Inappropriate touching in today’s times

“Tag ban lifted on Mercer Island; school playgrounds return to normal”

Originally published in the Seattle Times, September 25, 2015 at 4:34 pm | Updated September 25, 2015 at 6:39 pm, Paige Cornwell, Seattle Times staff reporter

The Mercer Island School District has reinstated the game of tag following an outcry from parents.

“Tag, as we know it and have known it, is reinstated,” the school district said in a prepared statement Friday.

That reversal came after parents objected to a new “hands off” policy, which required students to keep their hands and feet to themselves at all times, including recess.

Parents first learned about the policy at a meeting with the principal at Lakeridge Elementary, one of the district’s three elementary schools.

“The new expectation was made with the best of intentions,” Superintendent Gary Plano wrote in a message Thursday to parents and the district community. “Our hope has always been and continues to be an expectation that students respect others’ personal space and respect their individual and unique differences.”

Along with objecting to the ban itself, some parents also were upset they hadn’t been consulted about the change, said Kelsey Joyce, whose two children go to Lakeridge. One parent started a Facebook group called “STAR MI (Support ‘Tag’ At Recess in Mercer Island).” The group had more than 400 members Friday afternoon.

“The kids had been told not to play tag, and I think they were really bummed,” Joyce said. “To be honest, kids get hurt on the playground. It’s an unfortunate part of life, but part of learning and growing.”

They weren’t the only ones upset. The ban, originally reported by local media earlier this week, soon made its way to national outlets like The Washington Post and became a heated topic on talk-radio shows.

The district said there were isolated incidents last year stemming from games involving student contact, where unstructured play “deteriorated into name-calling, fighting and injury.”

At first, the district responded to the outcry by saying that it planned to come up with alternatives to tag.

On Friday, the district sent out another message, clarifying that tag will be allowed.

Other districts around the nation have banned contact games and, in some cases, balls and other playground equipment, as education officials try to balance safety with playtime, said Jonathan Blasher, executive director of the nonprofit Playworks. In 2006, some Spokane elementary schools prohibited tag over concerns about student safety.

“I think a game like tag is wonderful,” Blasher said. “You can play it almost anywhere, it’s universal. It’s important for kids to have that free-range play, where adults aren’t micromanaging, but there is the need for assurance that the kids have a basic understanding what the expectations are.”

The return of tag is good news for Joyce’s children; her son and his friends play four different types of tag, including a version involving a hot-lava monster.

“I don’t even really understand that one, but it’s great they are fostering creative development of thinking,” she said.


Like taking away early elementary recess to make way for more math, this craziness provides an almost perfect operational definition of micromanaging the lives of our children — and of forgetting what it’s like to be a kid. Yes, tag is not always fair. Some kids “tap” too hard. Some kids fall when running. Some kids are more likely to win than others. At worst, some childhood games end in name-calling and fights.

Those games teach kids a great deal about life, which certainly isn’t fair either. They can help kids learn to manage negative emotions and to avoid conflicts. Games let kids manage themselves and create play for themselves, inspiring initiative and creativity.

Games like tag also provide exercise. We have too many morbidly obese elementary school children who desperately need to run around fields more and twiddle their thumbs on controllers less. I blame at least part of America’s growing childhood obesity problem on the lack of real, spontaneous, outdoor play.

Kitchen and whatever 010

Fears of inappropriate touching while playing tag concern me even more. These are elementary age children. We can create an atmosphere where touching is easily misinterpreted. When we ask leading questions about how one kid touched another, we have the potential to create concern in the mind of a child being questioned. Suddenly, sinister possibilities enter into a game that had only been intended for fun. Adult fears can steal away students’ childhoods.

I don’t want to seem to diminish or put down concerns about potential abuse, but my friends and I played tag and many other outdoor games for all the years of my childhood. I never came close to a situation I interpreted as abusive and I never heard that any of my friends did either. I usually lost and I skinned a few knees, but those kids trying to tag me at Jennie Reed Elementary School never once seemed to have ulterior motives. They wanted to win a game and show off how well they could run. That’s all.

In my case, I mostly wanted to avoid embarrassment since I knew I would never be one of the faster kids. But I still played and I was still happy to join in the game. I went right into that circle of kids who gathered to plan the game when somebody yelled, “Let’s play tag!” Or I ran away and yelled, “You can’t catch meee!”

Eduhonesty: We need to let children play in peace and put the social agenda away, at least during recess.

Red eyes

(This post is mostly for high school teachers, though some middle school teachers will relate, and it’s definitely for newbies.)

“I am just tired,” Oliver will say. “I did not sleep well.”

“I was crying,” Jeannie may say.

You look at their red eyes. Maybe you catch a whiff of something smoky and herbal on their clothes. You watch their fingers fumble with the pages in their book.

“Turn to page 72,” you say, and you watch them start working their way from page 41 to 72, slowly, one page at time, bending some pages as they go. Friends may lean over to help.

After a minute or two, one of these bloodshot students may ask, “What page was that?”, struggling to articulate that “s” sound.

Unless smoke is curling out of your students pockets, though, I suggest you roll on with your lesson. You won’t gain by shutting down class. If you have morning classes, there’s a good chance all the contraband is at home. I’d recommend you pass a note on to the Dean’s office or administration. Get someone to come to you and step briefly out of the classroom to explain the situation. Tell them you don’t want class interrupted. Locker and backpack searches should be handled by security and people in authority who understand the rules and procedures. Do your best to distance yourself from searches and other happenings. You want to stay off the front lines of this problem. You will spend the year with these students. If you get one or more suspended or even arrested, you may have a long, gruesome and academically-challenging year. Kids hate snitches. You may not be able to stay out of the line-of-fire. But try your hardest to do so.

You just entered the “Between the Rock and the Hard Place” Zone. You don’t have a win here. You are trying to minimize losses. In a suggestive situation, where the clothes don’t smell and the pages are turning fast enough and well enough to pass for normal, I’d begin by walking by and giving quiet warnings.

“Your eyes are red. I am concerned about that,” you might say. “Is everything alright?”

It’s possible the kids told you the truth. A call home to ask why Oliver is not sleeping or Jeannie is crying would be a good move. Mention the red eyes. Listen to parents. See what you learn.

Talk to the social worker in your school. Share your suspicions. Make sure appointments are set up with that social worker. Check to make sure they happened.

I will go out on a limb here and suggest that if you are working at a zero-tolerance school, you might warn your class. At a neutral time, when nothing has raised any flags in the recent past, have a “theoretical” discussion. Remind them what will happen if a locker search does not come out clean. Ask them: “Do you want to leave your friends behind to go to an alternative high school?”

Good luck. Substance abuse clobbers adults who know better. Kids can get lost quickly.

Eduhonesty: Teachers naturally want to help. Unless you have special training other than your academic and education classes, though, you should pass this one on to the social workers and counselors. They will know about help and resources in your area. You don’t want to get in the middle of a substance abuse problem. It’s too easy to place yourself in a situation where you may have to violate a student confidence.

But you also want to follow up with the social worker to make certain this ball does not get dropped. In a busy urban school, when Oliver skips his appointments, he may not be tracked down. You want to be sure that a qualified adult is helping him, even if you sometimes have to walk him to that appointment.

But low-tech has many great moments

(For newbies and others)

American educators have leapt on the technology bandwagon. We love interactive computer programs and webquests. We enjoy teaching students how to most effectively search for information. Especially in financially-disadvantaged districts, the arrival of Chromebooks and internet access can become a giddy and even inspiring event.

I love those Chromebooks. I love go-at-your-own-pace math programs. Students using technology maintain their focus for longer.

That said, I’d like to put in a vote for paper and glue.
interactive notebook

The advantages to the paper, paste and glue interactive notebook remain true even in our technological times. The internet is never down. The notebook is always charged. These notebooks are easy to show parents. They hang around long after computerized documents have been archived or buried in piles of similar documents. They allow for more movement than mere keyboarding. Cutting, coloring, writing, gluing and pasting utilize different kinesthetic skill sets than keyboarding. For a subset of kids, our kinesthetic learners, notebooks like the one above make excellent learning tools.

I suggest mixing the old paper and paste with the new Chromebooks.

As one of my seventh graders said to me last year, “Even big kids like to color. Everybody likes to color.”

I know I do anyway

P.S. Tips for new teachers:
♦ Find a place to store the colored pencils and glue in the classroom if possible. This can be a challenge in middle and high school, but you don’t want to waste time with locker requests. If supplies are in the room, you will save hours by the end of the year.
♦ Watch those glue sticks. They do lend themselves to mischief.
♦You want to keep track of caps, too, so tubes of glue don’t end up dried out and wasted.

Have you got your website up and running?

(Returning to tips for newbies and anyone else who is interested. Please pass this on to new teachers especially.)

zombie screenshot

Your school may have the whole website picture laid out for you. Many schools will steer you directly to the software you need. Colleagues can help you get set up. If not, here’s a good website to look at:

If possible, I suggest tabs at the top or bottom so that students and parents can flip between pages. Because began life as a journal, I’ve kept my structure simple, but a functional teaching website will benefit from tabs. If you have a tab for grading and another tab for rules, students and parents can quickly find what they need. I also like tabs because they keep a website from becoming messy. As a teacher, you have so much to share that your website can easily become a bewildering data dump unless you create at least a few separate pages of cyberspace to wander through.

Making a website has become amazingly easy and fun. You may find yourself messing around with formatting for awhile, but you can have your site up and running within the day and sometimes within hours. Canned templates for teachers make life easier if you are short of time and don’t want to take a full day for another project. What teacher isn’t swamped by this time of year?

What you may wish to include in your website:

1) Assignments and due dates! Posting homework eliminates so many excuses.
2) A short welcome to my website statement. Include contact information.
3) A cut-down version of any syllabus you may have. The goal is to let students and parents know what students will be learning over the course of the year. You can add this to your welcome statement if space permits.
4) The grading policy. For clarity’s sake, I suggest putting grading policies on a separate page. You might also want to go over this page in class while showing students an example of how grading will work. I would put my make-up policy in large, bold print. I suggest you also avoid being overly specific. Especially if this is your first year teaching, you will find routines don’t always cooperate. You want your website to reflect the classroom as accurately as possible. I’d avoid “Every Friday we will have a quiz!” because that may prove to be untrue.
5) I recommend a separate page for class rules. Those rules should be posted all over the place. The clearer and more consistent your rules, the easier your life will become.
6) You might want to include a section about who you are and how you became Smith Middle School’s new Spanish teacher. What’s your history? What are your accomplishments? What do you like? You can create your own tab/page for this and I’d suggest adding a few inspirational quotes and/or a cartoon or two, as well as a family photo. If you have pets, I’d definitely include pictures.

These are the basics. At, I found a list of other possibilities you might want to look at that may fit your classroom, from Guest blogger Michele Vance at the Tech & Learning site.

I’d like to add one last cautionary note: Keep it simple. You don’t want to have to do much more on a regular basis than post homework and upcoming events. While your website should be a go-to for your students and parents, you are likely to be too busy to play with the site often.

P.S. Watch out for cheap deals on for-pay sites. Yes, they will give you a website for $1 per month, but that site won’t cost $12 next year. Renewal fees may be jarring. I’d say stick to the freebies.

Why are our children fleeing into the Speedy Market?

The drop-out problem has been slowly improving, but remains intransigent in some areas. The Washington Times reports the following: “Detroit Public Schools’ 65 percent graduation rate was well below the nation’s top rate in cities – 79 percent in Houston, Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa – but above 62 percent in Milwaukee and 60 percent in Indianapolis. The Detroit district, which includes 74.9 percent low-income students, mirrored the 64 percent graduation rate for low-income students across Michigan.” (By Emma Fidel, Associated Press, April 28, 2014)

In this time when almost everyone except the garden slugs has heard about the value of a college education and the necessity of a high school education, many kids still drift aimlessly away from school. Others have a plan. My former bilingual students mostly have left to help dad with his landscape/construction/cleaning business or to get some other job to help support the family. We need the money now, they will explain to me, as I try to keep them in school.

I am sure those students are telling me the truth. They want to earn money to help their families. That financial explanation only forms part of the picture, however. I have had students who were working full-time at grocery stores while attending high school full-time. Work or school does not have to be an either/or option.

Why are our children fleeing into the Speedy Market jobs? Why are they quitting school to make sandwiches and hang bags of Doritos on little hooks? Why does flipping thousands of burgers seem preferable to another year of high school classes? I put curriculum choices right up there with test-preparation burnout, both of these natural consequences of our standardized testing obsession combined with educational funding restrictions. We are planning our students’ lives without consulting our students or even really looking at them.

We don’t listen often enough when our students say, “I hate school.” When Elise says, “I don’t want to take biology,” we smile condescendingly and tell her “you need biology for college.”

She doesn’t want biology. At this point, we had best hope she enjoys her other classes. With luck, she has a passion for mathematics or another subject. Because if not, she may decide she doesn’t need biology and she doesn’t need high school, either. When her parents exert pressure on her to stay, she may also default to the tried and true, “Momma, I’m gonna have a baby!” There’s more than one way out of school when a student is pressured to stay.

We used to place students in classes based on their understanding levels. We still do to some extent, especially in math. But nowadays the curriculum may demand the teaching of topics for which a class is genuinely unready – because those topics will be on the test. I am reminded of a quote from a staff meeting two years ago:

Special education teacher: But do I have to teach this? My kids can’t understand it.
Principal: Do they have to take the same test as everybody else?
Special education teacher: Yes.
Principal: Then they have to learn the same stuff. Do it.

Eduhonesty: Obviously we can’t let students decide their own curricula. We would be giving classes in Wiz Khalifa and brownie baking. But we do need to keep the big picture in mind. When school becomes nothing but tests and test preparation, some kids will not merely opt out of the test. They will opt out of school altogether.

Most of Europe offers a vocational track. Too many of our vocational tracks have become pathetic bus trips to local community colleges. Too many of our schools offer almost nothing except that test/college track that I believe is making some students exit the educational scene.

If you can never do well on those tests, why would you stay?

Planting the wrong seeds

I offer the following as food for thought:

Kindergarten gets tough as kids are forced to bubble in multiple choice tests:
They don’t even know how to hold a pencil yet, but kindergartners are getting a taste of the tough side of education with Common Core standardized math tests.”
BY RACHEL MONAHAN, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, Thursday, October 10, 2013, 2:30 AM

Administering the exams is a complete headache, teachers said. “They don’t know how to hold pencils,” said a Bronx kindergarten teacher whose class recently took the Pearson exam. “They don’t know letters, and you have answers that say A, B, C or D and you’re asking them to bubble in . . . They break down; they cry.”

These tests probably also inspire teachers to rescue students. I can easily see a kindergarten teacher helping students to find the right bubbles. I can see that teacher clumsily guiding a pencil in little circles and swirls around a bubble, giving that student a first taste of “getting help” on a test. What are we teaching?

Living in mom’s basement and paying $400 per month on student loans

In Delinquency: The Untold Story of Student Loan Borrowing by Alisa F. Cunningham and Gregory S Kienzl, Ph.D. (2011), Cunningham and Kienzl note that the borrowers who struggle most to repay their loans, unsurprisingly, are those who failed to graduate, with 33% delinquent without defaulting and 26% defaulting. That’s one in four defaults, an atomic bomb of a credit hit. Those who graduated with a degree defaulted far less often, although schools attended affect that percentage significantly. Graduates of four-year public or private nonprofit schools did better than graduates of for-profit and public two year institutions. A very high proportion of students who enroll at for-profit colleges borrow—almost 88 percent in 2007–08, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (2008).

Our 2-year community colleges remain marvelous resources but the fact is that they admit many students who cannot meet entrance requirements for other, more selective colleges. One by-product of this policy is the higher level of students who require remedial math and English courses, courses that don’t count toward graduation but are simply intended to help an unready student prepare to start college. Several studies have found community college remediation class rates surpassing 50 percent. Less than one-quarter of these students requiring remediation will earn a certificate or degree within eight years. More than half of students who take out loans to enroll in two-year for-profit colleges never finish. (Source: Education Trust)

Without continuing this barrage of depressing numbers, I’d like to observe that the number of college drop-outs is on the rise, and many of these drop-outs are carrying loans like Jacob Marley’s chains, clanking burdens that hamper their moves at every step. These drop-outs often end up unemployed or underemployed, with little prospect of paying off their multi-hundred dollar loan payments in a timely fashion.

We need to stop telling all of our students that they must go to college. I have watched and listened as counselors walked into my bilingual classes to tell students about the necessity of a college education. Ummm… while not wholly inappropriate in all cases, that 17-year-old girl who spoke about 200 words of English? She had zero chance of being ready. About half that class spoke only rudimentary English. That student who got a 17 on his or her ACT test? That student should not be given advice on getting into college. ACT Inc. pegs the college-readiness score at around 21 points. Students who are clearly unready need to receive a realistic picture of their chances for college success, not a speech on how great college will be. Those politicians and counselors selling the college dream won’t be the ones saddled with loans when that dream turns into a multiyear, repayment nightmare.

Who is teaching the teachers?

I am a certified high school math teacher. One of my kids is working on her doctoral degree in math. I don’t understand this check.

I am sure I can figure it out, but that’s not the point. The country that put its astronauts on the moon had a very different approach to elementary math in the not-distant past. Why do we believe this new approach is better? Who says so? Where’s their proof? What will adding this level of complexity to the mathematical process, especially in elementary school, gain us in the long-run?

The check’s silly, but the idea is not. Even if elementary kids master the math of our time, they are learning a system that the rest of the world does not use. And I believe we are confusing the heck out of them. I spent years as a bilingual teacher and here is an observation that I feel compelled to share: Recently arrived students from Mexico who had lived in urban areas often seemed much better prepared for middle school math than their American counterparts.

Let me add one last question that came to mind when I saw this check. Who is teaching the teachers this new math? In addition to the big $$$ from all the new textbooks aligned to the Common Core, I can only assume Pearson and others are garnering hefty consulting fees as they send out coaches to explain how to write the silly checks inspired by their math new books. Learning Common Core math must require a fair amount of training.

I hope Melridge Elementary got its money.

She’s only 13

I seized this note and kept it.
she's only 13
If we want a snapshot that captures the challenge of teaching middle school in one quick moment, I’d say this pic works. Was the writer concentrating on her math? Hardly. She gave that math only brief flashes of attention and the same could be said for her girlfriend. Those girls had far more important issues to manage than lining up decimal points, in their own minds anyway.

Eduhonesty: Sigh. Some days I think same-sex schools might be a good idea.

Misplaced priorities

In my last post, I included the following paragraph:

“Before accepting an offer, check these assertions with rank-and-file teachers in the building. Ask them about meetings and data. Ask them about standardized test prep, benchmark tests and other mandatory testing procedures. Ask them about teacher camaraderie. Where do most people eat lunch? Ask them if they believe their school is well run. Why or why not? How large are classes? Are disciplinary policies effective? What’s the best thing about the district? What’s the worst?”

When I reread that post, I thought about a rewrite, a reorganization. Then I decided I’d leave this paragraph alone, but comment on the order of the ideas. I find it sad that I started with meetings, data, standardized test prep, benchmark tests and other mandatory testing procedures before I ever reached the set of questions that I would have asked first ten or even five years ago — the questions we ought to be asking. Are the other teachers fun to work with? Are they helpful? Is the school well run? What will daily life be like in your school?

Tests, testing and test preparatory activities easily ate up 10% of my school year last year and, depending on how “test preparatory activities” is defined, may have come closer to eating up 20%. Going into an interview for a new position, my main concern now would be finding out if I would actually be given enough time to teach between tests.