Archive for the ‘Classroom Discipline’ Category

The New Math: Part II – Three Reasons Why It’s NOT Working in So Many Schools

September 5, 2013

My students come to me for math tutoring because they continue to flounder with the “new math” curriculum.  For a complete description of what is being taught and how it feels for students, see Part I of this series.  Part I – The New Math:  Why We Have It

If expert mathematicians have redesigned the curriculum, why aren’t the results better?

Expert mathemeticiansEinstein

I believe it’s because the experts aren’t taking into account the developmental stages of most students, and because they really aren’t aware of the problems most classroom teachers are faced with.

The new math teaching methods are mainly designed to create:

1.)  the ability to work in cross-disciplinary teams;

2.)  understanding (now viewed as even more important than being able to compute); and

3.)  innovative and divergent math thinkers–the three characteristics increasingly required of white-collar jobs in industry today.

Yet the new math curriculum is failing to achieve these goals.  Let’s take a look at WHY, by seeing how these things actually play out in most classrooms.

How These Three Goals Actually Work Out in Classrooms:

1. Creating an ability to work in cross-disciplinary teams. The idea is clearly that “putting students in groups to solve problems” will create this ability. However, there are TWO IMPORTANT REASONS why this is not happening in most classrooms. The first reason is BULLYING, and the second reason is STUDENT ATTITUDE and LACK OF MATURITY.

cross-disciplinary teams

Middle-school, when most students are first put into math-solution groups, is the age of the MOST EXTREME BULLYING (although bullying starts in Kindergarten). Students are usually left to sort themselves into groups, and usually, in-crowd friends choose each other, while the remaining students are randomly forced into groups with students who regularly bully them. This same situation continues in many high-school classes, and is sometimes worst of all in the smallest schools where there is only one math class per grade.

It takes an extremely effective teacher who can give groups precise tasks, direction, and rewards based on individual effort to get a group to make effective progress. Generally what happens is one of several things. The students don’t understand what they are doing at all and therefore have no idea (or motivation) even to try. They end up wasting time and talking about non-math-related matters. Or, at best, one or two students do understand and do the work, while the others loaf and do nothing, but coast on the group grade (if there is one), having not done the work, and not understanding the work that was done by the others. Or, those who are friends in the group use the hour as a social time, while the unwanted group members spend the time staring at their papers, feeling excluded, and just wasting the whole hour.

Requirements for effective group work are:  1.) being in a group with others you like or respect, and others who like or respect you; 2.) Having enough background in the subject, that when given A SPECIFIC TASK, all the individuals in the group can work on it;  3.) Being able to effectively subdivide tasks; and 4.) Having individual accountability for one’s contributions to the group. Most teachers do not have either sufficient time or experience to be effective in all these ways and rely on immature students who are not willing/able to these things themselves (as an adult work group would be able to do).

2.  Creating understanding of WHY methods work, rather than merely learning computational solutions.  This is an admirable goal, but it is not being correctly implemented at the proper ages, in the proper stages, or in the proper ways.

understanding the new math

Mental maturity, and ability to deal with abstract concepts arrives at different times for different students.  Abstract thinking arrives for a very few students in the lower elementary grades, for a few more students in the upper elementary grades, for about half of students by middle school, and for at best two-thirds of students by high school and early adulthood.  For some people, it never arrives at all.  Having taught a great variety of math topics over the years, some students grasp one topic at a young age, but don’t grasp another until many years later, if at all.  Since every student has a unique profile of what they grasp or don’t grasp, this is the origin of the “spiral curriculum,” where each year, many topics are introduced, and each year, the math texts cut slightly deeper into each topic (assuming the school is still using math texts).

Let us take telling time as an example.  A few students are able to grasp telling time well in kindergarten, while others, no matter HOW much time is spent in the classroom in grades two and three, just cannot grasp it until fifth grade.  Then suddenly, something “clicks.”  Their brain has arrived at the right level of mental maturity.

Unfortunately, today’s curriculum introduces so many topics that few are actually mastered.  Thus, many students move up through the grades NEITHER understanding, NOR being proficient in calculating.  Most students need and WANT to become proficient at calculating and getting the right answer in the elementary grades.  This builds their confidence.  They also want to know in what situations they might use those skills (which gives learners motivation, and is often an area neglected by teachers).  Those who do not become proficient at calculating lose confidence in themselves and are certainly even LESS likely to be open to any discussions of “understanding.”

A current controversial topic in the math field is whether students need a certain amount of proficiency before they can understand “why” things work.  After two decades of experience teaching math at the elementary and middle-school levels, I come down hard on the side that it IS necessary.  Young elementary students can appreciate that a correct answer can be found through several different methods, but it is a waste of precious class time AT THAT AGE to spend a lot of time on WHY (an abstract concept which despite the weeks spent on it does not actually increase their understanding) instead of on developing proficiency and thereby building students’ confidence and excitement about learning more.

It was not the intent of the math experts, I am sure, in revising math curriculum, to have students wind up being neither able to understand, NOR be able to calculate!  Their intent was to WIDEN the curriculum to INCLUDE more understanding.  But with only four-to-five hours a week (at best) of classroom time to teach math per week,  at least half of the available time is being taken up with “understanding” (which is not being understood by the majority of students), and not enough time for most students to become proficient at calculating.  Those who do become proficient are generally having additional support from parents and tutors.  Furthermore, homework has been greatly reduced from a decade ago (approximately cut in half) which means that more students than ever before are not mastering basic procedures.  When students get into middle school and one-third of them still cannot determine the answer to 3 x 8 without consulting their calculators, it is highly unlikely they will gain any “higher understanding.”

3.  Creating innovative and divergent math thinkers.  Criticisms of the past were that students were memorizing times tables and learning to calculate, but not understanding what those calculations meant; students were unable to take even a simple story problem and know which calculations to perform.

innovative and divergent thinkers

After two decades in the classroom, I can easily see this problem did not stem from memorizing or calculating.  This problem stemmed from teachers throughout school not teaching children how to TRANSLATE between English words, and math language.  In most cases, elementary teachers are not math majors.  In fact, most became elementary teachers because they are math-phobic!  They teach the calculations, and generally skip all the story problems (as did I when I first began to teach math).  Yes, it is partly a time problem, but the REAL problem is that most teachers are afraid they will not be able to explain to students how to do story problems, because they never learned themselves! Speaking as someone who did not learn this skill myself until I was an adult, I see that this is the number one area that students need the MOST help with.  I find myself wondering if students in India, China, and Japan are getting this sort of help from a young age, while students in the West are not?

Rather than wasting precious elementary time on esoteric math subjects, and making “arrays” for WEEKS in order to “understand” multiplication, students would be much better served learning to calculate, and having DAILY GUIDED PRACTICE on particular types of story problems, both in order to recognize types of problems, and to be able to readily understand how to translate the English language into MATH language.

What the math “experts” who design curriculum are not realizing is that showing students all the different possible ways to solve every type of math problem does NOT create the “divergent” innovative thinkers they are looking for.
As for math majors, sometimes (not always), those who were brilliant in math are unable to explain it clearly to those who are having trouble, because the teachers never experienced those same troubles themselves.  Sometimes (not always) teachers who were not good math students are able to master math, and are far better at figuring out where and why students are “stuck.”  Lucky children with difficulties have those teachers!  The very first requirement for becoming a divergent thinker is self-confidence in one’s own abilities.  This comes from being sure that one knows at least ONE way to get the right answer every time, even if one knows that other ways do exist.  The main thing is to MASTER at least one method.

Beyond competence, creating divergent thinkers is more of a personality-trait question.  This question has more to do with motivation and stimulating interest, and comes from the sort of child who always asks, “Why?”  Most children don’t ask why, and most don’t care about why.  To create more innovative, divergent thinkers, every teacher in every classroom, in every subject, needs to challenge ideas and get students excited about learning.  And yes, teachers need to be “entertaining,” too! Innovative thinkers aren’t usually innovative in just one area (such as math).  Most innovative thinkers draw their ideas from multiple sources and synthesis of ideas from multiple disciplines.  Students need help becoming competent, and beyond that, to be inspired enough to pursue their own interests in a self-directed way.  Curriculum which forces students to calculate by many different methods fatigues many students and actually de-motivates them from further self-directed learning.

It is difficult for a new or average teacher to overcome these difficulties.  Hopefully with time and experience, Western society will adjust to the new math curriculum, but I am afraid it will be later, rather than sooner.

–Lynne Diligent

The NEW Math:  Part I – WHY We Have It

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Marijuana Use, Then and Now, on College Campuses in Colorado

November 26, 2012


 I live overseas in North Africa, but my home state in America is Colorado.  Colorado is one of the two states which just voted to make marijuana legal.

Yesterday at home, I was sorting through some old boxes and came across the letters I had received while in high school and college.  Most were now moldy, and I was reading through them one last time before tossing them all these years later.

2011 Boulder annual “420 Pot-Smoking Rally” on the University of Colorado campus

To my surprise, in letters from 1973, I had a friend at the University of Colorado in Boulder, who said, “If you don’t smoke grass, there is nothing to do on the weekends.”  He wasn’t a smoker, but implied most people around him were.

In another letter, from my boyfriend, who was a serious student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley,  said, “I went to a party this weekend where there was only supposed to be beer.  But when I got there, there was a pile of marijuana at least three inches high.  Everyone was rolling cigarettes (with the marijuana) and passing them around.  I passed five (marijuana cigarettes) by to other people, but I didn’t try them myself.   Everyone was stoned.”

Mass exhale of marijuana smoke on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus in 2010, at the annual “420 Pot-Smoking Rally.”

I know a student currently at the University of Northern Colorado.  I asked her what the reaction was on campus to the new law.  She told me all the college students voted for it, and many were running around shouting, “Yay!” with their arms in the air after hearing that the new law passed.  But I don’t think everyone is using it.  The student I know told me that she’s been to a couple parties where she smelled the marijuana smoke in the air, but didn’t actually see any marijuana.

I’m sure I must have been around people who used drugs, but I never associated closely enough with them to know that they really were, other than some cousins I had who used marijuana during the hippy era.  I also attended a couple of parties (in Cape Girardeau, Missouri) where I smelled the marijuana smoke in the air, but never actually saw the product myself.   I used to hear during the 1980s that one or two people I knew in business were using cocaine, but I didn’t know whether to believe it or not.

Interestingly, I’ve lived in North Africa for twenty years, and I hear that tourists are always offered marijuana in the souk.  Yet it’s never happened to me.  My husband (a local) says it’s because, “You don’t look like the type of person who would want it,” which is true!  But with it happening to so many others, I felt a little disappointed that I’d never even been asked, or approached.

I don’t know what the percentage of marijuana users in U.S. colleges was then, or is now, but I’m going to guess the percentages were/are similar.  I’m going to guess that back then, 30-40% of people tried it once, and that maybe 15-20% of people might have been regular users in college (and far fewer once they got out of college).

Legal marijuana clinic in Colorado, prior to marijuana being legalized for everyone.

I’m going to guess that with this new law, maybe 60-70% of youth may try it once, and maybe 30% might turn into regular long-term users.  In April, 2012, a marijuana-smoking rally at CU Boulder attracted 10,000 participants.  But it should be remembered that Boulder has 30,000 students, which means that 2/3 did not attend.

I predict it will be a novelty for a generation, and as health problems start to show up in regular users (such as happened with tobacco cigarettes), people will try to quit, and it will become thought low-class to be a pot-smoker, as has happened today with cigarettes.

–Lynne Diligent

Do Cat Thieves Give Clues to the Origins of Criminality in Humans?

November 12, 2012

Here in  North Africa, I watch the neighborhood animals, who belong to no one, and make their rounds in the same places daily.  We have a lot of street animals, and cats often jump in to our house through the windows (other people’s houses, too), in search of food. Some of them can get quite aggressive, especially with our own cats.  Our cats feel they have to go outside and “defend the yard” every time they see a cat jump in over the garden wall.  Of course they go absolutely wild if a neighborhood cat jumps into our house.

I began to think about these intruders as thieves, because that’s what they would be considered, if they were humans. It’s easier for them to steal food than it is for them to hunt for it themselves in an urban environment.

It’s also easier (than working) for human thieves to do the same–either because they are lazy, or their environment didn’t give them other reasonable options, or because they are more greedy than others (white collar criminals?). I wonder how much of this laziness/greediness could be genetically determined, or if it is somewhat genetically programmed into all of us.  In fact, scientists are now finding evidence of this (see HERE and HERE).

My observation of cats in the neighborhood has lead me wonder whether ALL cats would be thieves if they weren’t fed by their owners.

Therefore, what keeps ALL humans from becoming thieves? Rather than asking the question who is likely to become a criminal (in human society), perhaps we should seek to understand this question  by asking instead, what KEEPS people from taking the easy route of becoming a thief/criminal? Instead of asking who cheats and why, maybe we should be asking, “Why doesn’t EVERYONE cheating/lying/stealing? What keeps those of us who are law-abiding citizens, so?”

I wonder if the answer lies in the environment.  Instead of saying that the environment causes criminality, perhaps the reverse is actually closer to the truth.  Perhaps we would all be criminals, except for if we have a positive environment which, as we are raised, gives us POSITIVE REWARDS (such as RESPECT or ADMIRATION) for becoming law-abiding citizens.  Those who grow up in impoverished environments (or cultural environments) where they never experience these rewards, are unlikely to become honest and law-abiding.

What do others think?

WHY Parents and Teachers Need to Watch the Same Television Shows as Students Do

February 17, 2012

As a parent or teacher (even outside of America, and regardless of your religion or lifestyle), have you tried to instill proper values and behavior in your own children or students, yet watched while the following values and behavior appeared instead?  Have you wondered where this has been coming from?

  • Requesting a bulldog
  • Popularity of sushi
  • Proliferation of fake ID’s and even younger high school students attempting to use them
  • Underage drinking, even at home parties, where parents leave and let children party alone
  • Obsession with champagne
  • A sudden interest in learning Burlesque dancing
  • Requesting or attempting underage driving
  • Obsession with Ivy League colleges
  • Teenage obsession with wearing only “designer” dresses
  • Thinking it’s not normal for parents to make a “curfew” time
  • The idea that even young teenagers “go where they want, and do what they want,” and that “their parents give them the freedom to do so just like adults;”  they TELL their parents what they are doing, rather than ASK them.
  • Girls (even young girls) acting in a sexually aggressive manner toward boys (girls insisting that they both take off clothes)
  • Girls thinking that it’s normal to date older men secretly without their parents knowing about it
  • Thinking that normal parents just go to bed, and “don’t wait up for their high school children who come home late.”
  • Sassy, angry attitude toward any parents who question any of the above assumptions!
  • The idea that “success” in life equates ONLY to how much money you have, and how “glamorous” you appear to others!
  • Honesty, dependability, responsibility, and/or service to humanity are unfashionable, boring, stupid, and undesirable
  • Kindness to others is “out;” while “one-upsmanship” and rude “put-downs” at the expense of others are “in”
  • An expectation that life is supposed to be one continuous “party”

Any parent or teacher who is having trouble understanding teenage values and behavior today should IMMEDIATELY watch the three television series Beverly Hills 90210 ; Gossip Girl; and 90210 (a different show than Beverly Hills 90210).   Even watching a couple of episodes of each show will give you an idea of where this culture is coming from.  (Click on these titles for direct links to the series which should work worldwide.  Make sure to start with Season 1, Episode 1.)    These new values are coming directly from television.

Unfortunately, teenagers are now watching these shows WORLDWIDE.  Some are watching on the internet, in English (especially with the global rise in study of English, it is now accessible).  But in most countries, these shows are now dubbed in local languages, and right on the television.  Not only is American culture changing, but world culture is assuming that these TV shows represent traditional American values (which they most assuredly do NOT).

The people who made these shows recognized that they are FANTASIES of how teenagers WISH their lives were.  That’s what makes them fun to watch.  However, unfortunately, the children who grew up watching these (without any input from their parents) grew up assuming that this is what they WOULD be able to do as teenagers, and now, the upper middle classes ARE DOING it. Some of the middle class parents don’t know that their children are behaving this way.  Among more conservative families, parents should BEWARE if their child asks to spend the night with another family, because they are often going out, or even sneaking out to nightclubs.  It doesn’t help that the full age of majority in many countries is 18, rather than 21.

I live in the Middle East, and throughout our region, this is exactly how most teenagers are behaving.  The emphasis in our region is all on appearances to create the impression with others that you are rich (even if you are not).  Most of those who are rich turn their children (even girls) loose with plenty of money and the family chauffeur (usually driving an expensive, black, four-wheel-drive vehicle) for the weekend.  They certainly don’t wait up for their children to come home at night.  Most of the kids have fake ID’s and go to night clubs (which don’t even open until 11).  Their age is clear, but they just slip $20 to the doorman, who lets them in.

Father Knows Best

In the past couple of years, I’ve read a number of articles where generations following the baby boomers are now criticizing the work ethic of baby-boomers (born 1946-1960) and wondering where this work ethic came from.  It’s very clear to me now.  It came directly from TELEVISION (as well as from our parents, and from society in general).

Shows during the 1950s and 1960s (and even into the 1970s) showed children working hard, being kind, taking responsibility, and most importantly, GETTING RESPECT FROM OTHERS FOR DOING SO.  Some of these shows were Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Rifleman, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie.   In contrast, teenagers who behave this way today don’t get any respect from others.  Instead, they get “USED BY OTHERS” (in the words of a teenager I tutor).  Today, it’s showing-off and acting in accordance with the list above that gets a teenager respect from other teenagers.

–Lynne Diligent

Anti-Theft Lunch Bag: A Solution to the Stolen Lunch Problem

February 5, 2012

Anti-theft lunch bag

Among students who bring their lunches to school, there is nothing worse than opening up your lunch only to find it stolen.  This is a big problem in elementary schools where students don’t have lockers and are required to leave their lunch in a commonly-accessible place .  I came across this humorous picture, but thought it would provide a great solution for kids having this problem regularly.  It could be done with a permanent magic marker on the outside of the bag.  It would also help deter lunch bullies.

–Lynne Diligent

Cyberbaiting of Teachers, A New and Dangerous Trend

January 5, 2012

Well-behaved middle school students

A well-behaved middle-school student I tutor expressed her frustration to me with some of her formerly well-behaved classmates who now talk back to teachers and act up in the classroom.

When my student asked these friends why they now behave this way, they say it’s all about fitting in and being accepted by the “cool” group.

Anyone not accepted by this group is a target for their bullying.  My student has a mature attitude and refuses to behave this way; as a consequence, she has to stand up to various forms of insults and bullying constantly.

At one point, our school debated putting in cameras to film student behavior in every corridor and classroom, and then decided not to.

It may have been both about cost, and about invasion of privacy, as well as our school being a high-level college prep school in a Middle Eastern country.

However, lack of cameras is no longer a protection for privacy for anyone, as every student is now capable of filming anything and everything and posting it anonymously and publicly on-line.  As this article explains, many students are now purposely provoking a teacher to the breaking point with the advance intention of filming it and posting it on-line.  This form of bullying is both demeaning to teachers, and can cost many teachers their jobs.

All teachers need to remember that now, the eyes of the world are watching every second.  This applies not just to teachers, but to everyone.  Teachers, however, are more vulnerable because students with evil intentions are purposely setting out to put them in a compromised situation.

–Lynne Diligent

Why Teachers Should NOT Treat All Students the Same Way

November 25, 2011

When I first began my teaching career, I made a great effort to be fair with all students by treating them the same way under the same circumstances.  We all want to be fair with students if we are decent human beings as teachers.

However, over many years of teaching (and parenting) I discovered that treating all the same way was not producing the best results.  Over time, my focus changed from concentrating on being “fair” to doing whatever was necessary to bring each student to his highest and best performance in my class.  Furthermore, each student’s best performance was not at the same level as any other student.  This is where teaching becomes an “art” rather than a procedure, or a delivery.

Let’s look at some specific examples.  If students don’t do their homework (math, for example), they arrive in class unprepared to learn from their mistakes in that day’s lesson.  It is not important if they got the right answer in their homework; what is important is whether they attempted the problems and knew at which points they encountered difficulty.  Then they were ready for that day’s work and explanations.

So, how can teachers get students to do their homework (each student’s highest and best effort)?  In my early teaching days, in attempting to be “fair,” I would have given an identical penalty to every student who did not do their homework.  After two decades in the classroom, my approach had changed.  In Grade Three, I put A’s on every paper where the homework was completed (correct or not, although grades were not counted–unknown to the students, but known by their parents) and F’s on any homework undone or uncompleted (again, not counted, as above).  Other than that, I used different incentives for each student.

One student might need a threat–threat of a phone call to a parent, threat of staying in from recess, threat of extra homework.  Another student might need a reward–verbal praise, positive note home from the teacher, getting to be first in line all day long, reading a book while others continue to work.  Still another student might need extra help in class, extra time with the teacher, help from a classmate arranged with the teacher’s blessing, help speaking to a parent.

This is where teaching becomes an art.  In order to know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick, and how much carrot or stick, or which carrot or stick to use, a teacher must know all of his or her students individually, and know them well.  In a normal class of 25-30 students, it takes about two months to know the students this well.

Some teachers don’t want to know their students, and put up a wall.  It’s also harder for younger teachers who are closer in age to the students they teach.  The older one is, the easier it is to get to know students individually without compromising privacy or classroom discipline.  Sometimes older students assume that younger teachers want to be their “friend,” whereas younger students with an older teacher don’t make this assumption even if they do become actual friends at some point.  So the older the teacher is, the easier this is.  Sometimes younger teachers need to erect more of a barrier.

So, how to get to know one’s students?  The first way is through grading their papers, reading their opinions, and by commenting on their papers regarding what they have said.  The second way is through classroom discussions, and by being open and honest with students in classroom discussions, which encourages them to be open and honest with teachers in return.  You both learn about each other.  It’s always easier to do this in primary school than in secondary school.

Regardless, any effort expended in knowing students individually will pay dividends both in personal rewards as well as for knowing what to use to motivate that particular student.  Students who know and respect a teacher will work hard for that teacher as a person.

The reason students must not be treated the same is that some are motivated by carrots, some by sticks, and most by alternate use of various carrots and sticks at different times, and under different circumstances.

–Lynne Diligent

Teaching Conditions Faced by Teachers in the Rural Middle East and North Africa

November 22, 2011

Imagine 46 students per class (with the teacher having 550 different students per week), no chalk, no electrictiy, and no heat in freezing winter conditions.

The current generation of young teachers are often placed in government public schools which are now built in agricultural and mountain regions.  I spoke with one of these teachers, an incredibly dedicated first-year English teacher, who is teaching in one of these schools, and listened to him describe to me the teaching conditions he has to endure.

He teaches in a school without electricity or any sort of heat (and it is winter now with freezing temperatures), and without enough chalk for him to use.  The school finally was able to obtain one box of chalk to use.  When I asked him how long this was supposed to last, he told me the whole year.  I asked him if it might be possible for him to buy additional chalk from  his own pocket (even though he shouldn’t have to).

A rural, public secondary school.

He said that the problem was that as a new teacher, he hadn’t received his salary yet.  When I asked why not, he told me that all the teachers placed in public schools did not receive their salary for the first one-to-two years on the job (although I am assuming that they do eventually get the salary to which they are entitled)!  He said that teachers at private schools do get their monthly salaries upon starting, and that this is just a problem in the public-school sector.  When I asked about salaries, it appears that new teachers in the public sector generally make about $400 a month; whereas veteran teachers of many years usually make about $700 a month.  The top end of the salary scale is around $1,000 a month for the most veteran teachers in the most difficult subjects (possibly math, chemistry, physics).

My next question was, therefore, how was he managing to live, if he wasn’t getting any salary?  I asked if students ever invited him to their homes for meals.  He said no.  He said that he was very fortunate, compared to some teachers, because his parents had actually moved to his new location with him (he’s 25) so that he could live with him and they could support him during his first few years in this job.  (In this country, most new teachers are placed first in rural areas, and after several years of teaching in such conditions, they can apply to come to the city.  But it usually takes many years to actually be able to get to a school in a city.)

School hours are from 8:00 am – 12:00 Noon, and again from 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  This particular teacher is an English teacher in a middle school.  He has 550 students a week.  His classes average 46, and in each class, the age of students ranges from 13-20!  Each of the 550 students spends about two hours a week in his class, once a week.  So each day he has three classes.  One goes from 8:00 am to 10:00 am.  Then he has a ten-minute break.  The next class goes until noon, followed by an hour for lunch.  The third class is from 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm, and another class from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm.  He has tried assigning homework, but has so far found that only five or six students out of 550 actually did the homework.  He says that most students take notes, but never open their notebook once they have left class.  The school has no library at all, and twenty classrooms which are equally as crowded as his.  The school has no extra resources even to buy an extra box of chalk for the teachers.

I asked about the sex ratio in his classes.  He said that being a secondary school in a rural area, it’s about 70% boys and 30% girls, but that the girls are far more serious, and study better.  Some of the reasons behind the lower attendance of girls have to do with girls’ labor being needed in the home, as well as it being dangerous and far for the girls to walk to school.  They cannot walk alone (for safety reasons).  The school is 2-3 kilometers from most of their homes.  The older girls get, it is more difficult for families to keep them in school, than it is for boys.

This teacher told me that he started his class year by having only two rules, which he explained to his students.  These are to have RESPECT, and to DREAM BIG.    He talked to the students about respecting themselves, about respecting others, about respecting their teachers, and about what it means to have respect in each of these areas.  Next he talked to them about their dreams.  He tried to encourage them in whatever their dreams were, to take steps toward pursuing them, whether it be becoming a soccer or basketball player, or becoming an artist.  The saddest thing, he said, was that most of them don’t have ANY dreams at ALL.  He said they have been raised in such a way that such thinking and ideas are not encouraged.

A typical public secondary school in a small city.

I told him (speaking as a teacher of many years) that no teacher can hope to be that “special” teacher for everyone, but that every teacher CAN hope and expect to be that “special” teacher for at least some students.  Teachers can change the lives of students by opening up possibilities and giving emotional support.  We discussed it, and he said that while middle-class students are now having dreams, that lower-class students (the majority) are not yet to that level.

As a first-year teacher, he told me that he desires to be a “modern” teacher, using games, songs, and playing.  However, he quickly found this did not work.  “If you have fun with them,” he says, “then they think you are a cool teacher who ‘lets them do whatever they want’ and they don’t respect you.”  He has problems with students getting up out of their chairs out of their chairs without permission, and many students talking in class, disturbing the others.  When he tries to get them to CALM DOWN they don’t want to listen.  These are the same problems I had for many years in my classrooms in this country, although I found getting older (as a teacher) helps!

Interestingly, English teachers in this French-speaking country tend to follow Western models of teaching, and the education departments follow modern methods from America.  They are not being taught in ed school just to have students “memorize” and the like; however, they have the same trouble as foreign teachers do with finding that often more fun and interesting methods don’t seem to work with students who have been raised with different sorts of ideas by their parents, and by the local culture.

This teacher and I live in different parts of our country, and I spoke with him over Skype.  His English was unbelievably good, even compared to other English teachers I have met.  We are a French and Arabic-speaking country (upper classes speaking French, and lower classes speaking the local dialects of Arabic).  It was as good as if he had been raised in England or America, and only had a very slight accent.  He spoke with perfect grammar and pronunciation, and in our two-hour conversation I heard only one slight mistake, which he self-corrected.  I think it’s amazing that someone of this quality is teaching in such a far-off rural school.

I mention this teacher’s good English as a comparison  to my daughter’s experience less than ten years ago in respected private school in a big city in our country.  I went to a presentation for parents in a large auditorium.  The English teacher got up and spoke to parents for five minutes from the stage, explaining what the students were going to do.  Yet, I could barely understand a word!  When my daughter (a native speaker) was in her class, she used to tell my daughter that she wasn’t speaking English correctly (not true).  Since that time, I have found that the English standards of the public-school teachers generally seem quite superior to those of many private-school teachers (although I’m not yet sure why that is).

This teacher’s dedication really impressed me and made me feel as if I wanted to be a student in his class!

–Lynne Diligent

Why Teacher-Training Programs Tend to Be Theoretical, Rather than Practical

October 17, 2011

Siobhan Curious is running a series (Part I) on changes students see that need to be made in education.  Guest-poster Ruth (Part V) complains that teacher training programs spend in excess of three years on theory in the classroom, and only a very short time giving the prospective teacher any practical experience.

Speaking as a teacher, I can explain why teacher training programs exist as they are, rather than, in the view of some, as the practical training they should be.  It is because the law in various states has dictated which courses need to be included in the programs.   Since I was certified in Colorado about 25 years ago, here are a few examples from that time and place.

One new course everyone was required to take was “Instructional Technology.”  The reason for that was that so many teachers got into classrooms and could not run the movie projectors.  So legislators passed a law saying that was a new course so that teachers could run these machines.

When I took this class, I was one of the people who had no idea how to run a movie projector (not being a machine-oriented person) and we had an instructor who announced the first day, “I am NOT going to teach you how to run machines!”  (He was basically saying, “that is for idiots.”)  He said, “I’m going to teach you how to create your own slide presentations (with a bell when it’s time to move each slide).”   When I got out and was substituting in various schools, unfortunately, I STILL did not know how to run the movie projectors and had to ask for students’ assistance.  Within a couple years I was teaching overseas, where I’ve been ever since.  The technology revolution pretty much bypassed our school, which just got desktop computers only for secondary teachers (not primary teachers) in 2010.  I’m no longer in that school, but the last two years I was there, I still had no idea how to use new computer-based slide and projection technologies.  Meanwhile, our school did not even have an overhead projector (only chalk boards).  So, this technology course, legislated by Colorado to solve a specific problem, ended up not solving that problem; furthermore, technology moves on very quickly.  Even if we had learned to run the movie projectors, what we were taught in the class was out-of-date within less than five years.

Another course we had to take (a good one) was about all types of handicaps and about how to mainstream handicapped children in our classrooms, should we find ourselves in that situation.

It involved studying many different types of handicaps (blindness, deafness, and many other conditions) and how to make IEPs (Individual Education Plans) for each such child (as required by law) who might get into one of our classes in the future.  But this was all on paper, no practical experience with actually teaching such a child.  This required course was in response to the law which now required such children to be mainstreamed.  As it turned out, I never did have a handicapped child, although I did have a handful of children over the years with learning problems.  Our overseas school was not equipped to deal with this and I felt what would have been most useful to me was a specific course in how ordinary teachers can help children with dyslexia or other learning disabilities when no specialist exists or is available.

Yet another course (which turned out to be the most useful course of my teaching career) was called “Reading in the Content Area.”  My area of certification was  Secondary Social Studies, and all those who were getting certified in Secondary fields had to take this course.  This was also a course mandated by the legislature in response to a very specific problem, being that a great number of secondary (as well as primary) students are not able to read and get much meaning out of their text books.

I had a fantastic teacher.  She basically taught us many techniques for making up our own study guides which would both help and force students into interacting with the material and getting meaning out of it.  When I moved overseas, I ended up teaching only in elementary, but used the techniques we were taught constantly to my students’ great benefit.

So, the question of why teacher training is so based in theory is primarily because of state legislators making it so in order to deal with specific legal requirements, or as their idea of a way to remedy specific local problems in education.  By requiring all prospective teachers have all these classes, it no doubt reduces the states’ legal liability in case of any problem occurring within the classroom.  In some states, any adult can substitute.  In Colorado, no one except a certified teacher is permitted to step into the classroom, even as a substitute.

The move toward the professionalization of teaching, and away from teacher-training as a practical skill  (as it was 40-50 years ago), now requires the need to constantly update one’s skills and knowledge in order to maintain one’s teaching license (a good thing).  However, practical-implementation knowledge has suffered, which means that it takes teachers at least five years to get to a good level of teaching proficiency in dealing with discipline problems, dealing with student learning problems, navigating administrative requirements, and taking care of parental communication requirements.

–Lynne Diligent

What Do Teachers Make?

October 4, 2011

Taylor Mali was at a dinner party.

Another dinner guest said, “The problem with teachers is, ‘What’s a kid going to learn in life from someone who decides his best option in life is to become a teacher?  Those who CAN, DO; and those who CAN’T, TEACH.”

I bite my tongue, instead of his, and resist the urge to remind the other dinner guest that it’s also true what they say about lawyers….because, we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

“I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.  Be honest….what do you make?”

I wish he hadn’t done that.  You see, I have a policy about honesty, which is if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.

“You want to know what I make???  I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could!  I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor, and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face!  How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best!  You want to know what I MAKE???  I make kids sit through 40 minutes of Study Hall in ABSOLUTE SILENCE.  ‘You cannot work in groups.  No, you can’t ask a question.  So put your hand down.  Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?  Because you’re BORED, and you don’t really have to go!’  You want to know what I MAKE???  I make parents tremble in FEAR when I call home at around dinner time, ‘This is Mr. Mali….I hope I haven’t called at a bad time….I just wanted to talk to you about something that your son did today…He said (to another kid), ‘Leave the kid alone!   I still cry sometimes, don’t you?’  I said (to the parent), ‘It was the noblest act of courage that I have ever seen!’  I make parents see their children for who they ARE, and who they CAN BE!  You want to know what I MAKE???  I make kids QUESTION; I make them CRITICIZE; I make them APOLOGIZE and MEAN it; I make them write, write, write; and then I make them READ; I make them SPELL–‘definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful’–over and over again, until they will NEVER misspell either one of those words again!  I make them SHOW all their work in math, and then hide it (all their rewrites) in their final drafts in English.  I make them realize that if you’ve got THIS (a brain), then you follow THIS (your heart), and that if somebody tries to judge you based on what you make, then you give them THIS (obscene gesture)!  Let me ‘break it down’ for you.  Let me break it down for you so you know what I say is TRUE.  I make a G* ***m difference!  Now what about YOU?

Taylor Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world.

–Posted by (but not written by)  Lynne Diligent