Sunday, January 5, 2014

My Education Wish List for 2014

If I had a magic wand, this is what I would want to conjure for my colleagues and students in all of the schools I know and love, and all others beside:

1.  I would create an app that would bounce all ugly emails sent by parents to teachers between the hours of 9:30 PM and 6:30 AM.  Shame on you if you've done this.  I do not care if you were frustrated with the homework assignment, or if your child reports a story of the teacher saying something mean or doing something unfair.  In my experience at the other end of your damage, as I'm listening and handing out Kleenex and trying to convince the recipient of their value as a teacher, you usually only have about 1/2 the story correct.  Even if the teacher committed an egregious error, your responsibility as a parent is to request a meeting with the teacher and the principal to get all of the facts and present your side of the story.  If it's not worth a meeting, it's not worth an ugly email.
2.  While were at it, lets talk about parents and students that threaten or hurt teachers and other school personnel.  Maybe there should be some specifically stiff penalties for coming into a school and "cussing up" a teacher.  Why should the verbal or physical assault of a teacher be considered the same type of crime as what happens in a bar?  I have spent a relatively short time in schools in comparison to some, but I have been threatened, sworn at, bitten, kicked, hit, watched a phone switchboard smashed by a parent's fist, and had rocks thrown at me.  This list doesn't include kids under 6.  I think some additional criminal or civil penalties need to be considered for people that choose not to exercise self-control in a school - especially older children and adults.
3.  I would make sure everyone who comes to school in the morning has a tummy full of decent food.  I really hope I don't have to explain this any further.  Really.
4.  I would give students two assessments - one for mastery and one for effort.  I think we sort of do this now, but it's really not clear for children or parents.  A 90 on a spelling test means you could spell 90% of the words.  A high mark for effort means you finished all of the work completely and on-time.  Maybe as homework migrates more to the digital realm, there will actually be a way to keep track of how long it takes a student to master a task.  Some children need to SEE the link between the amount of time they spend and the resulting mastery.  If it takes a child an extra hour of practice to get a 90 on that test, shouldn't that effort be acknowledged ?  Not rewarded, but acknowledged in a formal measurable way.
5.  Children who are no longer working or making effort in school because they are discouraged would have some type of early warning system.  I firmly believe that if we can do a better job of detecting and intervening in this circumstance, we would be able to make a big difference.  We are so wrapped up in getting everyone through a certain amount of curriculum that we are often very quick to label a child unmotivated.  This is just another word for lazy, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy - especially when we get nervous that the work isn't done, and we start chewing at the child to "get going".  For those of us who do not generally have problems with motivation and a good work ethic, understanding how discouragement can effect effort takes a leap of understanding.  "Why don't they just DO it?"  But that difference in mindset and response to feedback makes a huge difference.  A concrete example:  I work with several children in my school using a computer-based program called Cogmed.  It's a bit of a mental boot-camp for five weeks and it can be very difficult.  I had one child who would become discouraged very easily - he was plain old discouraged with himself in general.  Cogmed somewhat mitigates that effect by offering audio feedback on right and wrong responses, and encouraging statements to keep the child going when the response isn't right.  One day none of this was working for him.  He was not hearing the encouragement,  just the sound the computer makes when he responded incorrectly.  So I turned the sound off.  Completely.  No way to know whether the answer was right or wrong.  I just told him to concentrate and do his best.  Not only did he work a lot faster, he also improved his score.  This is not the picture of a lazy child.  It's a picture of a discouraged child.  Change the feedback stream and you get a different result.  There are many ways to take this principle and apply it in the classroom.  (Please feel free to contact me if you need some........)
6.  I would make everyone in the North Carolina General Assembly, on the State School Board and the Governor spend a day in a regular classroom at an average school.  Better yet, lets make it a week.  I'm not talking about a 30 minute read-to-the-handpicked-kids photo-op.  No GT classes with super performing kids at a flagship school.  I'm talking at the 50th percentile.  I'm talking about showing up to meet the teacher at 0 dark 30 and staying the entire day.  Doing all of the duties, maybe even trying to give a lesson.  Reading all of the directives from DPI.  Sitting in on meetings with parents.  Sitting while the teacher does all of the paperwork and answers all of the email.  Leaving with the teacher at the end of the day.  I guess at that point we'll take a picture.  Maybe the hair will be a bit messy, the tie or scarf askew, a bit of food from the cafeteria on the shirt or blouse.  The teacher will go home at that point and probably do some more work.  Hopefully the legislator will go back to Raleigh and draft a bill that gives teachers a raise, improves funding for professional development, and shakes some money loose for aides and another school counselor.

But I'm just wishing here..........

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