Monday, March 25, 2013

More Males In the Classroom

I found the above article through a former co-worker because her dad and his elementary school classroom are featured:  
"To this day, there is a negative perception about men, especially young single men, who want to work with young children," said Elvis Sanchez, a Whitfield County, Ga., teacher who recently formed Male Elementary Teacher Advocacy, or META, to push for more men teaching in elementary schools. 
He said he received many raised eyebrows and much cautionary advice from professors while studying elementary education. One hiring administrator even told him she wouldn't have hired him had he not had a wife and kids. 
"That is why there is a huge need for advocacy," Sanchez said. 
There's also a perception that men just aren't capable of working with young children, said Bryan Nelson, director of the national clearinghouse Men Teach. 
"They say it's not men's work," he said. 
So part of the advocacy work is encouraging men to believe they can be effective at the job.

I can say that I don't recall a single male teacher other than our P.E. teacher in my elementary school. I suspect that has probably changed in almost 25 years, but the numbers are still arguably low. I certainly don't think that there ought be a 50/50 gender split or anything, but having an overall larger male presence in the school is bound to be beneficial in the younger grades.     

What are your thoughts about having more male teachers in the school system? 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Educational Meme Monday: Dear Sallie Mae

Inspiration struck today. I think I am going to start a new feature called Educational Meme Monday. I won't post one every Monday, but when I do it will be on a Monday. There are so many good ones out there that deserve more than just a chuckle. I use them all the time in my posts, but maybe we'll dig a little deeper with them. They will be written mostly for YOUR feedback. Let's get a discussion going! 

Saw this floating around Facebook and it reminded me that a lot of people who graduate from a private Christian college (like I did ) could put this up on their wall. Here are four questions for you to answer (you can choose as many or as few as you like):  

1. What's the value of a college degree? Is it just content? Is it just social skills? Is it just practice for a job?

2. What if you're in a field totally different from your degree? What if you're a stay at home mom? What if you homeschool? Is that money and time down the toilet? 

3. What would you advise for your children (even if you don't have any) in light of your experience?

4. Ultimately, would you give Sallie Mae your degree back?  

Alfie Kohn: How To Create a Non-Reader, Part 3

I didn't realize there was going to be a Part 3 to this, but I stumbled upon something that has caused me to wonder about my rebuttal in Part 2. On his Twitter feed, Alfie Kohn posted a link to these videos on inquiry-based teaching. Essentially, Urban Academy takes the idea of literature circles as a serious part of their curriculum. I'm not thrilled about them using Lolita to engage the students, but it's encouraging to see such genuine engagement. 

Please note: I am well aware that it's easy to showcase success stories, but ignore the fact that these stories are the exception and not the rule in most classrooms (due, in part, to a host of variables).

What's your reaction to the clip below? 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Poop Wars

Let me tell you a little story about the passive-aggressive poop war we've been having with an apartment dwelling pet owner.  

That first statement, taken at face value, can be a little scary if you know that we don't own a pet. We're not fighting with poop; we're fighting against it. If you're wondering what in the HECK this has to do with education, I'll get there in the end. Enjoy the story for the time being :) 

Can I just say thank you to Paint? It's an ancient program, but for this blog post it got the job done. 

Since my husband and I moved into our home 5 1/2 year ago, this dog poop issue has been going on. As you can see from the lovely diagram, there's a little bit of land next to our driveway that is causing the problem. We're not actually sure where the property line is, but I think it would be safe to say that it wouldn't matter even if the land did belong to us. 

Basically someone's dog has found his favorite spot to go and it happens to be an a rather inconvenient place. We take our trash our and try to leave the can in that area so we can get out to the main road. We also have to get out to open and close the gate on our property (forgot to include in the diagram) and so do our guests when they come over. Having to check your shoes often because the dirt and leaves can camouflage poop is not exactly what we enjoy having to do regularly.

Here are the steps we and others have taken to fight this issue:

1. Early on we planted a prickly holly bush and mulched around it to indicate we were giving the area a facelift. The same day we found poop in the mulch. It didn't get as much water as it needed and dogs peed on it. It died.  

2. We put our tree and shrub brush there so the dog cannot access the area. The city comes to pick up the brush after a few days and we're back at square one. 

3. We have put black pepper and cayenne pepper down around the area to deter the dog. The rain washes it away.

4. Recently we planted another small tree. Still poop shows up. Shortly thereafter it got run over twice by big tree cutting trucks fixing apartment tree damage after a bad storm.     

5. The cemetery owners have posted a little sign a bit further away saying "Show Some Respect. Clean Up After Your Pet!" 

6. If Justin sees people around that area, he politely asks them to go somewhere else with their pet, but that RARELY happens that we actually see a dog near that spot. 

7. The garbage/recycling men have started putting our can on the other side of the driveway because they don't want to accidentally slam it down in the poop. 

Are you getting the same feeling I am? The poop is not going to go away. Justin and I have schemed every possible solution (even scary, un-Christian ones on those days we're really irritated by it) to deter them. We have never actually caught anyone, so we can't talk to them about the issue. Although, I'm thinking that since they refuse to pick up the poop anyway, talking isn't going to help the situation.   

Here's the bottom line: There are a lot of areas in our own lives that are just like this poop problem. We didn't make the mess (and if we had, we would have cleaned it up!), but we're essentially powerless to anything about it. It's a great life lesson to learn about those people and situations that are beyond our control. Sadly, Justin and I have been known to go on rants about people who don't value property and common decency and lump everyone in those apartments into a category of ne'er-do-wells. We need to watch our tongues around our children because they are going to see us grumble and fight this poop war for as long as we live in the house. So how do we use this situation as a tool for education? 

We can remind ourselves and our children that we're all sinners. I don't want to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18 who prays, "Lord, thank you that I'm not like that guy!" and become self-righteous just because I know better than to leave dog poop in someone's yard. There are other ways that I hurt and irritate others that don't involve fecal matter. When I start to get cynical and gripe about others, I miss what God is teaching me about my own selfish heart. I hope that's what I can teach my girls when they see the mess next to the driveway.  

Sometimes God calls us to wade through the poop. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Alfie Kohn: How To Create a Non-Reader, Part 2

This is the continuation from Part 1 of How to Create a Non-Reader. If you missed Part 1, you might want to go back and read it or my comments will not make a lot of sense! 

I will be upfront and say that I think his ideas would play out well when there is academic accountability and similar philosophy of education between administration, parents, and students. However, you'd be hard pressed to find that rare combination in most classrooms. Here are my thoughts from my perspective as a former English teacher as to how his ideas would look in a regular classroom. A lot of my responses may seem like I am putting a lot (perhaps too much) responsibility on the teacher and little on students and parents, but that is unfortunately what's expected of a teacher these days so that is how my responses are couched; they are borne out of my own teaching experiences.   

1. Quantify Their Reading Assignments -- I completely agree that reading should not be confined to page numbers (I have already discussed that here), but when you're teaching in a large classroom setting what choice do you have? How can a teacher realistically expect consistent reading from all students, especially from those who have already decided they are non-readers and whose parents don't encourage reading? How does a teacher have a discussion and give grades to students (as he/she is required to do) assuming they have all read? Some will sink and some will swim. Many parents will yell. 

2. Make them write reports --I think unstructured reports that lack purpose can be deadly, but something that reinforces or expands on what you're learning in the book is not altogether harmful. Maybe the problem is in the semantics -- I would call them projects, not reports. A project can have a much wider scope in creativity than just getting up in front of the class like show and tell or plagiarizing several Amazon book reviews. I would think there's great potential for student innovation for certain projects because they offer something for each learning style. I think teachers have to critically evaluate how many projects they do in a given school year, the purpose behind them, and not let them overshadow other important areas in their subjects.   

3. Isolate Them -- Literature circles tend to work well for books if you have people who have read the material, somewhat comprehend it, and generally have something of value to say when they say it (even if it's infrequently -- we aren't all extroverts). To read several novels in a public school year you can't do literature circles often unless your students are highly motivated. I'll give Kohn the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn't mean it's an everyday option. Not all students want to both share their opinion and read the assigned material. Since teachers are forced to evaluate everyone equally, I fear that in typical large classrooms the literary circle(s) would devolve into setting a lot of parameters to make sure everyone made some kind of meaningful contribution, but never actually knowing what each student took away because you're busy trying to evaluate everyone. I won't say throw the baby out with the bath water (because it's certainly worth attempting), but I did think it was odd that he was comparing his reading group (i.e. adults who love to read) with a classroom of teenagers who may or may not want anything to do with reading. Not apples to apples.        

4. Focus on Skills -- Justin says that the love of reading has to come before many of the technicals. Kind of like how you learn to speak. You learn to speak first by being immersed in language and THEN learn the rules of grammar. I agree. Again though, what if they're reading at a 6th grade reading level in high school? I'd love to see some practical ideas for remediation. 

5. Offer Them Incentives --I imagine that a lot of elementary school teachers probably don't like #5. My initial thought was about those who would read lots of books even without incentive, but Kohn would say they already have intrinsic motivation so why muddle it with rewards. He says we over-praise and over-bribe our children in America. I agree with his psychological premise that we are sending the wrong message to students, but what to do for the non-readers? Logistically, the school needs everyone reading at a certain age (whether that's a good idea or not is a discussion for another day) and for many students who come from homes that don't enforce after-school reading, they will eventually get passed on whether or not they can actually read fluently. Sadly, I saw several of those students at the high school level. Do you just say you can't reach them all and let them sink? 

6. Prepare Them For Tests --100% agree on this one. Teaching to a test is an atrocity. It's required by so many school districts when it's detrimental to both the teachers (sucks the joy out of teaching, stifles creativity) and the students (learning is only a means to an end). 

7. Restrict Their Choices -Given the volume and specificity of curriculum standards, I think the only way for a teacher to do this is to try and incorporate student choices as he/she looks over the curriculum (Kohn would probably say even this is too "teacher-controlled"). I think every good teacher is constantly evaluating their curriculum and how they can draw student creativity and engagement.      

As for his last points about student-teacher collaboration, I admit I am a little torn. When I think back on my high school the classes I enjoyed and inspired me the most were either: 

1. My junior and senior honors classes where we had more of say in things (just as he suggests). Those classes really felt like "family" because they were smaller and everyone was more motivated. An introverted teacher can do well here because of the depth of content they can provide.

2. The classes where there was a seasoned extrovert in charge (note I said seasoned extrovert because a lazy extrovert = story time with Coach so-and-so). As teenagers, we didn't care that we didn't have as much of a say because everything we did we were actually learning and had fun; those teachers had it down to a science.  

However, too many classrooms run solely top down which leads to some of the burnout he's talking about. I also take into consideration that all teachers have a worldview that inherently informs their teaching. In some cases that's definitely a good thing (consider a compassionate teacher who can be a witness to students with little stability at home and with peers), but in many others it's downright scary (a teacher who uses his position to spew his political views and calls it educational content). Parents have no control over what worldview any given teacher has and how that influences his class. 

However, I think it blurs the authority line a little too much in a regular classroom to do as much student-teacher collaboration as he's calling for in his examples. Kohn would probably say it's because I'm stuck in a top down mentality, but I question how you can be a mentor if you don't establish some kind of authority and a purpose for your college degree (i.e. what makes you different from them) in large classroom settings which are generally the norm. Is he suggesting that students will automatically respect you and then you can ease right on into collaboration? I think if I, as a high school teacher at the age of 22, came in asking for that much collaboration from students, I would have gotten mowed over. How does it work when you have several classes of 30 kids all with different reading levels, abilities and backgrounds? It seems like there would be too many differing opinions and resistant attitudes to make it work all the time. Would a teacher receive support from his administration and parents to even implement his approach? 

That being said, I think his ideas would be ideal for a small co-op class or perhaps a small honors class. In smaller groups you could reach consensus faster, have generally mature responses, and have more time to explore options. Obviously, his ideas could work well in homeschooling, too. 

Summary: I think his ideas make great sense and have much merit (I plan to use them here at home) to try and implement, but I don't see how they can work well beyond small and/or motivated groups of students. Kohn, like a lot of theorists, seems to be better at diagnosing the problem than coming up with workable solutions for his audience. 

Am I being overly cynical about his ideas as they apply in the typical classroom? Do I need to watch Dangerous Minds to snap out of it? Think back to your own education or teaching career and weigh in! 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Book Review: Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, M.D.

It's amazing what you can do when your children go to bed early and you haven't read a whole book in quite some time -- you devour the next one that comes in your path. Such is the case with Gifted Hands by Ben Carson, M.D.

Via YouTube, I watched Dr. Carson's speech at this year's National Prayer Breakfast. Honestly, it was much more political (though I agreed with his politics) than full of the Gospel. Despite that disappointment, I was fascinated by his life's story. He grew up in the Detroit ghetto and is currently the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Carson's story is full of encouragement for all ages.  

Dr. Carson's mother, Sonya, was married at age 13 to a 28 year old man, who she later finds out is a bigamist. She was raised in right here in Chattanooga and essentially married to get out of a hopeless situation, being one of 24 children. Dr. Carson describes his mom (who only had a 3rd grade education) as classic "type A" personality; when she wanted to pursue something she saw it through no matter the cost. Sonya did not listen to dissenters when she pushed her boys to earn a quality education. For Ben Carson and his brother this meant very little TV and books became his friend whether he liked them or not.      

In Gifted Hands, I enjoyed seeing his philosophy of education evolve as he went through school and eventually on to Yale. He is definitely a proponent of lifelong learning and liberal arts education (i.e. being knowledgeable in all fields, not just ones you like or you consider "useful"). Since he was forced to go hang out at the library by his mom, he eventually started to realize the beauty and freedom that acquiring knowledge provided. When Ben Carson resolved to do something, much like his mother, he got it done and did it with excellence. He was never one to gloat that he was a high achiever to others, he just had a very acute sense that he was called to be a doctor and worked toward that goal with incredible persistence.      

As to the overall feel of the book, I will say that it suffers from being an autobiography. Other reviews I read said that he comes across as obnoxious (to the reader) about his level of skill and to a degree that is true. He likes to tell stories about himself and doesn't come across as introspective as maybe he thinks he does. It was hard to reconcile his penchant for telling stories about his accomplishments with his sincere desire to serve people and always be a team player wherever he worked. I think a biographer could have softened some of those rough edges and have written the book with better finesse. Major accomplishments always sound better when someone else is objectively writing about them. The first part of the book did not capture my attention like the second half when Dr. Carson shared the special cases he worked on at Johns Hopkins. It was there that I felt like everything Dr. Carson had been talking about was written well -- skilled surgeon and compassionate friend; he was in his element in the second half.

Aside from the rags to riches story, there's a more personal reason I was drawn to this book. My sister has seen a lot of neurologists since she was born with hydrocephalus (which led to a shunt, which led to epilepsy, etc.), so I think his description of his career really appealed to me. I kept thinking, "I wonder what it would have been like for my sister to have seen him in 1981..." The dignity with which he treated his patients and the level of care seems extraordinary. He was constantly willing to do surgeries that no other doctors in the U.S. would even touch and the surgeries were virtually all successful and groundbreaking. Desperate families came to him and were uplifted by his willingness to pray for them and give them hope in Christ through his ability to go above and beyond the call.       

And finally, his discussion at the end of the book about misplaced priorities made me smile: 
"I'm really bothered by the emphasis given by the media on sports in the schools. Far too many youngsters spend all their energies and time on the basketball courts, wanting to be Michael Jordan...They want to make a million dollars a year, not realizing how few who try make those kinds of salaries. These kids end up throwing their lives away...When the media doesn't emphasize sports, it's music...Rather than putting all their time and energy into sports or music, these kids -- bright, talented young people -- should be spending their time with books and self-improvement, ensuring that they'll have a career when they're adults."   
Let's just say I am very glad that this book is on our county's summer reading list for students. It's very relatable and at the end very engaging even if you don't understand the technical neurosurgeon terms. I would have GLADLY put this book in the hands of my high school students because of Dr. Carson's strong conviction that God is involved in the everyday details of our lives and that a strong work ethic, humility and compassion are prized virtues.      

Despite my overall praise for this book, here were a few tensions in the book that I couldn't let go of: 

1. God as a last resort. Throughout the book he is always quick to acknowledge that things are "in the Lord's hands" and that God plays an active role in our everyday lives. He gives example after example of this. However, sometimes it felt like what he was actually saying was, "after I exhausted all my human resources and strength, THEN I turned to Lord and gave it over to Him". Not every example felt like that, but there were just a few too many moments of, "I've got nothing left. You gotta help me out here, Lord!" He may have never intended it to sound that way, especially since he often talks about how he knew his skill as neurosurgery was a gift from the Lord. If that's the case, he just needed a better editor.  

2. If you just work hard enough you can achieve anything. Although I strongly believe in working with excellence and integrity, this platitude drives me crazy because within God's will this is not always true. In Dr. Carson's case, it was VERY clear that God has a divine purpose for him being in the position that he is in so as to encourage and influence others. Every step of the way God was opening doors for him to specifically become a Christian role model (especially, as he says in the book, for African-Americans), an exemplar of Puritan work ethic, and a compassionate caretaker. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to tell a success story like his and the way he explains things sometimes makes it too easy to brush off the stories of those who have had a life of hard knocks or those who have prayed fervently for things and God has answered no or wait. Again I say, this needed to be a biography.            

Update: I just watched the movie version with Cuba Gooding, Jr. I generally never say go for the movie, but it wasn't a bad adaptation given it's a mediocre book to begin with. The highlights of the book are what make it into the film. Ironically, I think the religious aspect is much more authentic in the movie than in the book.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Talkin' 'Bout My Education: Part 2 -- On to the Netherlands!

This is a continuation of Part 1 from Mary Vance chronicling her observations about the different school systems in Europe and how that directly affected her family. If you recall from last month, in the late 80's Mary Vance started as an American in Germany and then headed to the Netherlands.  

Making the move from Germany to The Netherlands involved more than simply crossing a border; it involved entering into a new world. Here in the USA, when we cross a border into another state, there are some differences, but crossing into countries brings entry into a new culture, mindset, and history, as well as a new language. (And by the way, “Holland” is an area of The Netherlands, much like a state is an area of the USA. The Dutch really do not like us using the name, “Holland,” for their country).
As we settled into our rowhouse in Amsterdam, I began to take note of differences. For one thing, most all of the Dutch people are extremely fluent in English, even in the countryside! And what is more, they are fluent in the various “Englishes” spoken! To give you an understanding, I was shopping in Dam Square with two friends. Jill was from New Zealand, and Karen was from England. The clerk, when addressing me, spoke with an American accent, and when speaking with Jill, he sounded like a Kiwi, and Karen would have sworn he was a Brit when he talked with her! The Dutch education system recognizes The Netherlands is but a tiny cog in the wheel of the nations of the world, so they focus on fluency in languages to make their citizens competitive in the global market.
Many of the Dutch children begin speaking a number of languages, and I met some who were fluent in at least 5 by the time they were 16 years of age. Their education takes into account the nuances of language skills, so they do master the differences between American English to say, Australian English, and this is applied to all the languages they learn. It is quite impressive, and because they are a country with such languages proficiency, you will find many Dutch serving and working all over the world. Dutch business people also demonstrate this remarkable skill, and the Dutch are internationally conducting business with ease.
While living in The Netherlands, we watched the education system become more inclusive of younger children. The “official” age for children to be in formal, government schooling dropped from age 5 to age 4 and “unofficially” to age 2. Several of our Dutch friends in Youth With A Mission (YWAM) where we were serving, started a pre-kindergarten school called, “De Vis Kom,” (The Fish Bowl). Another American mom and I decided to let our sons attend for an hour twice weekly to expose them to the Dutch language. Our boys were 2 1/2 years of age. Although the teachers, our friends, were believers, they didn’t have control over the curriculum. As I previously mentioned, Euro governments control the academics of their schooling. After a few weeks, the other mom and I removed our children from De Vis Kom; what our children were being exposed to, all in the effort to learn Dutch, just wasn’t worth the cost.
The YWAM base in Amsterdam had over 300 families from all over the globe. We had weekly staff meetings, as well as meetings within the various ministries. When these meetings were happening, there were staff who worked with the children, and my son was exposed to a rich environment of nations in the context of Christianity. He blossomed in the atmosphere that was both safe and nurturing as YWAM leaders ministered to the children. I also resumed attending BSF classes (Bible Study Fellowship), which I had been a part of in the USA. Our first classes were held in Haarlem (Corrie tenBoom’s home town), and the classes later moved to Den Haag (The Hague). I traveled weekly to the cities with my little son where he was in the wonderful children’s program for which BSF is well known). We had a good and full life; my husband was busy with YWAM, traveling as a part of MFM (Musicians for Missions), and I was a contented “huisvrouw” (housewife), part of the mission, but focusing primarily on my family and extending hospitality to the multitude of guests and live-in folks who came our way.
Then, as my son approached turning four, and our lives changed dramatically.
First, I received notices in the post that it was time to enroll my son in the neighbourhood school. These were followed by phone calls. Because we were legal residents of The Netherlands, our contact information was easily available to the Dutch officials, and they made use of it!
My husband and I by this time had solidified our desire, and conviction, to home educate our son; however, there is no provision for homeschooling in The Netherlands. In my BSF classes, I asked the women to pray with me for the Lord to make a way. Surprisingly, I discovered two Dutch women in my group who also had experienced the conviction from the Lord for home education. The three of us, joined by two more American YWAM moms, made a small, but mighty, group of mothers with a mission! With the help of Margriet, one of the Dutch moms from my BSF class, over a number of months, we approached officials in the Dutch government’s education department. In a nutshell, we spoke with officials in every department, and even spoke to the Prime Minister’s representative, and a representative of Queen Beatrix about obtaining an exception to be allowed to homeschool. We were given two exceptions: we could be a part of the diplomatic corps of our countries or live on a working barge. Obviously, those were not options for any of us! 
By now my son was age 4 1/2, and I had to submit to the government and enroll him in the Dutch system of education. I was able to obtain a waiver to have him attend, “De Morgenster School,” (The Morningstar) which was part of our YWAM base instead of the local neighbourhood school. It was a 45 minute drive - one way, which we made daily. I was also able to obtain an exception in that he would only attend mornings (Euro schools are in session for most of the day, ending late in the afternoons), and we began to make plans to leave Amsterdam...
Stay tuned for Part 3 next month where Mary Vance explains in detail why sending her son to school in Amsterdam would have been a dangerous given the city's cultural notoriety for lax regulations on drugs and the international sex trade. Let me just say that as an American I cannot BEGIN to imagine the things she witnessed there. Next month will be pretty horrifying...