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Lead from the Start: January 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

To fund or not to fund. Is that the question?

Early Stories' Richard Lee Colvin posted on an article from Roanoke that discussed the obstacles and benefits of preschool.
On the front lines of preschool in Virginia my personal experience has shown me that the great deterrent to using preschool services is transportation. Many students who would attend do not because parents must provide transportation to and from school. Also in areas where there is more need there are is the lowest concentration of openings. One way to address the unused slots is to make the process easier and to use other Gov. services to recommend and channel children in to programs. What if when a parent applied for TANIF or WIC they also were able to apply for preschool? The closer that preschool is aligned with vital services that at-risk families do jump through hoops for, the more likely they are to receive preschool services. We are at a critical point in Virginia where we have to decide if we want the best for kids and our future. If we make that decision purely based on funding issues we will short change ourselves.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The MLK lesson gone wrong? or Right?

At Summit Elementary School in Idaho some Fifth grade teachers put together some hands on learning about old Jim Crow.
Teachers randomly assigned students green or yellow colors and one group was told not to talk to the other group. Bathrooms were also segregated.
Some students had trouble dealing with the experiment. From reading comments on the story in the online paper, the local community seems to support the school and teachers decisions.

Trisha Castillo: " As parent of a child who was in this exercise, I felt she retained great information that she may not have otherwise retained. My daughter felt that maybe some of the children that have used racial slurs towards her may now understand how their comments effect others and was very MATURE in the way she precieved the lesson we need to give our children more credit, they get more then you think. "
Mickey Tanner: This out-cry from parents is the reason teacher(sic) are afraid to teach outside the box or to offer up new ideas about learning. Jerome school teacher's who made any attempt to provide an educational lesson about racism or Martin Luther King, should be commended not damned.

The lesson was either very effective at portraying what it felt to be black in the south during Jim Crow or it spun into the gray area of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In that notorious experiment college students took on the roles of prisoners and guards with the experiment called off because guards became sadistic and prisoners became depressed.

The school, which opened January 7th, is home to about 450 4th and 5th grade students. The students and teachers moved to the school together, students carrying books and helping to move their desks out of their old school. This means that there are no educational statistics on Summit. But, using some old fashioned type and click investigative journalism I figure the school to be made up of a student population similar to the previous 4th - 6th grade school in Jerome.
This chart of Central Elementary in Jerome is from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

AmerInd/ALaskann Asian
Students 1 1 2 224 418

This student make-up is not at all like the school where I work. In my school the 2 students are white, 2 are Hispanic and the other 550 are African-American. Students in my school know what it feels like to be the color that no one will talk to. If that is not enough I work with an 84 year-old volunteer foster grandparent who can tell the kids what it was like before the end of Jim Crow.

What is really funny is a 36 year old white man (me) explaining to 19 African-American 4-year-olds about how the mean white man bus driver tried to make Rosa go to the back of the bus. It cracks us all up. Most of the kids don't even realize I am white until I bring up black history for the first time.

Truthfully, I am not sure Jim Crow ever left town. I think he just changed his name. Segregation is still with us in the "local" school movement and some, but definitely not all, private and charter school experiments. Now days Jim cares more about money and less about color but the prejudice is still the same.

If there was a poor decision made in the activity it was to move a 6th grade lesson down to 5th grade lesson. Students at this age may not have been emotionally mature enough to handle the "dramatization." But, if even one of those kids is less likely to judge another for the color of their skin the teachers' lesson met its' objective.

Maybe they could have taught a more modern/less emotional lesson in tolerance by allowing kids to buy their color.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pre-K Cop - Sheriff C.T. Woody speaks out for expanded preschool

I have often thought of preschool education and police work as two aspects of a spectrum of interventions to help troubled people in my community. It looks like the sheriff of our fair city, C.T. Woody agrees. He has written an OP-Ed supporting funding of preschool education in our community and across the state. He has written, citing two studies:

What does early education have to do with crime prevention? Plenty.

Law enforcement leaders know from experience -- and research proves -- that high-quality early education programs cut crime.

This is the type of logic that should bring about real changes in our state. I only hope that our General Assembly agrees.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Teaching from the standards not to them

I have been thinking about standards-based versus standards-referenced teaching ever since I went to a conference in October. While doing my National Board portfolio back in 03-04 I hadn't really thought about the difference between the two. I had to redo the Math/Science integration portfolio entry because of my inability to move my thinking in math and science from standards
referenced to standards based. This is a common problem for early childhood generalists in the National Board process. I was reminded of this at the Center for Teacher Leadership's advanced candidate retreat this weekend where I am honored to coach. The day long workshop put on by the director of CTL Terry Dozier (1985 National TOY) is usually a very emotional day but this year it wasn't so bad. The one lesson I made sure to tell the advanced candidates was, "When I did achieve I knew it was because I had built my lessons on the standards and what students needed to learn, not on what I wanted to teach."

I think the standards based vs. standards referenced paradigm shift has transformed teaching and learning more than teachers really think. This disconnect is due to the change in teaching over the past 10 - 15 years. When you use standards as your framework, how you teach the skills and knowledge you are responsible for, changes. For example, I received some very simple but, very important advice a couple years ago. A TLN colleague at the high school level said that he decided whether to use constructivist or behavioral approaches to content based on the nature of the content.

At the preschool level this changed some of my core beliefs about how to teach reading. I realized that letter recognition and recognizing letter sounds is a behaviorally oriented activity. Not that some students don't need a more constructivist approach sometimes but the basic idea is: the more times I expose kids to letters and letter sounds the more likely they are to remember them. Period. The instant recall for letter sounds we use as adults in understanding new words is based on this simple recall of sounds and grammatic rules. This freed me up from having to do a hands on activity for every letter to help kids "remember" the letter. All I had to do was submerge them in the alphabet for them to learn the letters. So, I changed how I taught.

Changes that I made to my teaching included:
  • singing 3 - 5 different alphabet and letter sound songs every day
  • singing these songs daily at the same time and in transitions between activities
  • incorporating movement into songs
  • dedicating one of 3 "small groups" every day to letter recognition/letter sounds and stories
  • asking students to name letters consistently through out the day (not just at certain times)
  • teach all of the letters from day one instead of one letter at a time
  • focused direct teaching of letters students were not learning quickly instead of following a prescribed order

Of course, I did some of these things already but, it is the way that I did them that changed. It is the repetition that made them stick, not the cute art activity that we did this week for letter G.

Now that I am teaching my students how to read independently I am using more constructivist methods like word building, games, sorts and real reading of real texts.

Moving from standards referenced to standards based has meant that some of the "cute" activities that we did in the past don't get done. I do make time once or twice a week for those cute activities and as an artist I passionately encourage creativity in all its forms in my class. I haven't had any complaints from parents. They are happy their preschoolers are reading.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pre-K and D.C. public schools

The question mark is the story in a Washington Post article on Pre-K in the Nation's capital. D.C. has not been known for its quality schooling options. In looking at options for expanding pre-k the reality is:
Some of these facilities are good, but many are dreadful, as evidenced by the unreadiness of many kindergartners in the city's public schools.

But, D.C.'s recent hiring of two former Teach for America "graduates" seems to be moving the school system in positive directions. The Chancellor of D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee and the Vice Chancellor Jason Kamras (the 2005 National Teacher of the Year) are both TFA alumni. I receive an offer every spring to become a principal in D.C. because of my status as an NBCT. I can see the push for high quality professionals as a solution really working to change the context of public schools in the capital city. But what happens if they succeed and turn D.C. schools around because they find and recruit the best and the brightest. Will the rest of the nation follow suit?


Sunday, January 13, 2008

How stuff works (or what should we really be teaching kids?)

I ask you, "What content is important to 'know'?" I have been thinking a lot about Standards of Learning here in Virginia and around the country. I want to figure out what is vital for every kid to know and be able to do? If some wonks and policy makers have their way we would have a National curriculum to solve the NCLB problem. But, how can anyone decide for everyone what is the absolutely most important things to know besides the basic life skills.

Just check out this website "How Stuff Works" and tell me, with resources like this is there anything besides being able to read, write, do math, do science, live in a community, and use google, that kids absolutely need to know?

With the breadth and depth of topics available on the web what more do you need to graduate besides the ability to find, process, understand, construct, and use information in the context of society?

How to Find Water in the Wild

Let's say you get lost in the woods. You're by yourself and don't really have any supplies. You know you need to find water -- but how? And how do you make it safe to drink?
How to Build a Shelter | How Water Works

Or how about this one:
Is Batman a sociopath?

Gotham City citizens rely on Batman to protect them from the schemes of madmen. But could Batman, like so many of the inmates he's sent to Arkham Asylum, be a sociopath as well?
How the Batmobile Works | How the Batsuit Works

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Bubbles My Friend are Blowing in the Wind

I am going to go out on a limb and say that blowing bubbles with preschool age children is one of the most important activities an adult can do with a child. It is important not for the academics it teaches but because of the way of interacting with the world that it teaches. It teaches the child how to create with their breath. They see how blowing too hard pops the bubble before it takes off and blowing too soft leaves you disappointed. Kids love watching the bubbles as they float up into the air. Catching them with the wand requires a gentleness and agility that is not used with any other physical interaction but, I can imagine a myriad of ways I use that same gentleness with the people I love.

This appreciation for the act of creativity, the natural world, and our interaction with our creations is not important to a schooling system that values testing as an end. The only reason to teach with bubbles in most schools is to teach surface tension and air pressure. These are middle school science concepts.

So much of the education agenda is set by those with a concern for the economy. I agree that the economy should be a huge factor in curriculum decisions but... maybe we need some reforms based on what it means to lead a "good" life as a human being as well as a contributor to the financial well being of the country.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Obama and Mr. Tilson

I received this cartoon in an email from Whitney Tilson. Mr. Tilson is an interesting character. He is a self described education reformer. He is a strong proponent of many right wing ed reforms but he seems to be a devout Dem. He is a huge supporter of Barack Obama for president, even though he is disappointed in his education plan. He is pro charter schools, a founding member of teach for america, and works with KIPP. He has a lot of good ideas. He also has some hair brained ideas, like calling Linda Darling-Hammond a shill for the teacher's unions and attacking Jonathon Kozol as a crackpot because he is against NCLB.

I really don't think he has any education experience with actual kids but I still think we are on the same team. I think. As long as that side is the same side the kids are on.

The most important idea I took away from my first semester of doc school is that in our post-modern world we are only left with perspectives. That is why I continue to seek out ones that differ from my own.