I am a fan of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photoblog. Stanton interviews and photographs regular every day people on the streets of NYC and posts their responses. Most often, the insights and wisdom that people share are deeply personal and rich. This week, he shared this young man’s photo and quote. It touched me:
A couple days later, we got to meet Ms. Lopez:
Pretty incredible leader, right? As the week went on, we learned more about the kids of Mott Hall Bridges Academy and the daily challenges of trying to teach and learn in one of New York’s most violent neighborhoods. Then, an idea was born:
Within a few days, Humans of New York has raised close to $450,000 for the school’s programs. It has been so well funded, in fact, that an annual trip to Harvard is now a permanent part of the curriculum. In addition, the school can now offer a summer program that affords it’s students a chance to leave their homes safely and continue learning during the time of year they would normally be locked inside and regressing. The generosity didn’t stop there, though. People sent Ms. Lopez flowers too:
How incredible is that? It all started with a young boy and his love for his principal. In a world where politics and 24-hour news cycles make everything seem so overwhelmingly negative, it’s nice to see that huge change can come from something as simple as hope and faith in each other.
This story grew bigger than anyone could’ve imagined. To date, the HONY campaign has raised more than one million dollars. Corporate sponsorships have now begun to roll in that will provide technology for not only Mott Hall but the schools in the surrounding communities. Oh, and this happened:
My latest lesson with the 2nd graders was all about community. The Social Studies textbook chapter was a little dry so I decided to spice it up a bit and combine the concept with what I have already taught the kids about mapping so far this year. I found this fantastic lesson by Kyle Knips. Before we began, we discussed the difference between a neighborhood and a community. I asked what places (parks, forests), services (fire department, police), and necessities (roads, parking) they might look for in a community where they would live. Each child then created his or her own Barefoot Island and included these elements plus their own fun features like alien spaceships, animal parks, sports complexes, and elaborate transportation systems. The kids also created a legend to explain their maps. The islands all turned out so great and the kids had a lot of fun. I love it when a good lesson comes together!
The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) has caused quite a debate since it’s implementation in 2010. Most people I know have a strong (usually negative) opinion about it but most can’t seem to explain why. I want to give some basic information and discuss the positives and negatives of the program.
The CCSSI is a set of language and math standards that were sponsored by public officials, state governors, and corporate leaders and developed by academics and educators to raise the standards and graduation requirements for K-12 students in the United States. Their motivation being that students today are ill prepared for college and the work place. Currently, 44 out of 50 states as well as Washington D.C. have adopted the standards. Why? Well, each state receives a financial award through Race to the Top grants for adopting the standards. These grants range from $20 million to $700 million depending on the population of students in that state.
-Academics and educators led the development of these standards. According to the Fordham Institute, the Common Core standards are clearer and more rigorous than the standards used by 33 of the states in the U.S.
-I’m cautious to say it, but it makes sense to me that business leaders should have a say in what their future employees know. It is good that they invest in shaping their workforce. Diane Ravitch, an education historian, argues that historically these programs do no better than conventional public schools but many believe that the leaders involved in CCSSI have good intentions and great ideas for the kids. That sounds pretty good to me.
-In the Language Arts, there is a stronger emphasis on students as researchers who cannot only answer a question but give an A.C.E. answer (Answer it. Cite an example. Explain the answer). There is also an increase in non-fiction reading, which has been lacking and is more practical in the real world.
-In math, there are fewer standards. This allows for more thorough coverage and better mastery of the concepts. This is a positive change from the old standards that made it so teachers could only touch on topics in order to address all of them. It’s better to go deeper into fewer concepts than to go “a mile wide but only an inch deep”.
-Each state chooses their own assessments and school districts choose their own curriculum. I think this helps to address the gap in schools of differing socio-economic conditions. Each state also specified what the grant money would go toward in their Race to the Top applications allowing for each state to cater to the needs of the population they serve.
-As part of the Race to the Top program, traditional textbooks will be replaced with digital media. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says this will help level the playing field for schools since poorer areas won’t need to spend money on textbooks that are obsolete as soon as they are purchased. It also makes us more competitive with countries that adopt technology faster and outperform us academically. We’ll have to see how this goes. I can’t help but wonder how the schools that can’t afford books will be able to afford new technology.
-There seems to be a misconception that the Common Core Standards and the curriculum schools use are one in the same. Many parents complain that the worksheets coming home are boring, too thorough, and too time consuming and that there is too much emphasis on showing work and writing out the explanations for answers. These are curriculum issues, not standard issues. The standards are just that, standards.
-Common Core eliminates cursive from the language arts standards and instead implements keyboarding. I hate to break it to you but this has been a long time coming. Over the past 5 years cursive has become an optional topic in the classroom. Most of the language teachers I know offer it as an extension activity if students complete other work and have extra time in class. I think we should expose kids to reading cursive, but I don’t think it’s detrimental to skip teaching them to write it.
-Raising the standards is making it almost impossible to level kids based on ability as all of them are expected to meet the standards. My friends who are teachers say that the kids who were at standard already are doing fine but the kids who need more help are really struggling. There is a shift from individualized learning to whole group learning for the sake of meeting the new standards. The different learning styles (kinesthetic, auditory, verbal) are being ignored. This is a big problem.
-Higher expectations mean more work for the teachers. The standards for Kindergarten, for example, are much higher than a few years ago. This leaves less time for creativity, fun, and socialization at an age when these elements are crucial to future academic success. Teachers are finding it hard to fit everything into a school day. This will inevitably lead to teacher burn out.
-Currently there are no standards for science or the humanities. If we are rewarding states for meeting only language and math standards, it will be easy for them to let these other equally important subjects slip away. If you read my post about Ukraine, you understand why this cannot happen.
-Testing. Oh boy, this is a biggie. Again, people seem to have very strong opinions but not a whole lot of actual information on this topic. Basically, people argue that paying schools to adopt standards creates “high-stakes” testing environments where teachers teach to the test that evaluates students on meeting those standards. In researching the CCSSI, I learned that each state had to submit a scope of work (a summary of how they are going to use the Race to the Top grant money) that had 4-5 components for measuring success. Testing was one of them, but there is other data involved too. In King County, the scope included an increase in graduation rates, a reduction in graduation gaps between cities, an increase in college enrollment, and a new teacher evaluation system. So testing is only one of the requirements for the awards. Unlike No Child Left Behind, where teacher raises and bonuses were dependent on test scores, CCSSI allows districts to evaluate their teachers. This makes much more sense. Teachers cannot be evaluated by test scores alone. It is grossly unfair when there are so many variables that are out of their control (student poverty and malnutrition, lack of sleep, parent support, etc.).
Another concern about the Common Core assessments is how they will be administered. There are two assessments for states to choose from and both are computer based. Parents are concerned that kids with special needs or language barriers will not be able to test this way. Washington State chose the Smarter Balanced Assessment. In looking at their website, they stress that their computer tests can actually be better individualized since the test will get easier or harder based on the student’s answers. The test will take less time than traditional standardized tests as well. Kids with special needs can have accommodations based on their IEPs (Individualized Education Plan). These accommodations include everything from breaks during testing to translations of text. Furthermore, the computer-based assessments offer faster results. In years past, kids took the standardized test in the spring and didn’t get their results until August. By that time, students already had a new teacher. How does that make sense?
So, is the Common Core State Standards Initiative a good or bad thing for kids? The best answer is it’s too soon to tell. No one really knows yet. Early results from states that adopted the standards early show positive trends with higher graduation rates, higher test scores, and kids who are more ready for college. Some would argue that the positive progress isn’t fast enough to justify all the changes. My question is, what is a better option? To keep things the way they are? I don’t think so. I feel optimistic about the CCSSI but want to see more attention paid to subjects outside of math and language. I hope that with time the issues of dry curriculum, struggling students and overworked teachers will be solved with better choices on the state, district, and classroom level. Field testing began this month to see how all the states are doing before they roll out the actual assessments next year. I look forward to seeing those results. If the struggling kids don’t test well, then hopefully changes can be made to help them.
Thanks for reading.
I was looking through my old teaching portfolio today and found a write up about my teaching philosophy. I am happy to discover that it still holds completely true:
I believe that learning should be fun, reality-based and hands-on. School should be a place where children feel safe and nurtured enough to explore their world and express themselves. It will always be my first priority to provide a respectful atmosphere that offers learners that opportunity. Manipulatives and real-life connections to curriculum are two of the most effective tools that aid in that learning. Who wants to learn about something that seems to have no purpose? It is my job to make sure that connection between student and subject is made.
I am a facilitator. I see myself as a lead learner who is there discovering right along with my kids. Students should guide my lessons whenever possible and should develop and maintain their own system of rules in the classroom. Student ownership of the classroom and its operation makes for a more satisfying atmosphere for all.
Food is a strong motivator for all of us, right? It’s also something that we all need, enjoy and have in common. I mentioned in a previous post that my all-time favorite teacher made a special banana soup for the class when we studied tribes in Africa. That lesson was almost 30 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. I use food so often (and love food so much) that I’ll have to restrain myself and offer only a few lesson ideas today.
We can’t start any good food conversation without my favorite Star Wars parody, Grocery Store Wars:
This video is such a fun way to start a food-based lesson. It also opens up a great conversation about the difference between organic food versus genetically engineered food or fruits and veggies grown with pesticides. Additionally, it leads nicely into a discussion about just how far away some of our food comes from. I just finished a great lesson with my daughter’s 2nd grade class about this very topic. In groups of 5, each student picked their favorite fruit or vegetable from a basket I brought in. I made sure to have a variety of choices from as far away as possible. Once the kids had their item, we looked at the produce sticker, found the origin country and mapped it. The kids were shocked by just how far their piece of produce had traveled. Strawberries from Brazil! A mango from Nicaragua! An apple from Oregon! Wait… YES! We also talked about why certain fruits are grown in places closer to the equator because they are warmer year-round than we are up here in the Pacific Northwest. But that we grow some yummy things here too.
Another food topic with some fun options is the Food Pyramid. In 2011, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (NCPP) updated this concept with a new and improved Food Plate:
If you click the image above, it will direct you to the kid-friendly part of the USDA’s site. There are games, activity sheets, videos and songs. In an effort to make this topic more hands-on, I took my kids to a local pottery painting studio to make their own food plates. We use them often and the kids are very proud. It’s a great visual of what the group proportions should really look like when you make a meal:
I hope these ideas are useful. Thanks again for reading!
I heard this question a lot last year when I decided to homeschool my daughter for 1st grade. Honestly? I wanted to homeschool because I knew I could give my daughter a better education at home than the one she was getting at our local public school. Much of her Kindergarten day was spent moving in a herd from place to place. There were 21 kids in her class whose reading levels ranged from non-English speaking to 2nd grade (advanced). Her teacher was young and busy studying for her Master’s degree while juggling two half-day classes. My daughter was coasting through unnoticed at a critical time in her development when kids decide if learning is exciting or a punishment.
I found a great program through a different school district called Meridian Parent Partnership Program (MP3). As the parent-educator, I worked closely with a counselor from the program to make sure I set monthly goals that aligned with the state standards. This was very appealing to me as a traditional classroom teacher. Deciding to homeschool felt a little like jumping off a cliff so any support I could get gave me confidence and comfort. In addition, the program was part of an actual school that had a resource room and library from which we were free to borrow.
The biggest draw of joining a homeschool program for me, though, was the stipend we received twice that year that helped pay for our curriculum and in-home resources. The program has changed greatly since we joined but at the time, that money could go toward classes, manipulatives, books, workbooks, art supplies, field trips, and more.
This time last year, we were settled into a pretty nice routine. I created a “To-Do List” and posted it every morning. I also laid out a daily warm up activity for my daughter to find and start while I cleaned up the breakfast dishes. This was a great way to start each school day. It gave my daughter time (5-10 minutes) to ease into the day’s learning independently. After the warm-up, we tackled the basics: Language (writing, reading comprehension, handwriting, and spelling), Math, Science, Social Studies, and Piano. My daughter could bring her doll to class with her and enjoy a snack in the middle of a math lesson. These little things made learning easy and fun.
On our longest day, we “schooled” for about 3 hours and usually finished with everything by noon. That left the rest of the day for outings, exercise, and playtime. It was fantastic! At the end of a unit, I would sometimes test my daughter on her new skill/knowledge but I didn’t feel pressure because I was there watching her learn and knew whether she understood a concept or not. At the end of the school year she was also evaluated by MP3 to ensure she met the state goals for 1st grade. She passed with flying colors.
I had great fun scouring Pinterest, teacher blogs, and other online sites for fun worksheets and activities. Every interaction during the day was a teachable moment. Last January, we studied the branches of government and toured our State Capital. On the day of our tour, we got to see then Governor Christine Gregoire give her last State of the State speech. By shear luck, we received a package from the White House that same day responding to a letter my daughter wrote to President Obama congratulating him on his election win. These experiences brought a whole new life and connectivity to my daughter’s learning experience.
So, why homeschool? The folks who asked me this question didn’t ask with judgment. They asked because it was something they had been considering as well. Homeschooling was a great choice for my family and I bet we’ll return to it again someday.