Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hop Scotch and Other Learning Games/Tests

Can you remember, as I can, certain rights of passage in childhood? These were little milestones of accomplishment that you looked forward to and/or back on with some pride or shame. These were usually physical tasks that proved you were "growing up" i.e. making your own bed; not just drying the dishes, but washing them; mowing the lawns and trimming; washing the car; cleaning your room or the garage; biking to school alone; being the ball monitor; being picked for a playground/recess sports team or being the captain; kicking a homerun in kickball; beating all comers in tetherball and hop scotch; dancing a square dance with a girl you asked etc. These are all from a bye-gone age now I guess. These were before TV and video games, DS and nintendo. They were alot more physically challenging and involved kinesthetic kinds of learnings/tests with more gross motor coordination as opposed to fine. Fine motor coordination came along later.
Recently I had the opportunity through some lesson plans I had to follow, to teach/observe a couple of these "games" as scheduled P.E. assignments. Usually kids concoct their own games and favorite pastimes during recesses and they have their own evolving and ever changing sets of rules depending on the participants, pecking orders etc. You see this when you are "on duty" and it is best to stay out of the "squabbles" that develop. However, P.E. used to be a time when new games were taught and new skills were introduced and "mastered". Not so much anymore, I'd guess.
At one school the kids enthusiastically voted to play "in-line soccer" rather than run around the track four times for conditioning for future physical fitness tests. This game is supposed to teach soccer skills such as trapping, passing and dribbling. Not! Mass confusion, mob the ball and kick each other's ankles. Some more timid kids were understandably reluctant to join the fray. I was to offer them "laps". After several injuries, tears etc. we gave up and went in with one room team claiming the sportsmanship victory (moral) with no malingering, complaining etc. It would've been better to play two half/pitch games with positions etc. Oh well, no training, charting plays etc. as ground work so...this is what you get.
At another school, after one lap around a mini field, a third grade was supposed to have "hopscotch relays" as a lead up to real Hop Scotch (at recess I guess) I have yet to see hopscotch played at recess anymore. I've seen wicked games of 4-Square and tetherball but not by the rules I learned and taught when I was a regular student and teacher. Some kids were so out of shape, leg muscle-wise, that they could hop on one foot/leg for 3 squares in a row. Some changed feet mid-hop (which isn't really a hop) There were no "laggers", in fact, they didn't even know what they were. (laggers were thown into a square and then you had to hop over that square and pick it up on the way back standing on one foot) Way too hard for this group. No practice and no desire to learn or try it. How sad.
In tetherball (ball on a rope attached to the top of a pole) with a circle marked on the playground with pie-shaped zones to not step in when hitting the ball on your side. Too complicated? You're right. Forget it for our kids now days. Just wrap the rope/ball around the pole as fast as you can in your direction and don't even pay attention to your feet positions. We had even introduced a "referee" to start the game with a "drop ball" (jump ball) against the pole and then they watched for foot infractions, hitting the rope etc. This was a real challenging game and took timing and coordination and mindfulness of more than one body part.
Could it be...that since there are so many more "paper-pencil" tests in the classroom that the traditional outdoor playground tests (games) have been de-emphasized or even eliminated? These games helped relieve stress and redirect aggression that might be seen in the classrooms. (like what I see almost daily) Kids are not now leaning to "play by the rules" unless they are supervised in some sort of league or coached in a sport after school. Some don't get to do this and takes it's toll or their physical development and interpersonal skills. These are so necessary at the younger ages. One school had a P.E. Teacher (full time) that the classroom teachers sent their kid to, but he was more or less for "baby-sitting" with massive groups of kids of all ages and skill levels. Not good either.
Recently in the L.A. Times Opinion Section there was a short article by Camille Esch. She is an "Irvine Fellow" at the New America Foundation who specializes in Education Policy. I know of U.C. Irvine and their ground-breaking conferences and curriculum for teachers. I went to their Writers' Workshop Conferences twice as a master teacher. What I brought back from those week-long experiences was a love of journaling, writing on my own and allowing my students to do the same freely. We'd divide into small groups and read what we had written to each other for positive feedback and criticism. We also socialized and I - learned - how - to - line - dance - western -style. It was very physically and socially challenging for me, but it helped my writing and teaching. I went back the next semester and taught my students how to line dance, and journal.

I digress, but to prove a point. Her opinion article proposes that teachers be evaluated (partially) on their own students exam scores, pre- to post. The antiquated practice now is to only evaluate their "process" and teaching techniques and practices by subjective observation, not their "results". It is done by their "principal" mainly, not by peers or mentors. It doesn't cover outdoor education skills or results. It doesn't test the "whole child/teacher". This, to me is very incomplete and short-sighted. The article does qualify the results with the extenuating and overwhelming influence or lack there of, of parents, family, homelife, community motivations. Some students have a "headstart" in these departments but that would also affect their pre-tests. Growth could still be shown for an academic year with one teacher. Maybe some students would just learn how to hopscotch, play tetherball or start to develop the muscles and coordination to do such large/gross muscle tasks that would then lead to more refined coordinations and concentrations of learning skills such as "classification, catorization, organization, etc. Worth a try? RRR

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Do we have to...?"

Back in the pre-historic times, when I taught and had my own homeroom almost all day, there was one saying I had to ban. It was, "Whatever". To me it was aggravating and usually killed the spirit of inquiry and learning for that individual student and anyone who overheard it. (most of the class) It was an attitude indicator that was not conducive to "caring" about one's work or the assignment. I warned them and then put their "name on the board" when I heard it. If this continued, I called the parents and in some cases, they also gave back the same attitude, if not the words, "Whatever". This, to some degree, must be congenital or inherited or part of the "upbringing" in many a home. When life is already depressing, or bad in the home, this becomes a "coping mechanism".

Now, subbing two to four times a week, I continue to see signs of this motivational problem; especially with the older ones. It becomes a "badge" or "brag" of peer identification. "I don't care." (just like Pierre) Other signs I see around the classrooms are "Whining" (crossed out) and "No Excuses". Schools and teachers now days are so frustrated with the lack of support from the parents, administrators, districts and state that these signs are only the tip of the much bigger iceberg. Budgets are always being cut or the threat is there. Staffs are being cut (or the threat) and some of our most promising young teachers, the ones who still have idealistic visions, are put on notice. They then become unmotivated and may even be heard saying, "Whatever!" I talked to one new teacher this past week who was pretty sure she was going to lose her new house (foreclosure) because of a notice or "no contract guaranteed for next year".

Lately I've heard another disturbing phrase: "Do we have to...?" or "What is the minimum we have to do?" Forget about "extra credit" or bonus assignments, just show or tell us what is required to pass. This is especially exasperating to a teacher like me. I usually respond, "What do you want to do?" "How much do you want to learn?" "How much do you want to challenge your brain to grow and learn?" This really frustrates these "non-eagar beavers". They are stumped and don't know what to answer, especially if their peers are listening to the conversation. I often wonder what they would answer if their parents were there observing? Some wouldn't care because they got that attitude and idea from them. Sometimes I even escalate the response to a "higher motivation".
One particular school has the overall school theme, this is at the Elementary Level, that "College Is Our Goal". They have posters, pendants and signs all over the hallways where kids and parents walk that promote Colleges. Just in transit to my assigned classroom I saw: Biola, UCSB, USC and CSULA banners, and all the colors and mascots. At the opening of each week's classes, students, as groups, are encouraged to lead competitive cheers and yells about these grandiose goals. This is all fine and well intended...but at this level? Most younger ones don't even know what it takes to be accepted at a college these days...even a junior college like Crafton Hills which mainly does preparatory classes for EMT's Firemen and other entry-level, technical jobs. (and of course, we just voted to cut their Jr. College budgets)

Anyway, when I hear the questions, "What do we have to do?" I sometimes say, "Do you plan to go to college?" "Which students do you think they are interested in?" "Minimum doers?" Those with the attitude of "Whatever, just what's required, do I have to?" or those who have striven to achieve and accomplish much more that was given or expected? Or... I might say, "What will your future boss, where you want to work, want you to do for him and his company?" "The minimum?" Does that promote business or a profit? "Right now, your regular teacher is your "boss" what do you think she/he would want you to do?" This usually gets a non-response, a blank look or "I don't know." It is just too much to burden "childhood" with. Why can't they just be kids and enjoy exploring and doing what they choose? Yes, some would do nothing but play...for awhile...or they might escape through constant super-absorbed reading, even during class and other assignments. Then when they get a frustrating challenge from their peers or their "school life" they just have an absolute "melt-down". This happened yesterday in the 3rd grade class I was helping. The child, a brilliant, academically advanced child, who just lost it and cried for a long time unconsolably. After it was over, I talked with him and he said it was also about problems at home and his little brother, who he hated. He was just unable to cope with the slightest set back, i.e. being put out in a game and then teased. This is pretty normal for most kids. He could care less about college or the distant future. He was upset by his problems of today. (yes, he took the challenge from me and did the extra credit, bonus assignments with confidence.) He wasn't concerned about what he "had to do" but loved the challenge academically. Where he fell apart was with the inter/intra personal challenges from his peers and the class/game rules. RRR

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Finnish Finishing Schools

In today's Press Enterprise, in the Perspective Section, there was a small article entitled "Learn from Finland's Schools" by Walter Gardner. He taught English for 28 years in L.A.U.S.D. and was a lecturer at the U.C.L.A. Graduate School of Education. I think the article was reprinted from the Providence Journal. He seems to have the credentials to be a bonified critic of our National Educational Policies, i.e. the infamous, "No Child Left Behind". ("no test left behind")

Having recently visited Finland this past summer, the article attracted my attention and hit a responsive chord. (I chose the blue and white "Rubic's Puzzler" above to represent Finland) My wife and I were immediately impressed, in Helsinki, when we got off the boat (cruise liner) with the tidiness and orderliness of the city. There was little or no grafitti, which we had seen in most of the Ports of Call, especially in the Mediterranean. The Baltic Countries were better, probably because so much of the year is dark and cold. We were fortunate to have chosen a bus tour to the countryside not far from the capital. Wow! It was just as awesome and pristine. The country folks we met and the native tour guide were so friendly and open. We visited a typical private home and had "coffee", toured the acreage and peaked in the homemade sauna next to the stream. We saw a field of yellow flowers that looked like mustard but up close we learned it was rape seed. We took pictures around an old maritime church, very austeer with hanging ships and stocks for those who "talked" in God's house. These were very stern and business-like people and yet so nice and friendly...duh, to us tourists.

I digress. The article's main points were along the same line, with these exceptions. Finnish Schools are not run on a "business model" as are ours. They are run and have policies for their on sake and are highly valued and honored as a "goal of life" not a "stepping stone" to "better things" as ours are. They were recently ranked #1 in Science and Math in a Program for International Student Assessment. And yet they don't universally "test" their students for the first nine years. They take a 10% sample in the areas of concern and keep the results secret from the public. Schools are not compared, nor students, and outcomes are used only by the Administrators to help schools and areas in need. Teachers and the profession are revered and honored and they alway have many more than needed applying to get in. Teachers enjoy their "curricular freedom" and have very broad, national guidelines to adhere to. Granted their a much smaller nation and very homogenius in make up, but shouldn't we, at least with a sampling group or two be trying to emulate their success? Their class size is about an average of 30 and their teacher make an average wage compared to their counterparts in Europe.

I know, you're saying they have nothing to do most of the late Fall and Winter but stay indoors and study. (land of the midnight sun etc.) However, some of our most successful and famous athlete are from Finland. We've had Olympics there, and not just winter sports. You might be saying they are so isolated from the rest of the world up there. Well, maybe they used to be, but now with the internet and their active border with Russia, Sweden, Norway and Estonia (via the Baltic) they are right in the thick of what's happening. In the far north, they have the Lapps and the reindeer, a whole isolated culture. They have the aurora borealis and, according to the latest popular movie on the "His Dark Materials Trilogy" - "The Golden Compass" they have exclusive access to "Dust" or some sort of entrance to "other parallel worlds"...yes, fantasy too!

We've recently heard on the news that the Danes are the "happiest" people, as a nation, on Earth. The study goes on to say it is due, in a major way, to their contentment and satisfaction with the "status quo" and Life as it is for them. The Swedes have a similar, "non-motivation" compared to Americans. Where do the Finns fit in here? Are they as curious and up for "life-long learning"? If they are not as striving as us, are they at least as forward-looking and progressive? Maybe it is all in their approach to "testing"- the types and frequencies. We seemed to be obsessed with it and then all the bragging and comparing. Can you imagine a "waiting list" to get into a Kindergarten in Helsinki? Years ago, I even observed one at the demonstration elementary school attached to U.C.L.A's Graduate Ed. program where the author lectured. Maybe that's where he began to see the "Northern Lights". RRR

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Dual Emersion, Part Dos

I'm happy to report here that I "guest taught" this past week in a Third Grade Dual Emersion Class that seemed to be fulfilling the mission, as I see it, of Dual Emersion. i.e. both Hispanic and Anglo students learning a second language and succeeding. This I observed and also found out by talking with the regular teacher. They had been together for almost three years with this dual setup and even though there was the usual "transciency" and turn-over, there were measureable gains in both languages.

My lesson plans were in English, thank goodness. The first lesson was from a reading anthology that was totally in Spanish. The CD was put on and they were supposed to read along. I wasn't really able to read that fast and didn't really get the story, even with the abundance of pictures. So, I had them explain it to me a bit in English. I had previously told them, and written on the board my old "saw" in Spanish: "He who gives, receives; He who teaches, learns." I told them that they would have to teach me Spanish and then they could learn it better and visa-versa. I told them that I liked it when they helped each other since we weren't doing any "tests". It was still pretty hard for some of them to "help" their seat mate without my reminding.

It was an easier day since we all had to go outside for an assembly about Martin Luther King Jr. This was the usual kind that visit elementary schools - "itinerant showmen/minstrels" who work for a fee from the special budget funds that are already in place. This guy was a "one-man-show" and had a "gift of gab" or elloguence that kids like. He had them most of the time with stories, poems, and speeches from MLK. He did alot of audience participation and calling them up to help perform. It was all good, except that the administrator had set up the assemble so that most of the audience had to look into the sun and it was getting warmer, even in Feb. His performance reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Langston Hughes, "Hold Fast To Dreams". I shook his hand at the end and asked him if he knew it. He said yes but started to quote a different poem.

I went back to class and wrote it on the board and talked about it, pointing out the metaphors and rhymes and meter. If it had been my class, in the "pre-historic" times (before Testing) I would've taken time right there to help them memorize it in a "verse choir". But no, back to the lesson plan.

We were also scheduled for the bi-weekly "flute-a-phone" lesson from the roving music teacher. When I taught them to our "upper graders" they were called "recorders" and were very helpful in teaching the beginnings to reading music, notes, time signatures etc.(a different, third language) These kids were actually pretty good with their left hands only. They hadn't learned the note position for the right hand which are much harder. I whipped out my recorder and played along. She even had me demonstrate toward the end of the session with the hardest song, "Mary Had a Little Lamb...Cha, Cha, Cha". It was fun. My granddaughter had just shown me her recorder from her school the past weekend. Hers was numbered and she got to take it home. These were in plastic bags and collected/distributed weekly. (personal germs kept personal)

In the afternoon we had another "reading session" with an English Textbook on Social Studies. It was supposed to tie-in with the A.M. Spanish Literature reading. This one we did "live" a paragraph at a time by calling names written on popsicle sticks. It went pretty well with many stops for discussion and helps with longer words. I tried to put up a Venn Diagram on what we read with initials of topics covered. It was mostly over their heads. In another class, with older students, I had attempted a form of Venn Diagram, as directed by the lesson plan. This time we used a sheet of construction paper folded in thirds with the middle third reserved for "Both" (traits that were shared)
Here they were responding to a sheet and a half on "Frogs and Toads" i.e. how they were compared and contrasted. Only one student in this "Dual Emersion-4th-5th Combo" had to write it all in Spanish. I had help from his mates with "Rana"=frog, "Sapo"-toad, and I came up with "Mismo" for both or same. This class had another major challenge, i.e. the 5th half, the whole time (PM) was being taught an entirely different lesson on Physical Chemistry from a "guest professor" "that they needed for the up-coming tests" It got pretty hectic at times and I don't know how they could listen to just one of the two teachers. At the end, we played 20 ?'s with both groups disguising it as "Science" i.e. "Asking questions" what Scientists have to do, hypothesize. They liked that.

In both classes, I was invited back. There were no "behavior problems". One kid, after several warnings, got his name written on the board by me. But then, just before dismissal, I offered him a chance to "work it off" by doing something nice for the class since he had disturbed it so much. He finally volunteered to put the chairs up on top of the desks for all the boys only. No dual loyalty with him. RRR