A Grand Experiment

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We are almost at the end of June which means that we have to begin thinking about sending the children back to school in six to eight weeks. I often used July to plan lessons for the coming academic year. I am a freak when it comes to preparing ahead of time. I have never been able to do anything at the last minute. When I look at the possibilities of chaos in the coming school year I feel for teachers everywhere. Never has there been so much uncertainty about what will happen once children return to the classrooms.

The governor of Texas has declared with great confidence that all schools will reopen and that masks and other forms of protection from the virus will be optional. The reaction from the public has been mixed with many insisting it’s time to get back to normal and others worrying about the dangers of turning classrooms into germ farms. I have heard of parents investigating home schooling for at least the next year and teachers resigning or retiring because of health issues. We are wading into unknown waters and the fear is that those waters may be infested with sharks.

I teach eight home schooled students and we have not yet decided whether I will resume in person lessons or continue teaching them remotely. I am not as self assured as our governor is. I am still in the mode of wanting to wait to see what happens in the coming weeks. I can’t afford to bring illness into my home so I am a bit more circumspect.

Knowing what to do is a major dilemma for so many people. I agree that the best case scenario is for the nation’s students to return to a sense of normalcy but there is still a little voice whispering concerns to me. My forty plus years of teaching taught me that classrooms are like petri dishes for growing germs. I’ve seen more than my share of outbreaks of disease that closed down campuses. My hope is that this does not happen when we attempt to get back to the books.

The planning in many school districts appears to be far too nebulous for my taste. I’m of the mind that every teacher and parent needs a clear outline of Plans A through Z that will take into account any eventualities. All the shareholders need to know exactly what to expect when they return. How many students will be in each classroom? Will masks be a requirement? How will the school day change from the norm. Everyone must be told what will happen if there is an outbreak of the virus in a particular classroom or if the virus runs rampant through an entire campus. There should be plans for doing a better job with remote learning if that becomes a necessity again. Just using canned programs did not appear to be particularly effective so there should already be discussions about to how teachers might make those lessons more meaningful to their students?

There should already be concrete learning alternatives for those students with illnesses that might make them more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Parents need to know what to expect if they choose to keep their children home. Teachers who have compromised immune systems should be provided with opportunities to become remote instructors for the children who need to avoid classrooms. There needs to be consideration for all individuals, not just a statement that if they can’t handle things they should just stay home.

July should be dedicated to using the creativity and talents of teachers to help in the design of each possible scenario. Schools need to be willing to try new ways of providing instruction that focus on the health and safety of all parties and provide the needed materials to institute each idea as needed.

I know of parents who are trying to find masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes for their children to take to school. Each campus should be well supplied with such items and even have a larger than usual janitorial force to maintain bathrooms and general cleanliness throughout the school day. I have so often see restrooms without soap. This is something that should not ever happen and its occurrence must be reduced with a firm plan for continually monitoring the building throughout the school day.

So many schools have eliminated nurses from their faculty. I can think of no better time to bring them back onto every campus. Schools will need their expertise in attempting to insure that the virus does not overwhelm the efforts to provide education. They can also vanguard the daily monitoring for signs of potential illness and help to determine when and if there are particular dangers.

I know that many school districts are working diligently to be prepared. I hope that they are willing to allow teachers, parents and even students to both ask questions and provide input. I would also request that the governor please quit changing his mind about how things should work. His latest remarks undid a great deal of work that had already been done. If you are going to make the teachers and students return at least allow them to create the plans that work best. This is going to be a grand experiment and our halls of education need to be ready for anything. 

Celebrating Our Magnificent Snowflakes

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With each new generation there always seems to be a great deal of chatter about how spoiled or clueless or delicate they are. We hear them described as “snowflakes” not because of their unblemished beauty but because they appear to some adults to be far too fragile to take on the real problems of the world. There are those who poke fun at the ideas and ideals of our youth as though they are living in an imaginary land of unicorns and fantasies. The age old divide between some members of the older generation and our young people continues to flourish just as it always has.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 the normal routines of our youth have been twisted into unrecognizable versions of themselves. In an instant so much changed for our kids. To the utter amazement of many of the naysayers who thought that they would surely fall apart they have soared just as I knew they would. If there is any delight to come from this pandemic it should be the realization that the children are not just alright, they are warriors.

I puff up with pride when I see all of the evidence of our youngsters from toddlers to twenty somethings proving their meddle and creativity. When the track season was cancelled the athletes took to the streets and trails around their neighborhoods to keep in shape. When the lessons went online the kids tuned in to Zoom meetings and worked on assignments in their bedrooms. In the last few weeks thousands of high school students across the country have been faithfully taking the Advanced Placement exams in subjects from American History to Calculus.

I’ve watched a video of the valedictorian of Pearland High School giving a speech to his classmates from his front yard. Wearing a casual t-shirt and a big smile his words are somehow more uplifting and meaningful than they might have been in a big auditorium or sporting venue with thousands of guests squirming in their uncomfortable seats. With the same determination that earned him the honor of graduating number one in his class, he found a way to share a moment of celebration and remembrance with his classmates. I suspect that his moment will one day make a great story for his grandchildren. Moreover, it demonstrates his grit, a quality that will serve him well as he enters the adults world.

I saw a young lady try out for cheerleader at Madison High School. Imagine attempting to show your stuff on film with nobody else around. Well, she did it, and she made it. She is now a very excited member of the squad and she is still practicing wherever she finds enough space to do her flips and cartwheels and routines. She’s not about to let something like a virus hold her back.

I enjoyed the musical recital of my young cousin who continued his lessons remotely. He never quit practicing in spite of the shut down of his city and his school. When the date of his already planned performance came he demonstrated his talent and his creativity with arrangements both on the electric guitar and the piano.

I have laughed with some kids who were once my neighbors who have had their own episodes of “Chopped” for nine weeks now. Their production is professional and delightful. Mostly they spread a sense of optimism and joy with their unswerving determination to make the best of a difficult situation.

I have been impressed by the sweet sounds of the granddaughter of one of my dearest friends. Not only does she have the voice of an angel but she sings with the personality of a Broadway star. She has used her time at home to perfect her performance skills without a single sign of self pity that they have not showcased in front of a live audience.

The eight students to whom I teach various levels of mathematics have checked in on time for all of our scheduled sessions. They are alert and filled with questions. They send their homework without fail. They literally make me smile each time I see them because they are soldiering forward without a hint of complaint. We are excited to be nearing the end of this school year and planning for the new one in August however that may prove to work out.

I know that the children in my cul de sac study for most of the day and then emerge in their yards to run and play and engage in games that keep them at a distance from one another but still provide lots of fun. Their laughter brightens my afternoons and convinces me that they will be more than just fine. They have adapted more quickly to the new normal than most of us old coots have. I sit in my living room and watch their antics with so much delight. They are so alive.

My own grandchildren have been more than amazing. They have put as much effort into their online learning as they would have done in a regular classroom setting. They have offered tutoring to those who are struggling. They have continued to complete community service projects. They are entering online speech contests and trying out for offices like Drum Major of the school band. They have sought out opportunities to learn and grow outside of the required assignments from their teachers. They read voraciously and write about the kind of future they hope to see. They keep themselves in shape with regular exercise. They continue moving forward even as they realistically know that many of their dreams may have to be adjusted.

I could go on and on and on. The young ones are continually inspiring me and giving me so much hope. They are showing their flexibility and their willingness to adapt quickly. They continue to look to the future, even as they know that it may be uncertain. They are filled with ideas and are willing to make needed changes in a split second. We are very wrong if we believe that they are only focused on proms and ceremonies. They are far more mature and realistic than that. If anyone wishes to continue to call them “snowflakes” they need to bear in mind that a snowflake is a mathematically complex and stunningly beautiful and unique creation. When all of those snowflakes come together they create a wonderland that is breathtaking. We should be celebrating their magnificence. 

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.