Friday, September 30, 2011

Great Expectations

"Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them." -Lady Bird Johnson

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." -Albert Einstein

Children are incredible perceptive, whether they are fully aware of it or not. And they take their cues from adults, the media, the general public, the government even. It may not be said directly, but some kids are not expected by the adults in their lives to do well in school, or to graduate, or to go to college, or to do much of anything. Which is sad--every kid has enormous potential, but when we separate them, we set them on an expected path for success, mediocracy, or failure--say in tracts in high school (AP/Honors, Vocational, etc.), or segregate schools. Yes, I suppose that's a charged word. But don't try to tell me that students aren't segregated. No, not by the color of their skin necessarily (although that is often the case as it ends up), but mostly socio-economically, based on neighborhood and whether they have the resources for private school, or have the chance to go to a successful charter school. It wouldn't be an issue if everyone were given access to the same resources at schools--then it shouldn't matter as much if your neighborhood happens to be all white, or all hispanic, or all whatever you might be. I suppose this is why some cities do city-wide bussing--but St. Paul just moved back toward a neighborhood school model. (With certain schools--like mine, unique in its arts-integration--keeping city-wide bussing).

But this isn't just on a school-wide level--where some schools, based on population are expected to do better, but on a personal level as well. If a teacher gets it into their head that a student is a low performer, or has poor behavior, you know what? That student will continuously perform well or behave poorly. Kids have a knack for meeting your expectations. It may not be at a conscious level, but a teacher will treat a student differently based on expectations, whether it's slightly less individual attention, or unknowingly giving up early on a kid, the kid will feel it. Recently-ish I came across this article (Thanks Stefani/twitter!) about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was all very interesting (me being a psych major and all), but maybe not directly education related, until....
"One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role? I teach at an inner city high school in Oakland. These kids don't have to go through experiments to witness horrible things. But what frustrates my colleagues and me is that we are creating great opportunities for these kids, we offer great support for them, why are they not taking advantage of it? Why are they dropping out of school? Why are they coming to school unprepared? I think a big reason is what the prison study shows—they fall into the role their society has made for them." -Richard Yacco
Yacco summed up what I could probably never put into a nice, succinct, eloquent statement. And touched upon a point that I see so much at school. We do our best to teach our kids to be good people--be nice to others, blah blah blah. And it seems like they get it--that they understand and see where we're coming from, and then the next thing you know, this sweet kid is in the office for hitting another kid.

So what do you do? I don't know, you tell me. I'm just going to pay attention to how I treat my students, and consciously continue to believe in the potential of every last one of them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sharing is Caring

My first couple of weeks have been great, mainly because it's refreshing to be back with the kids at school. As much fun as I had in August helping out teachers and being around the school and not having to dress nice, and chatting with staff members, having students in the building reminded me why I am here. And it's so different coming in knowing kids and staff--I feel so much more confident going into this year than I did for the first half of last year. However, I've also had this slow-motion start. For a lot of different reasons, my first couple of weeks have been pretty unstructured and un-busy. This won't be for much longer-I'll start working with kids soon, and it'll all be good. But until then, I've spent some time making little tasks last longer than necessary, and reading up on some online news articles. Which I could argue are mostly education related, and so helps with my professional development, so it's okay that I'm doing this at work. Anyway, I thought I'd make this post a little share-fest, with no overarching theme.
We should take great care not to kill the idealism of the younger generation. [...]  AmeriCorps is not a cure-all for that adversity, but it will give more hope, and research shows some impressive returns for the communities served by AmeriCorps, as well as for the members themselves. For a small living stipend and a scholarship after service is complete, AmeriCorps members meet pressing local and national needs. They invest in their country, and their country invests in them.
Let's think about this for a moment: America needs jobs. America needs to figure out its budget. But what the government wants to cut are programs like AmeriCorps. Well gee, that makes so much sense. Let's cut a program that not only provides jobs, but jobs where the employees are serving in tough areas for not a lot of money. And what is AmeriCorps reminiscent of? The Civilian Conservation Corps, which Franklin Roosevelt successfully started to address unemployment during the Great Depression.

“This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”  
“All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day,” he said. “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’ ”
“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” 
Besides the sweet pictures that go along with this article (seriously, take a second look-they're way cooler than they seem), these ideas of character traits and success fascinated me, psych major that I am. What I think most interested me was the discussion of the difference between the population who attends expensive private schools and KIPP school students. 

When implementing a character curriculum, you could give KIPP students a "character point average," and it would be motivating to work on weaknesses because it's been shown that these traits help get into college. But for the private school kids, character would just become another test to beat. College wouldn't be the same motivation, because there is never any question about whether those kids are going to college. Either way though, character is important. Those who have certain traits--like grit or zest, are more likely to succeed and persevere through the challenges of college.

The application of such research-based strategies to homework is a yet-untapped opportunity to raise student achievement. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen.
It's frustrating to see that there is so much research out there that helps illuminate how kids best learn, and what works and what doesn't in schools, but that for the most part, policy makers are running in the opposite direction, mostly for monetary reasons. 

The most credible analyses have shown that the chief causes were not demographics or TV watching, but vast curricular changes, especially in the critical early grades. In the decades before the Great Verbal Decline, a content-rich elementary school experience evolved into a content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.
Verbal scores on the SATs have been declining. Not just verbal scores--today we looked at our MCA test results and everyone in St. Paul declined in math. Reading was mixed. But no one was too close to the 100% NCLB wants for 2014. It's not realistic. Not if the results you demand basically ends up with teaching to tests. Tests that aren't necessarily fair in the first place. And now you're not fostering a love of learning, you're creating an environment where kids don't want to be. It's heartbreaking when every now and then a kid tells me he or she hates school. Yes, we need standards, and objective measures, but we also need kids to graduate--and be literate.

“The real take-home message,” said Peter Ellison, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard who was not involved in the study, is that “male parental care is important. It’s important enough that it’s actually shaped the physiology of men. Unfortunately,” Dr. Ellison added, “I think American males have been brainwashed” to believe lower testosterone means that “maybe you’re a wimp, that it’s because you’re not really a man. My hope would be that this kind of research has an impact on the American male. It would make them realize that we’re meant to be active fathers and participate in the care of our offspring.”
 This article is about how fathers, especially those involved in their children's lives show lowered testosterone levels. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher about one of her students last year. T can be a trouble maker, but he'll admit it. He knows right from wrong, he just has poor impulse control. He also looks up to his dad--last year he was almost in tears because his dad said he'd come to this school event, but hadn't shown up. Unfortunately, his dad isn't the role model T needs--seems to care more about his car than his kid. So his testosterone is probably as high as it ever was. It's heartbreaking, because there's so much potential, and so much a teacher can't control. Especially when most teachers are female--boys need strong male role models, and so many just aren't getting them.

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.
Decision fatigue is an interesting topic that is putting a name to something many of us already experience. The more decisions you make throughout the day, the less will power you'll eventually have. Once you've depleted those energy stores, there are two common responses. One, is impulsive--buy that Cosmopolitan or that pack of gum when checking out at a grocery store. Get some fries on your way home from work. Buy some shoes/books/movies that you don't really need online. Maybe this is why I (and my parents) often go to REI for one thing, and walk out with five. Spend enough time picking out the item we came for, and get distracted by that nice sweater on sale.  The second response is to maintain the status quo--stick with the default choice, or avoid making a choice at all. This is why people who are up for parole are more likely to get it if they're early in the day--once the decision fatigue sinks in, keeping someone in jail is the safer choice, and can be changed later.

And just like anything I post on this blog, there's the connection to education, which stuck out to me. Even though my kids may not be making most of their decisions--there parents are making those tough trade offs for them--the effect of decision fatigue is still going to hurt them. If their parents don't have the energy to focus on education, you lose some support from home, and parental support is a huge factor in success in school.


The main reason I'm sharing this article is for the following quote:
When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. “Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water.” 
Bogin is the founder of the New Humanitarian School in Moscow, where the author sent his three kids while he was living in Russia as a NYTimes foreign correspondent. It was interesting to read about the challenges they went through--but also that this school was not like one you might expect from Russia. One small part of the article that struck me the most was the brief discussion of the almost rebellious success of the school, and the government's reaction-or lack thereof.
He had devised a compelling model that could help rescue the education system. But he was ignored [...] “The authorities do not prevent him from working, but they don’t have any use for him either,” Fadeyev said. “They don’t understand that education reform is the only real source for the revitalization of our country.”
And it struck me that maybe, as high and mighty Americans think we are compared to other countries in terms of democracy and freedom and such, maybe we're not that different from Russia in that we're overlooking education. Overlooking what works best for our children in favor of what looks best from the perspective of lawmakers, and in favor of not spending money.

But how do we expect to entice the best and brightest to become teachers when we keep tearing the profession down? We take the people who so desperately want to make a difference that they enter a field where they know that they’ll be overworked and underpaid, and we scapegoat them as the cause of a societywide failure. 
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to reform our education system. We should, and we must. Nor am I saying that all teachers are great teachers. They aren’t. But let’s be honest: No profession is full of peak performers. At least this one is infused with nobility. 
 Well, maybe if we start treating teachers with the respect they deserve, then the best and brightest may stick around. There are some amazing teachers out there--I work alongside many of them--but it's hard when everyone higher on the food chain beats them down and institutes policies that make them put in more work than necessary, you take some of their energy from pursuing their passion, and pour it down the drain of stupid requirements that takes the fun and creativity out of teaching. 

It's heartening to find articles that back up what I'm thinking about--it means that I'm not having these crazy radical thoughts, and that as it turns out I do, in fact, have a grasp on reality. It gives me hope that if others are thinking what I'm thinking, then these ideas should ideally trickle to the top, and change, for the better, can occur.


Well, that may have been longer than intended. (Shocking, I know. I'm always so concise.) Gold stars to anyone who made it this far. I will literally give you a sticker if you read this whole post. One per article you took the time to read. Goodness knows I have enough stickers. A whole drawer full of them at work, just waiting for my kids (or friends) to do a good job.