the class curriculum, they will be more apt to put forth more effort for all the academic units. Also, this type of discussion lets students know the types of constraints the teacher has.

If a teacher is reluctant to include students' input into the curriculum, he or she might consider asking students to rate his/her teaching and the content at the end of each class. The informal survey might also include a place for students to offer suggestions for improvement or for types of activities. For the first minute or two of the next class, the teacher might read some of the suggestions, including outrageous ones. For example, make a joke out of the response that suggests that the class be taught at the local fast food restaurant, discussing the quality of the food. However, suggestions the teacher might work with should be read aloud (even discussed), and the implementation of the idea(s) should be as soon as reasonably possible--preferably that day or the next.

Try this, and you will be amazed at how quickly even the doubting students begin to participate more actively in class discussions and activities. The teacher may also notice that complaints about the activities decline. (Students are reluctant to criticize activities suggested by others for fear that their own ideas may be laughed at.)

Giving students this much ownership in the class does not in any way interfere with the curriculum. English teachers may suddenly find that the students are as tired of the "teaching to the English skills" part of the curriculum as they are, and that the students would much prefer to learn from doing rather than through dry exercises involving parsing sentences.

Any time the students feel that a class or classroom belongs to them at least as much as to the teacher, they become more interested in learning. Or maybe they just open up enough to be willing to learn just a little...

Clearly, allowing the students to own the class involves a lot of trust--first on the part of the teacher, and then on the parts of the students. Tomorrow, I'll talk a little about building trust between teacher and class.


I would love both pro and con input. Student ownership of their education is an important concept that needs to be discussed. Please post your comments!


Monday, April 4, 2011

Why Do Students Follow Their Own Rules?

In yesterday's post (Who Writes the Class Rules), I talked about having students write the rules for their class. However, I did not talk about why this is important. Why would students follow their own rules when they break school rules? How different are student-written rules from faculty/administration-written rules?

Students follow their own rules because they came up with them. These rules may not differ qualitatively from the longer lists that adults would write, but they are owned by the students. The students understand what the rules are and what they mean because the rules came from within themselves.

Ownership for students--for any of us, actually--should include not only the rules, but also the class. When students own the class, they are more apt to participate and learn. Tomorrow, I will talk about how to "give" a class to the students.

Please share any comments, ideas, and experiences below. Thanks for sharing my thoughts!

By the way, there are two comments from readers on yesterday's blog--both relate to classes, but one also addresses the idea of participatory "ownership" in business.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who Writes the Class Rules?

Who makes the rules in your classroom?

In the majority of classrooms, teachers allow the school rules to prevail, perhaps adding one or two that are specific to the group of students in the class. There are usually so many rules that they are typed out on a single sheet of 8.5 X 11 (sometimes 8.5 X 14!!) paper, in a small font, and tacked onto a bulletin board. Some teachers, realizing that no one can see them, duplicate the lists so that each child has his or her own copy to keep in a binder. Some of the rules are so trite that it is clear they were individualized. So when the teacher scolds a child and tells him/her that a rule has been broken, the student may have trouble discovering exactly which one (or two, or three).

Students are generally pretty aware of acceptable and unacceptable school and class behaviors. Often they get caught up in a moment and end up with an infraction. Except for a teacher, and possibly peers, the student has no one to remind him/her to hold back. The rules on the wall are too far to read, and the notebook was opened to an assignment--not the list of rules.

So how can teachers make seeing and following rules easier on their students? Have the class write its own rules.

"No way!!" say many educators. But the surprise is how readily the students engage in a rule-making session and, more importantly, how well they follow their own rules!

First, set a limit of how many rules they can have. I suggest 5 to 7. If this sounds low, consider that the students should be combining "similar rules" and discussing their similarities as they make suggestions. Seriously, when we read school rules that go on for a page or two, don't we feel like some are nit-picking? The kids get it--they know what a simple rule like "Keep your hands to yourself" means. It means, "Don't touch, hit, or hurt anyone, and keep your hands off others' stuff!" They don't need a rule for touching, another for hitting, a third for hurting by other means, and a fourth to keep their hands off people's belongings without permission.

Second, make certain each rule is stated positively. Note that "Keep your hands to yourself" is stated in a "positive" way--that is, there are no Do-nots, Don'ts, Nos, or other words with negative connotations. Help the students rephrase negative-worded rules into positive statements.

Third, help students keep the length of each rule short--no more than five or six words per rule, if possible. The simpler the wording, the less the argument when a rule is broken.

Fourth (and most important!!), encourage the students to generate the rules. Be little more than the person recording and re-writing the rules on the Whiteboard. Let the students make the suggestions, give them time for discussion, and allow them to accept or reject each rule as it comes up.

Once the "general" rules are established and accepted by the class, transfer the rules to a sheet of posterboard, and write the rules out in large letters.

Post the rules at the front of the classroom, high enough to be seen by all of them, but clear of visual obstructions. For the first few days of school, review the rules with the students daily for a minute or two at the beginning of class or the school day. Sometimes, more discussion is needed by some students to clarify included behaviors.

During the first few days of school, instead of coming down hard on students who infringe on the rules, point out to them which of the rules the behavior violated. Allow other students to make constructive criticism or offer a better explanation. Your students may find that they need to add a rule or re-state one to accommodate something no one thought of on the first day. Remember that amendments are made all the time to the Constitution. These rules are the class' constitution.

Above all, encourage students to help each other keep from breaking rules. Peer pressure can be positive as well as negative.

Have some sort of reward that the class can earn--perhaps 15 minutes of "free time" (make sure you define allowed activities clearly) at the end of Friday's class if only one person breaks 1 rule during the week, for example. This works better for middle school and high school students who spend limited time in a class each day. For younger children or self-contained classes, the number of broken rules can be higher--at least during the first few weeks of school.

By the way, this also works with college students when class management is a problem.

Let me know what you think of this. If you already do something like this with your classes, share the successes and the unexpected experiences. We'd love to hear from you!!


Friday, April 1, 2011

Taking On a New Challenge: The Ultimate Blog Challenge

Having never done anything like this before, I am taking the challenge to see if I can actually blog for 30 days in a row. (Normally, I manage to blog once every two or three months.) Unlike my more business-oriented colleagues, however, my topics will deal with class management for K-12 teachers, as well as activities for trainers and instructors of adult learners.

It will be interesting to see if I can come up with one new topic a day!!

This will be fun!

BTW, for 411 on this activity, go to

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chinese Students Take Education Very Seriously

With all their extra-curricular activities, American students barely have time to complete their homework. Academic expectations may have been lowered to accommodate their time needs. Certainly, universities look for more than just grades when considering students for admission. This has led to training teachers in creative ways in which information is passed to the students.

By contrast, Chinese students concentrate on academics, often to the exclusion of other activities. There appears to be a concern that such devotion to grades and high test scores may limit imagination. Advertisements from Asian education departments suggest they are actively seeking consultants to teach Asian teachers Western educational techniques, which speaks to this concern.

But how do Chinese students react to the emphasis on academic excellence? Read the following article to find out. Then leave a comment regarding which way you believe is better.

Click on this link for the article: LA Times on Chinese Students