Scheduling Our Schooling

In about a month, hundreds of students and parents will be flooding the stores for the annual ritual of back-to-school shopping.  When they get home, houses will abound with the smell of blank paper and the sound of shrink-wrapped folders being opened. The old school crowd (like me) will convert brown paper grocery bags into book covers for history, math, and biology textbooks. I still remember the excitement of walking into class on the first day of school (wearing a carefully chosen outfit) with my brand-new, freshly sharpened pencils at the ready.  The crisp autumn breeze would dismiss the lazy days of summer and declare the beginning of a new school year.  Even the symbol of an apple for the teacher hints at the agrarian calendar on which most of our school systems are based.

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But is the traditional school schedule, nine months on, three months off actually ideal?  I’m not really sure.  (You may have guessed by now that I often enjoy playing devil’s advocate with these ideas.)

Some of the arguments in favor of year round education (YRE) include:

  • Frequent breaks provide students and teachers opportunities to recharge and return to school refreshed and ready to learn and teach.
  • Having a series of shorter breaks rather than a 3 month break in the summer
    may improve retention of the material studied throughout the year.  Without a huge gap in which students forget everything they’ve learned, they don’t need to spend as much time reviewing and can therefore spend more time learning new material.
  • YRE schools can accommodate more students by placing different groups of kids on different tracks.
  • Families with kids on the same track often develop a strong bond and rapport with the teachers on that track.
  • Breaks scattered throughout the year can be convenient for family vacations.

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On the other hand:

  • What if families end up with kids on different tracks? Not so convenient anymore.
  • Having more student traffic throughout the school year increases maintenance costs.
  • Teacher collaboration opportunities could be limited when teachers are on different tracks.
  • The lack of an extended summer break closes the door on some summer camp and teen employment opportunities.
  • Teachers pursuing continuing education/training efforts often offered in the summer would need to find other opportunities for further training–that scheduling could get complicated.

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The YRE issue is one without a clear best option.  In reading up on it, the general vibe I’m getting is that if it were to be successful, it would have to be a universal undertaking.  If only a few schools opted for the YRE route, they would be out of sync with the rest of their districts and conferences for things like sports and festivals.  If elementary schools were on board, but high schools weren’t, families with students in both schools wouldn’t have many opportunities to travel because someone would always be in school.

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Personally, I’d like to see how this arrangement would work if everyone gave it a shot.  Doing things the way they’ve always been done for the sake of tradition when the cause for doing things that way has expired doesn’t seem like a compelling enough argument.

As a teacher, I’d like to see the time spent in the classroom utilized to maximum effectiveness.  The last few weeks of school before summer are typically thrown away because the teachers are tired and daydreaming about summer just as much as the kids.  The energy and resolve that characterizes the beginning of the school year often wanes before the first break comes along.  I think the much needed recharge for students and teachers by having more frequent breaks outweighs the maintenance costs and scheduling inconveniences.  Teaching is a high energy job and learning is a high energy endeavor.  In the marathon of a child’s education, it seems intuitive that a more consistent schedule would be a more enjoyable experience that would also yield more lasting results.  It’s almost like a tortoise and the hare story–sprint September to May and sleep June through August or progress steadily all year.

School-Calendars

I am a product of the traditional school schedule and it definitely worked for me.  I LOVE summer and probably would have thrown a fit if my summers had been threatened by educational activists who thought they knew what was good for me. So maybe it’s just my experiemental mentality that wants to see this in action, maybe despite having grown up where the grass is green, I can’t help but wonder how green it actually is on the other side.  By the end of summer break, I was always so ready to jump back into school–maybe that motivation would wane if kids were in school all year.  Like I said, I don’t have the answers.  But I’ve shared my ideas.  And as always, yours are welcome here.

Motivated

Why do people do what they do?  What makes us tick?  Why are some students “highly motivated” and others are, well, not?  How can teachers help students be motivated?  If you’re hoping for easy answers to these questions, you’re probably hoping for the unlikely and you’re definitely looking in the wrong place.  But I found some interesting tidbits about motivation that might be helpful or at least enlightening.

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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Intrinsically motivated learners are more willing to engage and will experience greater enjoyment from what they learn.  Often young children exhibit intrinsic motivation to learn—maybe it’s the novelty and excitement of everything at school in the early elementary grades.

I interviewed my nine-year-old brother (4th grade in the fall) about what motivates him at school.  His answer, “Recess.  I know that once I get all my work done I get to play so I do my work faster so I can play faster.”  I asked where his motivation comes from and he answered that a little bit comes from himself, a lot from his parents and his teacher.

Regarding why he’s motivated by his teacher he said, “If I get it wrong, sometimes he gets sort of mad.  He’s 28 so he hasn’t had a lot of experience in the teaching realm.” (Guess we can’t pull one over on a nine-year-old.)

When I asked if it was more the learning or the grades that motivated him, he said, “Half and half—I know if I get good grades, I’ll do good in school.  It’s nice to learn stuff because then you’ll always get good grades.”  (A little bit of circular logic, but he’s nine.)  At this point, my 17-year-old brother interjected with, “It’s cooler to learn something all by yourself.”  This coming from the soon to be senior who openly refuses to care about anything academic.

Often, the motivation shifts extrinsically as students mature—as their cognitive development allows them to set more long term goals, they can weigh whatever they’re  asked to do in context of how much it will advance their goal.  Learning becomes more a means to an end rather than an inherently enjoyable pastime.  In high school, part of my motivation was definitely getting good enough grades to get into the university I wanted.  There’s no harm in that.

intrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation isn’t a bad thing.  I think it’s just more difficult to harness for students who don’t seem to want anything or haven’t figured out what they want.  Like my aforementioned 17-year-old brother, who, during his interview, explained why he is motivated to get good grades: “If Dad is angry with me I get very little of what I want.  And when he’s not, I get more of what I want.”

Rather than learning for the sake of learning, he learns to get good enough grades to satisfy our parents.  He says he doesn’t care about school at all, but he often makes references to things he’s learned in art history and AP European history.  (Gotta love it when the seemingly apathetic teenage brother enjoys schooling you on Rousseau’s artistic career.)

Hierarchies

American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in which the individual could only progress as his basic needs were met.  One concerned with finding food and shelter cannot easily be induced to meditate on the meaningfulness of his existence.  Similarly, there is a hierarchy of learning—people in different psychological states seek different kinds of information.

For example, individuals at the lowest level seek coping information in order to meet their basic needs. Information that is not directly connected to helping a person meet his or her needs in a very short time span is simply left unattended. Individuals at the safety level need helping information.  They seek to be assisted in seeing how they can be safe and secure.  Enlightening information is sought by individuals seeking to meet their belongingness needs. Quite often this can be found in books or other materials on relationship development.  Empowering Why do people do what they do?  What makes us tick?  Why are some students “highly motivated” and others are, well, not?  How can teachers help students be motivated?  If you’re hoping for easy answers to these questions, you’re probably hoping for the unlikely and you’re definitely looking in the wrong place.  But I found some interesting tidbits about motivation that might be helpful or at least enlightening.

If we’re giving our students information incongruent with the level on which they’re thinking, there is no motivation for them to internalize that information.  It’s irrelevant to them and their situation.  (Or so they think, but really, in terms of their learning, what they think is all that actually counts.)

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Spontaneity vs. Structure

“Effort is felt only where there is a conflict of interests in the mind.”  –William James, The Principles of Psychology

Regarding what he calls “the rhythmic claims of freedom and discipline,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “It is the unfortunate dilemma that initiative and training are both necessary, and that training is apt to kill initiative.”

The balance of preserving a student’s innate interest in a subject while enabling them to move beyond their rudimentary abilities in that subject tests a teacher’s true mettle.  Persevering once the initial enchantment wears off is a challenge I’m sure all of us have faced.  (I was very gung-ho on learning to play the guitar… until I had blisters on my fingers and still couldn’t play anything cool.)  Teachers who can keep the spark alight while stoking the fire deserve the results they get—students who pursue and attain mastery with enthusiasm.  Any teachers or parents out there with advice on this one?

Other websites consulted for this article:

http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/docs/newsletter/motivation_to_learn.pdf

http://www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/EducationalPracticesSeriesPdf/prac10e.pdf

http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/03/13/what-keeps-students-them-motivated-to-learn/

New Light

As a musician, imagining a silent world is unfathomably sad.  As one who enjoys other people’s company and conversation, the idea of being isolated within my own community epitomizes despair.  And as a teacher, thinking about children trapped alone in silence without a way to communicate yanks on all my emotional nerves. But for deaf children in developing countries, this bleak picture isn’t just imagined.

Communication is a basic human need.  We need to communicate for very practical, life-sustaining reasons; and as we communicate well, we can ascend to the higher echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs approaching self-actualization.

Education serves as a vehicle for refining and expanding our communication skills.  What we learn, both in and out of school, gives us things to talk about and teaches us how to talk about them.  Since I resonate more with a constructivist perspective, I think people inherently have things to talk about.  We’re born with ideas.  As we interact with our environments, we generate new ideas.  There is no lack of conversational material within the young human mind.

But what if that mind is limited by what the body can express?   Imagine having all these ideas in your head without any way to articulate or share them—the quintessence of frustration, right?  I happened upon a few poignant videos (included below) about deaf children and their first exposures to sign language.  Seeing the grins stretch across their faces has had me thinking about the joy it is to be able to communicate.  As a teacher, I think I’d do just about anything to see that look on one of my student’s faces.

A discussion of the elucidating role of education in the deaf community would be incomplete with a mention of Helen Keller.  Deaf and blind, young Helen lived rather alone and reckless in a dark, silent world until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her learn to communicate.  Helen describes her breakthrough moment thus, “Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”  Anne Sullivan’s summarized her perspective on that moment with these words, “A new light came into her face.”

As teachers of any and all students with any and all learning abnormalities, (what’s normal, really?) we have a priceless opportunity to invite that “new light” into their faces.

A Brief And Eclectic History of American Education

“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” –Thomas Jefferson

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As we commemorate our independence and the birth of our nation at  this time of year, I thought a brief jaunt through history in terms of education in the United States would be appropriate.

1600s

imgres-1With the arrival of the Puritan pilgrims and the creation of Plymouth Colony, the stage is set for educational thought and practice in New England. Beginning in 1635, Latin grammar schools are established as institutions to train young men for leadership positions in the church and state.  In the religious tradition of the day, the Massachusetts Bay School Law is passed in 1642—it requires parents to ensure their children know basic religious principles and the laws governing the commonwealth.  Leading out with educational legislation, Massachusetts passes a law in 1647 that requires towns of a certain size to hire a schoolmaster.

1700s

The Bill of Rights essentially leaves the issue of educating the citizenry to the states by virtue of omission.

1800s

Horace Mann

Horace Mann

The invention of the modern blackboard marks the beginning of the century. In 1821, Boston English High School—the first public high school—opens.  Horace Mann, later known as the “father of American public education” becomes the secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.  Massachusetts, ever the leader in educational matters, institutes the first compulsory attendance laws in 1852.  Wisconsin (my home state—yeah!) initiates the first kindergarten in the U.S. in 1856.

1900s

The first junior high school opens in 1909 in Columbus, Ohio.  At the onset of WWI, mental aptitude tests are developed to screen recruits—these become the basis for standardized testing later.  (So now we’re using means developed in war-time to “promote” education during peacetime, really? But, I’ll save the editorial about that for another time.)  In 1926, the first SAT was administered; the first ACT followed in 1959.  Still leading out, Massachusetts passed legislation in 1993 requiring common curriculum and statewide testing.  Whiteboards take over and replace blackboards beginning in 1994.  And in 1995, Georgia becomes the first state with a ubiquitous preschool offer for all four-year-olds whose parents elect to enroll them.

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The new millennium kicked off with President George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.  A few years ago in Seattle, a group of high school teachers were reported to have refused to give district-mandated tests, thus protesting the overuse of standardized testing.  Changes are still happening in education constantly—just earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to grant two years of free community college to all American students.

Most of these tidbits and factoids are from an interesting (and quite detailed) timeline of the history of education in America—both before and after the states united.  The full timeline can be found here.

Happy Independence Day!

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