Vacation? I think not.

I need to start on my preparation for next week. That includes grading, moving grading from Excel to the real grading program now that schedules are finalized, and preparing next week’s materials, not to mention other little tasks such as updating folders and calling parents. I need to investigate a program I am to start using as well as review for a test I am supposed to give. There’s at least twelve hours work here, I’m pretty sure considerably more, except I’ll triage. Some of the list will not get done, although it won’t go away. I may time this weekend’s work.

Eduhonesty: The paperwork comes with the territory. For any aspiring teachers, elementary is much easier in terms of these demands than middle school or high school. Ironically, wealthier districts may be less work as well since they often have their systems in place. My district is changing/adding systems and software every year in desperate bids to up state test scores.

If I had it to do over, klutz though I am, I think I might teach gym.

Smiling at a good deed punished

Yesterday I called homes and talked to various parents. One call involved a girl I’ll call “Mimi.” Mimi may need glasses. I’m not positive. She said she did, but maybe she just wanted to sit next to a friend. It’s early in the year and I haven’t identified all the nearsighted bodies out in my room. I nevertheless called home and suggested to her parents they make an appointment to see if she needs glasses.

Mimi has always been a quiet, attentive girl. Today, she decided to toss wrenches into the classroom works. She talked so much I had to write her up and send her briefly to the Dean. She kept ignoring directions, occasionally darting angry glances in my direction. I’m pretty sure I know exactly what is happening: Middle school girls hate glasses. Parents buy them. The girls lose them, step on them, or whatever else will ensure that the foul, plastic appurtenances never again cross the bridge of a nose. Mimi’s mad at me alright.

Eduhonesty: I hope this situation doesn’t continue too long. I don’t know yet if Mimi’s the type to hold a grudge. If she gets glasses, I’ll get the blame.

Still, the truth is that I’m smiling ever so slightly out here. That’s part of being a teacher (or a mom) that comes with the territory. Yes, you don’t like it. I understand. You need to be able to see the board, however, and your life prospects will not be dashed because you are wearing spectacles. You might even like being able to see.

One of the great mysteries of middle school has to be the many, many girls who lose those glasses, preferring to muddle their way through a blur in order to be pretty.

Pop-quiz goes the weasel

We are in trouble out here. They don’t understand the math that I am supposed to be teaching them. That math is way too far outside their current level of mathematical understanding. I am required to teach that math. They are not asking questions. They are not trying to fill in the blanks. They just want to sit and chat with friends. The new seating chart caused an uproar in one class. (The other did great.) The class that erupted wants to socialize and their new seats were standing in their way. My patience was fraying by the end of the day.

“Fine,” I said, “if you can all talk, you must know the material.”

I hit them with the pop-quiz and quickly realized they knew just about as much as I thought they knew. After letting them struggle a bit, I gave them a rather fierce lecture about accountability, the gist of which was that it’s OK not to know, but not OK not to try. I cancelled my pointless quiz.

ONE problem with being in a district that is suddenly attempting to force increased academic improvement through lesson plans scripted by outsiders: These kids are unused to being pushed to move at a faster pace. They need to learn to operate at that faster pace, but I am pretty sure they are still hoping all the new changes will go away. They want to behave like they did in past years. They can’t. They can’t if they want to pass their classes, anyway. Accountability has gone up dramatically for them. My students don’t like it, but I believe they are likely to benefit in the long-run.

Eduhonesty: I’m not sure I can get buy-in for the new program, at least not from a majority of students. I haven’t given up yet. Soon mandatory after-school tutoring will kick in. When they start losing afternoon hours because of what they failed to do or study, I hope for more effort.

Not quite that crazy

I will ‘fess up here. I am working on presenting comprehensible material in my classroom. As a result, I have fallen behind the scheduled lesson plans created by outsiders who have never been in my classroom, the scripted plans that match everyone else’s in the school but that don’t seem to be working well for (duh) special education and bilingual classes. I will never catch up. I will just keep going.

Eduhonesty: The stress on teachers has skyrocketed around me. I hit the wall the day before yesterday and blasted out in a few staff meetings. Actually, I think I may have looked like I was cracking up in one of these meetings. My department head brought me the Kleenex because I had entered that state between laughing and crying, choking out laughs as the tears began, nearing the border of hysteria. As I told the group, I felt like a Gorn from Startrek throwing boulders at my students and hoping some of my boulders would hit. I am supposed to be explaining n/m, rational numbers and number order. This would seem pretty simple. In terms of students, though, what you got is what you got and my favorite quote from yesterday was the following: “Miss, I don’t know multiplication. What is four times four?” She’s twelve, a nice girl and no more lost than a number of others. Most of them are lost.

The next day, I felt much calmer. I think my mission may be holding up the others until I retire. My other mission will be trying to teach students enough of the scripted material so they do not feel completely clobbered at the end of the year.

I will throw the most sensible boulders I can find.

Curricula and student rapport

Two years ago, I suffered through an awful school year. I was teaching an extremely ambitious curriculum and students were resentful. They pushed back. We seldom had fun. Bell-to-bell instruction with an aggressive learning plan can backfire.

Eduhonesty: I’m getting concerned. The world’s too wacky out here. You can’t just decide to teach anybody anything. First you need to figure out what they know and then you can go from there. The regular teachers in my district are hanging in with the new curriculum for the most part, although a number have expressed concern about how behind they are. It’s the first week. The special education and bilingual teachers mostly appear to be drowning, a neat trick seven days into the school year.

At a staff meeting awhile back, a colleague blurted out his solution to the latest educational crisis.

“Marijuana!” he said loudly.

I don’t think that will solve our problems. I’m not sure marijuana would do teachers in my district any harm, though. Operating this far outside of my student’s zone of understanding, I might as well be speaking Klingon or simply babbling at times. If I stopped making sense, would anyone notice?

Disciplinary issues

I am being obliged to teach material that is years above my students’ learning levels. Misbehavior is becoming an issue. Some kids will ask questions and work harder when they are lost. Others mentally exit the scene. They act out because they don’t want everyone to know how confused they feel. I am getting snappish.

Not good. It’s way too early for the honeymoon period with new classes to be over. That’s all I can say.

Eduhonesty: I usually have a great rapport with my students. But I am not usually trying to teach students who are operating at a second or third grade level mathematically material that is four or more years above their learning level. It’s the end of the first week. One of my favorite teachers across the hall spent the day cursing (obviously not while students were in the room). He and I are agreed: We are grievously behind.

We’ve only been in school one week, but the whole year is scripted. We can’t even get to start, much less keep up with the schedule. Fortunately, almost all the classes in the school have already fallen behind. That’s about the only comfort in this mess.

A riptide of minutiae

This phrase came to me as I was attempting to organize my morning. I can’t get ahead. I can’t even keep up. Here is the thing about doing communal lesson plans and trying to teach the same material at the same time: I don’t own my material. It’s hard to remember things I did not personally plan or create. Since I teach two subjects, I have a lot to keep track of and sometimes I simply… don’t. I realize, “Oops, I was not supposed to do that until tomorrow.” I’m supposed to have my Common Core standards on the board. Hell, I’m lucky to find my (our) lesson plans. I’ll get the standards on the board tomorrow.

Eduhonesty: Feeling a bit like a hamster in a wheel out here.

If nothing else, I am feeling sympathetic to middle school children who are trying to learn how to get organized. Me, too, guys. I want to get organized. But the riptide of minutiae sometimes just carries me away.

Hidden advantage to the all-year school year

I suspect we are going to the all-year school year. Why else, after all these years, did they finally install air-conditioning in my classroom? I have a wall of windows so my room’s temperature is still reaching the lower-eighties in the afternoon. But temperatures of the past have often hit a humid ninety-some degrees in various classrooms, so we teachers view the new window units as a definite win. Many teachers received air-conditioning units, those lucky enough to have windows for the units. The newer wing still lacks cooling, but those rooms don’t face East or West. The sun hits their windows obliquely, lessening the greenhouse effect.

We have needed an all-year school year so if that provided the justification for this new boon, I could not be more pleased. Why am I supporting the many changes of the latest administration? As I have noted previously, if what you are doing isn’t working, you need to try something else. I wince to look at our recent test scores. What we were doing wasn’t working. Of course, that all-year school year may be just a rumor.

But I’ll keep my hopes up.

Common Core expectations

Mostly I have resisted addressing the new national set of standards called the Common Core. The Core’s goals are lofty, its intentions good. Many teachers nonetheless are appalled by the new standards and I understand where they are coming from. Why do these educators reject the Common Core?

Part of the problem with the Core has been unreasonable expectations. More teachers should have been consulted in its creation. Almost none were involved until the Core’s content had been completed. Teachers could have reined in some of the Core’s more unfortunate choices.

While parts of the Core are excellent, some Core expectations are unreasonable for the ages for which they are intended. We are not born able to think critically and some of us — gasp! — are a little lost when trying to think critically in early elementary school. The idea that we should teach skills when we want students to have them, rather than when they are ready to learn them, has caused teachers looking at the Core to reject the Core overall, despite the fact that the idea of a national curriculum has formidable advantages, at least if we want to effectively compare students in different regions of the country.

I saw a perfect example of what I am talking about when my girls were little. In the upwardly mobile suburb where I live, most parents leap on literacy training. These are the same parents playing Brahms to children in the womb and buying educational, geometric mobiles to hang over cribs. I watched and learned that you could teach a two-year-old child the alphabet in a couple of months. You could teach the song quicker, but those kids could have been singing “Hey Jude” for all they knew. In a few months, though, you can hold up the “B” card and many little nippers will be able to shout “Beee!”

Or you can wait until that child is three, and he or she will learn the alphabet in about half the time. By five, some kids can get the alphabet under their belt in one intensive week. Obviously the times vary greatly, depending on the child’s development, interest, language skills, and background knowledge, as well as the parent’s motivation. The idea’s clear, though: If you wait awhile, kids are more ready to learn and they learn a lot faster. In Finland, children don’t start school until they are seven. Maybe that’s because sound research suggests that some perfectly normal kids are not ready to read until they are seven. A number of skills have to come together before independent reading can launch.

Critical thinking requires background knowledge. Background knowledge requires time spent learning. We don’t have much background knowledge when we are seven. Without that knowledge, critical thinking frequently becomes gobbledygook and gobbledygook in these times can be educationally disastrous. Teachers are now supposed to provide encouragement and praise for honest efforts. Under the Core, students will receive a great deal of credit on their national test even if they answer a math problem incorrectly, as long as their process shows at least partial understanding of how to do the problem.

The answer’s still wrong, however. When we praise critical thinking results that don’t make much sense because the student tried, we support fuzzy thinking and wrong answers. Trying to teach reasoning too soon may well prove counterproductive as students spew out silly answers and teachers reply, “That’s a good try, Jennie. I am glad to hear you share your ideas.”

Eduhonesty: Some answers are right. Some are wrong. Some make no sense whatsoever. Attempts to raise self-esteem that encourage wrong or substandard answers do not benefit our students in the long-run. But if we demand skills of our students that they are not ready to possess, and reward partially correct efforts, we will end up encouraging wrong and substandard answers.

Here are the Common Core standards for 3rd grade literacy:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2 Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.5 Refer to parts of stories, dramas, and poems when writing or speaking about a text, using terms such as chapter, scene, and stanza; describe how each successive part builds on earlier sections.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.6 Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.7 Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story (e.g., create mood, emphasize aspects of a character or setting)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.8 (RL.3.8 not applicable to literature)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.9 Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series)

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


Careful reading of the standards suggests the problem. These are laudable standards on the surface. For the child who can meet the standards, they are an educational win. What can be wrong with comparing and contrasting themes, settings and plots? The problem comes from the fact that many children are genuinely unready to read the expected level of literature by third grade. Many are barely ready to read when they are six or seven. Individual children are different and “differentiation” — to use an education buzzword — cannot begin to address the inappropriateness of these standards for a subset of third graders.

When we force these children to compare and contrast themes, settings and plots, they will oblige us. Third graders are extremely obliging. Teachers are also kind. For the most part, they will praise anything that makes the remotest sense.

What worries me and many other educators: The Common Core is a vast experiment using children as test fodder. So much research has been done on appropriate expectations for the different grade levels in our system. We are throwing that research in the trash in pursuit of goals that may well be unattainable. Who will pay the price if our expectations are unreasonable? America’s children will pay that price.

I’ll end with just one question: Since America’s educational system worked better in the seventies than it does now, why don’t we try doing what we did in the seventies instead of using children as lab rats?

Is food the problem?

The following is an interesting read about students in Great Britain:

The article looks at efforts by a couple of teachers to help students. These teachers determined that by age 10, one-third of girls and about one-fifth of boys say that their body’s appearance has become their number one worry. Age 10 was also the average age when children first started dieting.

I never trust social science numbers. Unless I can see the assumptions and methodology behind those numbers for myself, I won’t accept a social science statistic as any form of gospel. But the article’s statistics seem plausible. Observations about the effects of photoshopping also ring true.

I think we are taking the wrong road, though. We are attacking food, reinforcing the concept of food as the enemy at a time when students already are developing a love/hate relationship with food because of its possible effect on body image. As we regulate school breakfasts and lunches to an ever greater degree, I believe schools end up creating lunches that send students home hungry. In many homes now, both parents are working when those students get home. I’d bet the feast begins the moment those kids walk in the door, a barf-worthy extravaganza of Takis, chips, pop tarts, cereal, and snack food.

Instead of attacking food, I am convinced the government ought to come at the growing childhood obesity problem from the other direction: Let’s attack lack of exercise instead. P.E. has been curtailed across the nation. Most children no longer have P.E. daily. No federal law requires American schools to provide physical education to students. Only six states — Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, and North Carolina,  — hit the target of 150 minutes per week suggested by the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, according to Bonnie Rochman, writing for Time.  We have dropped the physical education ball.

Children of previous generations ate a lot of junk. They ate burgers, fries and fried chicken in those school-lunches of yore, along with pizza and tater tots. Those kids were nevertheless thinner and healthier than kids today despite the fact that sometimes they went home to a meal’s worth of milk and cookies.

Why? They had real P.E. They did real exercise. Being in better shape, they naturally played more sports, both in school and recreationally.

Eduhonesty: Rather than make school lunches into diet food, we ought to push mandatory, daily P.E. If the government wants an agenda, they should try encouraging parents to take their kids ice skating, swimming or dancing.

If anyone wants a project to take on, go take some pictures of food wastage at the end of our new “healthy” school lunches. Photograph those trash cans and the unemptied trays sitting in front of kids who are picking at their food. Photograph and poll the kids about how they like the new lunches.

You can lead a kid to whole grain pasta with barely-salted red sauce and mushy green beans. You can’t make him eat.