Life Lessons: How to say “goodbye” to students

At the end of the school year, I often struggle finding an appropriate way to sum up all the work with the students.

Thanks to my son’s seventh grade English teacher at Muir Middle School in Burbank, Lynn Rothacher, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head.

At the end of the course, Ms. Rothacher passed out a handout entitled “life lessons from the literature we’ve read this year,” a brilliant idea that crystalizes all the important literary works students studied on a single page.

The lesson to “open your heart (and your pocketbook) to others” derives from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This inspired me to create a similar document as a way to say “goodbye” to my tenth grade students.  In addition to listing the life lessons and the works, I added a quote from each piece of literature that supported the lesson.

First, I modeled an example. For Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one lesson is to be tolerant of those different from you:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Next, I had my students come up with their own lessons and quotes for the other works including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address.”

After they shared and presented these, I had them write reflections.  What they had to say made the previous 179 days of school with its ups and downs all worthwhile.

“This is my favorite thing we’ve done the whole school year.  I feel like at school, the place we’re supposed to be preparing for the real world, we’re never really taught life lessons.”

“I love these quotes so much I plan on keeping them with me because I feel that they can be seen at any point in life and give hope, or inspire you to do certain things. Reading them really made me reflect on life.”

“With these lessons and morals in mind, we can make ourselves better people and influence others to become better also.”

“This creates more of a long-lasting positive impact than anything else we could have done.  This activity reminds us of all that can be taken from literature.”

“School is not great on covering how to apply our knowledge in the real world.  This class had a purpose.  Now I know the importance of literature and I am more aware of life.”

“This is something that will stick with us throughout the rest of our lives.  We probably won’t remember the technical aspects of literature as well as the life lessons they provide.”

“I have gained an immense understanding of human nature as a result of these pieces of literature and I know for a fact that I will never forget any of the life lessons.  I feel like I know how to be a better person and hope others do as well.”

“This shows us why we spent countless hours reading and understanding these books.  It puts all our work into perspective and makes it worthwhile.  In this class I’ve learned the most about myself and what kind of person I am.”

“Talking about this definitely has an emotional element to it.  You don’t realize in the midst of reading, annotating, analyzing, and taking tests on these works that they’ve actually been specially chosen to teach you things that aren’t required by the school.”

“I loved doing this.  It made me explode with happiness and excitement.  No one really notices the meaning of why we read the books we read and why our teachers assign these books.  This lesson really opened my eyes.”

Even after nearly 30 years in the classroom, I am still learning new ideas.   Thank you, Ms. Rothacher.

 

 

Teachers Studying Other Teachers

In 28 years of teaching I have probably spent one year of my career attending faculty meetings, conferences, and workshops.  The bulk of the information dispensed varied from somewhat helpful to barely useful; little of it was illuminating.

The one staff development activity, however, that has always been worthwhile missing a day of work for is the walk-through.

In recent years, schools have been implementing the concept of having teachers walk into other teachers’ classrooms to observe the teaching and learning taking place.

While initially some teachers balked at the idea of opening their doors to their colleagues, the walk-through has now become standard practice where I work.  We have been doing it for so long now that newer teachers have no memory of when we weren’t doing it.

While teachers are given observation forms to fill out and concepts to watch for, teachers are on their own for most of the day, something that is not true with other staff development.

Teachers are put in pre-arranged teams, purposely from different departments.   Doing it this way ensures that people don’t gravitate towards those with whom they regularly interact.   Integrating teachers from different departments takes the walk-through to another dimension, becoming a “getting to know you” day.

One of the peculiarities of teaching is that it is a vocation performed by one person in individual rooms.  Dialoging with colleagues to discuss methodologies and students is an independent study venture.

Because of this solitary confinement, it is easy to overlook what a student’s whole day looks like.   Teachers focus on their curriculum often forgetting that at the secondary level these students have five other classes.

It’s not just the homework; it’s how adaptive students need to be in understanding the expectations from their other five instructors.   Yet, it is that variety of teachers and teaching styles that makes their day dynamic and not boring.   If one teacher speaks in a monotone and stays immobile in front of the class, the next period may have one teacher who constantly moves around, having students work with partners and in groups.

Another benefit of walking through other classrooms is coming away with fresh ideas: a creative way to have students write on the board, a decoration hung from the ceiling, an unusual table arrangement.

And it’s fun seeing one’s students in different settings.   One former student had a huge grin that I was watching her play the cello.  Another was making a sculpture, and after discussing the particulars of that work of art, good-naturedly debated where the best breakfast burritos can be found (he says Corner Cottage, I say Larry’s). Such conversation pays in dividends, deepening the connection between student and teacher.

As much as I enjoy the walk-throughs, each teacher does just one a year.   It would be wonderful if teacher observations and conversations were a regular part of the work day or even work week.

Another next step would be to record those teachers who are doing marvelous work as a video library for others to reference.

If a were a student that day, I would have gone to school and learned what makes people mammals, that what separates us from other mammals is our ability to show compassion, and it is that compassion that can be expressed through writing a sonnet, playing a piece of music and creating a work of art.

Not a bad way for a teenager to spend a day.   And it’s free.  What a deal.

The Gettysburg Tweet?

Newly inaugurated U.S. presidents are often judged by the work completed in their first 100 days of office.

We can judge President Trump by the first 100 tweets of his presidency.

George Bennett of the Palm Beach Post reported that “more than half his tweets end with an exclamation point and more than one-quarter [have] at least one word in all capital letters.”

Take a look.

“Enjoy the Super Bowl and then we continue: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile.  Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”

“If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

“I will send in the Feds!”

“FAKE NEWS”

Words matter.   They can threaten or they can heal.

February 12 is the 208th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth whose words still endure today.

Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns made “The Address” in 2014 about the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, a small boarding school for boys with learning disabilities who each year recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a rite of passage that demonstrates their confidence to overcome their challenges.

In 272 words, it may be the best written speech by any president under two minutes.

He uses the rule of three twice, done to perfection: “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground” and the famous coda “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln was not the featured speaker when the battlefield was dedicated as a cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863.  Edward Everett, noted orator of the time, spoke for two hours first, then came Lincoln.

The photographer assumed Lincoln would speak longer allowing him more time to focus his camera on the president.  By the time he took the photograph, Lincoln had just sat down.

Little did Americans know at the time that the Civil War would continue for almost two more years.

And it wasn’t until years later that Lincoln’s words would burn an indelible mark in the American story.  In fact, before he was assassinated, many in the country disliked Lincoln.   After his murder, however, his reputation rose.

This year I had my English students learn about Lincoln and recite the speech.

After they finished, I asked them their thoughts.

“I loved presenting this speech and learning about it and the person behind it,” one student wrote.

“It inspires people and reminds us how great Lincoln was” that “he was able to bring the country together,” remarked another.

The speech showed “how much he cared about his country,” how “he cared about the American people deeply.”

He “was very intelligent and eloquent” who “showed compassion” and “loved his country;” “a good, true, honorable man.”

And one student said “funny how in the speech Lincoln says ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here’ but people still remember the speech today.”

If only our Chief Executive could word his thoughts as well as a 15-year-old high school student.

Indeed, in the turbulent times we live in where there is a pervasive dark mood, it is comforting to read the words of someone who truly led a divided nation.

When he was assassinated on April 15, 1865, he had recently turned 56 years old.   Even with an additional 14 years of life, Trump has a lot of catching up to do before his memorial ever breaks ground on the National Mall.

Over 150 years from now, will a Trump Tweet be recited by school children, examined as one of the finest collection of words coming from a president?

Take a break from all the bad news and read over the Gettysburg Address to honor Abraham Lincoln and to remind yourself that we are all Americans.

 

 

DeVos: The Anti-Education Secretary

There I was, using 20 minutes out of my 56-minute period on Jan. 20 showing my mostly non-native English speaking students democracy in action, the inauguration of a new president, when I felt slapped in the face from Donald Trump who said, “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

As he seems to do with so many issues, Trump took the low road with a clichéd type of sentence that connects extremes—lots of money with nothing to show for it—that reflects his deprivation of knowledge about education.

It’s one thing when the public makes comments about schools without researching the facts.  It is quite another when the man holding the highest office in the nation makes such a remark, then appoints a person to head the department of education who may actually know a little less than he does about schools.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school, never taught school, and it is doubtful that her children attended one either.

DeVos is a billionaire, Forbes estimating her family’s wealth at $5 billion.  And she and her husband, son of Amway’s co-founder, aren’t interested in making schools better, but in promoting school vouchers which takes money away from public schools and gives it to parents to spend on charter, private or religious schools.

In other words, taxpayer dollars end up funding private companies and religious organizations.   That runs counter to the separation of church and state edict of this country.

Yet Trump is entrusting her with the highest position in education to do what’s best for America’s public schools.   Does that make sense?

At her confirmation hearing, she exhibited, to borrow Trump’s language, a “deprivation of knowledge” about the federal law that funds special education which has been on the books for nearly three decades.   She also could not explain the difference between the terms “proficiency” and “growth assessment,” a distinction even an average-skilled teacher can clarify.

DeVos also argued against gun-free school zones saying that some schools like those near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming should be able to arm themselves especially “to protect from potential grizzlies.”   Thus far, there have never been reports of grizzly bears attacking school children.  Besides, most experts agree that bear repellent is more effective than firearms.

I have long felt it inherently wrong for people who lack teaching experience to hold powerful positions in education, telling teachers how to teach.  Unfortunately, DeVos has company.

Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, there have been 10 secretaries.

Only Terrel Bell, Rod Paige and John King, Jr. were public school teachers before serving their post.  That means 70 percent of the U.S. Secretaries of Education had no first-hand experience of public schools, the institution for which they were setting policy and implementing mandates.

Since Trump thrives on having the biggest, the best, the largest, he has succeeded with DeVos in appointing the most unqualified individual as education secretary.

In fact, she is the anti-education secretary.

As Stephen Henderson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance.”

Until her nomination, she was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice advocacy group whose website refers to DeVos as a “national education reform pioneer.”

In a speech given at the South by Southwest education conference in 2015, DeVos listed “government really sucks” as an “inconvenient truth” about public education.  Nice language coming from the soon-to-be top “educator” in the land.

Some senators requested a second hearing on DeVos, but the request was turned down.

Her confirmation is expected to happen this Tuesday.  If only that were fake news.

 

 

Remembering an Educator

Don Duncan who passed away on Dec. 15 at age 82 is someone whose work in Glendale schools should be remembered.

Mr. Duncan (I can’t let go of the formal title) graduated from Hoover High School in 1952, then taught in Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) in 1957.  He became principal of his alma mater in 1974 and remained in that position until he left in Feb. 1995 to recruit students for California’s first full-time evening high school in order to ease overcrowding in Glendale schools.

By May when it became clear that was not materializing, Mr. Duncan expressed regret in a News Press interview that “if I had any feeling that it was not going to work, then I would have preferred to stay at Hoover.”

His tenure in Glendale ended without much fanfare even though he and his brother Charles combined for nearly 80 years of service to Glendale’s schools, and their father owned Duncan’s Variety Store in Kenneth Village.

I interviewed with Mr. Duncan for a teaching job when I earned my credential.   While there weren’t any openings, he kept me in mind, and when the 1989-1990 school year began (in Sept., by the way), and a position opened up, Duncan called me and asked if I was still interested.

The problem was that I had just started my first teaching job for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

It was two weeks into the school year and Don’s brother, who was in charge of Human Resources for GUSD, was able to get me out of my LAUSD contract, and in Sept., 1989, I made my debut at Hoover.

Mr. Duncan came across as paternal, always in the main office in the morning greeting teachers as they arrived, his height and gray hair adding to an “in-charge” presence without an air of intimidation.  He was even-tempered, “cool as a cucumber” according to granddaughter Nicole, never tipping off if things were going well or not.

Often not going lockstep with the district, he used to joke that we were the Hoover Unified School District.   One example of this was back in 1987 when the school newspaper wanted to publish an ad for condoms right before the prom.   And Mr. Duncan supported the publication of it.  Unfortunately, district officials heard about this and put a stop to the ad before it was published.

In my 24 years of doing the school newspaper, I have had my share of run-ins with principals about stories.  I only had one with Mr. Duncan and he supported my decision.  In fact, he loved the school newspaper.  He often would come to the journalism class and tell the students “nice job” which meant so much to the kids.

Mr. Duncan gave all teachers a generous present of a one-hour coupon for him to cover a class period anytime someone wanted to run an errand or take a walk.

He enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus on the last school day before Christmas vacation, and would host staff Christmas parties at his house.  He also enjoyed speaking on the P.A. about historical days on the calendars so that students understood why school was closed.

City Halls memorialize councilmembers.  Schools should have a way to honor teachers, administrators, clerks, and custodians who dedicate their careers to education.

Here is a man who devoted his adult life to Hoover, the longest tenured principal in the school’s history (almost 21 years), yet his name is nowhere to be found on campus.

Before another street is named for real estate developer Rick Caruso, consideration should be given to the Duncan family in ensuring their legacy does not disappear from Glendale’s history.

Absence makes the mind grow flounder

It used to be that going to school on time every day was a given.   Only truly sick children missed school.

Not anymore.

Six million children missed at least three weeks of school in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.S Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report.  That equates to 13 percent of all students.

Think of a business that could operate effectively without 13 percent of its workforce.

The bad habits students practice in kindergarten through 12th grade cannot simply be altered like a light switch once they enter the job market.

Name one job where people get paid for not being there.

“Even the best teachers can’t be successful with students who aren’t in class,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. told reporters last June.

California has a Compulsory Education Law stipulating that “every child from the age of 6 to 18 be in school—on time, every day.”

A student’s education suffers when he is not in school.  Period.

There is a direct correlation between missing school and falling behind academically. According to the California Department of Education, “first grade students with 9 or more total absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers who attend school regularly.”

Last December, President Obama signed into law a revision of the No Child Left Behind act that requires for the first time that states report individual absences for all students.

It’s not just the learning that suffers when a student isn’t in a classroom.  Money is lost as well.

Schools derive much of their funding based on Average Daily Attendance or ADA.  In Glendale the ADA is $55 per student per day.  With an enrollment around 26,000, that adds up to $1.43 million if all students are present.

If 10 percent of students are absent for one day the entire year, that results in a loss of $143,000.  Multiply that by 180 school days and you have $25.7 million.  Quite a sum of money that could go towards hiring more teachers and funding more programs.

Last semester, I tracked the number of students present over a 78-day period and here are the results:

In my first period class, 25 percent of the time I had full attendance, second period had seven percent, third period had 17 percent, fifth period had 20 percent, and sixth period had 12 percent.

Looking at the numbers in a different way, 88 percent of the time I had at least one student absent in my Per. 6 class.   This makes it quite difficult for a teacher to maintain consistency in lesson planning as well as cooperative learning groups.

I had 25 students who had double-digit absences including one who had 24 (that’s a loss of 5 weeks of instruction in a 17-week period), plus five students with double-digit tardies (the highest 16).

When I returned to work last week, teachers were asked to do more to encourage students to get to class on time in order to decrease the number of tardies.   However, the bulk of the tardies come at the start of school; in other words, due to kids arriving late.

Unless teachers don Uber hats and pick up kids from their homes, the responsibility of getting children to school rests on the shoulders of parents.    Parents need to model to their children good work habits and work habit number one is getting to school every day and on time.

 

 

More Like High School Completion Than Graduation

“Graduation rate at Glendale’s high schools tops 90%” read the Glendale News-Press headline recently.  On the surface, this statistic is celebratory, something Glendale Unified should prominently display at the top of its website’s homepage.

Before we pat each other on the back for a job well done, keep this in mind:  many high school graduates are not ready to start college or get a job.

For too many, a high school diploma only confirms that an individual met minimum standards.

If the purpose of a high school graduation is to give a thumbs up for job accomplished, i.e., you attended school kindergarten through 12th grade, then we should call it “completion” rather than “graduation” because disturbing trends lurk beyond high school.

There is a high remediation rate in colleges.  Some surveys say 20 percent of those attending 4-year colleges and 60 percent attending community colleges take at least one remedial class, meaning that whatever knowledge and know-how students were to absorb and practice through their high school career is not evident.

Such retraining often continues when college graduates enter the workforce.  According to Washington Post reporter Jeffrey J. Selingo, employers say that young people lack “problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks,” skills needed to excel on the job.

Somewhere in the education pipeline, especially in high school and college, young people are just getting by with underdeveloped abilities that delay future success.

Much of the hype surrounding the Common Core standards is that its higher expectations on what skills teachers should be teaching at certain grade levels will produce a higher caliber of student.  In reaching for an elevated learning level, we should see a drop in graduation rates due to students struggling with the more rigorous work.  So what accounts for the rise?

A push to ensure that every last senior crosses that stage at the end of the year.  No district official or principal wants a less than stellar grad rate for it darkens the reputation of a school.

At the high school level, there is pressure on teachers to pass students (a grade of ‘D’ or higher).

Some administrators contact teachers who have too many students with failing grades.  In other words, the teachers are questioned why they are failing the kids rather than the kids being questioned why they are failing the classes.

Then there is the wide variation among educators on how they evaluate student work and calculate grades.

Teachers are permitted, rightfully so, to determine their own amount of work to assign, and what percentage of a class grade is based on participation, homework, and tests.

But when some ingratiate themselves with their pupils by grading easy, the result is that an ‘A’ in one teacher’s class does not signify the same level of achievement as an ‘A’ in another.

Years ago when California developed the High School Exit Exam its original intent was to make a diploma not attainable but meritorious.  It didn’t work.   Soon after piloting the test, results showed more than half the students not passing it.  So, the test was whittled down to the point that it would merely rubber stamp the diploma not elevate it, adding a bureaucratic hoop for students to jump through, wasting millions of tax dollars and hours of classroom time.

School should not be the place where kids survive but where they thrive.

All of us—educators, parents, children—need to accept the challenge and work towards meeting higher expectations so that more young people finish college and perform well on the job.

Maybe if students knew that there was a realistic chance they may not cross the graduation stage, more effort would result so that the diploma would not simply be a piece of paper.