Tag Archives: Students

Fixing Education Part 3: Taking Back Kindergarten

Educators and legislators need to look back at their own education and try to remember what they did in Kindergarten. Once they do, they need to take a long hard look at what Kindergarten has become.

Kindergarten Is The New First Grade

When I was just starting out in school, Kindergarten was fun. As a child I looked forward to finger-painting, playing with blocks and learning all about numbers and the usefulness of the alphabet. I remember learning to print my name and I remember learning to count to 100. I still have crystal clear memories of the accomplishment of reaching 100 for the first time. That number was such a foreign concept to my 4 year-old mind (yes…4 years old) that I had honestly thought that it would take a week to get there.

So we spent the day coloring, tracing letters, learning numbers and understanding what they represented. The teacher read stories to us and I learned to fall in love with Dr. Seuss and, by extension, reading. She showed us how to draw and paint and I learned to love art. She showed us how to carefully craft our letters so that they could form our names and I learned to love writing. We also played with toys and each other and we took naps and ate graham crackers and milk. I checked with my mother. There was never a day when I refused to go to school. Kindergarten was fun. But it was so much more than that.

Learn By Playing?

It took me a long to time to appreciate the depth of the education I received during that first year of school. I thought we were messing with paint. Turns out we were learning about colors and aesthetics and even cleaning up after ourselves. While we thought we were playing house, we were actually learning how to interact with other human beings, all about gender differences and equalities, and about fair-play. While we were playing with blocks and toy cars and stuffed animals, we were also learning how to share, how to resolve our own problems and how to deal with conflict. Everything we did, learned and experienced had one simple outcome. We learned how to learn. The lessons were simple but lifelong. And they are sorely missing in today’s education.

Getting my son to go to school everyday was a chore. Every day was a battle. Every morning was filled with tears and pleading to stay home. It took me a while to figure out why my son was so against school. His school had taken the Kindergarten lessons and tossed them out and replaced them with a 1st grade curriculum. It might have been my fault he wasn’t totally prepared but an hour of homework a day in Kindergarten is just wrong.         ~Georgia Mother

If we refuse to acknowledge the importance of play-based learning, we may never reach all of our students. And instead of figuring out how to learn and to love learning, we set our kids up for failure at a very early age. Putting five year-old behinds into seats to teach them through traditional lectures flies in the face of everything we know about education. Children at that age just don’t work that way. Children learn by doing and through experience. David Elkind, author and psychologist wrote, “Learning teaches us what we know, play makes it possible for new things to be learned. There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play.” Social skills are first on the list.

So, instead of well-rounded eager students, many of us are getting frustrated, burned-out students who lack social skills, impulse control and simple conflict resolution skills. Instead of students who read for the sheer joy of it, who write because writing is fun and who can slog their way through Algebra and Trig simply because they can add, subtract, multiply and divide, we get students who can barely read, can’t form a sentence and can’t do simple two digit multiplication without a calculator. It is not the fault of the students. It is not the fault of the teachers. It is because of a system that has been redesigned over the past decade, not at the hands of educators but at the hands of politicians.

Fitting Into The Plan

In order to save our high schools we must start in Kindergarten. In spite of what politicians want us to believe, kids aren’t failing because their teachers are bad. They are not failing because they have failed the system. They are failing because the system has failed them. The system is flawed and it places too much emphasis on quantitative data and not enough on qualitative data. Sure, a kid could be terrible at math but that same child could grow up to be a great author or songwriter or artist. We will never know if that same child learns, in Kindergarten, that he or she just doesn’t measure up. And that would be the real failure of our education system.


Bring in The Cat and Bar the Door! The President Wants to Talk to Our Kids!

On Tuesday September 8, 2009, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, will address the school children of America. And so far, I have received three different official reminders that some parents will be upset about this. Upset. About listening to the President. The President of the United States. Needless to say, I am stunned. But across the nation parents are keeping their children home rather than letting them become exposed to the words of the President. These are the same parents who will happily send their kids to school with the flu.

I Don’t Get It.

“Gang…You have a system that is wildly out of control. And they are capturing your kids…” Well that is what media mad-man, Glen Beck said on his radio show. He was talking in response to a caller’s shrill opposition to the very idea that the President would speak to her kids without her being there. Wow. That must be some message. Is it on AIDS? Birth control? Is the POTUS going to talk about the New World Order or the conversion of all Americans to the new national religion? It must be a heck of a message for people to get so worked up over it. Right? I mean the conservative whack jobs from the FAR right are calling it an “indoctrination”. Oooo…That sounds scary. So. What are we all worked up over?

Here It Is!

OK, brace yourselves people. Here is the essential question in Barack Obama’s speech. A quote from the actual transcript released from the White House prior to the speech being delivered. You might want to shoo the kids out of the room…

Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.

Gasp! Wait…what? Everyone has a gift and staying in school can help you succeed? That commie!

Radio talker/big-box-of-crazy Michael Savage said, “Hitler had the Hitler Youth, and Obama would like to have the Obama Youth.” Really? The President said that? No, of course not, but the followers of Savage don’t know that. And Savage knows that they don’t but he keeps feeding people this crap so that his fearful audience will remain fearful and turn to him for guidance. And the occasional commercial message. You see, Hitler had an amazing propaganda machine and Michael Savage wants to be the Propaganda Czar for the next American Reich.  (Cool huh? Anybody can do it. You can try it at home too…Just subscribe to my new course “Be a Media Hack in 12 Easy Lessons or 6 Hard Ones.”)

The Great Communicator.

Ronald Reagan spoke to students once in 1988. I don’t remember a lot of weirdness surrounding it, even though he went on about taxes and the need for tax cuts. He also told the children, “I would say that the most important thing you can do is to ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution.” Can you imagine what would happen on conservative talk radio if Barack Obama said those exact same words?

My Problem With The Speech.

I have a minor problem with the President’s speech. Remember the quote from above? “Everyone has something they are good at?” Very, very true. however, No Child Left Behind won’t really allow that to happen. It is all about math and science. If you are artistic, you are considered “left behind”. How can teachers teach problem solving skills when they are teaching “the test”? How can they teach math when they are teaching “calculator” instead? In his speech, President Obama lists occupations for young people. Innovator, inventor, lawyer, mayor, Senator, soldier, nurse, doctor.

“We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.But where does that leave the poets? The painters, the filmmakers? If a child wants to be an actor or a singer, that child is “quitting on his or her country”? I beg to disagree. Why are the arts the first thing to go in a bad economy in spite of all the research indicating that a grounding in the arts actually makes students achieve at a higher level?


I still don’t get it. If this were a message from the Pope, I would get it. But this is the President of The United States of America. The whole thing strikes me as being a bit unpatriotic.

I Are A Genius. Using Filmmaking to Give Students Their Voice…

Every so often a project drops in my lap that I just can’t say “No” to. In the past I have written about the relationship my video production class has had with a group of local artists and filmmakers. The Association for Visual Arts has been kind enough to team up with us to create a pilot project that brings students together with documentarians to learn more about movie making in a professional setting. We made one movie two years ago, “Golden Grillz & Satan Like Puppies: A documentary on rock, rap the individual and the group.” It was not a bad movie and, as I have written before, it was entirely created, produced, shot and directed by the students. It was shown at several venues in the city and the Mayor’s Office has a copy on file.

This year’s movie is called “I Are A Genius” It is a documentary film about students taking a look at their own education. Honestly, I am not too sure they liked whaPromotional poster for "I Are A Genius."t they found. Most were surprised to find out that the education system is run like a business and that money matters as much, if not more, than the educational outcome. They were a bit taken aback to find that teachers and administrators and superintendents don’t all speak with a single voice. There is dissension in the ranks, sometimes vocal, sometimes not. They were also concerned about the number of educational professionals who were afraid to speak out against the system for fear of losing their jobs. We are in a down economy, the school system is making cuts and no one wants to make any waves…even if those waves help the students.

The students learned to set and keep appointments and how to talk to a professional without looking “like a kid.” They set up interviews with elected officials, teachers, administrators, students and even the Superintendent of Schools. They impressed me and they impressed themselves. They also impressed the people they interviewed. They shot and directed their own interviews, shadowed students for an entire day, invited their peers to a “round-table” discussion and even brainstormed some marketing ideas. Right now the group is working on a rough, off-line edit and I have noticed that the number of participants is diminishing. That doesn’t surprise me at all.

Editing video is an art and can be very exacting and very frustrating. It is also tedious and, to an outsider, incredibly boring. It also happens to be the part of film-making that I love the most. I can sit at the editor for hours and never even realize that time has gone by. But I can’t expect these novice directors to have my love of video editing. Nor can I expect them to sit for hours at a time doing anything at all. So the students will be a part of the rough edit helping to choose sound-bites and some B-Roll and to have some say in the direction and flow of the movie. Then one of our visiting artists will take the off-line edit and finish it to industry standard.

Anyway, this is just a little update and as soon as I can, I will post a trailer or excerpt from the movie. Until then, I have included a copy of  the poster for the movie.

What the President Said: Merit Pay and Charter Schools.

Libby Quaid, AP Education Writer, opened up an article with the words “President Barack Obama called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance…” Isn’t there anybody in charge of anything who can see the insanity that this simple sentence represents? Exactly how many other professions have a compensation plan that is based on the performance of their clients? And if they did, how would that work? Lawyers are now to be paid only for their innocent clients. Doctor pay will decrease every time a patient returns with another malady. Dentists will have their pay based on the number of cavities the people in their “dental districts” get? The fewer the cavities the higher the pay?

President Barack Obama called for tying teachers’ pay to student performance. Tying teachers’ pay to student performance.  I keep repeating this because I am trying to figure out what it means and why anyone would think this is a good idea. Exactly how much control does a teacher have over a student’s performance? Certainly the teacher has some, based on what is taught, but what about the intangibles? Does the teacher have control over how much television students watch? How much time they spend texting their friends or updating MySpace or Facebook? Can the teacher control a student’s gang activity or how they relate to their parents? Or if they have parents? And what is the definition of merit?

How Do You Measure Merit?

Henry Aubin, a Canadian newspaper writer, wrote an article called, “Teachers’ Merit Pay is a Bad Idea.” In it he says “Merit” is hard to define. If principals decide who’s worthy, there’s a risk of arbitrariness and favoritism. Staff morale will suffer if subservience defines merit.”

So exactly how will merit be defined? Standardized test scores? Then teachers will “teach the test” and students will be denied the opportunity for intellectual exploration. Aubin writes, “The teaching that often ignites students’ intellectual curiosity, however, often deals with material that testing does not cover.” And he is right. There is no art on The Test. There is no marketing or graphic design or auto shop on The Test. There is nothing about work ethic or problem solving or working well in groups on The Test. Why not? Are these things, these intangibles, not important? If you ask employers in your community how to improve the incoming work force, they, with a single voice, will say, “Send me someone who can show up to work, do basic math without a calculator and can solve simple problems. I’ll do the rest.” But since Career and Technical Training isn’t on The Test, it just doesn’t matter. And that is a mistake.

Why Go To School?

I ask students every year, “Why are you here? Why do you go to school?” The answer is, without variation, “To learn.” But to learn what? I am usually told, “You know. Math and stuff.” Math and stuff. So I put a simple problem on the board and out come the calculators. What can calculators teach us? For that matter, what can Beowulf teach us? Where is the relevance for today’s teenager? I am certain that there is relevance, but why isn’t it obvious? Something other than “It’s on The Test.” Wouldn’t high school students be better served learning to read technical manuals? And that brings us to why I think we are in school. We send our young people to school so they can learn to work, get jobs and not be burdens to society. School is basically a 12 year vocational education. And we have forgotten that.

Why do all students have to study Advanced Math and Science when only a select few will need it? Does it take calculus to balance a checkbook? The truth is that the majority of students can do quite well with a comprehensive understanding of Algebra. The kind of understanding that students received before calculators. The kind of understanding that is rooted in basic math and practical applications. The same can be said for science. Advanced science is perfect for anyone who needs advanced science. But at what stage do we ask our students, “What do you want to be for the rest of your life?” At what stage do we take those answers and tailor their educational pathways to make that happen?

What we have become is a nation that strives for success in education without any clear cut definition of success. It was not so long ago that American schools were the envy of the world. We created engineers and scientists who put men on the moon without much more than slide rules and the multiplication table. But they did so because they had a good understanding of concepts and theory and could apply them to practical situations.  Schools in the 40’s were not planning to teach kids how to be astronauts. They had no idea such things were possible. But they taught basics and showed their students how to apply them to any situation. Including situations that hadn’t even been dreamed of yet. How did we get from there to here?

Where in the current curriculum is there room for critical thinking and problem solving? For initiative and leadership? Who decided to teach our kids that there is no room for failure when anyone who has ever accomplished anything great had no fear of failure? How can we teach our kids to be analytical when it isn’t part of The Test? We are failing to send our kids into an increasingly difficult and technological world with the skill set they need to survive. We ask them to memorize and regurgitate and that isn’t learning.

A Modest Proposal.

I humbly submit this plan to fix our schools. It is very simple. Perhaps too simple but here it goes.

  1. Anyone who makes decisions about curriculum, education, merit pay or whatever should spend a minimum of three weeks as a substitute teacher. And not in the highest performing schools. In the lowest performing schools of any given urban environment. Then we can talk about tying teachers’ pay to performance. It will create a common ground and will give all of us a better chance to fix what is broken.
  2. Stop trying to come up with new ways to reach students on their level. It won’t work. They are way ahead of you in terms of what interests them. Go to the basics, stir up some curiosity and initiative, put students back in charge of their progress and sit back and watch the magic happen. Don’t believe me? Then talk to a teacher who uses Layered Curriculum.
  3. Read Rigor Redefined by Tony Wagner. It should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in education.
  4. Stop worrying about peoples’ feelings. There is no shame in going to work. It is important for America to have auto mechanics and bricklayers and carpenters. Where would we be without plumbers and electricians and even that nice young lady who works behind the counter at the gas station? We need these people. What we don’t need is more lawyers and MBA’s and Liberal Arts degrees. An IBEW apprenticeship is worth a dozen Liberal Arts Degrees.
  5. Repeal No Child Left Behind.

There. It’s not much of a plan but it’s a start.

Adding Some Real World Experience. (With a little help from the community.)

Two years ago I was approached by a local artists group about making a documentary. The idea was to create a film using students and allowing them to control every aspect of the film. The group, The Association for Visual Arts (AVA), wanted to bring in several local filmmakers and let them work with the students to guide them through the creation process and, ultimately, to the first screening of their own movie.

Even the most well-intentioned group can’t just walk into a school and borrow some students. Since I have a series of media production classes and teach at a certain type of school, AVA called me to ask if I was interested. Of course I said, “Yes.” So we started with some meetings, had some more meetings and then, just as we were about to start, the whole thing fell apart. I can’t remember if it was funding or lack of interest from outside of the school or whatever. So a year later we started all over again. More meetings, more false starts and one more total shut-down. This time because the person at AVA who was heading up the project from their end changed jobs. I thought that would be the last I heard from AVA and, gladly, I was wrong.

Golden Grillz, The DVD.

Golden Grillz, The DVD. Cover Design: J. Colbert

The new person involved with the Education Outreach program at AVA had heard of the project and liked it. He decided to start all over again. And to shorten the story, we started pre-production with 13 students and two filmmakers. And me, the Project Coordinator. The kids worked on concept and decided to make a movie on “rap, rock, the individual and the group.” A movie about how the music we listen to impacts the way others see us and the way we see ourselves. It was called “Golden Grillz & Satan Likes Puppies.”

The movie was well received and was shown in several locations around town and a copy is on file at the Mayor’s office. Not a bad result for a group of first-timers. The results were actually far greater than we had hoped and it set the stage for what is happening today. The second documentary film is starting today. The first day is always the slowest but the AVA filmmakers know how to make it work and we have some good kids and I can’t wait to see what this year’s subject is going to be.

The best thing I see out of the students is a new sense of commitment and ownership. We are asking two days a week, two hours each time for almost four months. And the kids show up, they get excited about what they are doing and they take pride in the final project. It makes all the extra time worth it and it makes the whole thing fun.

So…nothing major here. No new educational processes, no major insights, nothing to change the world. Just ten or so kids making a movie and learning a little bit about going to work, dealing with adults and meeting deadlines. Stuff they need and stuff we neglect.

I’ll keep updating…

These Kids Today: Engaging The “Smug Generation”

It’s been a while since I’ve been here. As always, life has a habit of getting in the way. But while I was away, I never stopped thinking about all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about. I have still been trying to engage students who have no desire to be engaged and I have never stopped wondering how we got here from there in education.

The Smug Generation.

In the sixties we created a generation of people who are the movers and shakers (and, yes, the slackers and criminals) of today. People, now in their 40’s and 50’s, who had the benefit of a typical (of the time) public school education and went on to be entrepreneurs, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, firemen, sanitation workers, astronauts and so on and did so without the benefit of calculators, cell phones or the Internet.

Today we are teaching a generation of kids, The Smug Generation according to Sarah Vine of Times Online, who are defined by their desire for acknowledgment and their need for connectivity. “It’s an irresistible image: a society so softened by wealth and creature comforts that it has produced a group of offspring entirely unaware of its shortcomings,” she writes in an article titled “Generation Smug: today’s little darlings or tomorrow’s little monsters?” An entire generation completely obsessed with money and posting pictures of themselves on-line, valuing entertainment over effort and reward over respect. “Narcissistic praise junkies” is what this generation of young people are called by the United States Navy.

When Did This Happen?

This current generation of young people has never been offline, has never been without a cell phone or a computer. They have never known a world without cable TV or without dozens of cable networks aimed directly at them. They have never had to make it through the world without  iPods or Gameboys or X-Boxes. Today’s rising college students have never know a world without cheap and instant gratification where their entertainment needs are concerned. And let’s not forget about the Internet.

The Internet today is, I am almost certain, not what it was originally envisioned to be. What was once touted as the “Galactic Network”, a global tool for information exchange has become a driving force for commercialism and socializing. MySpace, Facebook, Flikr and You Tube are just some of the ways that “these kids today” have shaped and changed the Internet. But these changes to the Internet have resulted in changes to our society. In the Navy report it states, “Teens are creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinction between online and real-world interactions — and largely ignore the difference between the two.”

Students in my classes brag about the number of friends they have. One young lady was overheard saying “I have over a thousand friends…” I wondered about that and asked her where she met so many people. “On Facebook,” was her reply. I have to wonder if our definition of “friend” has changed over the years. Not so long ago a friend was someone who would help you move a sofa or let you talk endlessly about a problem without offering advice. Just listening. A friend is the person who doesn’t mind if you go into their refrigerator and grab a drink without asking. Friends were people that we have actually met. Now? Many of our kids are walking around with lists of “virtual friends.” People they have never met except on-line. NPR commentator, Peter Sagal, says that there is something “vaguely creepy” about using “friend” as a verb as in, “I met someone on Facebook and friended her.” But he also admits that he has a Facebook page and over 900 virtual friends. I will also admit that I have a Facebook page and I have 6 virtual friends. Of my 6 virtual friends, I have, at one time or another, actually met 5 of them.

So What?

Is all of this really a problem? In my experience it can be. How can a school be asked to compete with Facebook, iPods, Nickleodeon, The Cartoon Network, the allure of text messages or any one of the hundreds of ways that our students seek their instant gratification. It’s easy to fall back on cliches like “If I had a nickle for every time a kid said ‘This is boring’ to me I could retire tomorrow.” At the best of times, school can be boring. But when asked to compete with the entertainment media, we fail miserably. It can’t be done. I can talk all day, offer hands-on, real-world relevancy, seminar, make Power Points, incorporate the Internet into lessons and still can’t engage my “narcissistic praise junkies.” I can’t sing (doesn’t stop me though), can’t dance and I am not a sophisticated comedian like, say, Spongebob. No matter what I do, I fall short.

If I roll out the computer lab, I spend the day getting the kids to log out of their e-mail accounts or Facebook pages. Even though Facebook is blocked at the state Internet server, the students know every easy (and not so easy) way to get around the block. I actually look at this as a bright side. If my students have the problem solving skills it takes to circumvent a government Internet block, then they can certainly apply those skills to other career related problems, right? Or can they?

The Dumbest Generation.

Mike Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article he called, “American Kids, dumber than dirt.” In it, he recounts an ongoing conversation with a local teacher. The teacher “speaks not merely of the sad decline in overall intellectual acumen among students over the years, not merely of the astonishing spread of lazy slackerhood, or the fact that cell phones and iPods and excess TV exposure are, absolutely and without reservation, short-circuiting the minds of the upcoming generations. Of this, he says, there is zero doubt…We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

The teacher, Morford writes, “cites studies, reports, hard data, from the appalling effects of television on child brain development (i.e.; any TV exposure before 6 years old and your kid’s basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions are pretty much scrambled for life), to the fact that, because of all the insidious mandatory testing teachers are now forced to incorporate into the curriculum, of the 182 school days in a year, there are 110 when such testing is going on somewhere at (his school).”

Can it really be this huge a problem? Johnny can’t read because of the media? Is his need to be acknowledged for accomplishments, while having never really accomplished anything, keeping him from knowing the multiplication tables? Because of No Child Left Behind, creativity is lost on an entire generation? Or is the problem just a shift in the generation gap? Are our teachers and administrators aware that the model family no longer resembles “Leave it to Beaver?” Do they realize that today’s students can’t even hear the name of that old TV show without giggling? Do they realize the depth of the competition they are facing and that “The Scarlet Letter” has absolutely zero relevance to teenagers? I would like to think so. Otherwise, an entire generation of teachers are out of touch and, as Mike Morford’s teacher friend states, we really are “at rock bottom.”

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