Monday, November 23, 2015

Places for Books

I recently read an article which complained that award-winning children's books are not being read. I didn't find that surprising since I have taken many groups of children to the library. From what I've seen, the award-winners are read, but not as much as the popular series such as Harry Potter, Unfortunate Events, and Captain Underpants.

Children and adults generally enjoy reading popular literature more than classics, and since children are just beginning to read there is a need to make reading enjoyable with popular material. While some children like to have these books read to them, most kids manage to plow through them on their own. Because these popular series  encourage the young reader to read more, they should be applauded. "Yes, but," we say, "we want to expose children to good literature." Well, for the younger child good literature probably needs to be read to them. That is a role for a parent or grandparent.  Reading the classics to children improves their vocabulary, their general knowledge, and their ability to understand good writing. Many stories in classics do move slower than those in popular literature, but having quiet time with an adult is worth the time spent. This is not to say that a child might not want to read The Secret Garden or Charlotte's Web on their own, but many do better if introduced to this type of reading by a parent. 

What about school? Should teachers be exposing students to classic literature?  Yes, they should, but teachers also have children read another type of book. I call these "chapter books filled with teachable moments".  One example is By the Great Horn Spoon!  My students enjoyed the book and I loved to teach it. Why? Because it gave children a chance to learn geography, history, and literary techniques. The book was about a little boy headed to find his fortune in California during the gold rush of 1849.  He lived in Boston and took a ship (as a stowaway with his butler) to the gold fields. What made reading in class different?  As each chapter was read, maps were pulled down, the Internet was searched for information about clipper ships, Patagonia was researched, and metaphors (which were abundant in this book) were explained.  Although it would be a great book for a child to read on her own, or for a parent to read to a child, we all know there would be no maps or metaphors referred to while the book was being read in that setting.

So perhaps we need to think of the multitude of settings in which children should be exposed to books. There are books to be owned: the cherished favorites.  Books to be borrowed and read, which is why we have libraries. Books for parents to read to their children. Books librarians read to small groups of children, (often these are the award winning books) - and books read at school. The book types may overlap, but the different settings all serve a function: helping children realize the joy of the written language, acquire the knowledge that can be gained, enjoy the delight of good art, and explore the world; its past and present and maybe even its future.

Monday, November 16, 2015

1+1 = ? Remember to Explain Your Answer

I am meeting more and more children who are having difficulty with basic arithmetic. Many of them are finding 1st and 2nd grade math difficult, if not impossible. Their parents are dealing with crying, frustrated, bewildered children. Parents, not sure of what the problem is, are turning to tutors for help. Often I find the child is struggling not with math but with language requirements. Many of these children can do simple arithmetic, but they can't explain how they do it. They also cannot explain how gravity takes them down a slide or explain the difference between the words a and the in a sentence. Children manage, however, to play on a slide and to use correct articles when speaking.

The new standards for math demand explanations. The mantra is, "We want students to understand math." One would hope that those who create tests reported to measure a child's "understanding" of a subject would themselves have an understanding of child development. 

There are many things in life a child does before being able to explain them. There are many things an adult does that he may have difficulty explaining. How many drivers can explain in detail what happen mechanically in a car when they hit the brakes? How many can explain the physics involved as the car stops?

A recent Atlantic article about the push for students to explain math was one of the few articles I have seen that discusses the problems some students have with this process. Although this article referred to middle school I have found that the push to explain one's answer starts in elementary school. Students on the autism spectrum, students with language problems, and students with delayed speech are put at a disadvantage when asked to explain, even with they can quickly and accurately find the answer to several of the same types of math problems.

Many younger children may not have yet developed the thought process which gives them the ability to explain the abstract. Some young students have problems with the eye hand coordination needed to circle or created the tiny lines and blocks needed to show regrouping in addition and subtraction. It is important to allow children to use concrete items when learning arithmetic. The fact that many children need these items makes one question their ability to then verbalize let alone write about an abstract algorithm. The other reality is that sometimes it is very difficult to explain in words something very simple. Some ideas are so simple that it takes a philosopher to make it convoluted through an explanation. 

Too often teachers are asked to encourage math discussions with children who get confused by the various suggested methods. While middle schoolers may have an aha moment when a peer discusses a math shortcut, a 7 year old may tune out because they haven't mastered the method, and don't have a true foundation to understand shortcuts.

Some students hit a math wall when introduced to fractions. Others hit a wall when introduced to algebra. I would be interested to see how many are hitting the wall when learning addition and subtraction today compared to a few decades ago.

There are many adults who claim to be "bad at math." Because of demands placed on them to "understand the math," some children who may get the process, and later with practice and maturity might understand the underlying concepts, decide early on that math is too hard. What good does it do to work one's way through a math problem, get the correct answer, and then be deemed ignorant because you can't give an adult explanation of how you got that answer?

We are not even going to touch the problem of children who can explain what they did in math (perhaps through memorization) and get credit for that explanation; but who seldom get the correct answer to a basic arithmetic problem. While it is true they will be using calculators someday, one wonders at the ability to explain without the ability to produce.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Teaching vs. Paperwork

Many years ago I went back to school to get certified to teach special education. In the U.S. teaching certification credentials are given by each state, but much of special education consists of following ....  federal laws! So a majority of the class time was focused on learning the national laws that apply to this field. What I received for my time and money was a brief overview of the various teaching methods one might use in the various types of special education, and an in-depth study of the federal laws that apply to special education students.

When I completed the course of study and satisfied the other requirements, I decided to look for a job. After checking out several public schools I decided to teach in a private school. Why? Because at that time I wasn't not impressed at the working conditions for special education in public schools. Most of the resource rooms I checked out consisted of many children going in and out while the resource teacher (also expected to deal with behavior problems that might arise in other classrooms) helped them with modified work. There was very little time for remediation and interruptions were more common than those in the regular classroom. I am sure there were some excellent resource rooms out there, but obviously the teachers in those situations decided to stay put. I spend almost ten years in a private school for children with learning differences. My classes never exceeded eleven students. When I started working at that private school the focus was on the children's needs, and the school had a successful record of remediation as well as modifications.

Special education in the public school still seems to have its problems. This article attributes the difficulty in finding and keeping special education teachers to  the large amount of paperwork required.  People who love to teach seldom make enough money to hire an admin assistant. That causes the reams of paperwork that accompany teaching a child under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to fall into the teacher's workload. It also means that the teacher realizes that if anyone may be sued, due to a parent's dissatisfaction on how their child is being or not being taught, it usually includes the teacher. This is one reason certification for special education focuses on how to fill out paperwork rather than how to teach. Finally large amounts of paperwork and meetings are two reasons that many qualified teachers (teachers who may have been excellent at working with children with special needs) leave the field fairly quickly. Thus schools find themselves unable to comply with the federal mandate requiring certified special educators.

Because of the establishment of  IDEA there are many children receiving an education in public school who would have been sent home 50 years ago. There is a now place in schools for children with physical, mental, emotional, and learning differences. There is an expectation that these children can learn.  But in an effort to be all things to all children the in-the-trenches art of teaching is being watered down. I understand the need for paperwork in an attempt to insure that the intent of the law is followed - although many a parent with an excellent Individual Education Plan (IEP) in their file cabinet will tell you that they doubt that the plan is really being followed. But an over abundance of paperwork, schedules, and due dates means that less attention can be giving to the act of teaching. Good teachers lose the joy of teaching, good schools find themselves unable to meet federal mandates for certified special education teachers, and students . . . well, too many students find themselves unable to read the paperwork that assures them their individual needs will be met.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Still Learning

Recently I signed up for an Internet Spanish course.  It seemed a bit like buying a lottery ticket, although I probably have a greater chance at winning the lottery than learning another language. Having sat through numerous college classes, viewed foreign TV marathons, taken adult ed, made friends who speak no English, I still do not know another language. When I lived outside the U.S. my new friends and neighbors, seemingly through their acquaintance with me, learn enough English to discuss Plato. Despite all my efforts, when I left their country I could say yes, no, and order a glass of wine.

For my next attempt to learn a new language I selected a self-paced course through fluencia.  The first few lessons are free but then I have to pay. I hesitated, decided I needed a challenge, and spent the money. What did I learn? Well, yes I am learning that while I am still terrible at languages I can pick up a bit of Spanish. But this endeavor is reminding me of some teaching truths:
  1. It helps when materials are presented in more than one way. The method fluencia uses is basically: hear it, see it, try it, repeat it.  Too often we do not give children several ways to learn a topic. Just listen! we tell them. "Are you listening?" we ask when they don't quite get it.  Well, I listen but it sure helps me to see it, too. 
  2. Speaking of listening. I am amazed at the simple things I forget that I just heard and saw. I find myself forgetting something that I supposedly learned two minutes ago. When children are learning new information, even when they are paying attention, sometimes they forget. As adults we tend to forgo things that are difficult. We then forget how the brain reacts to learning difficult new material.
  3. Old knowledge helps. The fact that I know what an article or infinitive is helps me recognize some of my mistakes. Past knowledge often helps children learn new material.
  4. Old knowledge hinders. I tend to want to type the Spanish word cu├ínto with a qu. The kw sound is wired into my typing fingers as a qu.  The child who learns something incorrectly such as writing "sed" for "said" has to work doubly hard at losing the habit.
  5. Learning strengths are deceptive. I think that I have a good auditory memory. Actually I have a great memory for conversations. When I was a journalist I seldom took detailed notes because I could remember exact words spoken. I realize when attempting to learn Spanish that my auditory memory depends on context. Just because a child can memorize a poem, Pokemon cards, or name 50 dinosaurs does not mean he can easily remember all the vowel sounds.
  6. Small steps also help. So do hints. When given a word bank (a set of words) I can arrange then into a coherent answer to a question given in Spanish. Ask me to just answer the question without giving me some words to use and the results are not nearly as coherent. Having the word bank  is a good step in the right direction. It helps me realize that I am learning. It does not mean, however, the material has been learned.  I will not always have a word bank and must venture out on my own. Yes, word banks can be a helpful modification for children with LDs, but they need to be weaned away from them.  Life seldom provides modifications. 
  7. Rewards help. Just seeing that I am on a 7-day learning streak makes me determined not to break it. This is not a major reward for children so stickers, checks, etc. do have a place in education. Having skin in the game also helps. I paid for a year long course and remind myself not to waste money. This helps me force myself to try the exercises every day. Children are sent to school. Despite what we tell them most really haven't invested anything to be there. So remember the rewards.
  8. Repetition is essential. When I am learning something difficult I need to have the ability to go back and review constantly. As a adult I select the areas I need to repeat. For some children the chance to decide what to review would delight them, giving them the opportunity to be in charge of their learning. Most children, however, don't know what they forgot so ongoing review of everything is essential. Often children are rushed through a skill. They may say "Got it," but without repetition and practice the new skill is never really learned. It is essential that children who need time to learn material have that time. 
  9. Long breaks don't help. A short trip out of town interrupted my learning. Getting back in the habit was difficult. Children with LDs often show regression after a four-day weekend. The summer break can be devastating to their learning.
I believe adults benefit from the experience of learning something difficult every now and then. It can be a physical or mental challenge, but it needs to be outside of the circle of things that are easy. The lessons learned help our interactions with children and get us out of any self-imposed ruts. It is a great gift to our children and to ourselves.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Education's Paradox: All or Nothing?

When a child is having difficulty in school parents are faced with a paradox. Most people in the U.S. agree that all children are entitled to a "good" education. All children currently add up to almost 50 million public school students taught by over 3 million teachers. Because our population is so diverse it is becoming more difficult for teachers to give special attention to all who need it.   

All parents want their child (who is one in 50 million) to have a great teacher. This would mean of the three million teachers working we hope they are all experienced, intelligent, loving, knowledgeable, excellent teachers. Oh, and these excellent people should ignore better paying jobs. And ignore anyone questioning better pay for teachers because they get so much time off. This, of course, is from people who declare they would go crazy staying home all day with their own children. 

These excellent teachers should forgo jobs with better working conditions and dedicate themselves to students who may be hungry, angry, tired, noisy, or perhaps even . . . creating discipline problems. It has been reported that in a single year 145,100 public school teachers have been physically attacked by students and another 276,700 had been threatened with injury by a student.

Classrooms may include students who don't speak English, have emotional, physical, or learning differences, or who simply don't want to be at school. And it is not just the teacher's efforts and attention that has to be divided among these students. Your child may be distracted in a classroom by students working diligently at getting attention: negative or positive.

So worried that your child isn't on grade level, or may have a Learning Difference, or is just really unhappy at school, you may decide to check out private schools. This of course requires money, availability, and often the realization that while private schools claim to be selective - dollars hold sway here, too. And while some great teachers may love the idea of smaller more disciplined classes, others cannot or will not take the pay cut. Of course, some private school have larger, or less disciplined classes than some public schools.

If you find yourself staying awake nights wondering what to do about your child's K-5 education there are a few things to ponder:
  1. If you had one or two days of problems but most of the year things have been going well -- relax. Everyone has good and bad days -- in childhood and adulthood.
  2. If there is a physical danger to your child or he is consistently beaten down emotionally put all your efforts in finding another place: private, home or another public school. It can be done.
  3. If you are worried about the academic content, but feel that overall school is OK, supplement. Get a tutor,  find supplemental material for your child to work on during the summer or on a few weekends a month. Remember museums, zoos and libraries have classes for children. Do research before and during vacation trips to teach your child history and geography.  Show her how to make change or measure a room for a rug. Cook with your child.  Talk about important ideas with other adults in front of your child. Read, read, read to your child.
  4. If you are worried that your child is has a learning problem talk to her teacher about getting your child tested. Join a group that will walk you through the process of getting help in a public school. Find a tutor with experience teaching children with learning problems. Research the Internet to see what is available. Check this Pinboard for ideas on how you can help your child.
Remember there is no perfect school for your child. There is not a perfect school for any child. We all learn to live with imperfections. Acknowledge any big problems, take care of them, and don't sweat the small stuff.