Thursday, November 29, 2012

Each One Counts

For a long time now, I have been harping about class size and today, I would like to compare two of the classes I have had this week.  They aren't strictly comparable - they were different grade levels and in different districts, but since I am not going to make a statistical appeal today, it doesn't really matter that they are not as comparable as one might wish.  Both classes were in relatively well-to-do neighborhoods, with fairly privileged children.  One class had around 24 students, the other had around 32.

In the first case, as a sub, I had 24 names to learn and 24 new students to interact with.  Learning 24 new names each day is doable, though difficult.  Learning 32 names is probably not doable for most subs.  How would you feel if your child was one of the ones the teacher couldn't learn the name of?  Probably, most people would let it slide.  But during the course of his/her schooling each child will have nearly a full year of subs.  One year of being nameless?

In the first class, I could spend a couple of minutes talking to a boy who wanted to tell me about his project; I could spend another few minutes with the know-it-all girl, who needed to show me how competent she was as a teacher's helper; I could talk individually to each child during the literacy block.  In the second school, I got to talk individually to some of the students, but not most of them. 

You know what kids remember most about their schooling? - how the teachers made them feel.  I could feel so much better about my interactions with the class of 24 students than with the class of 32 students.  24 is still a bit bigger than I would like, but 32 is definitely past the point where it is possible to have a significant number of personal interactions.  With 32, there is a lot more time spent keeping kids on task, correcting behavior, and take care of administrative tasks.  With 24, there is room in the classroom to move around to different areas for different types of activities.  With 32, the room is so packed with desks and chairs that there is frequently very little room to maneuver.  With 24, it is easier to get to each student to answer a question or to point out a problem.  With 32, it is much harder.

Each child counts.  Each interaction counts.  When people say that class size doesn't matter, according to research, they are looking at test scores.  Maybe there, it doesn't matter.  I don't really believe that, but that isn't my point today.  Children are much more than test scores.  They are real people who need personal interactions, even the surly kid who doesn't want to talk to the teacher.  Each one needs to know that the teacher cares.  Even if that teacher is "just a sub".

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


I am very annoyed at a certain school district that is very near me. I took a job a couple of weeks ago, double checked and verified it, and even received a reminder about the job yesterday. I get to the school this morning and the teacher is there. She claims she cancelled the job yesterday, when the training was cancelled, but I received no notice of it. The principal offered to pay me for a half day and told me I could help out here and there with special ed and reading support. Those are two areas of work I don't especially enjoy and I think it is unfair to offer me a half day's pay for a day's work. So I came home. And I have lost a full day's pay. Oh, well, $90 doesn't go very far anyway. It is just all I get.

So, once again, I am reminded of how useless I feel - not even needed as a place holder.  Fortunately, I have had two other days this week with different school districts.  One was a very good day; one was an OK day. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Good Day

Yesterday, I had a good day subbing.  I can't say that for every day, but some days make it worth it.  The class was respectful and, above all, NICE.  It was an enjoyable day.

One of the highlights of my day was a young boy.  As a sub, I have no way of knowing if this student is identified as gifted, but I could see it as if it were written in bold letters across his forehead.  He was working on a project about American legends for his reading work.  [And I might say, as an aside, that this might, in fact, be one of the very rare instances that I could actually see differentiation occurring for a gifted student in the classroom.]  He had a list of American legends that he was making a booklet about.  We talked briefly about the ones that he had listed.  He told me they could be either real people or not real people and he had included several that were rather interesting, including one Native American legend.  I made one additional suggestion, Sacajawea, and that was all the time we had.  But it was good.

I had met his teacher when I first arrived there - she was going home sick - and she seemed very nice and competent.  I am glad this young boy has such a good regular teacher. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Differentiation at NAGC

OK, I will admit it - I only went to one day of NAGC this year.  I am a substitute teacher, which means I don't make very much money ($95 per day * around 160 days per year = about $15,200, which isn't enough to live on in most places in the US).  And there were no single day registrations available, unless you registered as a parent and went to parent day.  So, I registered as a parent and then went over to the regular meeting and attended the regular sessions.  Maybe that isn't what I was supposed to do, but the woman working the registration desk was the one who recommended it, so I took advantage of it. 

I met up with two people I knew for lunch, Sally L. and Carolyn K and we got into a discussion about differentiation.  I explained that I am opposed to it.  Carolyn K was rather shocked at my assertion, but I further explained that the reason I was and am opposed to emphasizing differentiation for gifted students is that most teachers can't do it.  It is a great idea, but it just isn't working.  As a substitute teacher, I go to dozens of classrooms a year.  As a former teacher of the gifted, I am always looking for evidence that teachers differentiate their instruction for gifted students.  I don't see it.  Sometimes, I will see different spelling lists for different students; different book groups; or kids moving to a different room for math.  But within the individual classrooms, there just isn't much differentiation to be seen.

Some people have told me that, as a sub, I might not see the differentiation that is going on in the classroom on a regular basis.  This is true.  Oftentimes, teachers will dumb down the lesson plans, so that subs can handle their classes.  But, if this were the case, I would expect to see pointers to some indications that this is a different day - kids unsure about assignments; kids with questions different from the majority of other kids' questions; kids with different materials or working on different assignments.  I see these things for the kids with disabilities and for the kids who are struggling with regular classroom work.  I do not see them for gifted kids.

And, I believe Renzulli himself did a study that showed that teachers he trained thought they weren't doing enough differentiation, that they thought they were doing more than they were, and that observers of their classes saw less differentiation than they even thought they were doing.

As I have said before, I think differentiation within the classroom isn't working - especially for HG+ kids.  It isn't consistent enough, it isn't at the correct level, it isn't supported enough, and it isn't at the correct pace.

And now, for Carolyn K, I have an additional question.  How many of the sessions that you went to at NAGC were differentiated?  For me, it was none.  It wouldn't have mattered if I were a newbie GT teacher or a seasoned veteran, none of the talks I went to adjusted for the level(s) of the audience.  It is true that the talks specifically scheduled for parent day were differentiated for them.  That is the kind of differentiation I support and believe works.  But differentiating a single class is hard.  Most people can't or don't do it.  They can differentiate the offerings, as NAGC does, by having a wide range of choices available.  But within each choice, people just don't differentiate what they offer.  And these presenters had months to prepare.  Regular classroom teachers don't have the luxury of that kind of time. 

I will say it again.  I think we need to emphasize different offerings, not differentiation within a single teacher's classroom.  Most teachers (and NAGC presenters) can't or don't do it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Eating Habits of School Children

This post is taken in part from a book review I published on my other blog  I have augmented the book review with additional comments.  The book is titled:

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

Although I do not have young children any more, I enjoyed reading this book. As a substitute teacher, I go to many different schools and I have previously taught regularly in quite a few more and I am not happy with the eating habits I see kids developing.

It started with water. There was a big push to have kids drink more water and since the water from drinking fountains was often not very good, kids started bringing their own water bottles and keeping them on their desks. Some kids didn't especially like plain water, so they would substitute juice for plain water, which soon was switched out for energy drinks. The morning milk and cookies snack, became the morning juice and crackers snack.

Then came the popular opinion that kids should determine when they were hungry and thirsty, so they should be allowed to eat whenever they felt they needed to. In some schools, VERY MANY of them, actually, this has become "kids can eat all day, whenever they want". Some schools try to regulate the types of snacks that kids can eat - candy is a No, but fruit rollups are OK.  Cookies are frowned upon, but almost all chips are OK.  Consequently, when it comes time for lunch, kids aren't especially hungry.  They have filled up on juice and chips, so where is the appeal of the school lunch or the lunch brought from home?

This has led to an INCREDIBLE amount of food being thrown out - from their school lunches or from their packed lunches, usually food that is higher in nutrition than sweet drinks and chips of various sorts. Even at the high school and middle school level, in MANY schools, kids are eating virtually all day. I had one very chubby second grade girl tell me that she "needed" to eat all day, or else she would suffer from faintness. She could have been telling the truth, I have no way of knowing, but it certainly wasn't doing her any good to be eating all day.

So, it was very interesting to me to read about a different culture where this was not accepted. Kids in France, evidently, eat four meals a day - breakfast, mid-day meal, after school snack, and dinner.  These are eaten at fairly strict times and there is virtually NO snacking outside of these times.  If the kids are hungry, that is considered a good thing - they will eat well when the time comes.  Kids eat regular adult foods - no macaroni and cheese for the kids, while the adults eat something exotic.  It is accepted that kids won't like foods the first few times they taste them and it is expected that they will eventually learn to like all of them. 

The only problem with this book for me personally is that I really do not like to cook. It made me wish very much that I did.

I must also admit to skimming a lot of the latter part of the book. Still, if either of my daughters ever decide to have children, I may seriously consider buying this for them.

And should I ever have a say in the matter, I would also seriously advocate for changing the eating habits of children in American schools.  Many, many years ago, I worked for a year and a half in a private school in the eastern part of the United States.  At this school, there were two teachers for every grade level (the regular teacher and an assistant teacher).  The whole school ate lunch at the same time and it was served family style from their own kitchen.  Two teachers headed up tables with approximately 20 students, two from each class.  Any extra teachers ate at the same time at a separate table.  Kids were encouraged to try everything, but no one was forced to eat anything.  I remember how good the food was and how relaxed the meal was.  No rushing through the eating in order to be the first ones to line up for recess.

I have also subbed at a Montessori school in Alaska, where the kids set the tables with tablecloths and and candles and the teacher sat with around 8 of the students at one table (on a rotating basis).  They, too, were encouraged to eat only wholesome foods and, although they were allowed one snack per day, it was usually one that was brought in by one student from an approved range of choices.

The above two examples illustrate that it is entirely possible to set up lunch in schools in the United States differently from how they are currently structured.  I think we need to take a serious look at the structure of eating and drinking in most schools in the US.  Juice and chips all day don't make for good nutrition or healthy children.