A Formula For Success

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While visions of sugarplums should be dancing in my head, instead I am inundated with thoughts of foci and directrixes on parabolas, and unit circles whose angles and radians haunt my dreams. I want to be enjoying the spirit of Christmas present but am forced to patiently explain the nuances of mathematical concepts to my grandchildren who are being rushed through advanced topics by teachers feverishly staring down deadlines that won’t stop for the holidays. The mad rush of the season is as evident in classrooms as at the malls and Amazon distribution centers. Christmas will be here and gone before anyone associated with schools manages to catch a breath and this year I’m caught up in the insanity because my grandchildren are drowning in information overload and I have the tools to help them survive.

The human brain is capable of great leaps of learning but knowledge must be ingested in appropriately measured chunks and then practiced and reviewed well enough for mastery of concepts. When new ideas are presented before the old ones are completely understood the brain tends to seize up in frustration and the individual experiences a sense of failure that is only compounded as more and more information is piled on a foundation that is faulty. This is what I am seeing in my grandchildren as they attempt to balance unreasonable demands on their capacity to learn. They are literally operating at full tilt each day while falling behind in the race to meet the demands of their teachers. It’s not that they are lazy or slow to learn. The problem is that nobody seems to realize that they are existing on five hours of sleep each day while filling every waking minute with assignments that take far longer to complete than their teachers seem to understand.

One grandson recently took a fifty minute test in Pre-Calculus that was four pages long. He knew how to do every problem but ran out of time when he was only about three fourths of the way through the questions. He made one of the few passing grades but it was still rather low. The teacher chided the students insisting that he had been able to do all four pages in only thirty minutes, hardly a reasonable way to determine whether or not the students should have been able to finish in a timely manner. He has been teaching the topics for decades and he made up the questions. Of course it would take him less time than those who had first learn the concepts only a week before the test.

Another grandson who is generally quite competent with all things mathematical described the breakneck speed at which his teacher is pushing the class. On the last exam the class average was 62 and the highest grade was a low eighty. This is a group of hard working gifted and talented students who are members of the National Honor Society. It is not that they did not expend the necessary effort to better learn the concepts. The problem was in the pacing which required them to deconstruct all aspects of exponential functions in the space of about four days time and then take a major exam on the concepts. There was not enough time for them to develop fluidity in their understanding and, even worse, in spite of their poor performance on the test they had to move on to the next topic while still in a state of confusion.

Much of this insanity is driven by the demands of the College Board, a group that mainly focuses on testing, an industry that brings them great financial profits. They develop tests like the SAT and then create workshops and curriculum for both students and teachers. All of the moving parts cost money that fills their tills in the guise of being helpful.

Today’s successful high school students are leaving for classes in the dark, spending spending seven hours in a classroom, participating in another three or four hours in after school activities, arriving home in the dark, and then studying until well past midnight. They are exhausted and often confused particularly when their teachers and society view them as being lazy. Their frustrations are real and few people are taking them seriously.

Each teacher is in turn encased in a pressure filled bubble with the scope and sequence of the curriculum more often than not predetermined by administrators who never see the struggles of the students to keep pace. The classroom often feels like a long distance race across a desert that leaves all but the strongest behind. The teachers see the problems first hand and realize all too well that in the process over which they have so little control so much potential is destroyed.

Sadly schools have become political tools for individuals who have little or no understanding of how the brain works or what proper teaching and learning looks like. There is often a one size fits all approach to education that does not take the needs of each individual into account. The platitude, “All children can learn” is true but with a caveat. The rate at which they truly master concept varies considerably and in a reasonable situation they are not tested for a grade that defines their abilities until they are ready. The goal should never be to frustrate, but to encourage. Time and patience is a critical aspect of the process. Because we are each so very different it is a huge mistake to assume that a canned program tied to a calendar will work for everyone.

Our schools are in trouble not because they are filled with incompetent teachers and unmotivated students, but because they are being run from afar. Learning should never be a race. When it is not a pleasant and encouraging experience it changes minds in negative and unpredictable ways. It’s time we all speak out about the problems that we see and seize control of the process from politicians and businesses who do not know our children. We have to return to a formula for success, Good teaching + time for practice + attention to individual needs = Mastery. That should be our goal.

Choosing a Different Way of Learning

homeschoolingNow that I am retired there are days when I think it would be nice to sleep in each morning or sit all day watching romantic comedies. In other words I feel as though I am entitled to just being a slug, but so far I have been unable to surrender to the gypsy life. Perhaps it is my type A personality that keeps me striving to stay active and purposeful or maybe I do the things that keep me busy to have meaning in my life.

I almost religiously write a blog each weekday morning while sipping on my tea and munching on a small breakfast. I have six students that I am homeschooling and I carefully plan to meet with them once each week to teach them mathematics. I’m relearning Pre-Calculus so that I will be able to help two of my grandsons prepare for tests.

All of these things take chunks of my time that I might otherwise devote to the art of relaxation, a luxury that I have certainly earned but am still loathe to experience to its fullest. Instead I enjoy knowing that I have a purpose beyond simply spoiling myself. I realize all too well that one day I may no longer be capable of doing such things as I age each year and move toward my inevitable end here on earth.

I’ve been particularly enthralled by my foray into home schooling, In my full time working days I experienced both public and private schools. I am a strong advocate for both because I feel that we need variety in our society. People choose one over the other for good reasons and in both instances I have found a range of quality education.

When it came to home schooling I was always a bit dubious and even a bit indignant that it was a form of escape from the realities of society. When I first received an offer to work with two young men in their home I did so mostly as a kind of opportunity to see what the world of children who forgo the lockstep approach to learning with a large group of peers is really like. To my utter delight I found that, at least in the case of my pupils, schooling at home is indeed a very serious endeavor that takes a great deal of support and planning from parents who have decided that they prefer an education for their children over which they have more control.

I soon discovered that children who are homeschooled generally receive a more classical education. They begin taking Latin and foreign languages as very young children. They usually belong to a Co-op where they meet regularly with other students to read literature, learn history, perform science labs and such. They get their physical workouts on team sports and every one of the six that I now teach plays an instrument of some sort and engages in artistic endeavors that fill their homes with paintings and sculptures. They are an incredibly imaginative and happy group with plans to ultimately attend college. Once they reach high school age they enroll at the local community or junior college and take dual credit classes in various subjects that allow them to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

I am in awe of how much material we can cover in a once a week class when the focus on the material is entirely on mastering the concepts. I have zero interruptions, no discipline problems, no worries. I have ample opportunities to reinforce concepts and have a complete picture of what the pupils strengths and weaknesses are. I know exactly whether or not my students understand the information that I have conveyed to them. I provide them with enough homework to practice and if they have questions they call or text me for more information.

I suppose the key to successful homeschooling lies in how well the parents enforce a regular schedule. The mothers of the children with whom I work are dedicated to devoting each weekday to creating an academic atmosphere in the home and to chauffeuring their children to the Co-ops and enrichment programs. They are very serious about the education of their kids and so I have to be that way as well. 

It takes a bit of work on my part to be fully prepared for the classes each week but it is a joyful experience. I know what lies ahead for the students because of my own years in a classroom. I feel comfortable leading them along a spiral path of learning that will bring them to a point of readiness for a more advanced bit of mathematics later.

Home schooling is not for everyone. I doubt that it would be an effective alternative for working moms who would have to rely on relatives, neighbors or nannies to enforce the structure that the program requires. Without genuine dedication to the task of education families will not succeed. There must be structure and discipline from hour to hour on a daily basis and many folks simply are not attuned to being that self motivated. They do better in the more formalized setting of a public or private school, but for those who have the willingness to work at the process of homeschooling it is a rewarding experience.

In the past I myself have used many of the arguments against home schooling. I had long believed that it’s main flaws are in the socialization of the child. I have learned that the best home school experiences include regular contact with peers and diversity. The children with whom I work know full well how to navigate in the real world and sometimes they even ask me to bring them questions from standardized tests so that they will understand what the public school kids on their street are learning. They continually challenge themselves with an interest and drive that is sometimes missing in the mass production of learning.

I continue working as a teacher in a new environment. I will not grow wealthy from doing so unless I extend my hours from four or five a week but I feel a joyfulness with my tiny band of students. I now educate in a stressless environment free from standardized tests and silly rules and curriculum guides. It feels like the way that learning was meant to be and generally was in a time of long ago. It makes me understand why so many parents are choosing to keep their children at home. The work they are doing is not easy but so far the results, as I see them, are remarkable.

Walking With Our Young

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Teachers do more than teach concepts. Sometimes they actually become a source of inspiration and comfort for their students. They serve as mentors, guides for their pupils when they need advice or just a calming presence. So was the relationship between a teacher at Smithson Valley High School and my granddaughter.

My granddaughter first met this remarkable educator as a freshman. Somehow they both felt a kind of kinship with one another. As is often the case between teacher and student they were seemingly on the same wavelength and so my granddaughter began to seek out the wisdom of the teacher who had a way of almost peering into her soul. At first she mainly went for help with her studies but before long she opened up about her fears and the stresses that are so much a part of teenage life. The teacher was able to put things into perspective and soothe my granddaughter’s anxieties in addition to being an excellent conveyor of information in the classroom. The two of them formed the kind of professional friendship that sometimes blooms between a teacher and a student.

Even after my granddaughter was no longer one of the teacher’s students she continued to visit with her regularly, finding answers to questions and concerns about academics and life in general. She was hoping to perhaps get an opportunity to take another class from this woman who had so impacted her life, but sadly that was not meant to be. One evening without warning the teacher who was only fifty years old died in her sleep leaving behind a bereft family of eight children and students like my granddaughter who had been so influenced by her intellect, compassion and sagacity.

I suppose that there is little more shocking than losing someone who is still in her prime with so much good to offer the world. We find ourselves wondering how it could be that a person so wonderful would have to leave without warning. I know that it has been unbelievably difficult for my granddaughter to accept. She had thought that she would have the privilege of being guided by this remarkable educator for many years to come. She wonders if the woman ever realized just how much difference she had made in the lives of so many young people.

Teachers never really make enough money to adequately compensate them for the many hours that they give to their work. A teacher is almost always thinking about students past, present and future. They see learning opportunities everywhere they go. They expend enormous amounts of energy worrying over their pupils even after they are long gone. They may not remember all of the names but they see the faces as clearly as if they had been with them only a few minutes ago. Sometimes all it takes is a smile from an aging student for the teacher to recall exactly where they sat in the classroom.

Teachers celebrate the successes of their students as much as they would those of their own children. They grieve over the difficulties that their students face. They think of them in the still of night and pray that all is well with them. They wish for the power to make all of their kids happy and successful. They pray that somehow their charges understand how much they really care beyond the confines of the subject matter that they teach.

Teachers can have a profound effect on their students that lasts a lifetime but what they do not often realize is how much they themselves impact the teachers. Learning is a two way path that does not end with the completion of a school year. Teachers evolve because of the students they encounter just as the students themselves often change when they find a relationship with a particularly gifted educator.

There are few professions that provide all of the players which such an emotion filled experience. Teaching is grand and rich in human interactions. Each day provides an opportunity to literally change a life. Teachers are cautioned to use that enormous power wisely and for the good. They must be aware that what they say or do does indeed make or break the young ones for whom they are responsible.

I salute the teacher who so influenced my granddaughter. I am saddened that she left this earth so soon. I know that she was truly loved and admired. There is little that anyone might accomplish in life that is more meaningful that what this teacher did. May she rest in peace and may her colleagues and students learn the most important lesson that she ever taught, namely that each interaction inside a school is precious and may be just the one that makes someone’s life better.

Ridiculous Dreams

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My grandchildren tell me that their high schools are crowded with thousands of students. I have a difficult time relating to that concept because there were probably fewer than six hundred students in the school from which I graduated and under five hundred kids in the high school from which I retired from my career in education. I enjoyed the benefit of personalization for young men and women navigating their way to college and careers in both my own youth and my work life. Keeping secondary schools small nurtures an atmosphere for truly getting to know and understand each and every person. It creates a caring environment that allows for crafting graduation plans that take into account the needs of individuals. It helps each person to feel loved and important.

It’s so easy for students and perhaps even teachers to get lost in mega high schools. With thousands of people in a system it is a constant battle just to keep a semblance of order. There are never enough counselors to get to know each student as a person. People fall through the cracks of a one size fits all kind of education. Generally only those specifically protected because of their special needs receive a more custom designed education. Classrooms and hallways are crowded and teachers are overwhelmed with duties. There is little time and almost no patience for those who feel lost or ignored by the system. The squeaky wheels often get punished and those who quietly just get by sometimes lose interest. A great deal of human capital is wasted simply because it is so difficult to reach everyone in a factory like atmosphere. From time to time the truly disturbed resort to violent outbursts to gain the attention that they seek and actually need.

I have long held that no high school should be bigger than around one thousand students and even that number is a bit large. Having around two hundred fifty kids in each grade is more than enough for teachers and counselors to handle. Classes need to be restricted to twenty five or less and there should be a team of both an academic, emotional and college/career counselor for each one hundred twenty five students. Nobody is a cipher in a school that has a team of grade level teachers, three grade level counselors and a grade level chairperson diligently watching over the unique needs of each individual. The school becomes a kind of family unit away from home. People have the time to really “see” each person.

Teens are experiencing an upheaval of hormones and emotions. They are frantically attempting to determine where their lives should lead. They are dealing with social issues, physical and psychological changes, and academic challenges all at the same time. Some seem to easily handle the process but the vast majority would benefit from guidance tailored to individual personalities and abilities. In the mega high schools this becomes a tall order if not an impossibility. Each adult’s workload is so expansive that there has to be a strict and unyielding  set of rules to keep operations running smoothly. It’s not that nobody cares. It’s a matter of having only so many hours in a day to get things done. The task of keeping tabs on every single student in a large school is almost insurmountable. There are inevitably those who fall through the cracks.

There are many arguments that creating a caring and hands on environment in high schools does not properly prepare students for the harshness of the adult world. Some feel that the best approach is to figuratively throw the kids into the water and hope that they swim rather than sink. The efforts to save them are reserved for those about to go under, believing that choking on a little water is no big deal. While there is some merit to the idea of toughening our youth before they meet the real world, a small school allows for doing so in carefully monitored increments in which students feel ultimately safe. They may make mistakes, but they have adults who continually help them to learn valuable lessons from them. They graduate well versed in knowledge but also in how to navigate to and through the rest of their lives.

One aspect of the KIPP Charter Schools that is exceptional is that there are teams of adults who continue to stay in touch with former students even after they have graduated from high school. These adults are literally on call to help graduates with any kind of problems that begin to impede their progress in becoming the very best of themselves. The responsibilities of the schools do not end when the students receive their diplomas. Representatives regularly travel to college campuses and hold gatherings where the young men and women are able to openly discuss the difficulties with which they are dealing. In other words there is an army of support that continues without limits.

I worked in a KIPP high school. Many of my former students have returned to the KIPP Charter schools to work as teachers, counselors and support personnel. They realize with gratitude that their own lives were dramatically improved by the efforts of an army of adults who viewed each of them as being worthy of a program individually designed. They are the products of a powerful statement of action that taught them that each and every life matters.

What I propose is both radical and expensive but wise individuals might find ways to make such visions become possible. If we do not dream then when can’t really expect our children to think out of the box either. The best ideas have almost always sounded ridiculous until the were not. 

Those Kids

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A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.