Bonus Material: Kurt Wootton and “Teach Your Children Well”

Tuesday night’s Parent Book Club on “Teach Your Children Well” was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we’re going to have to talk about teaching, too.

Here’s the part of Kurt’s essay that didn’t make it:

My father, who was a public school teacher, told me once that teaching in a large, traditional, neighborhood school isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. One of my colleagues who teaches English in a Boston Public School sees 140 students every day. We know that giving students multiple choice tests, pop quizzes, and other quick assessments doesn’t truly measure their learning, but you can imagine how long it takes to grade an essay. Let’s do some quick math: 140 students x 10 minutes to read and grade a paper = 23.34 hours. That’s time spent outside of school and doesn’t include the planning time needed to prepare classes. You can see why teachers and school districts might take shortcuts by giving students multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a machine. 

The morning after Parent Book Club, my dad called to talk about ‘authentic success’ and the innovative classroom teaching that leads to tinkering, investigating, and deeper learning for students. When I told him what Kurt’s dad had said, he backed it up, and added, “There are teachers who are taking the material and presenting it in innovative ways; there are lots of creative teachers out there, no doubt. But the combination of factors that a teacher faces on a daily basis make it extremely difficult to sustain.”

We forget many times that teachers are people, too; they have families and friends and bills to pay. I know an extra unpaid 23+ hours a week would make me cranky. Yet if we are gearing our kids toward authentic success, and want them to be less focused on grades and test scores (and therefore less stressed out, depressed and freer to enjoy learning), then we must address the way the current system works – and its dogged chase of, well, grades and test scores. After re-reading this cut paragraph a few times, I got frustrated and emailed Kurt.

“What can we do about this?” I typed testily. It was only a few minutes later that I received a long, detailed list of why the school system is unable to support the kind of open-ended learning we are talking about in reference to Levine’s book – besides the obvious time constraints. He rattled off ways in which teacher development could be better, more creative, and involve teachers’ self-reflection more, and Kurt was quick to mention that it’s a complex issue and shouldn’t be looked at in clear black-and-white, but still I wanted to share a few key nuggets of the long list he wrote at 10PM:

  • ” A radically wrong-minded emphasis on testing and the results.”
  • “High student workload and little planning time. Some teachers teach 140 students a week with a 45 minute planning period during the day. They are exhausted and they are just trying to get by.”
  • “Lack of possibility and opportunity. Many teachers don’t know about and schools don’t support radical teacher professional development (like the Habla Teacher Institute.) Teachers should have the chance to travel, to take summer courses in universities, and to work with diverse organizations—and schools should pay for it!”
  • But here’s the kicker, the one that really got me: “Lack of valuing exploration and creativity from a policy and administrative level. This relates back to 1 (testing and results), but creativity can’t be quantifiably measured. It’s more difficult to evaluate learning in a creative space, and therefore the “effectiveness” of an education environment.  Great teaching and learning is messy and a bit chaotic.”

Hmmm. It seems that administrators and policy makers should join our Parent Book Club, so they could also read “Teach Your Children Well,” and see what lack of valuing exploration and creativity is doing to our kids in the long haul.

Tan, Rested and Ready: What do you want to talk about this school year?

My kids start school in a week. And even though my rising fourth grader has already given us the somewhat desperate why can’t it be summer forever/I like being with you guys/I think I might be done for now/can I quit like Steve Jobs? speech he saves for the last week of summer every year, it’s time that he face the inevitable: another wonderful break has come to a close, and, while it still feels like summer here in Tennessee, it’s time to get ready for school.

My thoughts on schooling and learning have floated all over this summer – and my thoughts on parenting as well. I have been blogging about school issues for over two years now, and I feel like I’m still on top of the artichoke, peeling back the layers of understanding. This school year, I want to put more emphasis on the inner qualities of learning – mindfulness, grit, creativity, empathy, imagination, and kids’ internal views of success – as well as to keep on uncovering the mysteries of why some schools work and some simply don’t. I also want to bring you information from teachers and experts to help us understand what we can do at home – both academically, and maybe not-so-academically – to set up a home environment that is both learning-friendly and a refuge from the pressures of success in school.

I know you are getting ready for school, too  – are there any issues that you’d like to discuss? Do you want to hear about how grassroots parent groups are shaping the education landscape? How to get your kids to be more mindful? How to extend your child’s lunch period? What about opposing testing? What about choosing your child’s teachers?

I want to hear it all. Please let me know what is on your mind – I am always looking for new stories to tell and new ways to look at education, learning and of course, the art of parenting.

Happy back to school!

Are Parents Falling Down on the Job?

In yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, college freshman and Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca-Cola Scholar, and Dell Scholar Mpaza S. Kapembwa writes that, when it comes to education, he believes American parents are falling down on the job. Overly concerned with self-esteem and happiness, he writes, American parents value “feeling good above true knowledge, wisdom and understanding.” Citing South Korean educational achievement as an example, he calls for American parents to be more Tiger Mother than best friend, and to be more concerned and involved with the success – the real success – of their children. Who do parents blame? Certainly not themselves. “Parents see their dreams not being realized in their children and they lash out at the dream snatcher — the teacher.”

Is there a grain of truth to this? Or more than a grain?

Having been both a public and private school parent, I have witnessed a few parents act terribly toward teachers and administration – the kinds of acts that centered only the well-being of their child, without taking into account the entire group (or the teacher’s feelings). But these are the rare and obvious mistakes, the ones where the parent insecurity and self-interest blare so loudly it can’t be ignored. The other kind of self-interest, though, is more insidious and more difficult to pin down. When Mr. Kapempwa writes, “I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools because it is not pain-free for all students,” it rings true. But the question is, it rings true for who?

Do you feel that we parents are too easy on our kids? Do you feel that you are too easy, or are there parents you know who consistently value empty good feelings over hard work? How responsible are your kids for their own learning? My father was a teacher, and I remember my parents coming down on the side of the teacher most times, but there were a few instances when they listened to our grievances, and sided with us. I remember my parents going to teachers to make alternate arrangements, and I remember my mother, in particular, fighting – and winning – to get me out of a classroom with a teacher she thought was cruel. Do these qualify as not being on the side of learning, of blaming the teacher? Or is this advocating for the student’s needs? And how do we know which is which?

Perhaps Mr. Kapembwa is young enough to say so blatantly what the grownups try to tiptoe around: the teachers come to school ready to teach, but many children are not ready to learn. Yet even this assumption – that all teachers are prepared and that students are not – can be complex. What about children experiencing instability at home, whether it be fighting or divorcing parents, poverty, abuse, or a combination? According to the Census Bureau, 36% of American children are living in poverty. What about students who are homeless, or very nearly so? And what about their parents’ ability to care? Studies show that parental involvement at school is connected to student success, but parent involvement is also related to parent income and education.

Maybe it’s been said one too many times, but it bears repeating: in countries where the culture supports the parents, the parents support the schools, and overall, the children do well. Kapembwa is right to note that education is a triangle between parents, teachers and students, and when one corner isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, the triangle collapses. But it’s much harder to dig deep to understand the root causes of why the triangle is falling down in the first place.