A Year of Homeschooling

June 10, 2015

We wore out this reading book.

We wore out this reading book.

Back in the fall, we started homeschooling Simone for a variety of reasons, many I made clear in an editorial that, apparently, everyone in the world read. So, I won’t talk about how it got started. Rather, I’ll talk about how it went.

At the beginning we started by using a series of books called Everything Your ___ Grader Should Know. Cate was homeschooled on these, and it seemed a logical place to start. We more or less threw out the kindergarten book right away. Simone already knew all of it. That’s going to sound like bragging or something, but it’s really just the truth. There was nothing there we needed to cover with her beyond a few basic social studies concepts. So, it was on to the first grade book.

The first grade material had real meat. You learn to read in the first grade. You start to learn real math and so on and so forth. In the beginning, things went pretty well, we were trucking along. And then James happened.

James spent most of the school year in a phase called, I AM A TWO-YEAR-OLD DEMON. This made schooling pretty hard and a lot of it got put off until after I was home from work when one of us could go over things with her while the other ran interference. It took us a while to adapt and there was a good month there where I felt like we did a pretty crappy job, but eventually we got a system figured out and Simone quickly got back on track.

Later in the year, Simone provided her own challenges. A lot of learning has come easy for her and when something was a little hard, she wanted to quit. Some fits were thrown, but we managed to find a way around. We both knew that was going to be the challenge with her. Most things come easy to Simone and when they don’t, she’s pretty inclined to walk away.

IMG_0695Having reached the end of the year, she’s just reached the beginning of second-grade reading and she’s started working on second-grade math. She’s very deep into lots of science concepts, especially biology, where she’s always on me to teach her about evolution (yes, really). And, she has her own library card!

This sounds more perfect and serene than it is. There are definitely areas where we need to improve. I feel like we could do a better job with her arts education and we definitely need to do a better job with history and social studies next year. I stand by our decision, however, and we plan to continue homeschooling for the foreseeable future. The world is still too testing-obsessed, and we enjoyed being able to adapt ourselves to her interests. It meant that she stayed in engaged in learning the whole year, and even if we struggled at times and even if we ended up with some tantrums and tattered books, it has all worked out for the best, so far.

Technology in the Classroom

January 17, 2015

Recently, I had a discussion about technology in the classroom on Twitter. I love Twitter, but as is well known, it can be hard to fully articulate ideas on Twitter, and so , here we are. Blog post time.

I am not opposed to technology in the classroom. We should get that out of the way first. I’m not that stodgy. But, like everything, it isn’t an inherent good. The problem with technology in the classroom comes when people assume that all technology aids learning. Learning is about thinking. And you don’t need a computer for that. In fact, there is a recent study that shows that taking notes by hand instead of on a computer, for instance, enhances learning because it requires the note taker to think hard about what to write.

What technology can do is improve access. It makes it easier for teachers and students to access materials.

However, as we have seen, technology is not a required element in learning, and one problem comes with attempts to enforce it as a requirement. In order to use technology in the sense most people expect, you need one of two things: extremely reliable and high quality network access with in a school OR a full population of students with good access to technology. There are parts of the country, no doubt, where this is the case. However, given the percentage of US children who live in poverty, it is not, generally speaking, a reasonable assumption. Further, I can tell you from personal experience that trying to integrate technology is almost always frustrating. It goes something like this: “Hey, I put together this great interactive thing for you all to do, so we’re going down to the lab… Oh, wait, the internet’s down.” And, because the school day progresses, it’s not something that can be returned to. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The other major problem with technology in the classroom is that a great deal of what’s out there has very little to do with education. Rather, it’s all about measuring. What did your child do today? How well did they do it? Did they sit still? These are the kinds of things that really don’t deal in actual learning. Further, they encourage achievement learning instead of mastery learning. This is bad.

For those who don’t know, achievement learning is all about grades. It’s all about doing well enough to get a check mark or an A or whatever, and once you get that, you stop. You’re done. Mastery learning is about, well, mastering a topic. It involves taking on intentionally difficult tasks with the idea that you will learn from your experiences and even – gasp! – your failures. Mastery learning is not compatible with a system that penalizes effortful failure, which is what all the metric programs do.

Those same metric programs, I can promise you, are almost always pushed on educators by non-educators. The government line right now, is that all students can be measured by how they do on a test. These same officials, of course, almost universally send their children to private schools, which do none of the standardized testing you see in public schools.

The point is that, if you see something from a school about a new way to track your student’s progress, it can probably be ignored. Instead, talk to your kids. Kids, you will find, are much better at telling you what’s going on than a decidedly un-nuanced number.

Technology is important, and it does have its uses in the classroom, but just as a few decades ago, educational videos seemed like a great classroom tool, we are likely overstating its importance. What kids really need is meaningful interaction with their parents, teachers, and peers. When that happens – whether it is aided by technology or not – learning can happen.

Does This Matter?

May 16, 2014

Holy Crap Reader,

I have not written a new post in a long time. The last thing to go up here was on the Alfredo Simon rape accusations. That was a pretty weird thing. I posted it here because it went up, then down, then back up at Redleg Nation where I have been writing about Reds baseball for several years. It probably generated as much notoriety as anything I’ve ever written, which surprises me, even though ti shouldn’t. All I did was lay out the facts and demonstrate that if someone says an athlete raped them, they are very, very likely to be telling the truth. This caused an uproar because we live in a a strange world.

Which actually kind of leads into some other thoughts I’ve been having. It has struck me, recently, how crowded the internet is. There are so many people talking so much about every topic you can imagine that nearly anything one does is already being done somewhere else. It makes it even more inexcusable that so much of what is in the mainstream is so terrible. I generally think that what I put up is well-thought and well-written, but I worry about adding to the cacophony. It’s had me thinking about ceasing to blog anywhere at all. That’s probably not going to happen. I’m too much of a producer for that. But it might.

Further life musings…

Things are approaching mellow in my life (sort of). Cate has a new business and it’s getting off the ground pretty well and making us a little more financially relaxed than we ever have been. We’ve been secure for a long time, but it’s been tight a lot. It’s nice to be able to buy a book or an album and not have to feel guilty about it.

Of course, fewer monetary concerns are pretty much the only thing making my life more mellow. I’ve been going like crazy on the book (new chapter coming soon) because I really want it put to bed by the end of June so I can have one solid month of no responsibilities. Writing in serial has been very interesting. I’m still gathering my thoughts about it, but I know I’ll be glad when I’m done.

My daughter is about to turn five, and that seems impossible.

It is almost summer vacation. I love teaching except for the last month of every school year when I want all of education to burn down. I am tired. I want to sleep in some.

That’s all for now. See you sooner or later.

Trees as Metaphor

January 31, 2014

Hello Reader,

The school where I teach is very large and in the center of the complex, there is a small courtyard. Until last year, the courtyard was lined with maybe half a dozen large, healthy oak trees. I could see them from the window in my classroom, and it was nice to look out on in the spring and late summer. Our school is one of those built in the 1960s to accommodate the baby boom. These schools were built quickly and cheaply and they mark a stark line in the construction of school buildings. Before the boom, schools were often beautiful buildings made of limestone or brick. You’ve seen them somewhere. Think of the most beautiful school or former school building you’ve seen. Odds are, it’s from before the baby boom.

So, our school is in’t much to look at, and that always made the trees that much nicer because they blocked some of the view. They greened it up a little. Made it feel a little nicer. In my experience, trees do that.

Since last year, they’ve been slowly cutting them down. The last one is being taken down now. The branches have been taken off one by one. Soon, the main forks will come off and, in a day or two, the trunk. I don’t know the official reason for this, but given that the tree were perfectly healthy, there can be only one – the fear that a storm may come along and blow one or more of the trees down, thus resulting in costly damage to the school.

The result is a decidedly less enjoyable place for me, and, I assume, the students. The grounds look bleak now. All cheap brick and corrugated metal roofing. It is hard not to see this as a metaphor for what is happening in education now. Math. Reading. Math. Reading. MathReadingMathReadingMath. Public school children, is a factory, and you re the product. You are the worker bees of tomorrow. Enjoyment is irrelevant. Self-examination and growth. Creative expression. These are also irrelevant. Your comfort does not matter. We must avoid risk. We must produce a product as consistent in its quality as a fast food hamburger. Never mind the taste.

Am I pushing this too far? Maybe I am. But then, I’m a teacher, and I know what’s going on in schools. I know that electives are being cut. I know that extracurriculars are being cut. I know that our trees are being cut.

Now, I have a task for you. The next time you drive past a private school, take a look at it. These are the best schools we have, much better than public (at least, this is what many legislators are telling us). Do you think they have electives? What about extracurricular activities? What does the school building look like? Do they have trees?

Tomorrow is the last day of work for two weeks and I am stoked. You see, despite generally liking my job, I’m pretty sick of it right now and am ready for a break.

OH NOES! A teacher just admitted to not liking his job every day. I guess I should be fired now.

I tend to insulate myself from the “teachers must be perfect” nonsense, but Cate, for some reason, has run across a fair bit of it lately, and I thought I’d write a little post about how stupid that is. Ready? Here it is:

Very. That is very stupid.

You see, dear reader, much like you, I have many faces. There is work face. There is dad face. There is husband face. There is writer face. All of these are part of who I am, but some are farther from the truth than others (husband face is certainly closest to the truth). Work face Jason (usually) keeps his cool and doesn’t yell too much and rolls with the punches. Husband face Jason often rants to his wife about how he can’t believe how much griping he has heard about some absurdly easy assignment. That same Jason also will admit that he doesn’t like all of his students the same amount (though all versions of me try very hard to not show favoritism).

This is called being human. I run into very few people who think I should be perfect all the time and love all children. But they exist. There are people out there who think that if a teacher complains about a student, then that is a bad teacher.

Let me ask you something? Do you have kids? Ever complain about them? Are you a bad parent?

You see, kids can be aggravating. They can be especially aggravating when they are someone else’s and you don’t have the power to take away their phone and lock them in a room until they finish their homework. I know this is part of the job and usually I can deal, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get to be irritated sometimes. Everyone gets irritated by things they generally like from time to time. So, if you ever hear of a teacher griping about students and you feel compelled to jump on them, just don’t. Unless, of course, you never complain about your job or your children. Then I guess you probably need to let everyone know how it is you manage to be so perfect.

A Year of Work

November 26, 2013

Regular readers will remember that I spent last school year working constantly on my National Board certification. Nation Boards are really hard. They’re kind of famously hard in the teaching community. The initial pass rate is only 48% and 25-30% of candidates never pass.

But I’d heard great things from people who’d been through the process and there was a substantial raise involved, so I went for it. On Saturday, I learned that I’d passed with some room to spare. Hooray for me.

What was really cool though, in looking at my scores, was what they said about my teaching. They weren’t perfect (of course not), but the things they said about my classroom work were pretty glowing. One of the things you have to get used to as a teacher is that you constantly feel as though you are failing. Teenagers can be a pain in the butt and they often don’t work as hard as you want them to and you always remember the ones who didn’t make it or didn’t turn in the assignment or whatever and you wonder what you could have done differently.

Anyway, the scores I got were a pretty big stamp of approval on how I handle the actual act of teaching (there are other things involved in the certification as well), and that made me feel wonderful. It may be the last time in my career that I get that kind of pat on the back from an independent entity.

I’ve lived enough of life to know that hardwork doesn’t always pay off. That sometimes, you work really hard and all anyone does is shrug their shoulders. But sometimes, it works out, and you can start thinking about buying a better house in a nicer neighborhood and for a few days, life doesn’t seem so arduous. It’s nice.


November 19, 2013

I don’t know what it is about English and writing. In math, it’s understood that the way you learn is to practice. Pay attention as a concept is explained and then practice it over and over. It’s the same in history and science. You study. Maybe you go visit a historical site or you do a lab experiment. Those are both practice.

But with reading and writing, people don’t quite seem to get that it works the same way. Even among educational materials, there are a whole lot of “new strategies” that seem to offer a magical formula for better understanding a text or writing better essays.

It filters down. A great many of my students want to believe there is a magic trick to understanding a poem or a story. But you can’t just punch numbers into a calulator. In order to properly understand metaphor, read closely lots of poems and stories that use it. In order to become a better writer, write often and revise constantly.

I teach several different classes. Today, in one, a writing class, they spent the entire class working on one paragraph they had already written with the directive that none of it should be merely “acceptable.” That’s a hard thing to do. Students don’t want to be told (over and over again) that they can do better. And they don’t want to spend 70 minutes working on a single paragraph. But let me tell you something, by the end of class, there were some really good paragraphs, and I think they got it. I think they understood the work of writing a little bit. Sometimes you have to struggle to get anything worth keeping.

In another class, we spent half an hour on a pretty simple ten line poem. We’re learning about metaphor and how it’s used to convey the theme of a poem. They can all spot metaphor, but they can’t usually tell you why it’s there. That’s my job. It takes time and they get frustrated, but if they try, they get better.

It’s practice. Everything is practice. If I teach my students anything, I hope it’s that.

Of Course We’ll Forget

September 11, 2013

I posted this a year ago, but I’m re-posting because I was late with it last year and because, if I ever have anything significant to say about today, this is it…

Every year, I do a lesson in my creative writing classes where I have students plot events from their life on a timeline and then events from the world at large. They combine one of each to make a poem. It’s a good assignment and the poems I get are normally pretty solid.

My students are getting younger. Okay, not really, but I’m getting older. This year, I had students who were born in 1998. That is the year I graduated from high school. It is also three years before 9/11.

Most years, when I’ve done the exercise above, a lot of kids have chosen to write about September 11th. And I can’t blame them. It’s certainly the single most significant world event of my lifetime.  But this year, there was a big drop off in mentions of September 11th. Why? Because half of my students (maybe more than half) don’t remember it. They were alive, but only barely. If they do remember it, it’s hazy. The emotions associated with it are more of confusion than tragedy and might even range into indifference. And I don’t have a problem with it.

When I was a kid, you heard all the time about the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor. These were the days our parents and grandparents remembered. When it came up, you sat quietly and listened to them tell stories about where they were when… and you failed to grasp the gravity of the event.

I remember everything about that day. I could describe it in minutest detail. I won’t because it wouldn’t be much different from the recountings of everyone else in America who wasn’t directly affected.

I will mention Professor Milder and Paul Winner. Professor Milder was the single best teacher I have ever had. I took every class I could with him in college and he was the one who made me understand what all the stuff I’d been told as a kid meant. We didn’t really have class the first day we went back. Instead, we talked. Professor Milder told us that this would be our Kennedy assassination. This was the thing that would, in some ways, define our generation. And this was the thing that those who came after us would fail to understand. Something that was incomprehensible at the time.

Paul Winner was my fiction writing teacher. He’s the only teacher I’ve ever had who I still have occasional contact with. He was in his late 20s when he taught me and had no more context for what happened than we did. And it was Paul who made me understand what we all felt. He spoke about how comforting it was when David Letterman came back on television. And it was comforting because it meant life would go forward. Silly as it may seem, there was doubt about this among those of us who were young.

And none of my youngest students understand this. They have no grasp of what it meant or what it felt like. It is part of my personal history, but for them, it’s just a piece of history not much different from Pearl Harbor. It happened. It’s important. But they don’t know. And because they don’t know, we are already forgetting.

I hate seeing “Never Forget” plastered all over the place every year. I hate it because it is so often plastered on cars and billboards and everything that is utterly forgettable and disposable. I hate it because it is insulting. I am never going to forget, and I don’t need to be reminded. I hate it because many of my students have already forgotten in the sense that they never had a chance to remember. Pretending it should have some extra importance for them – that it should approach the significance it has for those of us who were witness to it – is absurd.

It won’t take long. Another fifteen or twenty years and that day will just be history. There will be people close to the age I am now who weren’t alive for it. Once a year, we’ll trot out survivors to talk about how terrible it was, but otherwise, the world will have moved on.

I don’t think this is a bad thing because I don’t think anything good can come from heaping the sorrows of past generations upon yourself. Each generation will have its own collective sorrows. My grandfather was in WWII, but I never really knew the impact of Pearl Harbor because I wasn’t there.

So let these kids forget. They will have their own tragedies. And if they don’t? If nothing that resonates in that horrible way happens for them? Well, I can’t imagine anything better.

Tear Down the System

August 9, 2013

I haven’t written about education or education policy for a while. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. Rather, I’ve been mulling.

I have seen an uptick recently in education stories talking about accountability, and I want to explain why accountability will never work.

Level One: All teachers. Indeed all people who are willing to pay attention at all are told that the primary goal is make students Life Long Learners. People who will continue to seek out knowledge and improve themselves free of outside motivators. Everyone agrees this is what education should be all about because people learn best when they are self-motivated.

Level Two: It is agreed upon that there are certain things kids should know and we should make sure to squeeze these in. As with level one, there tends to be general agreement here. It’s why pretty much the whole country has adopted the same set of standards.

Level Three: Someone up high notices that not all kids know the stuff they are supposed to know and goes looking for a solution. The solution is tests. This is where the word “accountability” usually shows up for the first time.

Level Four: Schools, realizing that much of their funding is tied to performance on these tests start paying a whole lot of attention to the stuff kids are supposed to know AND to how that’s going to be presented on the test. Suddenly, assessment is REALLY important.

Now, let me ask you a question: When has being told that there is going to be a test ever made you excited to learn about anything? If there is enough riding on it, it might make you scared. But excited? No. When that test is over you are out of there. Then imagine that was the only experience you ever had with learning. It was always about the test. Always about the assessment. Never a free leash. Never exploration.

Education has become divorced from everything that makes learning enjoyable. Too many places in our society have forgotten all about level one and how valuable it is. They’ve forgotten, that when we are at our best, teachers are little more than guides helping kids find their way as they explore. Keeping them from getting stuck for too long. Instead, we are supposed to ensure that they perform to a certain level on the state mandated tests which are also mandate by the federal government and tied to federal funds.

So what you end up with is a perfect correlation wherein the schools with the most privileged populations do the best and those with the least privileged do the worst. Learning isn’t fun at school, so unless someone else teaches you about it, you’ll never know it can be fun. And what kid wants to do things that aren’t fun.

Finnish children are not assessed or given homework until they are 13.  They are never given course grades like we do here. Imagine that. Doesn’t it sound like more fun? Go to school, try to figure something out. Don’t worry about your grade. Just worry about learning.

Many places in America have totally forgotten the point of education. It’s not about standards or memorization. It’s about learning to think for yourself. Sometimes, I want to take down individual policies or particular strategies, but this is really all it comes down to. We took all the joy out of learning. We made it a chore. No kid has ever wanted to do chores. Adults don’t want to either. Talk about teaching responsibility and whatnot all you want, but it needs to be fun and it needs to not be about the tests. They’re just kids.

More Than I Can Do

May 30, 2013

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was heavy into a deep love affair with the blues. Like so many that age who love something deeply, I found it impossibly absurd that others not only didn’t share my love but were incapable of being persuaded. I mean, Buddy Guy, listen to that guitar. Have you ever heard anything like it? How can you not love the way Robert Cray sings? And Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters! Come on, how do you not hear it?

Today, I bid farewell to my first class of AP seniors. I believe this class was the best I’ve ever been as a teacher. It was perfectly suited to my talents. But, like all classes, it felt like a failure.

I think what makes me a good teacher can be traced back to that feeling I had about the blues in college. I loved it so much and I believed with fervor that others should love it, too.

I feel the same way about great literature. The difference is that, in college, I was twenty and trying to convince others who were twenty that I was right and they were wrong. Now, I am thirty-two, trying to convince a bunch of eighteen-year-olds that I am right. It’s a tall task. They don’t want to listen to me. But I do have enough authority to make them at least pretend to take my opinion seriously.

I know, I absolutely know, that I did not convince many of the students in that class that reading was valuable for anything other than getting a good grade in English. A few days before the end of class, one student flat out told me she did not like reading and would never read unless she absolutely had to.

I failed that student. And, I’ll confess, I don’t know how not to fail students like that from time to time. I can give them reason. I can give them passion. I can even give them a grade. I can’t force their minds open. I can’t make them believe like I want them to believe. That is more than I can do.

However, I can keep caring. And I can notice the difference when I have them reread a book and they come to me excited about all the new stuff they noticed. I can feel good when some of them tell me, earnestly, that a book I assigned is the best book they have ever read – that it is their favorite book. Some of those kids were already readers and some of them weren’t, but they all listened.

I don’t know what makes some kids listen and some just care about the grade. I don’t know why so many don’t know that there’s a difference between an A that comes from trying and caring and an A that comes from wanting an A.

I do know that it matters when I stand up in front of them and tell them that the book we are about to read is great. It matters that I believe the books we read can change lives. I didn’t get all of them this year. I won’t get all of them next year. I’ll keep failing, but right now, that seems okay.