Archive for the ‘Teaching Technology’ Category

Why Reading Levels Continue to Decline–PART I (of 2)

April 30, 2015

Students who still can't read

The problem of students who are unable to adequately read their grade-level textbooks is not new; the problem starts in early elementary school and only gets worse as students move up in grade levels.  Unfortunately, the rise of the internet in the past twenty years has only exacerbated the problem.

Let’s look briefly at the pre-internet reading situation in middle-class schools and above (poor schools have additional problems which will not be treated in this particular article).  Looking back, the most important function of the school library was to be filled with books to be used for school research projects which were at the correct reading levels for students.

Primary School Libraries

Not only were grade-level books provided, but there were plenty of below-grade-level books on every topic available to readers who were still below grade-level.  For example, a middle-school student with a lower reading level could still find good primary-level books on any research topic assigned. There used to be hundreds of books available through publishers, on every conceivable topic, for school libraries and public libraries to choose from.  Bookstores made them available to the general public.

Today, funding priorities are focused less on providing new books for the school library–partly because of the explosion of new topics and knowledge in our modern world, and also because of the explosion of information on the internet.  Now funding must be divided between  books, and new library computers.

The market for children’s non-fiction has plummeted since 2005.  Sales to both libraries and bookstores have dropped substantially. Therefore,  fewer nonfiction books for children are being written and published.  Publishers and booksellers decided to drop most nonfiction, and focus primarily on children’s fiction–for which there does continue to be a market.

Desirable Non-Fiction Book Topics

 The lack of nonfiction is particularly damaging for boys.  They tend to prefer autobiographies, nonfiction, newspapers, and realistic topics. Ever since 2005, as the internet has become more powerful, children’s nonfiction has declined.  This decline is preventing many boys from developing as readers. National standards in Britain and America drive the decline even further, “…as the strictures of the national curriculum have driven many publishers to stop producing anything very original, and how many books on Vikings and rainforests do we really need?”

Starting in middle school–most commonly Grade 6 and above–teachers now direct students to the internet for research, instead of to school libraries. One reason is that science classes are now often researching topics which are not even available in books in the school libraries–things such as genetics, and various types of cells–and this is happening in Grades 6, 7, and 8.

Students are now being asked to research obscure people for reasons of diversity in the classroom, rather than famous people.  This means that the information can only be found on the internet.  Students are now expected to use the internet for all research.  This is now true even in elementary school.  Students may be assigned reports on animals, for example.  Perhaps there are perfectly good books in the school library at the right reading level; however, it has now become “too much trouble” to even check , when one can “just look it up online.”

Using online sources creates a much worse problem–aside from the problem of whether a source is reliable, biased, or incomplete–that is, the problem of reading level!

Below is reading sample from a Grade 5 science text which more than half of students (even in good schools) might find too difficult to read without the teacher’s help.  Why?  Because students are now used to reading only fiction in reading class.  They are not used to the vocabulary in non-fiction; nor are they used to reading expository sentences..

Levers text

 

Not only have student reading levels declined in real terms, but the sources students are now attempting to use are usually written at far too high of a level for their age.  Students in middle school and high school usually go first to Wikipedia (and are often specifically told to do so by their teachers, particularly in international schools that have much less access to English-language printed material).  Unlike school library books or school text books of old, vocabulary is not controlled for difficulty.  Sometimes the articles are poorly written, and written by scholars who are just trying to impress other scholars with their difficult vocabulary.

Below is a section of what one of my 7th-graders attempted to read for a report on glial cells last year, using Wikipedia.  Most students now need adult help to translate and explain what they are trying to read.  To a poor reader, this may as well be in Chinese:

Glial cells text from Wikipedia

Those students who can afford it hire private tutors.  My students show up and say, “I have a project or report due next week on glial cells (or guard cells, or an obscure historical figure).  Can you help me?”  Students arrive knowing nothing about the topic, and are expected to research on line, and write a report listing their sources.  So, together we look on line and usually find very scholarly articles, which I, as an excellent reader in my 60s with a graduate degree and decades of experience teaching, sometimes have trouble understanding!  So we pull out little snippets of information from various articles, which I explain in plain English and then mark our source.  Even many Wikipedia articles are written by scholars, seemingly just in order to impress other scholars!

Hiring a private tutor

I learned a great trick years ago when I was in a professional writers’ group.  If you need good, concise information on an area or a subject, one of the best ways to find it is to go directly to children’s books, where you can find the information thoroughly distilled and written in clear, easy English.  I use this same strategy now and show students how they can search on the internet using the search terms “my topic + explained for children.”  It doesn’t always work, but it often does.  Sometimes we arrive at a website where something has been clearly explained at a reading level appropriate for middle-school students.

The thing which most excited me about the internet when it first began, especially as an overseas teacher with little access to English-language reading materials, was its potential as a world library at our fingertips.  Sadly, much of this potential is being lost for two reasons.  First, children are not developing adequate non-fiction reading abilities to function in society.  Second, most of what is available on the internet is written at far too high of a level for students to be able to benefit from it.

In most American schools, for the past several decades, the textbook has been seen by teachers as only one resource of many for classroom use.  In fact, years ago, over-reliance on the textbook was almost seen as the mark of a lazy teacher, within the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, the current result of this attitude has now led to teacher over-reliance on the internet, with students who are unable to understand either their textbooks OR the internet!  I personally have come around 180° to the view that students would be better served if they learned and discussed in class everything which is in the textbook.  Now, however, there is a new problem!  Many schools are now moving entirely away from textbooks as a way to save money, and teachers are mostly downloading random worksheets from the internet. Unfortunately, it is students who are again losing out on their education.

Part II of this series will discuss what parents, schools, and teachers can do to address these problems.

–Lynne Diligent

Advertisements

Attend Filmmaker Luke Holzmann’s Free Film School Course on Line

January 16, 2012

As a teacher (or even homeschooler), have you ever considered how adding filmmaking capabilites could enhance your teaching abilities with students?

The only materials you need to do so are a computer with high-speed internet connection, and a simple point-and-shoot digital camera with video capabilities (although higher levels of video cameras or those with more manual controls are always a plus).

Filmmaker Luke Holzmann now offers a free, online, 36-week course to all who are interested.  A brief description of the course and simple materials needed (which most of us already have) can be found HERE.

Filmmaker Luke Holzmann

Many teachers, students, and adults are interested in filmmaking, but most don’t have a clue where to start if they are not actually in school especially for this purpose.  Check out this exciting course, either to enhance your career skills, or as an enjoyable hobby.

I’m going to try it, and I’m signing up today.

–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

Santa Grants Students’ Wishes

November 16, 2011

How to Get HBO Programming Ten Years Before Anyone Else

October 23, 2011

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