Summer School?

summer-school-dave-chainsaw

That picture is what I thing of when I think of summer school. The kids who didn’t get it done in the previous nine months got to spend some quality time over the summer to gain credits. If you are of a certain age, and have questionable taste, you probably saw the movie. A bunch of slackers taking English from an equally slackerish teacher.

The new trend that I have seen in the last couple of years is summer school for the bright. Not really school but assignments to get them ready to take ‘advanced’ or AP courses in the fall. My niece and a friend of my daughter’s both participated in this activity this summer and their schools are 200 miles apart. It must be a trend.

While at the shore this summer my niece broke out a book and some worksheets to complete her assignments so that she would be allowed to participate in the advanced English course during her sophomore year. I don’t have a problem with that necessarily. I do have a problem with the assignments. Read these three books; answer the questions on these worksheets and write a report on this book using this theme.

This is a good example of one of the things that is wrong with education in this country. I’m sure that the school that this teacher works at thinks she is the greatest teacher they have. They would have to because we know that only the best teachers get to teach the top kids. Don’t get me started on that. And the students in these classes have to be the best and brightest in order to get through the door. So, our ‘best’ teachers are telling our ‘best’ students how to grow academically over the summer. These are the book that will make you smarter; these are the questions that will prove you are smarter; this is the theme that smart people write about. The books were the typical high quality literature that you see in high school classrooms. We all probably read them. The theme was based on material that the typical high school would understand. The worksheets on the other hand were mostly low level recall questions. The kind of questions that a teacher asks just to make sure you read the book. No desire for students to analyze the text or make judgments.

The problem is this: If our gifted and talented and otherwise smart kids can’t decide for themselves how to self direct their learning, who can? What if the assignment were to read three books of your choosing. Three books that  spoke to them. Three books that they were passionate about. Three books that they felt would help them develop into better students or better human being. Wouldn’t that be a better use of their time? Instead of saying write this essay about this book on this theme, couldn’t the students read the materials that they selected and write about how the books impacted them positively or negatively. What did you learn about yourself by reading these books? And, in my opinion, chuck the worksheets into the trash. Trust is important in building a culture of learning. Asking students to answer simple recall and comprehension questions serves one purpose: to make sure that the kid read the book. I don’t trust you so tell me what happened to Tom on page 136. We are in dire need of people who can solve critical problems in our society. We need adults who are thinkers. Brendon Burchard’s second rule in his 5 Rules of Life is: Believe in your ability to figure things out. That ability may come naturally for some but for others it needs to be nurtured. You nurture that, I believe, by providing kids opportunities to figure things out. We don’t do it by spoon feeding content .

I read or am reading five books over the summer. Everyone has taught me something that I will use this year in my job. Not one of those books is on the list of 500 books everyone should read before they die. Not one. But I grew this summer because of each one. When more teachers start focusing on cultivating growth, allowing choice, and building trust with students, education will be  moving in a better direction.

Do It For Them

One of the things that I know I contemplate often is the fact that we don’t take enough time out to reflect on what an important position we hold in this country. As teachers and people who lead schools we have a very important responsibility. I know that may sound trite but if you seriously reflect on the role that we have in the lives of students, it is more than a tad overwhelming. The time that students spend with us is equal to or often times more than they spend with any other adult figure.

If you have had the opportunity to work with students who are from low income or otherwise difficult households, you will see this impact multiplied. These students are looking for attention, someone to look up to, and sometimes love. At the end of the school year these are the students who don’t want to go home. They don’y know why but they want to stay at school. They want to stay because they feel safe, they fell loved and they feel that they belong. The experience at home may not be the same. This impact that we have on students is profound. Some of us have even had the pleasure of a student who mistakenly called us mom or dad or uncle or aunt. And sorry to say, grandma or pop. That happens because we fill that void for them when their near relatives are absent or maybe we fill that need in general.

In that vein, don’t we have a responsibility to step up our game on a daily basis? I have told my staff on several occasions that my expectation is that they are all in everyday. Can a reasonable leader expect anything less? I’m not sure what we would be holding back for. This is the only shot we have. It is the only shot that your students have. We owe it to ourselves, our students and the world to go all out, to be all in, on a daily basis. There really is no time to be off your game because today might be the day you changed someone’s life deeply and do you really want to be the one to steal someone’s dream. I don’t and I don’t want to be responsible for the person who does.

In this day there is very little love for education in the mainstream. Respect for teachers and education is in the doldrums. But we chose this. And in a way, this chose us. I’s okay for us to be mad at the worked for the way we have been treated but it’s not alright to make students the victims. Some days I know it is hard to do it for ourselves but remember why we are really here: Do it for them!

Maybe We Should Teach

If I were to contemplate, like so many other bloggers seem to do today, the failings of today’s education system, all of my thoughts could redirect to on word – small-mindedness (I hyphenated it so it might be two words but not the point).

Friends, Teachers, Pundits! Lend me your ears! I come to bury education not to fix it!

I don’t mean that literally. I mean it is time for sweeping change. For goodness sake we need to move on or be left behind. And when I say “we” I mean the education establishment. It’s time to quit looking over our shoulders and trying to stay one step ahead of Big Brother. Or more precisely Big, Rich Brother. We are the people who know children. We are the one’s who can change the system. And we will change the system for one reason: It’s what’s best for kids. 

I remember my parents telling me when I was in college that “sometimes you have to play the game.” Agreed. Sometimes. But not when the game hurts students, when the game keeps us mired in the past, when the game is designed to favor the rich, when the game puts more money in the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, when the game widens the opportunity gap, its time to take our ball and go home (figuratively!).

It is time for us to open up our minds. It is time for us to realize our power. It is time for us to look into the future and see what our students will see. Then we must ready ourselves to prepare them for it. It will not be easy; it will be disruptive. There probably won’t be a canned formula for any student’s success. We will have to be creative. We will have to allow our students to be creative. We will be nurturers and facilitators and cautious bystanders. Dr. Watson to our students’ Sherlock and Mr. Watson to our student Alexander Graham Bell. Charlie to President Bartlett?

Its not for the weak of heart or the small of mind. But do you want to look back and see that you didn’t prepare students for their futures because of someone’s political aspirations? Someone’s padded back account? Because of fear of falling behind internationally? Because of Big, Rich Brother? I think not!

Google “21st Century Skills.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. What did you find? Did it say anything about how standardized testing will prepare children for the future? Where there any sites that said that improving standards would improve student success in the future? Anywhere did it say that the best thing we could do for students is narrow the curriculum even more? 

I didn’t think so.

What it says is we need to teach students to think. We need to teach them to create. We need them to be able to draw a map not follow a map and we need them to tap into their own unique genius. Students will have to navigate devices that haven;t even been invented yet. They will have to collaborate – try to test that! Communication – aside on communication great TED talk on texting as new language – in languages that we aren’t teaching. Communicating in ways that we never thought of (John McWhorter talk above).

My biggest fear in education is that while we fight about what is best for kids, the 21st century is coming and we can’t stop it as hard as we might try. My biggest fear is that while we wait to be told what to do our students are falling further behind. It’s time to stand up, grow a backbone and do what we know is right. 

Keep Your Art Out of My Science

A couple of decades ago while earning my bachelor’s degree in education I recall a professor asking whether we thought that teaching was an art or a science. At that time it was a pretty good debate for a bunch of 19 and 20 year-olds.

Whether we like it or not, there really no longer is a debate about how teachers are expected to teach. Art is no longer appreciated or rewarded. Science – data, pre-made assessments, canned lessons and are I say teaching to the test – is the expectation. There really is no time or necessity to be creative when there a finite number of objectives to accomplish. Sure, you can feel free to address those standards in any way you like! Or can you?The list of expectations for teaching behavior from lesson planning to classroom management to instructional delivery to professional behavior have been spelled out in detail. This is what great teaching looks like!

You understand in order to make the expense of public education justifiable, it has to be boiled down to a number. A number that Joe Average Citizen can comprehend. In order to get to a number you have to have a measurable product. In order to have a measurable product you have to have a concrete tool with which to measure. You can;t have a lot of loose ends that aren’t part of the accepted equation. Too messy.

Teachers in turn feel the pressure to reach some agreed upon number from the ivory tower and do exactly that. Believe me, it is hard to distinguish the standardized testing scores of students taught by teachers who teach straight out of the book and teachers who spend hundreds of hours planning and tweaking lessons. It’s crap.

It’s crap because the test doesn’t measure heart, caring, passion. It doesn’t measure wiped noses and concerned phone calls. There isn’t a tool that can tell Joe Average how many tears are shed over the frustration of language poor and money poor families or the miles of exercise that it takes to relieve the stress of unsupportive parents and less supportive agencies.

That my friends is science. Specific, Measurable, Trackable. Rows of students who might as well be bolting together widgets and sending them down the line.

The problem is that because we don’t reward artistry in our education system, our teachers don’t know how to encourage artistry in their classrooms. When we tell teachers that their jobs depend on making the score, the consciously or subconsciously project those fears onto their students. “No, I can;t let you explore how we came to use standard units instead of metric units, that will take too much time and we have to get to fractions before the PSSA. You just need to know that they are different.”

This is in my estimation the core of the problem in education. The rule followers prevail and the rule challengers fail. From kindergarten through to college, the students who can regurgitate some information in paper and pencil are bound for greatness. The artists will struggle because we can;t quantify what they are capable of. There are many examples of creators who were “poor” students in the eyes of their teachers but went on to do great things. These are the resilient artists. Those that rose above the square peg problem to find a square hole.

Our concern needs to be with the artists who aren’t resilient. The square pegs who, if they are lucky enough, will be able to balance themselves on top of the round hole – stuck in far enough to stay – and hide their artiness in the name of societal norms. And for those who aren’t crafty enough to fake it or resilient enough to overcome, what will become of them?