Weighing the Pressures of Preparing for the “Next Level”

“They have no study skills.”

“They’re so unprepared for college studying, like organizing lecture notes.”

“Those high school teachers are letting my kids retake tests, and it’s making them lazy.”

These were a few sentiments I heard among a few other parents (one of whom was a college professor) while waiting to pick up our kids. That teachers just aren’t sufficiently preparing students for the next level.

This has had me asking myself tough questions ever since. A lot of them.

Like this one: Amid all my soap-box preaching about student ownership, what if, after all we do to teach our children to own their learning, they find that somewhere down the line, ownership is impossible?

When we try to focus more on powerful learning & less on “doing school,” are we doing our students a disservice for later expectations?

Where’s the line between building our kids up for what’s coming, and focusing on all their developmental needs now?

Or even, if I want my 1st grader to someday get into the university of her dreams, shouldn’t I do all I can to help her get “ahead of the curve” starting now? 

But then…

I see articles like this that suggest that kids who wait to start kindergarten for a year have fewer problems with ADHD & hyperactivity. Which makes me think (especially since kindergarten is the new first grade) that all this prep for the next level is perhaps taking its toll already.

And I see posts like Taryn Bond-Clegg’s sharing her dream of a system that supports rather than hinders a culture of student agency. Which makes me think that every action that focuses more on the here-&-now of our student’s needs helps us move closer toward a better system.

And then I see articles like this that remind us all that best practices are always the bottom line for the present:

We do not sacrifice good instruction because those in upper levels are not there yet. Instead, we employ what we know works, and we spend time mentoring those above us in what we do.

 

I still don’t have all the answers. But in the end, maybe college level study-skills can just — wait until college…

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A Provocation into Online Research, Media Litearcy, & #FakeNews

The content for this week’s provocation began with me investigating all this viral talk on #FakeNews. The more I researched, the more I came to two conclusions:

1. The need for educators to help students discern accurate sources is not new, though the stakes are getting higher if we don’t succeed.

2. Rather than focusing on the current FakeNews frenzy, it’s more valuable for us to step back and examine the big concepts surrounding the issue.

So yes, this provocation is useful if you’re wanting to talk to your students about Fake News. But more importantly, it’s more useful for helping your students recognize all that online research entails: the good, the bad, the ugly, and why all that matters for them.

Resource #1: “Where Things Come From”

Resource #2: What IS Media Literacy?

Resource #3: What is Media Literacy?

Another resource from TED_Ed on verifying factual news.

Provocation Questions:

  • Why do we ask questions?
  • How does online research compare with other research (from books, newspapers, etc.)?
  • How has online research changed over the years?
  • What is the power of information that can spread quickly?
  • What is our responsibility to cite and share accurate information?
  • Why are there different perspectives on what sources are trustworthy?
  • What role does social media play in research?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Inspiring Inquiry: On Refugees

I’ve shared resources about refugees before, but a new piece has recently captured my attention.

It consists of a series of photos of refugee high school students relocated in Boise, Idaho. Depending on the ages of your students, the article itself might be a little beyond your students, but the captions for each photo were what interested me most. There is something powerful about viewing a picture of seemingly ordinary teens alongside their stories that are anything but ordinary.

Provocation Questions:

  • What is the value of sharing our stories?
  • How does the process of refugee relocation work?
  • Why are there refugees?
  • What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?
  • What challenges do refugees face, even after they are settled in a new, safe home?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

4 Reasons To Add The Seventh Wish To Your Upper Elementary Shelves

 

Nothing made me want to read Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish more than when I first heard it had been censored from certain schools. Plus, having witnessed the devastating effects of drug abuse in loved ones myself as a child, I was anxious to see her approach to such a difficult subject for younger readers.

And she exceeded all expectations. Here are four reasons you should add this book to your elementary school libraries and read aloud lists this year:

It’s a realistic fiction with a touch of fantasy your kids will love

One would be justified in worrying about how to address drug addiction in a realistic fiction for kids–how to avoid dwelling on its dark and all-encompassing realities while also avoiding an overly light-hearted tone that minimizes those realities? Messner masterfully achieves this by weaving the subject through other realistic and highly-relatable themes: feeling noticed by parents, helping friends who struggle with school or home, and pursuing dreams in sports. And to cap it off, she gets readers imagining what would happen to these if you found a magical wish-granting fish. She goes on to illustrate the impact on all these when a family member gets caught up with drugs, including a powerful parallel depicting the dangers of believing there’s any silver bullet that can solve our problems.

For the many lonely kids for whom drug addiction in a loved one is already a reality, it gives validation, hope, and courage.

Messner shared one librarian’s reasoning for pulling the book from her shelves:

“It’s not that I don’t think heroin addiction is extremely important. Our community has faced its share of heartbreaking stories in regards to drug abuse but fourth and fifth graders are still so innocent to the sad drug world. Even two years from now when they’re in sixth grade this book will be a wonderful and important read but as a mother of a fourth grader, I would never give him a book about heroin because he doesn’t even know what that is. I just don’t think that at 10 years old he needs to worry about that on top of all of the other things he already worries about… For now, I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.”

But the devastating truth is that we can’t control what our 10 and 11 year-olds’ biggest worries are–and it’s unfair to ignore that drug addiction in family members is already the reality for far too many.

In the story, Messner validates those realities young kids face: the loneliness and embarrassment. The deception and theft. The pain of watching your loved one slip away. We cannot know how many of our students face this daily. But the real question is how many could be encouraged by this story’s message to know that they are not alone and that they can find a safe place to talk about how they’re feeling?

Furthermore, in the event that drug abuse has thankfully not yet touched the life of a younger child, this book will help him/her develop both awareness and empathy for their friends that have or will feel its impact.

It helps kids catch a glimpse of what true resilience looks like.

“But there’s no answer for this one. Mom didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s not fair. Life has rules, and if you follow them, things are supposed to work out.

If you place in all your dances, you get to move up to the next level.

If you brush your teeth, you’re not supposed to get cavities.

If you love your kids and take care of them and send them to a good college, they’re not supposed to stick needles in their arms.

But I guess it doesn’t work that way. None of this is working the way it should. Because Abby was stupid enough to try drugs.”

So much of what happens in life is out of our control–a fact kids know better than most. If we try to perpetuate the “fairness” of life in the name of protecting our kids, we only rob them of a developed sense of resilience when that false dichotomy is challenged.  

It breaks away from the stereotypes of drug abuse users in typical D.A.R.E. programs

“We learned about heroin in the D.A.R.E. Program, when Officer Randolph came to talk to all the fifth graders about drugs. We had to watch a movie, and in the heroin part, these raggedy, greasyhaired people were sitting around a smoky room, sticking needles in their arms.”

Charlie keeps returning to the fact that that as a great sister, student, and athlete, Abby had never looked like the people in those videos, which makes the entire situation much more shocking and difficult for her to understand. But Messner’s decision to depict a user from a stable, loving family helps readers gain broader perspective that drug abuse doesn’t just happen to “those people,” but that it is a choice made by individuals everywhere.

I believe that sharing books that provide such a perspective would have a more powerful and long-lasting effect when it comes to drug prevention.

Have you read The Seventh Wish yet? Please share your impressions below!

featured image: John Liu

Current Events, a Controversial Read Aloud, & Changes I Can Make to Better Promote Peace

Nearly five years ago, I selected One Crazy Summer for my fifth graders’ end-of-day read aloud. In it, three young sisters are sent to spend a summer with their mother in Oakland, California in 1968, amidst intense developments in the civil rights movement. While the themes of the book are many, race is a prominent issue, mostly presented through the girls’ involvement with a Black Panthers day camp.

As I taught in a mostly middle-class white suburban area, I viewed the book as a great opportunity to discuss civil rights. Still in the naivety of second-year teaching, I was surprised when one student started to be picked up about 15 minutes early every day–to avoid read aloud time. When I asked about it, my student explained the family’s viewpoint that “Lil Bobby” Hutton (whose death the girls were to protest in a march with their day camp) was “a thug” that provoked the police.

At first I was shocked. Then disappointed. After all, didn’t the parents trust that we were having open-ended and lively discussions with every issue raised? Didn’t they see the benefit of considering multiple opinions? Didn’t they know that I would never try to indoctrinate my students with my personal opinions on sensitive issues?

Over time, those emotions faded into the swirl of the years, but I never quite forgot the incident. But in light of the tragic recent events in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, Dallas, and more, this memory has resurfaced, and with it, reflections turning inward. How could I have handled the read aloud differently to help this family feel more comfortable with difficult subjects? How can I better use my role as a teacher to promote peace in the future? 3 ideas have come to mind:

  1. I can avoid assumptions. Everyone has a story, and I can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of every family’s background experience in shaping their current perspectives. But it is unacceptable for me to assume a reason for their sensitivity to or withdrawal from something we do in the classroom.

My job is not to help students to “see the light” in favor of my opinions. Rather, it is to encourage them to ask their own questions and to analyze information as independent and confident learners. Some families may misunderstand even this simple motive if their child appears to start coming home questioning their opinions or family values. Which is why the next two steps are so important.

  1. I can preface potentially controversial topics with reassurances. No matter how much I’ve worked to build mutual trust with parents throughout the year, at no point am I “done” in that endeavor–especially when we are about to ford hazardous waters. No parent is ever going to respond well to what is even perceived as a “teacher knows best” mindset, even more so when the issue might be emotionally charged.

In the future, I will be sure to dedicate a post on our class blog with not just background on the book or activity, but more importantly, with information on differing perspectives and the respect with which we will be treating that diversity.

  1. I can share student conversations. Once we get going, I can continue to promote transparency by documenting and sharing the discourse. A SoundCloud snippet, a YouTube video, photos of visible thinking routines–the options are abundant for giving parents a window to see for themselves the impact of open dialogue.

Of course, some of those discussions might be more spontaneous; if that’s the case, this sharing would be even more essential for parents to gain insight on the quality of the dialogue happening in our classroom. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be worthwhile to replace my inspirational quote of the day component with a student dialogue of the day section…).

I know this is just a start to changes I can make. But any step toward promoting greater mutual understanding, trust, and compassion for students and their families to engage in a safe environment is one step closer to a more peaceful future.

I would love to learn from your experiences or recommendations. Please share in the comments below!

Featured image: Lisa Ouellette

Our 2016 Scholarship Submissions Statistics!

As of midnight on March 20, our 2016 scholarship is now closed and we are busy enjoying the beautiful efforts from our applicants. This year, we had 5 times the applications from last year (so we may need to extend the date by which we contact awardees…we’ll keep you posted)! Meanwhile, here are some fun facts and stats on our applications.

Our biggest pool of applicants came from California at 15.9%.

States stats

Though the scholarship is available to students from high school seniors to college juniors, the vast majority were high school students.

image (1)

Of our two prompt options, most preferred to respond to “What is your opinion on how education affects the quality of life?

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The creative writing medium was the most popular again this year with 48.5% of the applications.  

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featured image: Joel Penner via flickr

If We Strip Away The Arts at School, What Do We Have Left?

In a fit of sentimentality, I recently looked up my old grade school: Laguna Road Elementary. After soaking up memories of scraped-knees on the blacktop, Oregon Trail in the library, and art projects in the patios, my thoughts turned to the crowning glory of those years: the sixth grade play.

Winter 99, 7
Me on the left!

Moments from our class’ rendition of Into the Woods are forever etched in my memory–my absurd shoe-fitting as wicked stepsister Florinda, the princes’ hilarious performance of “Agony,” our paper mache Milky White cow. My thoughts also turned to my older sisters’ productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oliver!, and another Into the Woods.

My reminiscences were suddenly interrupted, however, by a startling parent review on GreatSchools.org.

“They spend too time on the 6th grade play and little time reviewing for the CST (California State Testing).”

Another parent wrote:

“Best part of all….when they get [to their new school], our kids will not be wasting their 6th grade at this new school putting on a play.”

I was shocked. Perhaps these reviewers’ children were simply disappointed at the roles they received for their plays (I know I sure was at first). Maybe they just felt uncomfortable with public speaking. Or maybe they do in fact value standardized testing over performance arts.

If the latter is true for these and other parents, my question is, are the arts really a waste? And what happens to schools when we strip them away?

At the recent passing of legendary David Bowie, Stephanie wrote a brief but thought-provoking reflection on why everyone was taking the time to exchange favorite songs and memories. Her bottom line? “Because music matters.”

The case for the arts in school is also well-backed by research. One study at the University of California Los Angeles found:

“…”arts-engaged” students from low-income families demonstrated greater college-ongoing rates and better grades in college. As an example, low-income students from arts-rich high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a B.A. as low-income students from arts-poor high schools. Moreover, the UCLA researchers found the students engaged in the arts were more likely to be employed in jobs with potential career growth and more involved in volunteerism and the political life of their communities.”

The list goes on; other studies spanning the last couple of decades detail the many irreplaceable benefits of the arts for kids, ranging from greater proficiency in academic subjects to increased capacity for community connection to higher graduation rates.

As for me, the answer to what would be left without the arts is–very little. I honestly remember almost nothing else from sixth grade–least of all the testing. But I will forever and vividly recall that play. Furthermore, I don’t find it a coincidence that sixth grade was a major turning point in my confidence and interest as a learner.

What has been the longterm effect of the arts in your life? And would you have traded it for more time testing?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto