Thursday, September 10, 2015

Schools Appropriate for Kids or Convenient for Adults?

Are schools set up to meet the needs of children or to be convenient for adults?

Think of a preschooler, any preschooler, describe that preschooler.  Odds are there will be descriptors like energetic, bouncy, loud, exuberant, excited, moody, thoughtful, playful, joyful, inquisitive...

Take that child and place him/her in a kindergarten (which resembles first grade more and more each year).  Tell that child to sit still, be quiet, listen to the adult talk, listen to the adult read, raise your hand, follow directions, line up, be neat, ask questions only at the appropriate moments...

Suddenly, many of the children are having "problem behaviors" because they are acting as if they are five years old, which they are. Humans, especially young ones, are a boisterous bunch. Many of the things we expect of them in school are contrary to human nature and possibly contrary to their individual nature.  Does this make them a problem child?  

 Is it reasonable to ask a child to sit for the better part of a day?  Is it healthy? No. Knowing what we know now about the human metabolism and obesity, should we be doing this? Probably not.  The chairs in a classroom are bought by the thousands, they are durable, easy to clean, and stack.  Are they a comfortable place to sit for the better part of six hours? No.  Just going to Back-to-School night for an hour or two is enough to remind me how awful the chairs are. Is it good for the kids?  Does it meet their physical needs? Nope and nope.

Once seated in those chairs a student must be still.  Fidgeting has discouraged in the classroom, now it has been shown to help the kids with ADHD focus on what is being taught. Some teachers get it, some do not, it is one of those "problem" behaviors, which often indicate a child is a kinesthetic learner, which means that the child learns best by moving and touching things. Kids who are dominant in this learning style can grow up to be excellent artists, mechanics, plumbers, engineers, inventors, dancers, athletes...if they survive the stigma of being the "bad" kid who can't follow directions and do their worksheet quietly, as their brains are starve for appropriate input. Is it good for the kids? Nope.

I worked (very briefly) in one school that had the most silent, still atmosphere that I had ever seen.  Walking through the halls while classes were in session was eerie, not even the teachers were doing much talking or moving about.  Everything was quiet and controlled, until lunchtime, when they herded several hundred students into the large cafeteria for lunch and the students went wild. Every. Single. Day.  Maybe the kids aren't the problem, hmmm?


It is easier for the adult to manage a large group of children if they are all seated and silent.  Do they learn oral language skills? No.  Are oral language communication skills one of the things employers are looking for in employees? Yes.  We are not teaching that, except in occasional lessons, it's an everyday thing though.

Are they encouraged to ask questions?  Surprisingly, no. They are just supposed to do as they are told, questioning the teacher is often seen as challenging the teacher.  The questions they come up with when asked to form questions are staid, because they are rarely asked to form good questions.  They are supposed to passively answer the questions, not actively seek out information in American classrooms. I have taught in several states, they all seem about the same.

Teachers complain the students aren't curious, sure they are, they have just been taught to shut that down in the classroom, because it gets them into trouble. If you give those same kids a scoop of moist forest soil full of critters or a scoop of pond water taken from the edge, they will ask all of the right questions when working in their small groups, but once the teacher asks them to share whatever questions they have the room goes silent.  I have walked around the room writing down the questions kids gush out when they are faced with something unfamiliar in a small group.  Then when I asked for their questions, there was only silence.  Then I pulled out my notes and told them what I had done during their small group observation, and worked with them to answer the questions that I had overheard. They seemed embarrassed at first when their question came up, but when it was taken seriously they seemed proud.  We should take kids' questions seriously, and listen more, they are asking them, just not in front of 25 other people.

During my years in the classroom I read research that stated that teachers ask the most questions in lessons and that most of those questions are rhetorical, never expecting an answer.  The quality of the questions posed by the students was low. I set out to teach my fifth and sixth graders how to ask good quality questions, it was a long, painful process.  They were very frustrated in the beginning, but as time went on they became more skillful.  Sometimes, I had them use the phrase, "I wonder why..." and "I wonder how" (excluding the use of the words --many or much).  The other technique was to ask a type of question that could not be answered with a "yes" or "no" response, or other single word responses.  The question had to elicit a story.  The moment of victory for me was during the sessions of career presentations that parents gave to the classes.  One of the students who had consistently performed below grade level, but who was starting to awaken in the classroom, asked a parent what she needed to do to prepare for her career.  Not "Do you like your job?" or "How much money do you make?", but a real question that required a bit of a story in response. This student then beamed as the next five minutes were devoted to answering his question. 

A few years later when I had moved out of the classroom and into a museum I was asked to judge science fairs and the biggest issue that I found with the projects was that the students' questions weren't any good or they just lifted a project from a book of science projects and didn't really care about it at all.  Some who had a bit of curiosity and interest in the project doomed themselves with poorly worded questions. We need to have the kids ask more questions, but this doesn't happen often, because it will sometimes lead the children into material that is not on the required test later that week.  Do employers need employees who can ask good questions? Yes.

Not every child thrives when they are constantly with others, especially in large groups. Are they allowed a few moments to themselves?  Usually, no. As an introvert myself, I remember feeling relief just being allowed to walk to the office to deliver a message (written on paper, imagine!) or to go to the restroom.  The hallways were blissfully empty and quiet and I felt I could breathe.  Luckily, I was deemed a reliable child and frequently was chosen to do these things, but not often enough. When I was older and stayed after school for extra-curricular activities, I felt the same way, the impenetrable crowds were gone (my school had several hundred more students than it had been designed for) and I could relax.  I enjoyed school much of the time, but nearing the end of the day I often was ready for everyone to go home, it was just too much stimulation.  Kids are not allowed time to themselves, they are thrown in with the herd and stay with the herd, all day. Is it good for the 50% of the kids who are introverts? Nope. Why are they in large groups?  It's cheaper.

School start times are another of my little peeves.  We've known for years that later start times are better for teens, they miss less school, have less car accidents, and get better grades if schools have a later start time.  Any parent of a teen knows that they just don't wake up early, they might be walking around because they have to, but they do a pretty good zombie impression.  Why do we have early start times?  Tradition, sports teams need the after school time for practice, it builds character, and it is convenient for the parents and teachers to have normal working hours.  Is it good for teens? Nope. How about sending the little ones, who tend to wake up at the crack of dawn (if given an appropriate bedtime) to school first? Then when the buses are freed up later, send the teens in to school.

Children who are given choices learn to make decisions.  Very few things are left to be decided by the children. Adults like to be in control, they control the kids walking in silent lines down the halls, they control the student's bodily functions by withholding the hall pass...The kids are assigned seats on the bus, they are assigned tables at lunch and have to earn the privilege to sit with their friends, they are given "assignments" that have little wiggle room in the manner in which they can be done.  My daughter says that the only choice she is given during the day is what to have for lunch, and since she brings her lunch most of the time, that is because I give her a choice.  She laughs at "the land of the free", she can't pee without permission. How are kids supposed to manage their own behavior if they are never given an opportunity to make a choice?  We want great decision makers--well then train some!!  Give them decisions, give them a bit of freedom!  Of course, some will not make the right decisions, but there is an opportunity to learn.  Will some abuse the privilege? Certainly. Let them face the consequences and let the others learn, rather suffocating all of the students.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Prussian military and beyond-American Education rant part two in a series of thousands

Back onto the education rant, the first part was about poverty and education.  The second part is about redefining what education looks like, acts like, and examining it's purpose.

To figure out what is wrong with education in the US one has to go back to the roots of public education.  The first Department of Education created in the US was in Massachusetts, the first Secretary of Education was Horace Mann, a lawyer and a Senator.  He had some great ideas (of course, this blog is biased) like universal education--every one, rich or poor, gets a basic education and it is funded by the local government.  Mann went to Prussia and gathered some ideas for public schooling, some ideas are good, some in the long term not so great.  

The Prussian system was set up because the nature of war was changing and they needed their troops to be able to understand some of the strategy.  They lost to Napoleon and they didn't want a repeat.  Battles were no longer of the face the enemy lined up in a field and run at them while blasting them with all you have  and if that fails use the bayonet type, they required more planning and the ability to adjust mid-stream.  The system also focused on creating a common experience for the students and to instill nationalism in the populace.  They wanted better soldiers.

Skipping back to the US, Mann came home and put some of what he learned in place.  

The idea was to create better citizens and consistency.  Some of this can be seen in the social studies textbooks of today.  Though these texts are somewhat better today for diversity, they are used to instill pride in the US, but they go about it by omitting many of the negative things that have been done in the name of the USA.  When I was doing my work study hours at the university where I received my teaching degree (MS) I met someone working in the next office who was working on his BS.  Three semesters in a row he enrolled in US History, he kept dropping it, not because he couldn't handle the material, but because the material was so negative and he "knew" that American history was glorious, because high school had taught him that was so.  He asked me why it was so negative, and I responded, "Because it is true, the high school textbooks are written to make Americans love their country, but that love is blind to the truth." He didn't know about many of the issues with slavery, Japanese internment camps, US intervention in South American and Middle Eastern countries' leadership or many of the other events that happened.  He had learned the white washed version, and in his early thirties he was learning new things, he felt he had been lied to.  It is still going on, look at some of the issues with the AP US History curriculum, they are still trying to push US exceptionalism.  The truth that we are fallible seems too much for some people.  Are we creating the thinking citizens that our republic needs?  I think not.


Mann started what were then called Normal Schools, teacher's colleges to improve the quality of teachers and to create the profession of teaching.  Before this time, anyone could call themselves a teacher and if they found someone to hire them, then they taught.  Some were good, some were great and the remainder collected a salary for a while.  Teacher's colleges are good things, I learned many really great things in my education program, but the one thing that they did not talk about is how you must check much of what you have learned at the school door because of "policy", "procedure", "new program", tradition, and the fact that most school decisions are made by  politicians (elected school boards - which are political training grounds - and policy makers inside the department of education) rather than by educators. Mann, a lawyer, the first education secretary, started that tradition.

Mann also introduced grade levels, age segregation within schools.  While there is some benefit, there are many drawbacks.  Children of the same age are not of the same ability.  There are certain windows of child development that need to be addressed, but throwing all the five year olds in the same room all day together with little contact with the older students misses many more opportunities.  Years ago, I conducted the readiness tests for kindergarteners.  Some could name one or two numbers, knew a couple of colors and no shapes, but would be the first to help another kid up when they fell, they had some of the soft skills needed that are not addressed much beyond the primary levels. Others came in reading or near reading, had extensive vocabularies, could put objects into a variety of categories and could do a bit of math.  Both the high achieving and the low achieving kids could have benefited from time with older kids, the low achieving (as defined by the tests given by the district) to see what older kids know and to strive for that, and to have the older kids benefit because to help teach someone a skill a person learns the skill to a greater degree in process.  

The high achievers benefit because there are people around who can understand what they are saying. I remember one tiny little kid, one of the youngest in his class with the reading vocabulary of a middle school kid, he'd bounce into the room all round faced and rosy cheeked in his Osh-Kosh-B'Gosh overalls, play in the house, build with blocks and talk about how he was going to be a surgeon when he grew up and why.  The other kids just smiled and nodded. (I wish I could remember his name, I'd love to see if he stayed on track, he could be a surgeon by now.)  He would have been able to go much farther had he had more exposure to a challenging curriculum with older children for at least part of the day.  The artistic children who don't draw the basic square house with the triangle roof and lollipop trees, but create crenelated edifices would benefit from exposure to others with similar abilities, but with more experience. I could go on and on, but anyone who has made it this far would give up on me.

Up until the public school system with grade levels was established children had much more exposure to adults and older children, so, out of the last ten thousand years or so since humans started living in larger villages/towns due to agriculture it is only in the last 175 years that we have isolated the children from the rest of society.  I think socializing children in a vacuum for most of the day is not a good idea, they need to meet and work with people of all ages, including the very old. (Putting all of the elders in one spot hidden from society is a whole connected, but at this moment digressive topic)


The work we give the children is meaningless, it really benefits no one.  Work instills pride and motivates.  Meaningless tasks assigned as an exercise induces the "why do we have to learn this?" whine.  I would love to have my kid have the chance to spend a few hours a week with someone who designs software for a living, because that is her interest at the moment and I would rather have her discover that it is or is not for her before we invest six figures in her post-secondary education.  She would also see how her mathematics and patterning abilities (first remarked upon at 4 months old) fit into her goals.  I would also like her to have exposure to musicians other than her regular teacher, he is wonderful, but he is but one of many different types of musicians.  I want her to use the mathematics that she has been taught, do something with it, rather than  just keep cranking out problems on notebook paper with little vision of their purpose.  I want her to use her math in art and music and music in her art and math.  I want her IRLA (integrated reading and language arts) class to read and write about science and history and math and art and...everything.  I want more adults with varied experiences (insurance agents, horticulturalists, waitresses, lawyers, plumbers etc.  maybe on the two days a month & two weeks a year model of the National Guard) in the classrooms and the kids to leave the classrooms regularly.  For many years we locked our children in windowless buildings (--a sarcastic-tone gets lost sometimes, insert here-- thank you to the designers of the late 50's through early '80's and the insurance companies who supported it) to teach them about the outside world.  Now many schools are now integrating windows back into their designs, but the windows face a blank and bland lawn or parking lot, and teach them nothing.


So in summary--tell the kids the truth, expose them to a greater variety of experiences, integrate them into the community, and give them some purpose.

The boxes that we trap curriculum and our students in limit the students and their potential contributions to society. We separate them from varied thoughts, varied people, and the world. So, are we seeking better soldiers or are we seeking a populace of citizens to wave our flag without understanding what it represents or ones who are ready for the future?

There are many more issues...are schools designed with children or adults in mind (are the children's needs met or is it just more convenient for adults), schools and property values, segregation by race and income...future rants,

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tons of Tomatoes-- Dehydrating Day!

I made pickles earlier this season, I've blanched and frozen pea pods and greens.  Now for something new! Dehydrating!

My mother-in-law gave me her food dehydrator a couple of years ago.  Now this isn't some little rinky-dink plastic dome thing, this is a cabinet with loads of trays.  I kept telling myself to use it, but I hadn't , now, finally, it is seeing some use.

The cherry and currant tomato bonanza is going on in the garden.  I picked only the ones that were hanging on the wrong side of the fence, which still left me with a 9 x 12 tray filled with tomatoes.
Tomatoes are really photogenic, I took lots of pictures.

I googled how to dehydrate them and miraculously all the people posting agreed on most points, which are--slice them in half, place them in the dehydrator on a low setting, check on them and in 10-16 hours (depending on the dehydrator and how low it is set), and voila dehydrated tomatoes.

So, I sliced them in half.

All several hundred of them.  It took a long time to slice them in half.  I could have left them whole, but they would have taken several days in the dehydrator.  I don't think it is energy star compliant, so to save the electric bill, they were sliced, and sliced, and sliced.

And loaded them into the dehydrator.  I added a layer of peppers, because I still had space.
I had seven trays of tomatoes and one of peppers.
I checked on them this morning and they looked like this:

They are very tasty!  I love it when it works!
Bottled up, five trays of red cherry and currant tomatoes look like this:
It seems the secret to telling if the tomatoes are ready is to put a few of them straight from the tray into a jar, if it fogs up they are not ready.  The only cloudiness I have on these jars is mineral deposits from our well water.
The yellow ones are taking a bit longer, they were much larger.  They are still in the dehydrator.  I tested them, they taste good too!

Now for all of the tomatoes that are inside the fence, this could be days of work.
This is slooooooooooooow food.