Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was interesting and brought up a number of observations about introverts that made sense to me.  It has colored my reading of several educational psychology studies that I have read concurrently.  There were times when I wished the author had edited it down a bit, but I must admit that those extra anecdotes did keep me reading, whereas straight exposition might not have. 

I have known for a long time that I am an introvert, but it always puzzled me how an introvert like me could also be a teacher, since teachers have to interact with SO MANY people in the day.  Moreover, I am a substitute teacher and I have to interact with many NEW people every day I work.  The explanation helps me understand why I am SO TIRED when I get finished with a day of subbing and also why, though I know I SHOULD "network" with other teachers at lunch time, instead, I retreat to the classroom and eat alone and in peace.   

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Common Core and the Common Good and Where the Smart Kids Are: Comments on Recent Blog Posts by Famous People

 This post is in regard to the following two articles: 

The Common Core and the Common Good

Where the Smart Kids Are

From what I see, Mr. Blow (The Common Core and the Common Good) is correct.  There is nothing wrong per se about the common core standards.  What is wrong is how they are being implemented and general conditions of teaching these days.  Teachers work directly with students too many hours of the day and don't have nearly enough time to prepare lessons, to look for top quality lessons, to grade student products, to work with other teachers, to work with parents, etc. It is as though you were being given a test on your knowledge of differential equations, before you had a chance to study them, and were then given a test on the subject, to be completed in 10 minutes.

I am wondering if it is even possible that Common Core will be implemented well.  Schools are on such stringent budgets right now; class sizes are rising higher and higher; curriculum specialist positions have been cut drastically.  My sister is the assistant superintendent for a school district and they have repeatedly cut her budget.  Many years ago, she had curriculum coordinators in each of the broad subject areas, but over the years they have cut and cut and much of the burden has fallen solely on her.  People just can't get it into their heads that teachers and school administrators have to have enough time and support to do their jobs well.  Yes, you need well trained, intelligent teachers, but you can't get by with hiring just one of those well-trained, intelligent people and expecting them to do the jobs of several people at once.

And as for Annie Murphy Paul's article about students in high schools in other countries, I believe that the problem starts at a much younger age than high school.  I was subbing in a school recently in a mixed-age classroom of 3rd and 4th graders.  I asked the students I taught (as per teacher instructions) what the best part of their day was. The answer was overwhelmingly “recess”, followed by “going home”. When pressed to mention something they had done DURING instructional time, most of the students could not think of a single thing. The students seem to think that education is something that is done TO them and not what they do for themselves. There is no buy-in to the process. They aren’t interested in the gimmicks that we try to use to get them involved; they aren’t interested in finding out answers to any questions. In fact, they don’t even HAVE any questions more complex than where to get paper and pencils, how much time they have until recess or lunch. They have no concern for the abysmal quality of their work, because, in fact, it doesn't seem to them that it is THEIR work, it is work they have to do for the teacher.

The students were supposed to write a "sticker story".  Using stickers to make a picture or using stickers to represent individual words, they were to write a story with details and a beginning, middle, and end.  They were to use grammar and spelling as well as they possibly could.  This writing was to become part of their portfolios.  It is a good thing this is the "before" sample, as I found the writing to be terrible.  Some of the stories were clever and humorous (considering that they were 3rd and 4th graders), but the mechanics of the stories were awful.  Most of the students could not even print correctly (mixtures of capital and small letters at random).  Most did not capitalize or punctuate correctly.  Spelling was abysmal.  And very few of the stories actually followed the directions, with a beginning, middle, and end.  I helped a number of kids get a story outline, but even that didn't help.  Many of the students told me that they weren't good at X, one (or more) of the requirements of the writing, so they simply gave up.  We just can't allow students to say this.  We have to STOP giving students a pass on this.  We need to insist that they keep trying until they CAN do it.  We have to help them learn to CARE about the quality of THEIR work. 

Another assignment that they had was to compute the "value" of their names, given that A = 1 cent, B = 2 cents, and so forth.  Even though they insisted that they had done this "last year" and it was "2nd grade work" (which they were, actually, correct about), there was at least 1/3 of the class that couldn't do it.  They couldn't figure out how to write their names and assign each letter a "value", and ultimately, they couldn't add a sequence of 7 or 8 (or however many) numbers.  And, yes, this WAS modeled for them. 

Now, I know that I am "just a sub", but I know, also, that it takes time to make sure that each of the students gets help in doing the assignment.  Fortunately, two students were absent from an already not-so-big class (21 students; 19 there today), so I was able to help individually the students who could not do the assignment - and to make sure that the ones who tried to hide that they couldn't do it were still held to its completion. But many teachers are not fortunate to have such small classes. 

We have to stop allowing students to say that they aren't good at something.  That is the whole reason for them being in school - to learn to be better at things.  Teachers seem to have the mantra now that students should be valued for their differences and that students don't need to be good at everything.  That is certainly still true, but they can and should be held to being much better at the fundamentals - and I include arithmetic and basic writing as part of those fundamentals.  We can't keep allowing kids to beg off doing better than this. 

I was disappointed and discouraged by the level of skills I saw.

There are times when I would like to turn the whole school model upside down.  I subbed once in a school for teenage students who, either because of jobs or child care responsibilities or disciplinary reasons could not attend a regular high school.  Instead, they came in whenever they could to a large, open space room.  In the center of this room were tables and computers for student access.  Around the periphery of the room were cubicles for the teachers.  Students could make appointments with the teachers for instructional time, either individually or in groups, or could just ask teachers questions during the course of their work.  Yes, there were requirements, but, like the Korean schools, the requirements were in the form of exit exams for various courses or various types of diplomas.  It was the STUDENT's goal to finish the coursework.  The teachers were there to help.

I would like to see this type of buy-in at the younger grades, too.  Kids come to school so eager to learn and then it gradually disappears, until by 3rd or 4th grade, they are already jaded.  I wish I could be a long term observer in some other countries around the world to see what it is about their schools and their cultures that keeps students committed to THEIR educations. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

Getting Ready for a New School Year as a Sub

The "Back to School" sales have started and I have started thinking about the upcoming school year.  I have already done a few of the practical things.  I bought a large pack of pencils, some eraser tops, a package of loose leaf paper, some dry erase markers, a ruler, and, yes, a bit reluctantly, stickers.  Even with a teacher discount that came to almost $40 - nearly half of a day's pay.  And it certainly won't be all I spend out of my own money.  Printer paper, needed for printing up emergency lessons, printer ink, notebooks to organize lesson ideas, books for extra read-a-loud times.  Sometimes I wonder if I would save money by just retiring from subbing.  Gas is getting to be so expensive; school-appropriate clothes are, too. 

Then there are the legal things.  I have already told the three school districts that I subbed for last year that I would be returning, but I may take one of those districts off of my list.  The main road that I need to use to get there is always congested, but will be a whole lot worse this year, due to construction.  The alternate road that I could use, I won't use in the winter, because it is scary to me then - strong cross winds on slippery and steep highways make me nervous.  I have also applied to sub in an additional neighboring district.  I need several districts, in case they decide to limit subs to fewer than 30 hours, in order to avoid having to offer us health insurance.  I would actually like to sub in fewer districts, not more, so I could get to know some of the schools, teachers, secretaries, and most of all kids better, but I am cutting down on the grade levels and subjects that I will sub for, so I might need at least three school districts, in order to stay reasonably busy. 

And, I am steeling myself to keep my self-esteem in tact, in spite of not being able to earn anywhere near a reasonable salary.  Even if I sub EVERY school day, 180 X around $95 ==> around $17,100, which doesn't even come close to something one could live on here.  And, this year, I will have to buy my own health insurance, since my husband is retiring and moving to Medicare and I am not quite old enough for that. 

And there are lots of other things I need to think of too:  how to organize my emergency lesson plans, where can I find new things to interest kids in the odd times here and there that come up unexpectedly - an assembly is cancelled; the materials for a planned lesson aren't available; the lesson that a teacher had planned isn't enough to fill the time slot.  I look for things all year long, actually, but now I need to be able to have them available right at hand. 

And, most importantly, I need to think about the kids I will meet and teach.  What can I offer them in a single day that will help make their lives better?  How can I be more than just a place holder for a day?  And will I get to see any of the kids I taught last year again this year?  There are a few I would love to see again. 

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Re: Before Reading or Watching Videos, Students Should Experiment First by David Plotnikoff

Thoughts about this article: 

General conclusion:  it is more effective for students to experiment BEFORE learning about something through text or video than doing the same lessons in the opposite sequence (text or video first, then experimentation).

My thoughts:
I think this is true for a lot of science. When I was a kid (100+ years ago), kids had lots of active experience with science - collecting rocks, growing vegetables, building dams in the creek, using a teeter-totter. When they came to school, the science lesson used practical experience to build the theory on. Nowadays, kids have lots of virtual and digital experience, but much less hands-on experience - many have never hammered nails or fixed a bicycle or made cakes from scratch. So the theoretical lessons often aren't rooted in personal knowledge. 

In school, many teachers have found that manipulatives are difficult to manage with large classes, so those lessons have disappeared - at least it appears so to me. I am a sub and I often find unopened manipulatives and shrink-wrapped science kits in teachers' classrooms at the end of the school year. 

Many years ago, I was tasked to teach gifted classes, with no specific curriculum and few materials.  I did have a hot plate and some beakers, though, so I decided to teach a Kitchen Physics-like set of lessons - with sugar cubes, food dye, water, and the beakers and hot plate (and a thermometer).  The kids were skeptical at first.  They wanted me to tell them what to do.  So, I started with a simple experiment on how long it would take the sugar cube to dissolve in the water.  And I asked them what else they needed to know.  I helped them frame a group experiment in a scientific way.  Hypothesis, test, explain, discuss what is still unclear.  The first few times through the cycle, they didn't even know how to ask questions, but soon they caught on and were completely surprised at how interesting the simple system could be. 

Kids enjoy the hands-on lessons, but I fully agree with teachers that they are harder to manage with ever increasing class sizes and substantially less time that can be devoted to science. 

Thursday, August 01, 2013

A Thought Experiment - the Able Teaching the Less Able

Imagine for a moment, you are required by your boss to attend a workshop for training purposes.  Unfortunately, the workshop topic is something you already know a lot about, maybe even more than the person teaching the workshop.  The instructor breaks the whole group into smaller groups to work on part of the topic.  No one in your group understands the topic very well, so you spend a lot of time showing them how to do it.  Some of them get it, but it takes so long to explain it to a few of them that you get a bit frustrated.  You could be spending your time actually doing your work, rather than wasting it this way.  In fact, you are a bit resentful that the instructor is getting paid a lot to teach this workshop and you have to pretend to be patient with it for the whole DAY.  What a waste!

Now, imagine that you had to do this EVERY DAY, probably for the next dozen years.  And add to that that you are a person who thrives on challenge, a person who craves complexity, depth, exploration. 

And now imagine how a gifted child feels when s/he is asked to help the slower kids in the class.  Occasionally, it can be fun.  Sometimes, it helps you understand the topic better.  But as a daily routine it is excruciatingly painful.