Sunday, May 25, 2014

When Every Child Matters in Public Education

We're only as strong as our weakest link, but we spend a great deal of time building perimeters and excluding the unfit, less fashionable, not as brilliant, and difficult to manage, shuffling the problem to elsewhere, and no one really wants to be in elsewhere. Even those who start out with the best intentions can slide down the slippery slope when dealing with difficult people or problems especially when in search of clear cut solutions.

Life prefers the colorful overlapping abundance of the murky state; think about the rain forest with life thriving in its various levels or muddy water swirling about. It's hard to understand what is in play until we separate the parts, but then we only have the parts. When we keep pulling out and pulling away from each other, it weakens the overall fabric of our communities. We need to be clear that the goal of public education is to educate all children, even the least of us.

I live in a community that, perhaps like yours, faces a public school budget deficit. What to cut? Where to go? Can we turn a problem, budget shortfall, into an asset? How do we teach children to love learning and to be engaged in the learning process with limited financial resources? People are working on this, as I'm sure they do in your community, but the problem is ongoing, continual, and it has no easy answers. Except that we want easy answers which can stir up the issues of exclusion or firm lines, a slippery slope that serves no one when every child matters.

We embrace concepts like three strikes and you're out or zero tolerance because surely if we punish the bad guys, they'll stop misbehaving. You might note that these kinds of rules are being rolled back and, if you like, you can read more about why in David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell for one version. The problem is school systems, teachers, and parents frustrated by behavior or difficult kids wish they would just go away. These black and white limits continue to be used, despite their failures.

Kids get sent home for behaviors that reinforces to the child that they aren't good enough, that internalizes shame, and that don't motivate a child to engage or participate in a more positive way with the system. The strikes backfire because the negative reinforcement teaches children to give up and to not care. This doesn't solve the behavioral problems, it compounds them.

In recent years, we've drifted toward testing to the extent that teachers send home flyers and notes telling parents how to prepare students for tests-- giving them practice tests to do at home, ensuring a good night's rest, not assigning homework during the testing period, and by asking parents to supply sundry items to reward the students with post exam parties. You can tell me all you want that the tests aren't the priorities, but children are learning something else with these actions and rewards. 

Focusing on even good test results doesn't mean that a child has learned something. 

A grade can be the result of memorization skills and drilling. Here's an example. I asked my child's teacher to consider revising the spelling list (for next year) to not include so many spelling rules in the same list, to regroup them in a more meaningful way, to put the focus on learning the most common way to learn to spell a sound first and them to move toward the least common. Putting five ways to spell the same sound on one spelling list in a week requires memorizing and not learning how to spell new words.

Though the response did include an agreement to consider the list revision, it came with the comment that the other children (at my child's school) didn't need to learn this way because their test results were fine. In another school, she had revised the spelling lists because the children couldn't pass the spelling tests. Can I just point out that the focus on the test result doesn't mean that the children have learned how to spell the "n" sound in any random word they are trying to write?

In one school, I bet more parents ensure that the children practice their spelling words. Learning five spellings of the same sound in five days is really about either previous experience, exposure, or rote memorization. However, probability is a great way to approach spelling new words, and who doesn't need some hard and fast rules for spelling? Spelling probability (see pdf at bottom) is stuff like when you hear the "n" sound, go with the letter "n" first and then consider "kn" or "gn" in that order of usage. It was a revelation to me to hear someone teach spelling from this perspective.  

Continually revisiting the learning process, tweaking our methods and evaluations, and holding ourselves as a community to be accountable to both our weakest and our strongest minds is needed to serve children in a learning environment. We might vaguely agree that zero tolerance doesn't work and that testing isn't they key, but we must also guard against the slippery slope of thinking we have it all figured out, that it is clear and easy.  When kids without parental involvement are written off as worthless or lost, and kids with parental involvement are held up as paragons of learning, it's easy to get confused that test results equal learning. However, we're getting away from the learning process which gives every child the tools to excel.

Collaboration and communication across disciplines is tough in the silo town of ideas. When school is interesting, kids pay attention. When the focus is on the learning process, not testing, in the ways we reward teachers, students, parents, and administrators, then all can learn at the level to which they work. All have to chance to access the joy and skills of learning which are essential to instill.

There is a need for coaching for positive behaviors and using precise language when working with each other. I sense we misunderstand positive reinforcement which is about focusing on what we do well and not on fake or false validation. A kid can smell an emotional swindle a mile away. Positive reinforcement works when it is seen, acknowledged, and validated by the child as something that can be repeated.

A world of negativity is swirling around the  weakest students and taking away the light that they need to bring into school. When we fall into the trap of thinking everyone can bootstrap their way out of hate, misery, and negativity, we forget to focus on rewarding the positive and participating in the ongoing need to collaborate and communicate with those different from ourselves.

As a national community, I also hope that we'll soon figure out that it is better to spend money on kids than prisons. As a local community, I hope we'll soon recognize that we are in it for better or worse as a group. Thinning the herd is asking for more problems as a society.

In Japan, I went to school observation days where one teacher worked with thirty-five to forty first, second, or third grade students. There were moments when the students were wild, but the teacher, instead of leaving the classroom and taking the child to the front office, ignored or redirected the child one on one, meaning that the teacher walked over to the child and quietly pointed them back to their seat while staying on message to the class. Students in Japan are given increasing amounts of responsibilities as they go up in grades. For example, first graders spent fifteen minutes every morning without a teacher present organizing themselves around a daily task and assignment. Americans often think that the Japanese children surely were self-disciplined. I assure you they are not, but they are given opportunities daily to practice consistent behaviors and communication consistently focuses on keeping them as a part of the group. When we focus on consequences and rules, we forget that the real focus should be on learning and participating.

Students, teachers, parents and administrators have to be willing to learn from and to listen to each other. We might need to consider different ways of working together. Sometimes, we will try things that work. Sometimes, the things we try won't work. The point is to keep trying. It helps if we standardize our expectations, stay on message, focus on the learning process, collaborate across disciplines, communicate in ways that are positive and inclusive, and, importantly, to recognize that it is an ongoing process. When people opt to check out of the system, they leave behind the weak, but they don't leave them forever, they will still be there and their needs will still need to be addressed. 

As the school year closes, we should be asking, "What did you enjoy learning (teaching) this year?" "Are you eager to come back next year?" These are some of the metrics that reveal if we have focused on the learning process or rewarded students for participating in school. When we value all of the children in the room, we do it by asking for more collaboration, not less.

Rats at COSI play basketball thanks to positive reinforcement and conditioning.

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