Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Don't talk down about baby steps

Having children has taught me so much more about education than most of the formal schooling on the subject.

While there have been many slams and jabs about how Common Core is ruining education, I think that the requirements of having students discuss their problem solving attempts and thought process will cause greater improvements than the mere algorithmic thinking that was previously emphasized. It is almost amusing how parents and teachers will be very quick to judge what looks different that when they were in school, but not take the time to look at the steps needed for implementation and the long term goals. Is seems that when a student, or more often the parent, stumbles and has the first bit of frustration with something new, they want to give up and revert to the former system.

But this is where we need to remember the baby steps. In helping your child walk, talk, potty train, use silverware, say please and thank you, and all of the other things we teach children, we know what the goal is, we understand that there will be stumbles, and we know that it takes time. Somewhere, adults learn that, in certain situations, it is ok to give up and stop working at the first sign of difficulty, because they expect to be able to be successful on the first attempt. I already see some of this learning present in my soon to be six year old and I am fighting, with all of my parenting strength, to not solve the problem for him, but to help him persevere and keep trying.

My son is going through first grade at his school and we are working on math and reading. He has shown an interest and a certain aptitude in both reading and math, but they both came with relative ease. Now that we are progressing into deeper levels of difficulty and comprehension, it has thrown him for a bit of a loop and he has lost some interest and wants to give up at the first sign of trouble. This is where his interest in problem solving games and his younger siblings have come in for help.

My son has show an interest in a Disney puzzle game and will experiment and try new methods to beat the level and earn the coveted three stars. When he gets frustrated with a reading or math issue, I like to help him remember how he kept trying with the game and eventually solved the level. Sometimes, it was on his own, and other times he would ask for help. But that was the key, he asked for help, not the solution.

The other support for this has come from my younger children. As my oldest sees my younger children work through letters, numbers, or even learning to walk/run, he doesn't fully understand why they can't just do whatever they are trying to do already. My wife and I talk to him about how it takes time to learning how to successfully do things and there will be times when we try and fail, but that allows us to learn more.

How does all of this translate into formal education? We need to help students and parents recognize what the end goal is for a lesson, chapter, unit, semester, and course. Teachers, also, need to be explicit about these. There need to be meaningful benchmarks that they pass and if they are having difficulty reaching them, we need to have the safety nets to catch them as they fall. Again, not to solve the problem for them, but to help them generate their own solution. But it is a long process and we must take the baby steps to get to the end goal.

Whether Confucius (The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step) or Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers (10,000 hours to become an expert), we must take time and understand we will not get there in one day. With common core, we are in about hour 20 of the 10,000. We need to give it some more time and keep trying. We will stumble and fall, but we need to get back up and keep taking those baby steps.

I know, for me personally, I could do the chemistry when I was in courses in college, but I did not understand the chemistry until I had to teach it to someone else. This is the importance of students describing their steps in problem solving and thought processes. When a student can successfully describe their thinking to someone else, actually verbalize it to make it more concrete, then they have made some true progress.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

What we do in a day

Today was quite a day for a friend of mine.

Before I get into the events of the day, I think that the general public needs to understand that students are dealing with far more emotional issues than ever before. With the advent of social media, there is no break from potential torment from bullies, online trolls, or even an escape from the minor things that bother us from day to day. Looking at the recent leaked photos of certain female celebrities, parents, students, and educators will hopefully begin to learn that the Internet is not anonymous, and to quote The Social Network, "The Internet is written in ink".

In the past, if a mean, nasty note was written about you, you could grab the note and physically destroy it in a cathartic purge. The emotional injury was still there, but at least the note could not be shared anymore. Today with shares, likes, re tweets, etc. there is practically no escape. This should lead us to teach more about about digital citizenship and how to leverage social media and digital communication as a tool for personal and professional growth, but as educators, we are getting bogged down in the muck of new standards, new assessments that are high stakes for educators, but no one else, and the barrage of comments from a part of the public that think because they went to school, they know how schools should run.

If it were as simple as closing the door, discussing the content to which the educator felt a strong enough connection to earn a degree, and even being entertaining while doing it, many of the perceived issues of what is wrong with school would be finished. But it is never that easy and his day may illustrate why.

The day started as any other, greeting students, trying to make sure that IDs are worn, pants are pulled up (no sagging), and that students got to class on time. My friend began looking at his schedule for classroom observations, excitedly got to poke his head in some classrooms to see what teachers and kids were doing, and then he got a call from the nurse.

They had a student go into labor here at school. The student's mother did not have working transportation and was doing her best to get to the school ASAP. In speaking with the nurse and the student, they were able to arrange a local police officer to pick the mother up and bring her to school. From there, the ambulance was called and both mother and mother-to-be went to the hospital in a safe and cared for manner.

From there, he went to the Principal's office to discuss students with known gang affiliations, pictures of them with weapons, and trying to figure out how to keep the school safe and still find a way for these students to earn credits in classes when as a 3rd year high school student, some of them only had 1 credit to their transcript.

After some planning, he did some follow up on a student who received a txt on Friday that her mother was in danger of doing harm to herself. Checking in on the student while still trying provide her and her siblings at the school support without stirring the pot when things, thankfully, had calmed down.

In the middle of this, he ran into a student who has sought some extra support to help him make better choices from previous school years. My friend ran into him as he was being escorted out of a class by the police liaison for a repeat of the poor choices he has been known to make.

He then got a call from a teacher that she needed to speak with him about a student who told her some alarming things, which necessitated a call to DCFS and the support of the guidance counselor and social worker to ensure a safe environment for that night for this student. While they were working he did some follow-up from Friday about a student who was being bullied and ensuring that the appropriate steps were being taken.

After all of that, he got another phone call to go back to the nurse's office. A student had received a txt that there was a family emergency. This student's mother had known cardiac issues and thought that the emergency dealt with her. Instead, the student was able to speak with his mother, but was told that his uncle, with whom he was very close, had passed away this morning. The student was distraught and sought the support of the nurse and his football coach.

Birth, gangs, attempted suicide, bullying, abuse, and death. And these are the instances that became somewhat public and sought the assistance of professionals in the building. What about those who remained silent?

It was a tough day, but reminded him that we are here to support the students and to help them make their goals into reality. Relationships matter and we, as educators, need to know that there are many things going on in the lives of our students that might prevent them from completing that homework assignment. Sometimes a re-focus of perspective is needed from time to time.