Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why ISN'T the military having bakesales to buy bombers while schools have all the money we need?

A recent issue of the issue of the monthly newsletter from ALATFF (Association of Library Trustees, Advocates, Friends and Foundations) cites these twelve ways libraries are good for the country. They are:

1. Libraries sustain democracy
2. Libraries break down barriers
3. Libraries level the playing field
4. Libraries value the individual
5. Libraries nourish creativity
6. Libraries open young minds
7. Libraries return high dividends
8. Libraries build communities
9. Libraries support families
10. Libraries build technology skills
11. Libraries offer sanctuary
12. Libraries preserve the past

Couldn't the same be said about schools?

Why is it so hard to get towns, counties, states and federal governments to make schools and children a priority?

Every day another school district announces budget shortfalls, freezes, cutbacks. What can the districts do? They just don't have the money. We need to make the money available. Haven't we already learned where we get with such short-sighted thinking?

It's appalling.

One of my students at Manhattan Country School, more than 20 years ago, suggested that we fund schools first, and if there isn't enough money to buy bombers, let the military have a bakesale. I later saw that sentiment on a tee-shirt, but I was there when nine year old Asha invented it on her own.

When the military budget was expected to be 708.2 billion dollars for 2011 and expected to rise by 3.6% for 2012 (according to the United States Department of Defense Budget Request) and education budgets are being slashed from 137.6 billion dollars in 2009 to 77.8 billion dollars in 2011 (according to the Education Department Budget Summary) what's the message about what's important to this nation?

Isn't it time we listen to Asha? While we still can?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sharing our wonder

For this post, I'm going to direct you to Jan's 4-5 Blog, my class blog, because I used their Everything Journals quite freely in the writing of it. Please leave your comments there. The class will be delighted to read them! Thanks!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Community of Learners

This weekend I feasted on learning with others. First, on Friday after school, my daughters and four teen-aged friends, another mom and a super-patient and wonderful beading enthusiast met together around my dining table and learned bead-weaving. Having never even strung beads together to make a simple necklace, I was the most beginner member of this gang, but we were all starting together to learn the peyote stitch. The first hour or more was filled with whining, moaning, under-the-breath cursing and a few exclamations of, "I've got it!" During the second hour, most of us had finished taking our piece apart repeatedly to start again and actually understood how it worked, and by the third hour, we were hooked! The ones who "got it" were able to help the rest of us, and our instructor stayed with us until we felt confident, and the stories and jokes and tidbits we shared made the time fly. I felt so fortunate to get to stick with it until I got it, rather than to stop after the first 45 frustrating minutes - which made me think about what it's like for our students when the class has to stop one thing to do the next. The teenagers kept going until after midnight, but I couldn't. I slept well knowing that I had been a part of something exciting to all of us!

Usually, I look forward to "sleeping in" on Saturdays- not quite the glorious treat it was before I became a mom, but if I'm lucky, I can stay asleep just past 7am and if I read in bed for awhile, I feel pretty decadent just the same. But, yesterday was the Teacher's College 80th Saturday Reunion of Reader's and Writer's Workshop teachers and the three of us who teach combined 4th and 5th grade classes decided to attend together. We were all up bright and early enough to meet at the 6:40 train and enjoy watching a nearly full moon set as the sun rose over the Hudson River.

We arrived at Riverside Church in time for John Scieszka's hilarious opening address. His stories of his life growing up in a household of six boys included enough urine and wrestling to make it clear that his first mostly-female faculty meeting when he became a teacher must truly have been culture shock and his irreverent gift of his book "Knucklehead" to then-President George W. Bush plainly illustrated his ability to say what's on his mind, no matter who's around to hear.

After John Scieszka's address, many thousands of teachers paraded across Broadway to Teacher's College where four hours and a huge selection of workshops awaited our free participation. Choosing where to go was tough, but I was delighted with the rooms I crammed into. Lucy Calkins talked to us about the need for children to read more difficult books and to read them with deeper comprehension. She identified a few specific skills, such as retelling, prediction, envisioning, empathy, reading like a writer and interpretation and she talked about how to help kids begin to improve them. Another time, I'll go into more details about some of these because they were enormously interesting and will help greatly in class.

Then I jogged and jostled my way into a talk about inquiry based learning with Stephanie Harvey and then fairly flew up four flights of stairs and through many winding halls to a talk about using blogs for reading logs -- all fascinating and full of things I can use immediately, which is important to most teachers who attend workshops.

The closing talk was given by Linda Darling-Hammond. For an excellent article about her views on the current administration's approach to education, you can follow this link. She told us how with 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's inmates and more than 25% of our children living in poverty, the US is choosing incarceration over education. She encouraged us as teachers to stand up for our profession and to stop others from dictating what we must do in the class, as we really know perfectly well what works and what doesn't work. In countries such as Singapore and Finland, teachers are part of a system which supports good teaching, won't allow children to be hungry or homeless, and values the professionalism of teachers.

As I listened and scribbled some notes - the best chance my memory had these days is if I scribble some notes! - I realized what a rare atmosphere I was breathing in. Not only was I seated in the balcony of a gorgeous church, modeled on a thirteenth century Gothic cathedral and featuring huge stained glass windows and soaring wide ceilings , but I was surrounded by thousands of teachers whose commitment to teaching and learning brought us all together in one place to listen, reflect, laugh, take notes, ask questions and return to our classrooms renewed and recharged. This was a crowd I had more in common with than any other random crowd at a concert or shopping mall and it felt great just to look around, eavesdrop soak it in.

Maybe I could have learned the peyote stitch from a computer - I won't say it's impossible - but it wouldn't have been as fun! And how would the computer know when my mistakes were bad enough to require a restart and when I could keep going? From what I can tell so far, although there were plenty of tech-savvy speakers and audience members at the Readers and Writers Reunion, there has been no attempt to try and bring this day of workshops to us digitally, and for that I am grateful. I prefer the experience of learning with others and digital learning just can't replace the experience of learning in a live community.

P.S. I have been so focused on blogging that I just burned the black beans! Here's a perfect time to be on-line instead of in my kitchen. . . You aren't having to smell the beans!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

What is Progressive Education?

My father was brought up by two progressive educators who taught at and later ran the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama. For those of you who don't know, Fairhope itself was a pretty radical concept: every household could be a shareholder in the town, but shareholders did not own the land itself - that was owned in common by the town. Marietta Johnson offered very radical ideas in the 20s and 30s, including child centered education, no tests, no grades, and an approach to curriculum that included Morris Dancing and shop on an equal plane with reading, writing and 'rithmetic. His educational experience was, my whole life, the gold standard for education, and, like many teachers I know, I have spent my entire adult life thinking about, promoting, teaching in or parenting in progressive schools.

I currently teach at a child-centered school with no tests or grades and a rich variety of drama, music and art along with all the rest of the academics. We consider ourselves progressive, without having any common definition for what we might mean by that word. I think that each one of us at my school has a few strongly held tenets - and that they probably overlap and conflict with each other in interesting ways. We have a powerful mission statement - and we all have different ways of interpreting how to achieve it. (I purposely said "and" not "but" because I think that leaves us open to exciting philosophical discussions.)

Before coming to my current school, I taught at a progressive school whose founder was still actively teaching and administering. The discussions about progressive education were lively and frequent, and because the founder participated in them, and because we were all so passionate about the vision of the school, our philosophies were much more closely aligned.

I have been associated with my current school for about eighteen years, but only employed for six of those years, as I took a LONG time to return after having children. Meanwhile, I was a parent and board member at yet another progressive school, where I had the opportunity to share in the growth and development of a school choosing to expand to eighth grade instead of fourth grade.

Throughout those years, there's been more than enough to reflect on about progressive education, and I have reached some level of clarity about some of what matters most to me as a progressive educator.

I see the picture with a wide-angle lens, taking in the relationships between all parties, administration, faculty and staff, parents and children as well thinking about what the curriculum is and how we create and "deliver" it. It's about seeing opportunities to help people (all the people in the school!) flourish and grow, and giving them the tools, time, support and love to do so. In a progressive school, the way we teach, the way we talk, the way we make decisions - it's all vital to the lifeblood of being progressive. We're learning all the time as well as teaching students to think, be compassionate, be open-minded and responsible, be problem-solvers, work together, work alone - - and in the midst of that most important curriculum, we teach them to read and write, do sums, create, explore and express themselves in all the variety of classes we offer.

In a progressive school, it's imperative that the kids, parents and teachers feel they can speak up or share their interests or concerns, that they are invited to share their thoughts openly and honestly, that they'll be heard and responded to respectfully and honestly, that trust and communication underlie everything that goes on in the school. There's no good replacement for those relationships and that trust. That's why I give out my cell phone number to the students and parents of the kids in my class; that's why I spend so much time reading their work or preparing for their classes; that's why I bring small groups and large groups of kids together to discuss disagreements or other issues that arise; that's why we sit in a meeting area where we can look at each other and respond to each other's ideas many times a day and why we take it very seriously if anyone laughs at anyone else's ideas or insults anyone; and that's why, before I have 9 and 10 year olds spend much school related time on a computer, we put so much time and thought into paying attention to face to face communication. We need the community and trust to come first.

Once all that trust, respect and communication is in place as the most important boulders of a classroom's foundation, then we can set about working on the mortar. Are we going to teach phonics? Are we going to use writer's workshop - and which model do we like? Are we going to use textbooks for any subjects? Will we teach spelling? Handwriting? How does our social studies curriculum progress throughout the grades? How do we make the learning experiential? How do we make sure learning is intrinsically valued? At what age do the children write research reports? Who makes the curriculum decisions? What type of assessment do we use? What is the role of homework in the curriculum?

There aren't necessarily right or wrong answers - progressive and traditional answers - to those specific questions. There are only progressive and traditional ways to go about answering them. That's what defines a progressive school far more than which math text they do or don't use. A progressive school values the community and the trust above all else and from that flows all the opportunities for students to learn to be compassionate responsible problem-solving creative and fabulous citizens of the complicated future we are leaving for them.

I keep thinking of more points to make and more questions to ask, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about what progressive education means to you!