Hard Work…it really is good for kids!

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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.” 

 

 

 

 

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Middle School Ninja Warrior

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I love middle school.

My high school teacher friends think I am slightly crazy and my elementary colleagues don’t understand. But it is true.

Middle school rocks.

As I take my place in that hormonal primordial stew seasoned with Axe and bravado, I know I am home. And there is no place like home. It isn’t always smooth sailing and there is typically more than one person  ready to tell you what you do not know. But home is where the heart is and as devoted middle school teachers will tell you, there is no shortage of heart among their students.

Middle school kids still laugh at the obvious. They may have one foot in childhood and the other in the grown-up world, but they are still young at heart. Their  unbounded energy is contagious. They are exploring their interests and their capacity for empathy. They are beginning to make the essential link between work and success. They are old enough to be responsible and simultaneously young enough to care.

Yes, they are a volatile potion of combustible elements. Yes, they are a fragile package of contradictions. But there is also unmatched enthusiasm, life and curiosity resulting in passion, animation, and discovery.

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Success in middle school isn’t necessarily quantifiable. The data doesn’t always reside on a spread sheet. Success in middle school is measured in moments, those tangible experiences when kids find their voices, discover their talents.  Facilitating the journey into adolescence is as rewarding as it is exhausting. It is a lot like mastering the obstacles on American Ninja Warrior. You need to be smart, flexible and strong. You must effectively manage your allotted time. Above all else, you need to be committed to being the best you can be every day.  Middle school, like the warp wall, is not for the weak.  It can be all consuming.

It’s a work out. But then you hit the buzzer. And suddenly, it is all worth it.

 

 

 

5 Lessons Education Can Learn from Sports

1. There are no short cuts.

Success is about hard work.  In every sport, the best players embrace the sweat.  Someone way smarter than I am once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

 2. Experience counts…a lot.

Rookie errors are costly. Veterans anticipate the unexpected and react with skill.

3. Resist the urge to showboat.

Humility is always classier than self aggrandizement. Individuals make plays, but teams win games.

4. Trust the coach.

Respect leadership.

 5. Stay hungry.

Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.

What We Do Is Important

     Let me open with this disclaimer:  I am not happy with what is happening to education, but I still really, really like my job.

We spent the morning with friends whose uber-successful careers have been in the corporate world and guess what?  They feel under-appreciated, disrespected, disheartened, distrusted.

Who ever would have thought that an MST and an MBA would have so much in common?  Angst? Stress? Panic?  Yup. We got that, too.

I always expected–well, more recently fervently hoped–that education was immune to the dirty goings-on we tend to accept in the private sector where success is determined solely by putting up winning numbers at any cost.  It felt safe–sometimes  a bit righteous, too– to believe that teaching would always be centered on  what’s best for kids and on discovery and progress, entities that defy a business model quantification.

Current obsession with scores and metrics as applied to instruction, however, proves that wrong. As our friends in the business world have always known,  numbers talk.  If you have been listening, you can hear the arithmetical conversation.     Teachers’  professional reputations are soon to be numerically calculated and, like the kids we teach, we are about to become known by our composite scores.  Kids aren’t numbers; kids are individuals, each with his or her own unique qualities, each with a promise for tomorrow.  I hope I never become a number to them.

The difference between the boardroom and the classroom?  I honestly  like what I do.  I still believe that what I do each day is important. I still see each child in my classroom as an individual whose potential for success is not computed by his numerical score. I come to work excited about what each day bring.  My friends working on Madison Avenue and Wall Street no longer say this.

It’s true.  I like my job.

It is unpredictable. It is exhausting.  It can be frustrating. I always take work home.  Always.

But I  still like my job.

Hostile political powers continue to disrupt and destabilize the workplace.  By the end of the week, I feel embattled and sometimes under-appreciated. My book bag is crammed with papers to grade and clerical tasks to complete.

But I really like my job.

Sounds like what Dr. Phil might call the classic definition of insanity.

But as an educator, I can still go into my classroom and look forward to the day’s work, what used to be called “teaching.”   I am excited to share a new novel with seventh graders: observing them as we read, hearing them gasp at an unexpected twist, seeing them smile, grimace, pout about the content.  It’s not about standardized tests or unreasonable bureaucratic decrees from Albany.  Though it has become over-accessorized,  at the heart of the day, teaching is what teaching has always been: about sharing a love for learning with kids.

I know that what we do is important. I don’t know how it will look on a spreadsheet or how my numbers will run.  But I know what we do in our classrooms does indeed touch the future.

What Would Socrates (or Annie Sullivan or Albert Shanker) Say?

Socrates.  John Dewey.  Maria Montessori. Jaime Escalante. Christa McAuliffe. Annie Sullivan.  Even by the most stringent application of the Danielson rubric, these folks are examples of highly effective teachers.  What would they say to high stakes standardized testing, APPR, Race to the Top?

Fade in on the scene: A stark corridor outside the closed door of the governor’s office. Fine mahogany door frame, frosted glass on the door, the governor’s name spelled out in three inch gold letters.    The characters are seated on uncomfortable institutional folding chairs waiting to speak with the governor regarding his educational policy.

John Dewey:  Everyone knows that children will excel when school is experiential.  Great Caesars’ Ghost, man, people  are assessing kids with a number 2 lead pencil?  To what end?

Albert Shanker (excitedly, spitting a bit as he speaks): To tear the heart out of the teachers, that’s what end!   It’s all about breaking the bonds of union solidarity.  I tell you, once teachers are assigned numerical scores, brotherhood will jump right out the third floor window of Roosevelt High School.  Defenestration. When that happens, people, it’s all over.

Jaime Escalante (sporting a a backward facing beret):  It gets worse, Jack-O.  When demographics “prove” that minority kids are destined to fail, some number two lead pencil pushing jerk in the state house or white house will say they cheated because everyone knows minority kids can’t learn calculus.

Dewey:  Surely you jest!

Socrates (adjusting his toga, standing): Say what you want, but teachers are used to being whipping boys for what ails society. When things go bad, it’s always the instructor’s fault.   Look what the Greeks did to me!  But if I may, how will students learn to think if all they are doing is coloring in spherical dots arranged in groups of four?  Moreover, how will teachers know what they have learned?  Likewise, won’t this tempt teachers to tailor instruction simply to meet the demands of the test?

Shanker: Hey, you with all the questions, Socrates, listen for a minute, will ya? None of this is about learning.  Not really.

Dewey: Not about learning?  Nonsense.  Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Socrates: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.  Just sayin’. (He sits.)

Shanker: You are all missing the point here, people.  This about vilifying teachers.  It’s about punishing teachers for making a living wage. It’s about proving we are doing what everyone now believes he can do better than we can. It is about destroying one of the only powerful unions left in this country!  There is nothing in any of this about learning or kids for that matter.

James Carville (peeking around the corner for an instant): It’s about the economy, stupid! (He disappears.)

Annie Sullivan (adjusting spectacles):  But I have questions, too. What about the interpersonal nature of the student teacher relationship? Would anyone deny that the relationship I worked to develop with Helen Keller was an organic element of our instructional success?   Is there any way to give teachers credit for this?

Maria Montessori (with a trace of an Italian accent): Please,  someone, tell me how this system of assessing children and evaluating teachers will improve education, especially the education of the most fragile children with disabilities. I would like to know more, such as how choice and freedom of movement  and self discipline will be part of this instruction. I have always believed that the ultimate goal of education is independence and I would so like to see how this progressive means of  student assessment and teacher evaluation will achieve that end.

Annie Sullivan: Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

Shanker: Those days are gone, Annie.  Now it’s every man for himself.

Jaime (bitterly):  Yes, dream on, sweet lady. Leave no children behind, unless they are minority kids.

Annie Sullivan (sadly):  Or deaf and blind kids.

Montessori: Or disabled kids.

Christa McAuliffe: To think I used to really believe that we touch the future because we teach.   People used to like us.  Teachers were respected.

Socrates: You think so, huh?

(The door opens and there is a collective sigh of relief among the waiting educators. The governor appears, nattily dressed in an Italian suit. He conspicuously adjusts his silk tie and clears his throat. He stands waiting as if there should be some type of acknowledgment of his presence. When no such gesture is forthcoming he addresses the group.)

Governor: Sorry that you all have been waiting so long, but I am afraid I am off to a press conference now followed by a fund raiser.

Dewey: But what about the children?

Shanker: What about the teachers?

Governor: No time for them right now.  I have a state to run and people to pander to.  See ya!

Fade out.

Creating home

“Sometimes it is hard to believe we raised two kids in this space,” my husband has said more than once.

He’s right.  By modern Westchester standards, our house is tiny. Before we carved out a bedroom in downstairs space that was once a garage, our kids shared one of the two main floor bedrooms and one bathroom, share being the operative word.  The “yard” is a mini lawn, too small for real sports, but big enough for a sprinkler and a sandbox, though not at the same time.  With some sidewalk chalk, however, the driveway–the steepest bane of our winter existence–became a pastel canvas, a new gallery with every rainfall.  We nurtured a family botanical garden that, over the years,  yielded roses, tomatoes, sunflowers,  marigolds and spices.

What our house lacked in square footage, we more than made up for in warmth.  Our kids agree that as children, they never felt deprived. Our house was truly a home where family and friends–theirs and ours– felt welcomed.  The dining room table was the hub of activity: dinners, homework, snacks, holidays meals, games. Yes, everyone adapted to share the space–a lesson not always easily learned–but generally, we were–and still are– happy.

OK, fine.  But what does this have to do with teaching?

Only everything.

Like a house, a classroom doesn’t have to be decked out with the latest and greatest gadgets to be a home for kids. The best educational toys–at home or at school– mean nothing if all we do is throw them at kids, expecting results.  An effective classroom, like a comfortable home, does have to be a safe environment where it is OK to make a few mistakes and take some risks.  There should be structure and routine and there should be humor and kindness, none of which are available in stores or on line.

Learning communities are built around the human elements in the room, not the space, not the accessories.  Instructional bells and whistles are like 4th of July fireworks: loud but ephemeral. Smartboard  lessons and technology can be engaging, but it will always be  teachers who nurture curiosity and confidence–with or without iPads — who create classrooms where kids will see learning as a life long adventure.  Scholarship is embedded in the culture of these classrooms.  So are self-esteem and pride and dignity.

Families–in homes, in classrooms–evolve out of people.  When kids feel loved and safe, the sky’s the limit.

Dear Andy:

Dear Andy:

You probably don’t remember me.  We were classmates at Fordham University , many years  ago, before you were elected governor and before I became a wife, mom, grandma and, oh right, a teacher.   Yeah, I was the little red-haired girl in sociology, sitting all the way at the back of Keating auditorium with the pre-meds. Gosh no, that wasn’t me reciting complicated organic chemistry formulas.  I was English Lit and Journalism. Sitting with the pre-meds was merely symbiosis: they tutored me in my required math and science classes, I supported them in humanities. Back then, I planned to either pen the next great American novel or win a Pulitzer for cracker-jack investigative reporting.

But not long after Zbgniew Brzezinski delivered our commencement address, I found my way into education and I never looked back.  Lucky thing, too.  I love what I do.  Every day.  It has been far more rewarding to share Fitzgerald’s truly great American novel with kids than it would have been to try to write a weak imitation of Gatsby.  As for that Pulitzer, I discovered the free press wasn’t all Fordham Jesuit journalism professor, Ray Schroth assured me it would be.  I guess I wasn’t predatory enough to be a real reporter.

But I digress.  Andy, surely you must know you are the Big Kahunna of the Class of ’79. No kidding.  I tell people all the time that I went to college with two big shots of contemporary culture: Denzel Washington, Class of ’78 and you, governor of the great state of New York.  In truth, though, we both know that Denzel spent most his college career at Lincoln Center.  We two, however, are Rose Hill stalwarts, comrades, fellow alum of the parking wars and survivors of the infamous trestle and The Jolly Tinker.

Well, I was back on our beloved Bronx campus recently, Andy, and I hardly recognized the place.  Really.  So much construction. Our alumni dollars at work.  You should see the new library and the new dorms.  Amazing. Remember when a suite in Martyrs Court or an apartment in 555 were the best accommodations an upperclassman could hope for?

Anyway, being back on Edwards Parade really got me thinking, though.  Both you and I are the products of a liberal education, right?  We were both fortunate enough to take the core courses the Jesuits required so we would leave Fordham truly educated, not just schooled for a job.  Both of us heard the same convincing messages about the importance of education for civilized, democratic societies.

Why then are you so intent on wrecking havoc with NY’s education system?   I mean, I am open to change.  That is something else the Jesuits taught us, right?  Change is good.  But for it to be successful, that change has to be intrinsically sound.  It has to be motivated not by political gain, but for the public good.  Is it in the interest of the public good to dismantle the existing system without proposing a stronger, smarter replacement institution?

I won’t deny that there are many weakness in contemporary education, not just here in NY, but across America.  We should be preparing our students to read more carefully and write more clearly and to perform basic mathematical calculations. Kids have to be able to meet the challenges associated with both college and the workplace.   And we should also be insisting that they know how to think, that they become independent learners.  There are very few teachers that I know who would ever argue that these are among our basic professional responsibilities. In fact, there are no teachers I know who would disagree with this. Not a single one.

The paradoxically piecemeal/wholesale change you are imposing on schools and educators, however, is already showing signs of distress.  Schools don’t have the resources to manage the paperwork.  Schools don’t have the resources to support increasingly needy pupils.   Testing—especially flawed testing—cannot be used to measure teacher effectiveness.  If you want to apply test scores to teacher evaluations, then surely those tests must be well constructed in order for the scores to be reliable and valid. Pearson’s questions for The Pineapple and the Hare should never have made it to NY.  Concerns about these questions have been circulating since 2006. There are too many variables that remain unaccounted for. What about inconsistent attendance?  What about kids who routinely arrive at school hungry or sick? What about all of the other intangibles that are part of every day in every classrooms, those things we can’t see or hear or touch, but that impact instruction?

Our old Fordham professors insisted that we examine every angle of a question in order to formulate a postulate that would hold up to scrutiny.  Call it a Jesuit obession.   Could you really look Father McDermott in the eye and say that you have done that with education reform?   There has to be vision.  Andy, I am having trouble seeing your vision for our state’s public schools.