Educational Inequity

Image result for black and white images of books    The Pre-K-8 district where I last worked had its flaws, but demographically, it was public education at its finest.

A mere blip on the map of one of NYS state’s wealthiest counties, our district served both the most privileged kids and the neediest. Our students learned–from one another–about Ramadan, the Holocaust, immigration, civil rights. Every kid–regardless of status–had the same direct access to a highly effective, trained, dedicated faculty and first class facilities on a lush campus.   One of the perks of working here was my small role in this cultural and socio-economic ideal. Image result for images of ideal

Ideal may be the operative word, however.

 

 

Kamala Harris’ and Joe Biden’s recent–and incomplete– discussion about busing reminds us that education in this country remains unequal. Awkward attempts to find balance have largely failed.  Racial segregation, poverty, and geography are only three of the forces that continue to fuel a system that apparently neither promotes cultural exchange nor provides instructional equity.

Related image   High school grads possess the same credentials signifying their achievement. Because of where they attended school, though, these graduates don’t necessarily possess equal skill sets.

 

That the issue came up in the recent Democratic debate, is a good sign. A very good sign. Equal access to quality education is perhaps one of the three most pressing problems facing us as a nation. Education is at the heart of a functioning democracy and a prosperous economy.

And here’s another thought: it will be educated kids who will find solutions to the other two pressing problems facing us: climate change and world peace.

That the issue came up via a two-candidate personal skirmish, however, is not such a great sign. We need candidates to own this challenge, not just for an evening or a sound byte. We need candidates with vision, a plan.  The proposal doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be a start.

By the way: I love the idea of free community college for students who qualify. Kudos to Elizabeth and Bernie. But success in college calls for prerequisites.  For some students, by the time they reach college age, it may be too late.

Kids who haven’t had the benefit of a quality K-12 experience will be underprepared for collegiate demands. They may be under-employed, too. We have to commit to starting earlier, giving every kid a chance to successfully and equally participate in free college.

I don’t know how to fix this; I am merely a simple retired school teacher. Money is surely a huge component of any solution. Cultural understanding and racial respect will play a role as well.

I do know that everyone benefits when our populace is educated. I also know–from experience– how well equity works in the context of a school.   I think it is time we demanded some potential answers from the people who are asking for our vote.  Image result for vote images

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My Year In Community College

When I earned my MS in Teaching in 1993, my husband and kids gave me a sweatshirt bearing a shiny red apple and this now tragically famous quote from teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe “I touch the future; I teach.”  Image result for images of apples and teachers

It’s safe to say that I have been professionally fortunate. (I have been personally fortunate, too, but that’s another story for another time.) 25 years in public education allowed me to “touch the future.”

When restlessness set in just a few months after cashing that first pension check, a bit more vocational luck prevailed. I landed a part-time position at our local community college in the Writing Center.  Image result for black and white images of students writing

Though it seemed a perfect fit, I was nevertheless prepared for a learning curve; there was so much I didn’t know. I expected it would take time to find my way in a new learning community.

What I didn’t expect was how inspired I would be by the students I have met on the first leg of this journey. In a single academic year, these students have given me so much.

Yes, most of our students are young adults, fresh from local high schools. They bring us idealism and excitement. Their visions of the future are filled with hope for us all.

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But this campus also serves so many adult learners, men and women returning to school for a variety of reasons, people who have not had seats in classrooms for years. Some have served in the armed forces; our school has been officially designated a “Veteran Friendly Campus.” Others have been occupied with the unending business of raising families or have spent years in jobs they didn’t like. The challenges of starting over might be intimidating, but adult curiosity and experiences give them an edge their younger classmates don’t have.

Many students–young and old– hold down full time jobs and still find ways to master challenging course work across the curriculum.

Image result for black and white images of students writing  Students on this campus speak 49 different languages yet they are reading James Joyce and Toni Morrison, conducting academic research and writing business proposals all in English. Working with these students is at once exhilarating and humbling.  Think about writing a persuasive essay in Croatian or describing a microbiology experiment in Spanish when English is your native language.

I have been moved to tears–the people who know me I am not the crying type–by  stories of adversity and triumph, of resiliency and determination, of kindness and generosity.

Image result for images of apples and teachers   My year in community college has been a learning experience. With a mix of gratitude and humility, I am so happy that I am able to continue to “touch the future.”

 

 

 

 

The Price of Over-Parenting

Image result for mistakesRemember that time you waited until the last minute to study for the algebra test? What about shouting in the hallway? Ditching softball practice? Forgetting homework at home? Spending your entire allowance impulsively and having nothing left for the movie you had planned to see?

Of course you do. Because we have all done that, been there. But, when you recovered from these minor mistakes–as we all do– you also learned the value of picking yourself and getting on with things.

Sometimes messing up yields a better lesson than succeeding.

Yet most teachers I know are spending more time convincing parents that age-appropriate mistakes are not only OK, but essential for personal and academic growth. Parents want so much for their kids to be successful that they are willing to shelter them from any experiences that potentially–and yes, ironically– lead most often to success: failure.

It is always a tough sell. Always.

Image result for sad face images   No one wants to see his/her child unhappy. I get that; I have kids, too. Both as a parent and as a teacher, however, I know that kids need their “oops moments.” No, we don’t want them making mistakes that could endanger themselves or others. But one bad grade after blowing off test prep? One day on the bench for missing practice? These are cause and effect learning events.

 The Rise of Snow Plow Parenting

Enter snow plow parents, the moms and dads who refuse to permit their kids to experience disappointment that accompanies everyday gaffes. Snow plow parents have displaced helicopter parents and are hell bent on clearing the road for their kids. They push away all obstacles and clean up the mess that is childhood before their kids can even make their own awkward stabs at independence.

Though this behavior arises out of the best of intentions, snow plow parenting hinders kids, preventing them from learning from mistakes and finding the confidence that evolves from seeing they can recover from errors. Kids need to know that mistakes don’t define them, that success resides in how we respond to our failures. They can only learn how to do this if we let them.

The goal for us as parents and as educators is to foster independence. To help our kids find their own strength, their courage, their resilience, we must craft our own obsolescence.  When toddlers learn to walk, they fall. We keep them safe and tend to the minor scrapes, all the while understanding there is no other way for them to find their feet. That process continues throughout life when kids forget homework, blow off practice, sass a teacher. As much as we might want to clear the road for our kids, we have to be willing to let them fall a few times.

Community College: Higher Education’s Best Kept Secret

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 1,400 community colleges in this country, serving over five million enrolled students.  Some pretty successful people are community college grads: an Oscar winner, an astronaut, a governor. My husband earned a community college associate’s degree in electrical technology, the initial accomplishment in a professional adventure marked by achievement and public service.

Familiar and Local

On my daily commute, I blew by the main gates of our local community college, a carefully manicured campus integrated into the state university system. The fact that it is in our own backyard may have led us to take what happens here for granted. You know, the old saying about familiarity.

However, many of the middle and high school students I taught landed here, some by choice, others by default. It seemed a safe a place for kids who were unsure of their futures. And having retired after more than 25 years in secondary education–a little unsure of my own future– I am here now, as a senior tutor in the Academic Services Center.

Opportunity and Support

Image result for black and white images of students writing What I have discovered is that community college truly is higher education’s best kept secret.

Beyond the gates I glanced at every day, students have access to first class faculty and facilities. Classes are demanding and varied offering experience and knowledge that transfer to both the workplace and four year schools. And it is that secure place where every student is respected and has the chance to become (apologies, Mrs. Obama!). One of the students I worked with last semester put it this way: “I love it here. I am just learning how to be in college. And it’s like everyone really cares.”

A Community and A College

Related imageAs a tutor, I see first hand how hard these students are working, how important school is to them. A significant percentage juggle full time jobs, family obligations and transportation obstacles with rigorous classes to fulfill the promise of the American Dream: personal and professional success.  Their professors challenge them to find their voices, their confidence, all the while wholeheartedly supporting the effort this entails. Students find campus niches through athletics, clubs, cultural events, and service opportunities.  And tutors, available in almost every discipline, provide individual feedback and content area support.

Image result for black and white images of dollars and centsIt’s Affordable

Community college remains a bargain by higher ed standards. A NY resident can attend full time for less than $3,000 a semester. There are countless opportunities for aid, scholarships, work study and even transportation stipends to further reduce the economic burden on students and families.  But wait…there’s more. When a student is done here, he/she leaves with something tangible for time (and money) spent: an associate’s degree and/or a professional certificate.

Lucky Me

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I feel fortunate to have found a role here.  It is energizing to revisit literature I loved as an undergraduate English major: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Joyce. It is exciting to read what’s new in English education.  It is inspiring to be among students to whom education is paramount. My part is small, a walk-on, but nonetheless, the powerful play goes on and I am privileged, at this stage of my life, to contribute another verse (more apologies, Walt Whitman).

 

 

Empowering Kids

Image result for black and white images of school  By the time kids strut, slink or otherwise traipse into middle school classrooms like mine, the social tiers are mostly set and the stratification we see is often neither pretty nor kind.

Middle school might be Ground Zero for the lonely heart, but the battle for social control starts much sooner.

Image result for black and white images of kids in school  As early as first grade, primary level teachers report seeing the emergence of a “popularity hierarchy.” Self appointed big fish begin calling the social shots: who is worthy of a prime seat on the bus, cafeteria and recess playmate assignments, clothing assessments, the early childhood grapevine.

Our littlest ones navigating the new, vast–and sometimes scary– world of school are perhaps most vulnerable to exclusion and least able to self-assert.  It is hard enough to remember if you are buying lunch or what to pack up at the end of the day. You are learning to read, to add and subtract. Talking back to a strong, confident peer? Not on the list of things to do today.

And speaking up only gets more difficult as kids transition to the uncertainties of middle school where alliances shift between periods, where acceptance can be as elusive as an algebraic equation, where hearts seem meant to broken.

Image result for images of social hierarchy    If Abraham Maslow was correct,  immediately after securing basic physical and safety lifelines, all humans crave a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel she is among friends, with people who accept and love her for who she is. We all need groups where we can contribute and be valued.

Image result for emoji of power    What Educators Can Do   Image result for emoji of power

Words As Tools

Image result for black and white images of word walls  Words are power. Teachers model this every day intuitively when we choose our speech carefully, when we praise kids for effort, when we subtly reword misunderstanding to lead kids toward more precise responses. Teachers interact with kids and with each other knowing that all eyes are on us. Words can create a shared language, empowering kids to find appropriate means to self-assert. Little kids–and even not-so-little kids–are often neither fluent nor confident enough to articulate feelings. We can help them use words as tools to set personal boundaries and speak for themselves and their peers. Word Walls support content area literacy. Word Walls can also help kids say what they want–need–to say about themselves to others. Examples include common phrases of courtesy–please, thank you, excuse me and the more focused vocabulary of self assertion–I respect what you say, butI need a little more time to thinkCan you help me?…I don’t think you mean to be unkind, butthat is a great idea…      

Make Instructional Time Do Double Duty  Math, Symbols, Blackboard, Classroom, Lesson, Pie Chart

There is power in sharing ideas. Use content area instruction to simultaneously promote critical thinking and character education. Getting kids to think beyond names, dates, formulas, plot lines enriches lessons and can support their personal growth as well.  What are our responsibilities as citizens of Planet Earth? Should individuals and nations share knowledge and innovations freely for the common good?  How much courage did it require to help Anne Frank or stand up to Yertle the Turtle?   What are the benefits of genetic engineering? Evaluate Truman’s decision to use atomic weaponry. When kids consider content area concepts in personal and ethical contexts, they own the material. They also have opportunities to see the value and consequences of individual actions.

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Monitor Collaborative Activities

There is power in learning together. Through structured lessons, individuals become contributing members of groups, simultaneously developing both academic and social skills. Clearly established ground rules and roles ensure that every pupil interacts with both the material and with peers. It requires planning and foresight to create balanced groups and to uncover ways for every child to bring his strengths to the table. Continuous close monitoring prevents exclusion or domination.  Because kids cannot police themselves or each other, adults must be alert to subtle signals of marginalization or a power grab. Despite the additional work lessons like these call for, the ROI (return on investment) is great: confidence, satisfaction, acceptance, respect.

 

Create Community   Image result for images of learning communities

All of these efforts lead to the ultimate goal: a learning family created out of accidents of proximity. As in any family, each individual is an integral part of the whole, valued and also responsible to his kin. Embedded in this “family” are security, safety, and acceptance. Kids will learn more effectively under these conditions, but they will also grow into themselves, finding courage to speak up, finding confidence to explore their strengths, finding reasons to be kind, responsible, generous.

Teaching is so much more than being an expert in your field.  It is more than test scores and data. I wasn’t yet a teacher when Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future; I teach,” but in the years since, I have come see that as our challenge. Not only are we helping kids become scientists and scholars, we are creating the next generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Image result for school children's images clip art                                                                              Image result for school children's images clip art

Last week, I had a chance to speak with a teacher dedicated to our youngest students. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious; her vision for a risk-free, child-centered learning space will inspire both kids and instructors. Kudos, Ashley!

And then, over the weekend, our grandchildren chattered excitedly about school: fun, friends and learning. We learned of the symmetry of butterfly wings and the writing process.  Their teachers are embedded in their tales of Pre-K and first grade: knowledgeable, patient, creative souls.  When these kids grow up, it will be the magic of these teachers they will remember as their earliest introductions to the classroom.

 

Image result for images of math equations This all reminded me of the huge debt that we–as secondary teachers–owe colleagues like Ashley and those who teach our grands each day.  Without them, there would be no source-based argumentative essays, no DBQs, no chem labs.

Colors and shapes,  letters, the number line give way to sight words and greater than and less than which brings kids to us, to Hamlet, the civil rights movement, algebra and laws of motion. What kids learn in 7th grade or 10th or 12th is built on the foundation established in Pre-K and K. (NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio is onto something in his push for universal Pre-K.) Early childhood educators have the tools–and foresight– to create lessons that will support vertical consistency. As instructional expectations for the littlest pupils continue to expand, delivering content area instruction has become an increasingly challenging task.  Bless those who continue to work so hard at this job!

But perhaps equally important are the social and personal skills early childhood educators must develop in their students. Everyone knows about early lessons on sharing and waiting in line. But kids also have to learn to follow spoken directions and transition from one activity to the next. They have to feel safe enough to ask questions.  They must learn to use structure and routine to discover self-discipline and understand that mistakes are part of the learning curve, not signs of failure.

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The tricky part in all this? Holding onto innocence, to childhood. Finding ways to fine tune these skills that will determine future success without dampening the boundless curiosity that defines first graders.  Helping kids learn to laugh at themselves.

A good friend who sits in those little chairs in the district where I once worked, will be that teacher, the one kids will remember, the one who held their hands, dried their tears and set them back on their feet for the next day, the next challenge. Terry, long after kids have moved on to other classrooms, they will remember when you brought math and science to life, when you gave them room to be kids and the skills to be adults.

Image result for images of thank you     So to Terry and Ashley and all the other early childhood teachers out there prepping kids for what they will see in middle school and high school, thanks!  Teaching truly is a team sport.  You might not always see your work after kids leave your nests, but what you do makes all the difference.

 

 

Hard Work…it really is good for kids!

Image result for images of homework

In a district where I once worked, middle school homework was the instructional equivalent of the Great Butter Battle. Though during my early years there we were told we weren’t assigning enough homework, trending conversations have been about too much.

Turned out that homework was just too hard. Kids had too many other activities: sports, acting lessons, cooking classes, voice training. And when they did finally get settled in their rooms–where they had access to computers, smart phones, televisions, and video game consoles–they were simply spent.

Image result for images of a clock face Fueled by parent concerns– likely fueled by tween complaints– the superintendent responded by limiting homework to ten minutes. Ten minutes.

Ten minutes is an eternity when Dr. Tim is drilling your back molar. When your express train is delayed ten minutes, making you unfashionably late for a meeting, it can be kind of a big deal. But not much happens in ten minutes for a 7th grader planning an analytical essay or solving for x. And what takes Johnny ten minutes to complete might take Susie twenty. So the Ten Minute Rule temporarily put homework out of its misery.

The problem was that we were proud of our status as a high performing district. We were sending our middle school kids to compete in demanding high schools, where by all measures, they arrived academically very well prepared.  Image result for images of homework

 

Homework was giving our kids a three-fer: content review, skills practice and while the stakes were still low, an intro to personal time management.  Image result for images of a bargain

But Wait…There’s More

And now experts who know about these things suggest that time spent on academics can keep kids from discovering more dangerous pastimes.  An article in Monday’s New York Times by Austin Frakt cites a paper published by the Journal of Health Economics that concluded hard school work is actually good for kids. Who knew? https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/upshot/worried-about-risky-teenage-behavior-make-school-tougher.html

 

The paper focuses on advanced math and science classes, but it isn’t difficult to make the leap into the humanities, too. Deconstructing transcendental poetry, communicating effectively en espanol,  defending Truman’s decision to use nuclear weaponry can be every bit as challenging as derivatives or the periodic table.

In states where tougher academic standards have been phased in, statistics suggest that kids seem more able to avoid cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Image result for say no to drugs

 

And we thought homework was just a three-fer!

The simple story here is kids who are busy with homework have less time to sniff out dangerous activities.

But it is also about setting kids up for success down the road. In middle school, where it is oh-so-safe to commit the occasional age-appropriate faux pas–and who among us doesn’t remember doing that?–kids facing the challenges of reading, writing, speaking, computing and listening are developing positive habits while navigating around bad ones. It doesn’t require an advanced degree to know that good habits are that much harder to form once the bad ones have taken root.

And if this isn’t enough, when we send kids the message that they are responsible enough, they are capable enough to do the work we ask them to do, we are telling them we believe in them. When we stay with them, even when they mess up–as they and we certainly will–we tell them they are not alone on this journey.

The Ten Minute Rule eventually faded away–as did the superintendent who decreed it–but the homework conversation continues. Kids hate it. But kids often hate spinach and flu shots. Poet Shel Silverstein envisioned technology that could take the bad taste out of homework, but as yet, science has not produced a homework machine:

The Homework Machine/ Oh, the Homework Machine,/ Most perfect/Contraption that’s ever been seen.”