Friday, May 25, 2012

Opt-out of homework

Over the years, I've had many conversations with people who lament over how homework ruptures their relationships with their children.

My daughter Kayley is starting kindergarten next September and as her parent and first teacher I take my responsibility for nurturing her love for learning very seriously.

Here is an opt-out of homework letter that first appeared on Alfie Kohn's website here:

Dear [name of teacher],

First of all, I'd like to tell you how pleased I am that you're Sandy’s teacher this year. Sandy experiences you as very kind, which couldn't be more important to me.

I respect you as my child's teacher, so I want to take the time to tell you why I'm going to pull Sandy out of the homework program this year. I know that homework is routine in first grade, but the more I've thought about the issue and watched the effects of homework on both of my own children, the more convinced I am that it isn't right for Sandy. . . .

I'm sensitive to your concern that learning be supported at home, and I intend to do this as best I can. I know that the easiest students to teach are the curious, interested, motivated ones, and examples of things we'll do at home to foster those qualities might include: finding a weird spider outside, looking up its scientific name and feeding habits and making a "home" for it in a Tupperware container or talking about why we should set it free; reading books every night before bed; planning and cooking a meal together; counting all the change in my pocket and then going out for ice cream; telling stories; writing letters to grandparents and friends; and taking pictures of all the critters we find in the ocean when we go to Mexico and sending them to class to share. Again, I'm interested in supporting Sandy’s learning. I'm just worried that homework provokes anxiety and often gets in the way of family activities and the kind of play (and downtime necessary to develop an internal life!) that help make Sandy such a cool, funny kid.

Please do let me know if there is an assignment such as interviewing a family member -something that simply couldn't be done at school but that is important to the things you're doing in class - and we'll be happy to work on that together. Please also let me know if you have any questions or concerns about my decision, or if you notice Sandy feeling "left out" when homework folders are pulled out - I'm sure we can figure out some way around that. I'm happy to talk - in person or by email if that is more convenient for you.

Have a great year!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Another Parent opts their daughter out of Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests

This was written by Tracey Loewer, an Albertan and mother of five, who recently opted her grade 6 daughter out of Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests.

by Tracy Loewer

Before I get into my recent experience with withdrawing my 6th grader from writing the Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs), here's a little background.

I am the mother of five children (ages 9-15), and we recently moved to Edmonton from a smaller community in Saskatchewan. Although I knew (and expected) that there would be quite an adjustment period for my kids, particularly since we moved after the school year was well under way, I was unprepared for the added pressure of some unknown thing called the PATs. Within the first week of school, I think I heard my kids mention it fifty times.

I will be honest in saying that I didn't take it too seriously at first. After all, moving is fraught with many challenges and it takes time to become familiar with new ways of doing things. I started to wonder about the PATs when my 6th grade began making comments like "My teacher says that I need to know 'this' or 'that' for the PATs," but I didn't really look into it until she began completely stressing out and bringing home an alarming number of booklets so she could study.

I won't go into all of my reasons for withdrawing my daughter from writing the PATs or I will run the risk of hijacking this blog with my own rant about the state of education in Alberta, high-stakes testing (for little children, no less!), and the tremendous waste of resources - I'll leave that for the experts to debate. After all, I'm a newbie to the system. Suffice it to say that upon notifying the school that my daughter would not be participating, we were both invited in for a conference with her teacher. Long story short, I didn't change my mind, and my daughter was asked (very nicely) to keep quiet so her friends wouldn't complain to their own parents about having to write the PATs. I was also asked to keep her at home for the entire day on testing days (even though they only spend part of the day writing them) - again, so her friends wouldn't suspect anything. This certainly wasn't ideal, but we agreed, simply because we were not trying to make a huge statement; we were only trying to do what was best for us.

When the day of the first PAT came, I got an email from her teacher relaying a message from the principal that my daughter would be given a mark of "not meeting grade level", and that it was a shame because she would have surely done so if she had written them. It honestly felt like a last-ditch attempt to guilt me into allowing her to write, which I did not appreciate. In truth, I was a little scared by the tone of this email (my first thought was 'Did I miss something when I was researching - oh my goodness, what have I done to her???'). While I understand that the principal is required to report on every student who doesn't write the PATs, I was definitely relieved to know that this will not have a lasting effect on her (although I do feel badly that this appears to reflect poorly on an excellent school).

In all, this has been kind of a baptism by fire for me and my family. I certainly hadn't planned to take this on when I moved here, but I am not one to keep quiet when I see something amiss, particularly when it comes to children who often do not have a voice of their own. I realize, of course, that teachers have a lot on their plate and are required to do what is mandated, and I certainly do not expect preferential treatment or anything along those lines, but if I don't speak up for my own children, then who will?

Many parents that I have spoken with are dissatisfied with the standardized testing in this province, but because it's been like this for a long time, I think that few know that it is within their power to do anything about it.

In the end, I know that I am much more interested in being a part of a solution, and I sincerely hope that the government will keep the dialogue open and that they will find more effective ways to evaluate the progress of the children. To the parents out there I would say: don't be afraid to stand up for your kids! The only way to bring about change is to speak up and let your voice be heard. I guarantee that you are not alone.


(In the interest of full disclosure, I did allow my 9th grader to write his PATs, but mainly because he wasn't incredibly stressed out about it and his school doesn't have any other formal exam to factor into his final mark. We decided to look at it as a practice for writing finals in high school. It is interesting to note that either way, I had the full support of his principal in making this choice.)

Here's the TEDtalk that TED doesn't want you to see

Do rich people create jobs?

Nick Hanauer doesn't think so. Here's his TEDtalk that TED curator Chris Anderson believes is too political to release as a TEDtalk (but it can be found on YouTube)

Because every TEDtalk is political, I think Anderson is full of it.

TED and Anderson have plenty of talks that criticize Big Government and rethink politics, but the moment somebody challenges Big Money, Anderson gets nervous because it's "an election year".

TED's mantra of Ideas Worth Spreading may not be as open and honest as many would like to believe.

For more on the topic of income inequality, I suggest you check out Robert Reich's blog, and his new book Beyond Outrage where he writes:
The Great Recession (2008) was followed by an anemic recovery. Because so much income and wealth have gone to the top, America's vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going - not, at least, without going deeper and deeper into debt. But debt bubbles burst. The burst of 2008 ushered in a terrible recession - the worst economic calamity to hit the coutnry since the Great Depression of the 1930s - as middle-class consumers had to sharply reduce their spending and businesses, faced with declining sales, had to lay off millions. We bottomed out, but the so-called recovery has been one of the most anemic on record. That's because the middle class still lacks the purchasing power to keep the economy going and can no longer rely on borrowing.
As for TED, I suggest you take a look at Alex Pareene's article Don't mention income inequality please, we're entrepreneurs where he writes:
At this point TED is a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism, with multiple events worldwide, awards and grants to TED-certified high achievers, and a list of speakers that would cost a fortune if they didn’t agree to do it for free out of public-spiritedness...  
...Hanauer’s talk was remarkably dry — and I am sure that was part of the reason for its burying, because TED truly values flash and surprise over substance — and not remotely mistakable for a pro-Democratic Party stump speech. But its central message was incompatible with the TED ethos: that TED People Are Good for the World.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wreck this Journal

Due to the nature of my teaching position, I come across a lot of students with a fear of failure, a dysfunctional attraction to perfection and characteristics of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Some are middle/high school girls with depression, very low self-worth and an eating disorder, while others might be middle/high school boys with heightened anger and asperger/autistic characteristics. And some are any combination.

Every child comes with a complex case. There is no template.

I continue to develop a wide variety of projects that attempt to meet their very complex needs. Here is one of the projects I have had some success with for students who are paralyzed by their pursuit of perfection.

I purchase Keri Smith's Wreck this Journal for my students and encourage them to destroy it. While you might think all children would love to be given permission to decimate a book, you would be surprised how many children find this task to be at best tedious and at worst torture.

Here are some of things we talk about:
  • Perfection is not motivating. Perfection is paralyzing.
  • Some of the best things in life can't be planned. In fact, sometimes the best things in life are mistakes that we make the most of.
  • Mistakes are our friends.
  • If you're not making mistakes, you're not living.
  • Mistakes are not only ok, they are necessary if learning and success is to take place.
  • Society hides our mistakes and failures but flaunts successes. This can be deceiving. 
  • The only way to make your journal unique is to wreck it.
Here is what one of my students had to say about her experience with this project:
I found the "Wreck This Journal" project incredibly challenging and difficult. To push myself to deface any sort of material (let alone a book) felt like a death wish. It was a tedious task at first; being told to tear out a page or doodle on the front cover.. but as the project moved forward I was able to let go and embrace the experience... I think spending time on this project has given me a new outlook on life, and made me realize that striving for perfection is an unrealistic and costly goal. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Stephen Krashen on Flunking the Test

This post was first published on Anthony Cody's blog here.

This was written by Dr. Stephen Krashen who is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He has written numerous books on his research into literacy and language acquisition. In recent years he has emerged as a persistent voice pointing towards the basic steps we should take to build literacy and strong academic skills for our students.

by Stephen Krashen

In "Flunking the Test," Paul Farhi concludes that the media has seriously under-reported the successes of American education and have taken the pronouncements of self-proclaimed "reformers" at face-value. Farhi backs up his argument with real data: American students' performance on international tests is much better than critics say it is, and college attendance has increased enormously.

Farhi cites Pedro Noguera, who in turn mentions a Dan Rather program that "explored the link between school performance and poverty, a subject often ignored or noted only in passing in many stories about academic achievement." As Farhi notes, research shows that poverty is "the single greatest variable in educational achievement."

Poverty is, in fact, the issue. While American students' scores on international tests are not as bad as critics say they are, they are even better when we control for the effects of poverty: Middle-class students in well-funded schools, in fact, score at or near the top of world. Our average scores are respectable but unspectacular because, as Farhi notes, we have such a high percentage of children living in poverty, the highest of all industrialized countries. Only four percent of children in high-scoring Finland, for example, live in poverty. Our rate of poverty is over 21%.

The implications of this fact are enormous: It means that the "problem" of American education is not ineffective teaching, not teachers' unions, not lack of national standards and tests, and not schools of education: It is poverty.

This conclusion is supported by additional evidence: High poverty means, among other things, lack of food and lack of quality food, lack of health care, and lack of access to books. There is massive evidence documenting the pernicious effect of hunger, illness and limited reading material have on school performance. The best teaching in the world has limited effects when children are hungry, sick and have little to read.

This analysis pulls the rug out from under the current standards movement, a movement that includes not only detailed and "rigorous" standards, but also an astonishing amount of testing, far more than currently required under No Child Left Behind. The standards/national tests movement is based on the unsupported assumptions that our schools are doing poorly (not true), that ineffective teaching is the major problem, and that standards and tests are necessary to insure a more rigorous curriculum, as well as frequent and precise evaluations of student progress and teacher effectiveness.

Ironically, the cure proposed for the non-existent crisis will prevent schools from improving: The money we are spending on national standards and starting to spend on national tests, could be used to provide better nutrition, improved health care, and libraries for children of poverty. In other words, we can protect children of poverty from at least some of the effects of poverty. This will not only raise overall test scores, it will lead to a better life for millions of American children.

What do you think? Are we wasting billions on tests that would be better spent elsewhere? Is poverty the real problem here?

References and sources:
Farhi, P. 2012. Flunking the Test. American Journalism Review.
American students in well-funded schools ...
Berliner, D. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism,
Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.
Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality. Educational Research Service
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics
achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.
Poverty and hunger, health and access to books:
Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit.
Coles, G. 2008/2009. Hunger, academic success, and the hard bigotry of indifference. Rethinking Schools 23 (2);
Krashen, S. 1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22.
Krashen, S. 2011. Protecting students against the effects of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association Journal 46 (2): 17-21.
Rothstein, R. 2010. How to fix our schools. Economic Policy Institute, Issue Brief #286.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman

One year ago, The Grassroots Education Movement premiered a new documentary, written and directed by New York City public school teachers and parents, created in response to Davis Guggenheim’s highly misleading film. Waiting for "Superman" would have audiences believe that free-market competition, standardized tests, destroying teacher unions, and the proliferation of charter schools are just what this country needs to create great public schools.

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For "Superman" highlights the real-life experiences of public school parents, students and educators to show how these so-called reforms are actually hurting public education. The film discusses the kinds of real reform – inside schools and in our society as a whole – that we urgently need to genuinely transform education in this country.

If you want to know the truth that lurks behind test-based accountability, standardized testing, choice, vouchers, and charter schools then you'll want to take a look at this documentary.
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