Making Better Schools is a Local Enterprise

In the summer of 1974 I became principal of my first school. It was in trouble—such trouble, in fact, that I was the only person they could find to be its principal.

Demographic change had hit the school hard. White flight and other changes had dropped the enrollment to only 210 students, 38% of whom were now African American. The neighborhood of the school was what the real estate agents charmingly called “a little salt and pepper,” and everyone believed what one trustee whispered in my ear: “Research has shown that if a third of a school goes black, it goes all the way.” Continue reading

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New Media Are Neither Good Nor Bad. It’s Parenting Makes It So.

Ever since I was seven, when my father compromised his stand on the new technology, by allowing a television in our house, there has been a running dialog in this country about the evils of new media. As in my father’s original stance, the central question of the conversation is usually about exposure. How much, if any, exposure should parents allow their children?

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Management-Speak Disguises a Short-Sighted Vision of School

In decades of trying to improve schools, things aren’t working out. Maybe, we should apply a lesson of life to our approach to elementary school: Do the present right, and the future will take care of itself.

On the surface much of the lingo of school improvement seems full of confident commitment to excellence and success for all. Language like accountability for measurable outcomes, high standards, data driven decision-making, racing to the top, leaving no children behind, and so on is seductive. Hearing this language in a school system one imagines thousands of children working hard to produce results that will someday make thousands of adults proud of their collective commitment to success. Continue reading

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Procrustean Education

Procrustes was a blacksmith who had his house by the side of the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis in ancient Greece. Being a friendly, hospitable guy, though, Procrustes also ran an inn. When tired travelers came down the road, he would sometimes invite them in to spend the night.

The rooms in the Inn were equipped with special beds. When the guests lay down, if they were too long for the bed, a special guillotine-type knife would drop down and lop off whatever was hanging over the foot of the bed. If they were too short for the bed, they would be stretched to fit. Continue reading

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This March on Washington, Where’s the Dream?

At the end of this month there will be a  “Save our Schools March” on Washington. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington, there is no clear, shared vision of what it would look like if the desired changes happened. What would it look like if teachers and parents “took back the schools?”

Last month I published “Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really” in which I suggest that parents and other educators actually do know what we want. We want schools to graduate young people for the world as it is rather than for the industrial age.

The good news is, we know what those graduates should look like. Educators from Tony Wagner at Harvard to Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford have identified the kinds of skills the world will require of our graduates: focusing, making connections, changing perspective, creating, making judgments, finding meaning, working with others, managing conflict, planning, taking on challenges, persevering, etc.

Citizens with these skills, however, will not come from whomever wins the big debates over testing, teachers, unions, accountability, privatization, vouchers, charter schools, and so on.

The great news is that the changes we want have already occurred in some schools for some students. Hundreds of schools across the country, both public and private, rich and poor, are learning communities whose cultures are focused on bringing out the best in each person, building their character and their competence, and growing their authority. They have abandoned the Pyramid Model. For these schools and the people in them the game of school is not the “Get the Right Answers Game” but the “Work with Others to Investigate Interesting Questions Game.” These schools are graduating young people for the future—any future.

I have met many of these young people. They are everything we say we want: confident, creative collaborators who can communicate, they can speak and write, and solve problems on their own and also know when to involve others, and they are not into measuring up but rather into making a difference. They are trying to find their own unique place in a very wide world, and seem quite ready for the dynamic never-ending process of self-reinvention.

Moreover, they aren’t all under 30. Apparently this change has been going on for at least a generation. A parent at one school was going on about how wonderful her daughter’s school was. He said: “I visited 15 different schools. I could tell in five minutes that I wanted this school.”

So, I asked, “Terrific, but what’s so great?” Continue reading

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Learning to Write: Seven Elements of a Learning Culture

How we teach an academic subject is important; the social context in which we teach it is equally critical.

One day in early February, Tanya, one of the teachers of the Fireflies, a preschool class of four-year-olds, came into the lounge at lunch time and said: “We have had an outbreak of writing in the Fireflies today.”

“Really, that’s great,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, just that. It was a little epidemic.”

“Huh. Wow. What happened?” Continue reading

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Summer Fun: 12 Ways Parents Can Build a Mathematics Brain in Children

The most important thing we can do to ensure that our children speak mathematics when they are older is to make sure that mathematics is part of their world during their first 10 years of life. Continue reading

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Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It.

Today, when (and if) the sun comes out, take a child outside and measure the shadow of something, and say, “Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year. Let’s see how long the shadow is. Let’s pick something and mark the end of the shadow so that we can watch the shadow get longer as the summer goes on.”

All sorts of questions could come up depending upon the age of the child and the interests of the participants, for example:

What could we use to measure?

Could we use one of Daddy’s shoes? My shoe, Baby’s foot,

How could we use a tape measure?

What is the relationship of Daddy’s shoes to my shoes?

What is the ratio?

Do we need to pick a fixed time?”

…and so on and so on.

It is common for parents to ritualize story time every day. This is a good thing. To read to your children before he or she goes to bed is the most important thing parents can do to ensure that their children will grow up to be readers. It not only models something that you value, it builds your relationship, and gives you a time to be with your child in loving, fun, calm, quiet, spiritually enriching ways. Stories are the staff of mental life and relationships.

What if we had a curiosity ritual? This week we play around with sinking and floating; next week we notice the flight of balloons, or the creation of bubbles. What if parents were ritualistic about doing a cooking project with their kids every weekend?

Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity.  We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions.  This is like thinking of stories as grammar.  Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families. Continue reading

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How Schools Can Make Kids Stupid and What Parents Can Do.

If the deadening weight of school ever threatens to extinguish the love you came here with, don’t let it. We were wiser than we knew when we wrote those college personal statements. Remember the person that naïve teenager wanted to be. Be that person, and more.

–Aarti Iyer—Columbia College Senior*

Episode 1: Taking Recess Away

Teacher: “Class, you can have your lost recess time back when you show me that you can sit quietly and focus on this worksheet for the next fifteen minutes without talking or staring out the window or bothering someone else.”

With one voice Class replies: “No deal. Here’s the deal: Continue reading

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“A Home and a Heaven for Children”

Hearing that I am on a mission to change how America thinks about education Dawn Morris wrote: “What does your ideal school look like? Is it hands-on? Is it project based? Is there art? Is there music? I know you think learning should be fun, but what does a fun learning environment mean to you? Is it student directed? What does that mean? What assessments are there? Are there still standards?”

She concluded with: “Having been one of those teachers who left the public schools in frustration Continue reading

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