"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Monday, December 24, 2007

I lost this one.

It's my job to work with the kids who no one knows what to do with.

Josh, the poster boy for ADHD, was one of those students.

Constant motion
Impulsive speech and behavior
Constant motion
Distractability
Constant motion
Lack of motivation
Constant motion
Hyperfocusing on (apparently) irrelevant topics

...did I mention constant motion?

When Josh was in my room I was always afraid he would hurt himself. The chair he was in was usually rolling on the floor...sometimes balanced on a corner. He rarely "sat" in it, preferring instead to use it as a balancing platform like some Albanian acrobat on the Ed Sullivan show (apologies to those of you too young to remember Ed and his "Really big shew"). My fear was that he would finally slip, crashing into the table head first, or slamming his neck against the corner of the chair or table.

But it never happened. His balance was good enough that he never fell...not in 2 and a half years of visiting my classroom.

With his ADHD, however, he did hurt himself. At this point - third grade - he is so far behind where he should be it was finally time to refer him to our school psychologist for testing and placement in special education. At the end of first grade he was reading at a beginning first grade level. At the end of second grade he was reading at a mid first grade level. Now, halfway through third grade, he is barely coping with end of first grade reading. His progress has stopped. He has, as is so often the case, begun to recognize that what he has to do in school is too hard and it is easy to just give up.

I wasn't able to figure out a way to help him cope with his inability to focus and learn.

School is not a good place for all children. Our schools are set up in a 19th century model which works for the middle 2/3 of students based on achievement. Most students are successful enough to learn what they need to learn in order to function in society. However, a child with severe ADHD doesn't fit.

The teaching/learning model that we are so familiar with doesn't work with students who have to deal with severe ADHD (and it doesn't work with children with other learning differences either). A teacher, trying to impart information to a child who cannot attend for more than 30 seconds, no matter how exciting the lesson, will not be successful with that child. ADHD students don't learn that way.

As teachers it's our job to teach to the child. We have to find the way to reach each individual student and gear the instruction to their way of learning - within certain parameters, of course.

What kind of schools do children with ADHD need? I'll have to cover that issue next time. And so far, our way of teaching hasn't worked for Josh.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Kindergarten and Developmentally Appropriate Education

"She came home the other day in an incredibly grumpy mood. 'How was school today?' I asked. 'Terrible,' she answered. 'Why? What happened?' 'I want to play with my friends,' she said. 'Don’t you get a chance to play with your friends?' 'No,' she replied.

"Next year, if my daughter attends the same school, she will be in school all day. As a Kindergartner, she will also be very busy. She will have exactly 20 minutes of recess, and then she’ll get back to work." - Peter Campbell*

When I taught kindergarten in 2005-2006 for the first time in 30 years, I was struck by how things had changed for 5 and 6 year olds. It is important that children, many of whom experience school for the first time in kindergarten, be allowed to grow and learn at their own pace.

The best way to explain it is by an analogy which I have used for years. If you are 5 feet tall, and I ask you to touch a 10 foot ceiling you would not be able to reach up and touch it. It is impossible for a normally developed human to reach to a point twice their height. That is why ladders were invented.

In the same way, it is impossible for people to reach specific academic achievement levels before their brains and bodies are developed sufficiently. We wouldn't ask the average 3 month old to walk up the stairs and put herself to bed, but we seem to have no hesitation in asking the average 5 year old to learn concepts which her brain is not sufficiently developed to understand.

Kindergartners, I (re)discovered, have not changed that much in the last 30 years. They still have to run to expend their excess energy...they still jump up and down when they get excited...they still have occasional toilet accidents...and they still cry when they get hurt - emotionally or physically. They still love to be read to, they still like to play with toys that mimic adulthood (building toys, dolls, etc), they still have short attention spans for non-fun activities and they still need an adult to tuck them in at night.

What has changed is the way kindergarten is taught and the curriculum that is presented. Some of it has improved. Literacy research in the last 20 years has shown us some new and better ways to help children grow in their intellectual and academic lives, but we still can't teach someone to read until they're ready.

Kindergarten has now become a place where children have to learn to read. We are expecting 5 and 6 year olds to give up fun - in some places kindergarteners only get 20 minutes of recess a day - and take on the stress of academic competition.

Play is children's work. They learn how to live in the world, how to get along, to solve problems, and to share by playing. They can't learn these things, though, unless they are allowed to get up from their chairs and interact with each other.

Skills based, academically oriented kindergartens are now the rule rather than the exception. Developmentally appropriate practice does not exist in some places any more. Does this help children? No long term studies have been done at this point, but my hunch is that by taking the opportunity to grow at their own rate away from children we are asking many of them to do what they can't do...we're asking them to touch the ceiling without a ladder.

There needs to be a balance between formal schooling and real life learning. When children begin the schooling process the balance should be tipped in the direction of real life learning and move toward academics slowly. There needs to be a wide range of activities provided in which children can learn how the world works. In my opinion, the understanding of science and the world around, social interactions and self expression are just as important in the early years than are reading and math.

"So what do I want? I want what my daughter wants: to be able to spend time with her friends, playing and being a little kid. She doesn’t have any kids to play with on her block, so school is the only place she has any chance to socialize and interact with her peers. I want her to have the chance to make friends. I want her to be given the opportunity to play. I want her to learn how to share and solve problems with her peers. I want this more than I want her to be phonemically aware. There will be time for such academic pursuits when she's a bit older. But there's only so much time she's allowed to be a little girl." - Peter Campbell*

The country which produces the best readers in the world is Finland. Is their language easier to read than ours? Is their method of teaching better than ours? No, I don't think so, but I think that a quick look at how they are different from us is worthwhile to determine why their children learn to read better than ours.

First, they value intellectual development. They have a monocultural society which emphasizes learning for learning's sake and is reinforced in their families. Parents are home with their children more. There is less poverty, better health care, and better nutrition.

Second, their children's first teachers are their parents. Children do not learn to read (formally) until they are seven years old...when they are developmentally prepared for learning. Before that they learn about the world around them...about language...and about their culture. The Finns believe that "play is the most effective learning tool in the early years and sets the stage for a lifelong love of learning."

*Peter Campbell is an activist, educator, and parent. He volunteered as the Missouri State Coordinator for the Assessment Reform Network, part of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (better known as FairTest). Peter holds a BA from Princeton University and an MA from New York University. He has been involved in education for 20 years and has taught a number of different subjects in different academic settings, ranging from English as a Second Language at a Japanese high school in Tokyo to compositional writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia to public speaking at Manhattan Community College in New York City. In the area of assessment, Peter worked for the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in the Assessment and Evaluation division. Currently, Peter is the Lead Instructional Designer for the Office of Information Technology at Montclair State University, the second largest public institution of higher education in New Jersey. In this role at MSU, Peter leads workshops on assessment and helps instructors use technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I'm sick of NCLB

Ok...I'm sick of NCLB. I'm sick of writing about it, quoting other articles, thinking about it, and talking about it. It has ruined public education in the US for millions of children and teachers, but I've had enough - at least as far as this blog is concerned.

I'm not going to stop talking about it in the real world...specifically - talking about the way it punishes the schools and kids who most need help, and talking about the way that it has turned every discussion in the country to a discussion of test scores as if a score was the ultimate goal of education anyway. But it's time to get back to education. It's time for me to start writing about what I know best - students, learning, and the good things about being a teacher.

But not today...I'm too tired and I still have to go back to school tonight to run the spotlight for the "Evening with Dickens" program.

Teaching is more than testing. School is more than testing. Is anyone listening?


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