Friday, April 29, 2016

"Where To Invade Next" Finland?

Unless you've continued to be super busy living under your rock for a good part of the last decade, you're probably aware that Finland has the best schools in the world, at least as measured by the standardized test that is used to rank such things. Now, you would think that the US policy-makers and corporate education dilettantes who place such a high value on standardized test scores that they are subjecting American students to hundreds of such tests over the course of their academic life would be seeking to emulate the Finns.

But no, instead of learning from them, the corporate-style "reformers" have created schools with longer days, more homework, more paperwork, more high stakes standardized testing, and a federally mandated standardized curriculum, all of which has, according to the New York Times, resulted in lower math scores and exactly zero improvement in other areas. They are failing, they know they are failing, and instead of looking around and seeking to learn from those who are succeeding, they are doubling-down on their vision of public schools as test score coal mines.

Why aren't we learning from the Finns? Probably because what the Finns are doing in their schools (i.e., basing education on science) doesn't match their neoliberal nose-to-the-grindstone narrative of how to make America great again: you know, the one where carrots and sticks and "grit" are the primary tools of the trade. And, probably even more importantly, outside private corporations aren't growing rich from Finland's methods. No, the children are just growing up smarter, healthier, and happier. How does anyone turn a greasy buck from that?

It's quite clear that our political and business leaders have no interest in actual education. The evidence could not be more clear that these so-called "reformers" are only about imposing their will upon our schools and banking money from the labor of our children. It doesn't make sense any other way.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has taken a look at Finnish schools as part of his new movie "Where to Invade Next." Here is a clip from his visit with teachers.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

"I Don't Like That Idea"

I've written about a few of these sorts of tug-o-war conflicts lately (for instance, here and here). I hesitate to call each one a "gem," because they are, after all conflicts, but there is something both perfect and real about each one. Perhaps if they are gems, they are of the uncut variety.

We were cleaning up, when a pair of boys, found themselves in a conflict over a wooden truck.

W: "I'll help you put it away."

M: "I want to put it away by myself."

W: "I'll help you."

M: "No, I want to do it by myself!"

In fairness, as an adult judges it, M's hands had been on the toy first, but that isn't the point he was arguing. The boys appeared to be equally resolute, but there was more emotional energy on M's side. There was some tugging so I put my hand on the toy, a technique I like to use to help shift physical conflict into a conversation. Usually, the advent of my hand releases some tension, allowing them the space for dialog, but in this case it didn't work in that way they continued to pull on the truck.

I said, "M wants to put the toy away by himself."

W answered, "I want to help you." He was directing his comment directly at M, rather than through me. He was the calmer of the two, really making an effort to persuade his classmate.

M wasn't having it. He was on the verge of tears. With a sudden yank, he attempted to wrest control of the toy from both of us. I said, referring to the list of rules that hangs on the wall, "We all agreed that we couldn't take things from each other. That means we'll have to talk and not tug."

"But, I want to put it away by myself."

"I will help you."

By now the classroom was tidied up and the children were assembling on the checkerboard rug for circle time. S offered his idea, "You could both put it away together." When neither boy responded, I said, "S thinks you guys can put it away together."

W: "I like that idea."

M: "I don't like that idea."

After a few more rounds of stating their bedrock arguments, a calmer disagreement that allowed me to release my grip on the toy, R suggested, "Maybe one of you can take it some of the way and one of you can take it the rest of the way."

W: "I like that idea."

M: "I don't like that idea."

By now the two boys were in the middle of the rug while the rest of their classmates were more or less watching. I said, "Everybody is ready for circle time. We just have one more truck to put away and M and W are both holding it." At this point one of the other children made a loud joke about an unrelated topic, clearly ready to just get circle time started. I turned my attention toward laughing, just for a second, and when I looked back, W was putting the truck on the shelf while M sat on the rug looking defeated.

My first thought was that W had simply snatched it while my attentions were divided. I said, "W is putting the truck away by himself. M, is that okay with you?"

M nodded, "It's okay with me," his face a study in glumness. A parent-teacher later told me that there had been no snatching, that M had simply, without comment, released his grip.

My wife and I are currently dealing with a loved one who is in rapid physical and mental decline. We are having to make a lot of decisions on her behalf. We feel that there are no "good" choices. Indeed, we feel that in many cases there are not even any "less bad" choices: damned if we do and damned if we don't. I expect M felt a little bit like this as he was faced with the equally bad options of continuing to fight or giving up.

Resolving conflict isn't always pretty nor is it always "fair." Sometimes it's enough to just live to fight another day.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Broad Education

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education.  The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleagues will produce a group of closed-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, brethren! Be careful, teachers!  ~MLK

It's a small wonder, a miracle indeed, when they discover an aspect of "we," often at first stumbling across it like over a super cool toy left in the middle of the living room floor.

Even if it's as simple as saying, "We are going up here now." Even that gives me confidence about our future.

The ones with siblings just a little bit older tend to learn it first, the joy of connecting with another child, and find their classmates a little slow sometimes. These are the ones who might take the lead, practicing the sentences that begin with the invitation of "Let's . . .," working their human power to bring themselves together with those other suns around whom the universe so recently revolved.

This is the work we're here to do: to make me into we, because otherwise it makes no sense. 

There are things, so many things, over which to disagree. It's hard enough learning how to do that without having to also overcome closed minds that reject the universal language of objective "scientific" truth in favor of illogical propaganda. The same is to be said for that set of moral values we must share if we're to make this democracy work, let alone our day-to-day lives: non-violence, equal opportunity, fairness, the values without which the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply cannot be fulfilled.

It's true we attempt in school to transmit our "accumulated knowledge," but without also working diligently to transmit the "accumulated experience of social living," we risk creating sociopathic monsters, people rendered less human in their inability to join us in our work of making me into we. They instead seek to exploit, to use up, to devour their fellow man in a dangerously misguided attempt to fill up that abyss that opens inside each of us when we stand all alone in the world. If we don't fill it with love, it becomes a vacuum for wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

When a boy and a girl and a tiger find themselves together and one of them says, "Let's go up there," and then they all pick up, still together, and go up there, sitting once more together I see the work of we being done and I don't worry about our world so much.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Story Of A Life Well-Lived

Field trips are a fundamental part of what we do at the Woodland Park Cooperative School. Our 3's, 4-5's and kindergarten classes get out in the world together at least once a month, often more. I favor the sorts of excursions that we can make on public transportation because not only does it make things cheap (children 5 and under are free), but the kids are generally excited about a ride on the bus, even if they do it regularly with their families, often declaring it to be their "favorite part" of the outing. This is why we sometimes schedule field trips that are just riding public transportation -- bus, train, trolley, and monorail.

Yesterday, our 3's class took our second "Fremont ramble" field trip of the year, in which we just roamed around our neighborhood for a couple hours. I'm rapidly coming around to understanding that this is the best kind of field trip, one that keeps us close to home. I'm reminded of the "field trips" Mister Rogers used to take in his Neighborhood. It's the sort of thing that traditional schools might struggle to pull off, but being a cooperative, we had no problem creating a child to adult ratio of better than 3:1, which is what we enjoy on a typical day. So when traffic is heavy, as it often is in Fremont, we have plenty of adult hands to hold as we cross the busy streets.

We started off headed for a visit to the beloved Fremont Troll, but decided to first check out our new pocket park, The Troll's Knoll, which is tucked up against our end of the Aurora bridge. We've been watching it come together over the course of the last several months, but for most of us it was the first visit.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a brand new community pea patch at the top of the hill complete with a pair of soon to be installed large galvanized steel tubs that made terrific thunder drums. A sign indicated that one could "earn" a pea patch of your own by volunteering time and labor. I can't wait until those beds are full of green things.

We also discovered that The Troll's Knoll features a nice, grassy hill down which we ran, proving once again that one needn't install yet another garish, primary-colored "playground" to make a pocket-park fun. I can imagine regular trips here just to run down that hill.

The Troll is an old friend.

We clambered on his hands and slid down the long slope into which he's been installed, leaving long, smooth butt imprints in the dusty ground.

On the way down to the ship canal we stopped to watch a pair of diggers and a dump truck removing the last of the dirt from the deep, deep hole in which the Tableau Software headquarters will sit. If this is all we had set out to do, it would have been enough. We had already done and seen so much and we were only a couple blocks from the school.

When we got to Canal Park, we stopped at picnic tables near the houseboats for a snack of oranges and pretzels, still under the Aurora Bridge which by now soared mightily overhead.

A group of us discussed the nets that are currently hung under her. There is maintenance being done and we speculated that the nets where there to protect us in case one of the workers dropped a hammer from above. We then began to spot holes in the net through which hammers might potentially drop. This is where the famous Burke-Gilman mixed-use urban trail begins to track the ship canal and we thought it wise that the cyclists had thought to wear helmets, you know, because of the hammers.

We chose to finish eating at precisely the right moment because as we rounded the corner we found the Fremont Bridge drawn fully open to allow a large Coast Guard vessel to pass, probably on the way for maintenance somewhere around Lake Union.

It was both pulled and pushed by smart yellow tugs.

We waved at the seamen and they waved back at us.

Now it was time for us to climb the four-flights of stairs onto the Fremont Bridge itself. These are grated stairs, which I know make many adults irrationally nervous, especially as they near the top and can look down to see the ground far beneath their feet.

We called up and down the stairs to one another: "I'm standing on you!" and "Hey, you're walking on me!"

Once on the bridge we crossed it to the Queen Anne side, peering down into the water and cautiously stepping over the three-inch gap between the two side of the span that opens many times every day. We then pulled a U-turn and returned to The Center of the Universe.

Back down the stairs we went before continuing along the Burke-Gilman, the canal on one side, plied by rowers and small boats, and the offices of Google, Adobe, Getty Images, and the aforementioned Tableau, among others, on the other.

We arrived at the crazy concrete stairs, a privately-own public space amidst the offices, and there was no question we would climb them, but only after we'd stopped to sniff the calla lilies. At the top we found sculptures that we immediately labeled "astroids."

Of course, we climbed them, all the while bickering with one another, "Hey, you're pushing me!" "Give me more room!" "You're going to make me fall!"

We found the shrubbery full of excellent dens, cubbies, and forts.

It was an excellent place for a bit of impromptu hide-and-seek. We challenged ourselves on the stairs and railings.

On the way back to school, we paused to bask under the Fremont Rocket, hoping it didn't decide to launch itself as we stood there.

There were no toys anywhere along the way. There were no screens. There was no curriculum, no learning objectives, and no worries that we were falling behind on our test prep. No, what we were doing was so much more important than any of that: we were out in the world together, our world, experiencing it, sharing it, figuring it out.

The kids were engaged the entire time, asking questions, answering questions, explaining, theorizing, imagining, arguing, laughing, and we were doing it upon more or less their schedule. There were many flowers sniffed along the way.

This is what education is properly about, engaging the real world and the things and people we find there at the pace of our choosing. That we can do it in the company of our loving parents makes it even better.

We went out into the world, found both familiar and unfamiliar things, had a "wild rumpus," then returned tired, hungry, and satisfied. It's the story of a life well-lived.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

The Cure Is Going Outside

People often ask me how I feel about screen-based technology for young children. When it comes to the classroom, as soon as someone convinces me that children can learn something worthwhile -- anything worthwhile -- better via a screen than through, you know, actual hands-on experience, I'll be all for it. So far, this has not happened and since I'm all about state-of-the-art, evidence-based education, I would say I'm not a fan of screens as educational tools.

As far as home use is concerned, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends no television prior to two-years-old and strict limitations, including no TV in the bedroom, as children get older. When I was in college studying journalism, the addictive and narcotizing effects of TV viewing was already a well-known phenomenon, not to mention the other health dangers of too much TV.

When it comes to technology of the touch-screen variety, however, no one really knows because it's simply too new and there is little reliable research. Believe it or not, the iPad was only introduced in 2010 and if you're like me, you weren't an early adopter, so most of us have only had these devices in our lives for five years or so, a blip on our personal timelines, yet a lifetime for our youngest citizens. Most pediatricians are applying the "not before two-years-old" to these screens as well.  It's not based upon science, but rather caution.

No, the real science is being performed on our own children, in our own homes, and, increasingly, in our own schools, where a generation of children is being raised to "swipe," "click," and "scroll." It's doing something to their developing brains, that much we know, but we won't know what until these involuntary guinea pigs are adults. Naturally, this worries me. And I'm not the only one.

Dr. Victoria L. Dunkley, writing in Psychology Today on the explosion of major mental-health diagnoses in young children such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, and the ineffectiveness of traditional treatments such as therapy and medication, suggests that many of the symptoms can be connected to everyday use of electronics.

Children's brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn't take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Also, many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time -- internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming -- isn't harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because it's more likely to cause hyperarousal and compulsive use.

According to Dr. Dunkley, screen-time disrupts sleep, is addictive (comparing it to cocaine), provides "light at night" (which is linked to depression), creates a vicious cycle of stress reactions (which leads to a negative affect on mood), can lead to explosive or aggressive behavior, and tends to replace time spent outdoors which seems to provide a kind of antidote to too much screen time (restored attention, lower stress, and reduced aggression).

Some of Dr. Dunkley's conclusions are based upon solid research and some is more anecdotal, which is to be expected. As a person who strives to rely upon evidence, I'm still waiting. As a person who works with young children, however, I'm worried about this generation of guinea pigs. I understand, of course, that this technology is not going anywhere and an absolute ban isn't going to happen for most families. That said, it is important that we all make ourselves aware of the symptoms of an "overdose" and that at least part of the cure is going outside. 

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Friday, April 22, 2016

"Please Don't Enter"

Exclusion is a type of power play that comes up every year in our 4-5's class. It's a hard one to discuss with children, I think, largely because there's so much gray area in there. I mean, we exclude people every time we close and lock the door to our homes, when we don't pick up that hitchhiker, when the bathroom is occupied, when there simply isn't enough physical space, when we have a girl's/boy's night out. Children know that we do exclude one another from time to time and figuring out the nuances between appropriate and inappropriate exclusion is the work of many years -- for some the work of a lifetime.

In a larger sense, I would assert that what we value as a society is freedom from arbitrary exclusion, such as that based upon things like religion, skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, while we retain the right to exclude people who hurt us, who damage our property, who will not play by the agreed upon rules, or who engage other "anti-social" behaviors. But even within that there is so much gray area that it's difficult to talk about, especially when we consider that we also value our right to freely associate with whom we choose. One person's righteous rebellion is another person's crime against society. Some see great value in, say, a "women only" club, while others see it as discriminatory. Some find unity through associations based on religion or ethnicity, while others see these same affiliations as nefarious. I have my opinions about these things, and you have yours, but whatever the case we all know that it's an ongoing discussion that, at bottom, is about fairness.

A couple years ago, a group of nursing students visited our classroom as part of their coursework, for the purpose of presenting to us about the importance of hand washing. As part of demonstrating the proper technique they wanted to ask for four volunteers. I knew this would be a problem. One of the unspoken, yet bedrock tenants of our community sense of fairness is that everyone who wants a turn eventually gets a turn. I'm glad they prepared me. I didn't want these poor nursing students to bear the brunt of the children's disappointment so I offered to do the selecting. I made a set of cards, each of which bore the name of one of the children. I put them behind my back and randomly choose the names. Everyone didn't get a turn, everyone didn't get to go first, but this method at least gave everyone an equal chance of being chosen.

Still, several kids objected, although we plowed forward for the sake of the nursing students. I later made a point of returning to the topic, however. I explained as best I could why I felt I'd been fair. One boy in particular disagreed. At first I thought he was basing his opinion on the classic preschool argument that it wasn't fair simply because he had not been selected, but as we dug deeper it was clear that he felt it was unfair that I'd held the cards behind my back. He would have felt better about it had I fanned the cards in front of me, face down, then let everyone see how I'd randomly selected the cards: in other words, more transparency. Fair enough.

Most years, the children democratically adopt the Vivian Gussin Paley rule from her book by the same name: You can't say you can't play.  I usually have to suggest this particular language, but I try to wait until the children have expressed, in their own words, a desire for some sort of agreement around the powerful ideas of exclusion and inclusion. But just because we usually wind up agreeing to this rule, it by no means ends the discussion about exclusion. On the contrary, it usually marks the beginning of the discussion.

The day after our nursing student visit, a group of boys gathered in a remote corner of the outdoor classroom, a place where children rarely strayed, a tight little space up amongst the laurels, steep enough that it's difficult to stand, hemmed in on two sides by a fence. When a younger boy tried to join them, they told him he couldn't come in. I saw it happening, but one of our parent-teachers was closer at hand and she stepped in by reminding everyone of our rule. They reluctantly let the younger boy attempt to fit his body into the tiny, crowded space, but when he found no room, he, on his own, chose to play elsewhere.

I had a brief chat with the older boys myself, re-iterating the rule. One of them said, "There's no place for more people."

I answered, "Yes, it does look like your bodies are already taking up all the space."

They huddled up there for quite some time in their tiny, out-of-the-way space. No one else made any effort to join them. Then I heard them chanting, "Please don't enter. Please don't enter. Please don't enter." It made me, from a distance, laugh. Their stern command had become a polite request. It's as good a compromise as I've ever seen. It's an ongoing discussion. Fair enough.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Threats, Lies, and Punishment

Hundreds of thousands of American parents have opted their children out of the high stakes standardized tests that are sucking the joy and, indeed, the actual education out of our public schools. This is is a powerful, successful mass movement, one that continues to grow as more and more of us come to understand that these tests are an enormous waste of time, measure little more than socio-economic class, are developmentally inappropriate for elementary-aged children, and cause undue stress and anxiety for our youngest citizens and their families without providing benefit for anyone other than the "education" companies that make millions off of the testing regime.

Yesterday, a former Woodland Park parent who has chosen to protect her son from this plague by opting him out for the past three years, received this form letter from the school district:

What if my child doesn't take the assessment?

Students who do not take the assessment receive a score of zero.

Families who refuse to allow their children to participate in assessments, including Smarter Balanced, must submit the refusal in writing, signed and dated, to go in the student's permanent record file. Parents or guardians must submit this refusal annually. Families may use this refusal form, or submit a clear written and signed document. Refusals should be submitted to the child's principal. 

Here are consequences:

  • Students who do not participate will receive a "zero" score on the assessment and no score report for teachers or families to view.
  • A zero will negatively impact the school's overall results.
  • Refusals jeopardize the school district's federal funding.
  • Teachers will not receive results that could be used as a tool to measure the student's academic growth.
  • Families will not receive results that will enable them to chart the student's growth over time.
  • Beginning in 2016-2017, Smarter Balanced will be used as the achievement measure for Highly Capable eligibility. In order to be designated as Highly Capable or as an Advanced Learner, multiple criteria are considered, including but not limited to measures of both cognitive and achievement abilities. If a student goes through the Highly Capable referral process, but refuses to participate in Smarter Balanced testing in 2016-2017, the student will not meet all of the criteria for Highly Capable services or the Spectrum program. Note that families in this case will have the option to appeal the decision.
  • High school juniors without assessment results will not be eligible for the remedial testing waiver offered by state colleges (see above).
  • Students who do not participate will receive supervision but not instruction during assessment time.

Although it's not as bad as it could be, I suppose, this parent described it, accurately, as "fear mongering." Raising the specter of "zero" scores, evoking the infamous "permanent record," and suggesting barriers to entering highly capable programs might be laughable to those of us whose children aren't directly involved, but I can only imagine the emotions these threats would evoke were I the child's parent.

Right across the country, public schools are pushing back against the opt out movement by engaging in a campaign of threats, lies, and punishment in order to force children to take these unnecessary, ineffective, and in many cases damaging test.

Earlier this week, a friend who teaches in a local public school told me of a meeting in which a parent was reduced to tears at the thought to subjecting her son to one of these tests. She pleadingly asked if her son really had to take the SBA test and was lied to both through implication ("Everybody in the whole state takes the test") and omission (teachers and administrators are not allowed to tell parents that they have the right to opt out their children). A mother wrote recently to tell me that after she opted her daughter out of testing, she was told her child would be punitively excluded from a celebratory end-of-testing ice cream party. Some children who receive "supervision but not instruction" during testing time are required to "sit and stare," a particularly cruel punishment for young children.

It's time to bring an end to this era of high stakes standardized testing abuse and opting out is the best way to bring that about. And despite their best efforts, we are winning. Last year, over a quarter of a million parents saw through the threats, lies, and punishments and took a stand against these tests that are devouring our schools. For more information and support, contact the Network for Public Education:

Message from Diane Ravitch about Opt Out from Shoot4Education on Vimeo.

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