Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Yo Jay

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Ok, wrong Jay, although I am a huge Run-DMC fan.  I meant that as a shout out for Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post and author of Work Hard, Be Nice (which I'm currently reading).

Mr. Mathews has tossed his two cents into the ring on how schools can do better without spending a dime more on education.  I comment on them here because they are examples of things that are obvious to the usual suspects, but show the normal hypocrisy of a society that refuses to look at themselves and a mind set that is rather naive.  It's not to say that they are bad, some would really work.  But I pick on Jay tonight because I'm a fan of his columns and I think that we share a similar goal, only I work in the conditions he references, and I'd like a first hand look at the topics to be present.

Jay's recommendations are the following:

1. Replace elementary school homework with free reading.  

-While I have strongly hopped on the homework limitation bandwagon, I see two problems here.  First, students should be exposed to the idea of homework at an early age and should be expected to finish it.  More and more jobs are looking at employees that are not given simple 9-5 work hours, but instead are given goals to accomplish that may require work at home.  It's the new method of corporate efficiency, and it is getting more popular.  Not to mention that there will be homework in college.  Second, Mr. Mathews is assuming that parents are going to enforce time for free reading.  News flash:  parents are already supposed to be doing this and are not up to the task.  I get more and more kids that say, "I hate reading" and gravitate more towards other media to increase simulation (the Internet being the primary culprit).  While wonderful in theory, you are putting a lot of responsibility on a population that hasn't pulled their end of the bargain.  Good luck with this.

2. Unleash charter schools. 

-I have a question.  If charter schools get to make their own rules, yet still get funding from the state and are under mandate from the school district, why can't every school run like a charter school?  Why focus the attention on making specific schools great and simply throwing up our hands in frustration with the schools that most children in America attend?  Right now the only difference in public education and charter schools is that charters get to be more selective in the process of expulsion, meaning they can drop students without going through much of the process that public schools need to go through.  Everything else can, and should, be able to transfer to public education.  So why "Unleash Charter Schools", and why not "Unleash Good Education". 

3. Have teachers call or e-mail parents.

-I will hide my head in shame on this one, as it is something I should do much more often.  My weakest part of teaching is parent/teacher relations, and much of it stems from incidents during my first year of teaching when a group of parents were so furious that I refused to sign an IEP that they screamed at me that they were coming after my job, and then actually went after it.  Tack on the group of nasty parents that went after my coaching job a few years ago and I end up becoming very defensive when I come into contact with mom and dad.  The problem with that is that 80% of all parent contact is actually really good, with 10% being ho-hum, and the last 10% becoming a nightmare.  And that 10% is what drives me to keep my head down and to avoid making too much contact.  For me to become a better teacher, that has to change.  Like, now.

4. Have parents call or e-mail teachers with praise.   

-Better than a pay raise any...day...of...the...WEEK!

5. Have every high school student read at least one nonfiction book before graduation.

-Expand that.  How about students do more nonfiction reading AND writing.  I notice that so many English classes are about "finding feeling in your writing", and then they get to U.S. Government and they can't figure out how to cite a single source or to create a concrete position paper.  When I was in school I loved reading, but hated the books I was assigned by those pesky little standards.  We didn't have a list, we had required reading and most of it contained the "classics" that still to this day bore the living hell out of me.  And no, there were no requirements for non-fiction.  My kids read quite a bit, especially when they are Seniors in Government and Economics.  Newspaper articles, magazine articles, op-ed pieces, all of them create good discussion and teach the students how to formulate an opinion beyond "because it sucks". 

6. Encourage teachers to call on every student in every class.

-Just good teaching.  Should happen anyway.

 7. Furlough everybody -- including teachers, students and parents -- for an unpaid national reading holiday.

-This is downright ridiculous.  I love the people that poke at teachers for considering striking for better wages (it would be bad for kids you know), but then make some recommendation that teachers get furloughed for a day on the assumption that kids will be reading.  Here's a tip; not only will kids not read on that holiday, they will be encouraged by their parents to probably do something else (homework, work for the family, employment, snowboarding trip to Tahoe).  This is way out of line.  Instead, how about in-school Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) daily?  A few years ago, our school instituted a daily silent reading program that demanded that students put down everything they are doing and read for about 17 minutes every day before third period.  Literacy scores have improved and books are being checked out of the school library at a much higher rate.  The problem is monitoring and role modeling.  Some kids will resist the push to read, so you need to be strict and at the same time give them options.  I have a huge book case full of books (fiction and non-fiction) that address all reading levels, from War and Peace to Garfield comic strips.  I also bring in the magazines I subscribe to for students to read; Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, and The Economist.  Some teachers say that magazines don't count and that students should only read books.  I ignore those teachers.  Role modeling is also important.  Reading means reading, even the teacher.  I take role and sit down to a few choice books or The Economist.  Others don't model the instruction and use the time to lesson plan or grade homework.  Students see this and then they see the time as a period of texting or studying.  Gotta practice what you preach.

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