One of the big topics that came up in my PEN talk last week was the politics of when a student qualifies for a learning evaluation. In some schools, a student has to wait to be failing, or a student is disqualified from receiving learning support if he or she is not failing. This article is one family’s look at navigating this process, which can be equal parts disheartening and infuriating.
There’s an article in today’s New York Times about the resurgence of “tracking” in schools. “Tracking” is when students are grouped into class sections based on ability, so the students earning the highest grades are in one group or class, the next highest-achievers are in another group, and so on. As you might expect, there are supporters and detractors for this: some argue that tracking damages students’ self esteem by labeling them bright or not-so-bright. Others argue that keeping all kids at the same level is a disservice to students at either end of an achievement spectrum by teaching to an artificial–and sometimes meaningless–middle ground.
Of course, there are people on both sides of this argument who seem to forget one key factor: kids are incredibly perceptive. In my own kindergarten class, I remember that we had three reading groups: the red birds, the blue birds, and the yellow birds. It was completely obvious to every kid in the room that these were the strongest, intermediate, and weakest readers–giving us color names didn’t hide that fact from us. I was an early reader, and I don’t think I felt embarrassed about being a red bird or that I was somehow better than my friends who were blue birds and yellow birds. Indeed, we went right from reading to recess, and my lack of athleticism and frequent tumbles from the monkey bars kept any reading-inspired ego in check. Heck, between my sub-par painting ability and my struggle to tie my shoes, reading was one of the only things I was good at.
I still can’t decide who’s right on this issue, though my heart lies with a basic truth that follows great teaching: great teaching differentiates to match every learner to the right challenge. If tracking is done with that level of personal attention and with that eye toward promoting growth, then I think it’s done in the right spirit. If it ends up depriving the lower achievers of opportunities without offering increased support, then it’s hugely problematic and inequitable.
Read the article here and let me know what you think in the comments.
Earlier this year, I attended the Paul Tough conversation at SF Friends School with Ms. Simpson, Ms. Munda, Ms. DeMartini, and Ms. Shawe. Since then, the character traits Mr. Tough talked about–including grit, determination, and perseverance–seem to be everywhere. The idea that character matters–and that it should be talked about in schools–is exciting to see in the mainstream media. Character education is enshrined in the Five Goals for us in Sacred Heart schools; it’s exciting to know that more people are viewing education as something more than the accumulation of a lot of facts and knowledge.
There’s an interesting article about this trend on KQED’s MindShift blog about this encouraging trend. Check it out on their site here. And you can read the draft of the full report on the Department of Education’s Research page here. Happy reading!
One of my BAISLD (Bay Area Independent Schools Learning Differences interest group) colleagues forwarded the following link to our listserve last week: it’s a review of many educational interventions that purport to offer “brain training” to improve students’ cognitive skills like working memory. The article has some great nuances, but its big take-home is that many of these programs–if not all of them–may not do at all what their proponents claim that they do. It’s an interesting read that’s right up my alley: I try to be as skeptical as I can about things that claim to be a “magic bullet” for education. I’m afraid that some of these products don’t do nearly as much as they claim to.
Read the article on Education Week here: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/06/13/35memory_ep.h31.html
A news story from NPR caught my eye this morning: it’s about how challenging it can be to match the generous good intentions of donors and volunteers with the on-the-ground needs of people in a disaster. It’s a problem I think about a lot: I wonder what the best way for us to help our community is in a way that’s both powerful and meaningful for our students but which will also have the greatest, most useful impact on the people we serve.
There’s a great line in it from the disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which took place three years ago this week:
Among the donations that poured into the American Red Cross building after the earthquake in Haiti three years ago was a box of Frisbees. In a flood of well-intentioned but unneeded donations, this box stuck out to Meghan O’Hara, who oversees in-kind donations for the organization.
O’Hara says someone clearly wanted to help — they mailed the box from Germany — but all she could think was, “Wow. That $60 or $70 could have been sent to so many different organizations to help out in so many different ways, and now we have a box of Frisbees.”
Read more from the NPR website here: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/12/169198037/the-second-disaster-making-good-intentions-useful
I heard this story on NPR earlier this week and had to share: it’s an interesting take on what the path to academic success can look like from a non-American cultural perspective. I loved this idea: that in some other cultures–in Japan, in this story–students’ academic struggles can be viewed extremely differently in the classroom, and with vastly different results.
[The researcher, Jim Stigler] watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn’t complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.
“I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” he says, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”
But the kid didn’t break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. “And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, ‘How does that look, class?’ And they all looked up and said, ‘He did it!’ And they broke into applause.” The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.
It was fascinating to me to imagine what this would have looked like in an American classroom. Clearly, the kid who already knew how to draw the cube would go to the board and draw it, end of story. But what would the take-home lesson the day have been? For the capable cube-drawer, this might have been validating: it might have been the chance for the budding artist to shine in a way that she never had before. But it also might have been yawn-inducing for the kid who usually got all the questions right. “Yep, I can draw a cube. What’s the big deal?” The experience that Stigler witnessed, though, was a transformative educational experience: the boy was struggling and he was thrust into a stressful but supported situation that he had to navigate. He had to learn to draw that cube, right then and there, and his teacher and his classmates were there to help. The moment was stressful to be sure, but its conclusion was rewarding: he got applause for a transformation from inability to capability. That’s an extraordinary opportunity for a student and for a teacher.
This made me wonder: does the American cultural tendency away from these sorts of stressful situations make us lose the chance for such transformational moments? Without a doubt, great teachers all over the United States manage to engineer transformative educational experiences in their classrooms. But are we missing out on more chances for these transformations?
I know that the best teachers I’ve had have been the ones who’ve challenged me and who’d made me unafraid to make mistakes. I wonder if these very-visible moments of trial and error really could help students become more resilient and more persistent in their school work and in their lives.
As the last month of the 2012 campaign season heats up, there are some interesting posts out there on the candidates’ stances on education and learning. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has published a table showing President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s views on different issues facing people with learning differences in the American education system. It’s worth a look: it’s an interesting read about the many different views and approaches on supporting people with learning differences in particular and all students more generally.
Please note: Schools of the Sacred Heart, San Francisco, does not endorse any candidates for public office.