Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What the Eyes Don't See and civics education

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
- Margaret Mead

I just finished listening to Mona Hanna-Attisha read her first-person account (via Audible) of the political and humanitarian crisis surrounding lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan.  I can’t say that it’s changed me because it’s one of those books that sadly reinforces my cynicism. Her story stands as a giant reminder to me that people can be awful, especially when they are left unchecked and driven by power, ego, money, and professional status. Even when I was a high-school English teacher, I was always careful to talk about books as being “important,” teaching things because they were in the canon, or really calling anything a must read.  Regardless of how much I love a book, how successful it’s been with some classes, how much I think students can learn from a book, or how relevant I think a book is, I also know that there are dozens (if not more) books that cover the same or similar themes and connect with people in a similar way. I don’t like to pit authors, stories, or any content against each other. I just don’t see the need.

That being said, I absolutely believe that schools need to play a huge role in children’s civic education (MA has actually just passed legislation mandating this as part of the Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education’s update to the state’s history and social studies standards.),  and I believe that this book could serve as a tremendous foundation for this work.

My case:

The Title
On a literal level, the title is about lead in Flint’s water, which although it was found in amounts far surpassing legal “action levels,” remained unseen and came from pipes underground, which again can’t be seen.  While there were many moments when the water coming from Flint taps was dirty and brown, it was more often the case that people weren’t able to tell. Anyhow, dirt in the water is gross; lead in the water is invisible, corrosive and developmentally debilitating with irreversible effects.  

There’s another aspect here that follows the adage about people seeing what they choose to see and ignoring what they choose to ignore.  This isn’t perspective, which I believe is the way we think about something we see; this is about people willfully “not seeing” something - and some people - until they got caught.  Lead in people’s water can be ignored because it can’t be seen. It can be ignored because the historical fuss about lead is with lead paint (We can all see chipping window paint.), so lead in water hasn’t been explored enough to instantly raise concerns.  Flint’s water being tainted could be ignored because their political voice was taken from them, and it isn’t a city populated with economic and political clout or connections.

Finally, what people’s eyes don’t see is their government’s leaders being willing to purposefully lie, deceive, and put their constituents directly in harm’s way.  We understand the idea of checks and balances but believe it’s for times of clarity or to stop a branch from overreaching. We also understand the need for advocacy, but it’s preferably to sway someone’s opinion towards a particular cause.  What we most often allow ourselves to ignore, though, is the idea of leaders acting in ways that counter the public good, doing things that don’t at all service a humanistic agenda. While I’ll never try to raise a generation of cynics, it’s important that students become skeptical of anyone who answers their concerns with “Don’t worry.  Everything’s fine. I’ve checked.”

Professional Purpose:
Dr. Hannah-Attisha would love this graphic about finding a sense of purpose.  She is already a pediatrician, so anything she does professionally has her caring for kids and families.  On top of that, though, she works at an urban public hospital as a means of supporting a community that truly needed support, and then became in charge of the residency program as a means of extending her influence across many doctors instead of just supporting the patients she personally saw.  
This wasn’t enough for her, though.  Because she see the bigger picture of her career, the context in which pediatricians fit into their patients and patients’ families’ and communities’ lives, she understands that caring for them means advocating for their needs, whether that happens as a result of peers’ decisions, hospital policies, or, as in this case, the power structure that’s established in favor of politicians, business, and non-marginalized racial/ethnic groups.  She doesn’t question taking this fight on because she knows that Flint’s children need her and that she therefore doesn’t have choice whether or not to get involved. As educators, I hope we feel this way as well. This book, to me, felt a lot like Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace about the education and living conditions in Mott Haven, NY, a once-forgotten neighborhood in the Bronx, where I had the sincere pleasure of working with a tireless and fully student-centered principal.  

Personal and Societal Connections:
All powerful stories will be full of connections and context, meaning that what “Dr. Mona’s” eyes do see is the way the story of Flint connects with both her own family’s stories and the bigger picture behind this particular tragedy.  She does a beautiful job of weaving in both the stories of her family’s support, frustrations, and struggles throughout the busiest times of this conflict and her extended families stories of their heritage and international emigration.  She also knows that Flint’s water tragedy is a story of institutional racism and bullying as powerful, well-connected groups conspire to ignore and disregard the voices of those without social and political clout and calls out these people in her work and throughout this book.  

The Good Fight:
This is known as a “fight” instead of just an “awkward text” or “tough phone call” because things don’t change overnight.  She had to work tirelessly to even accomplish her piece of the victory in Flint. She has been criticized, actually, for this book making it seem like she was a bigger player in the overall win than she was, but I think she had to keep the book focused and wanted to ensure that her readers understand how much effort it takes to accomplish a policy overhaul at that scale.  The book chronicles her impressive and creative data collection, team building, and public relations campaign. This was, of course, on top of doing her job and being a mom. I actually wish there would’ve been an example of her daily agenda book published as part of the story. I can’t even imagine all that she repeatedly accomplished every day and the emotional toll that being so tired, mocked and belittled by the government must have taken on her.

The Writing:
This book is absolutely accessible to all students and - other than swearing a few times - it’s PG.  It’s one of those great opportunities to have students of all literacy abilities come together for amazing discussions and extension work.  Using this book in a class could be a perfect way to support literacy while discussing huge ideas. It’s got plenty of science, sociology, and politics, so it’s clearly not fluff, but it’s not overdone to the point of inaccessibility.  

The Classroom Curriculum:
If I ever get the opportunity to teach a class with this book, I could think of so many ways to make fully engaging and important to kids.  

  • Researching other moments of people whistleblowing and/or fighting against hugely powerful people and forces.  Compare the efforts and create a winning play list of sorts. I’m thinking about tobacco, #metoo, gun control, opioids, deepwater horizon / Exxon-Valdez, #occupywallstreet, #blacklivesmatter, etc.
  • Show popular films of this sort: The Insider, Erin Brokovitch, The Post, Bully, Roger and Me.
  • Research (genius-hour style) any of the related topics such as urban infrastructure, racial segregation (think: schools, politics, public transportation, etc), role of state v local government on local issues.  
  • Read any fiction related to “otherness.” I especially like Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” since Hanna-Attisha is regularly dismissed by male politicians and scientists as being “hysterical.”
  • Have students choose topics for which to advocate.  They can be at the classroom, school, community or larger level(s).  Put together a plan. Do some research. Distribute a survey. Create a petition.  Walk with picket signs. Write letters. Get a feel for what happens. I’ve seen this done individually or as class-by-class projects.    

Friday, October 28, 2016

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - The Economics

In this series of posts, I’ve already discussed my concern with the ballot question itself and with charter schools’ lottery system.  In this post, I’m hoping to show what I know about the economic issues around funding charter schools.  In particular, I’ll be discussing “per-pupil funding” and “the reimbursement” from the state that’s offered to schools when a student chooses to attend a charter school  

Per-Pupil Funding

Massachusetts state govt and DESE firmly believe that “the money should follow the student” to where he/she is being educated.  This editorial / article ? from The Boston Globe actually rests on the case that the percentage of money going to charters is equal to the percentage of students going to charters.  It sadly leaves out, though, the truth that not all students cost the same to educate.  Please read on.

A district’s total spending gets divided by the number of students it’s educating, and a “per-pupil average” is calculated.  Essentially, this is the amount that the district will send to charter schools for each of its students attending the charter.  At its core, this seems to make sense, but there are a number of overwhelming issues with the logic that make this funding model both inappropriate and unsustainable for district schools.  

1) Schools make financial ends meet because everyone pays into them, including people who don’t have children, people who send their children to private schools, and people whose children have graduated.  Each family’s taxes go towards not only paying the actual costs of educating their own child, but also the cost of running the school, operating the school, having exploratory/elective classes such as art, music, PE, STEM, and theater, and subsidizing supports for those students who need services that cost what can often become way more than the per-pupil average.

2) As I explained in this previous post, not all students have the same needs and cost the same and a large percentage of students who need extra services don’t attend charter schools.  Think about students in life-skills programs or those who need nursing care throughout the day for toileting, feeding, mobility, etc; they just don’t go to non-traditional public schools.  I know in Malden, there may be students in the charters with IEPs, but these charters just don’t have programs to support the high-needs students we have in our true public schools.  The charter in Newburyport actually has none of the area’s “high needs” students, as identified by DESE (see these charts).

3) When a general education student or a student with a mild-needs IEP leaves a school for a charter, very little money - if any - is saved by the school, meaning that sending his/her per-pupil valuation become a net loss to the school.  The school still has to pay bills, run a cafeteria, staff offices, hire and support exploratory teachers, subsidize or fully pay for busing costs and more.  If a few students leave, the overall costs - aside from things like workbooks, science lab supplies and other nominal fees - stay the same, meaning that the remaining students will be expected to either pay more per student or live without an increasing amount of services.  In fact, because salaries and utilities continue to increase, per-pupil costs rise because each year is more expensive than the last and because there are more students who leave for charters.  

The Reimbursement:

One claim that is heavily marketed by question 2 supporters is that “having charter schools increases funding for public schools.”  What they’re referring to is the state reimbursement that is part of MA’s charter law.  The state has promised, as seen in the chart below from this page from DESE, to send 100% of the first year costs of each student and then 25% of the costs every year for the five years after that to a sending district.   This issue has a simple, practical problem in that - as is explained here by the Mass Budget and Policy Center - it isn’t actually funded.  It’s also taken on a political life of it’s own:

Both the chart from DESE, below, and a related explanation from a newsletter sent out by Newburyport’s River Valley Charter School, charter proponents continue to tell people that districts are getting a “225% reimbursement.” This would be useful, but percentages don’t accumulate, so what they’re rhetoric leaves out is that districts are supposed to get 225% of year one’s tuition loss over the course of six years.  What the rhetoric would have people believe is a profit base for districts is really 225 out of 600% that the district pays out.  

Ultimately, the education costs more (district layout + state reimbursement) than it would without charter schools, and the districts end up with less.  

My recap here?  
1) I hope this post helps people see why I believe the economics of charter schools aren’t working.

2) This ought to be another reminder that this issue is - I believe - far too complex an important to be left up to a ballot question.  There are too many factors left up in the air to expand I program that I'm worried about already.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - Problems With the Lottery System

This is the second installment of a series of posts I’m writing about ballot question number 2 in Massachusetts this fall, which allows voters to decide whether or not to allow the state to both open more charter schools and/or more seats in existing charter schools.   Clicking this link will bring you to the first piece, which covers my issue with the question itself and with the issue being decided by a citizens’ vote. The highlights are that:

  1. If charters are needed or considered to be serving an important and desired need in a community, this should be a community vote, not a state-wide ballot.
  2. This issue has a lot of nuance to it, and I don’t believe most voters will understand what the details are to the point where they are voting as informed citizens instead of emotionally reacting to an idea.
  3. This may be a different discussion if the economics of it weren’t so unsustainable, and I’m worried that people are going to vote about charters, philosophically, instead of recognizing the economic issues involved.

Charter school advocates refer to charters as “public charter schools,” believing that they’re public because they are funded by public tax dollars and because they admit students from the community via lottery systems.  I’m going to get into the issue of charter funding in a separate piece, so I’m skipping it for now.

There are rumors about charter schools fixing their lottery systems, only inviting certain people to ever apply into their lottery systems and canvassing certain neighborhoods to try to stack their lottery involvement.  Truthfully, I haven’t seen any of that.  I also haven’t heard of that in Massachusetts, so I’m not going to give it any legs here.  

- I will only define a public school as one that accepts full responsibility for the education of any and all student-aged citizens of a community.  I refer to them as “true public schools” because their are no barriers to their being enrolled, and they will stay enrolled until they graduate, regardless of the struggles.  I don’t know if there are charters in MA who try to avoid having certain students and/or rig their lottery systems to ensure that that happens, but I do absolutely know that the overwhelming majority of our neediest public school students just don’t apply.

  • I personally know students who have been pushed out of charter schools for academic, behavioral, and attendance issues as well as people who have been told that their charter couldn’t meet their child(ren)’s special education needs.

  • There is a two-way problem here. It’s not only that charters ending up with a huge majority of “high-capacity families” (those who can navigate systems and support any unserved needs) but also that this is leaving the public schools with a lighter advocacy pool (those families that have the time, ability, and confidence to fight for their students’ needs), a topic I’ll get more into in another post.

- Students whose parents don’t understand what a charter school is don’t apply.  Charter advocates say that anyone is welcome to apply, but I’ve worked with a lot of families who struggle to understand how to navigate the logistics of their neighborhood school and how important some basics are, like getting to school on time and communicating with teachers and the front office.  These families are always going to be in the true public schools because they just don’t have the time and wherewithal to apply for anything else. They expect their neighborhood school to support their children.  

- Students whose parents don’t know whether or not the school can handle their child(s) special education needs don’t apply.  I know special education isn’t always a perfect system, but parents of high-needs special education students (think: autistic students, those with 1:1 paraprofessionals, those with needs for nursing care, those with extreme mental and/or social-emotional needs) are not considering charter schools.  If they are doing so somewhere that I’m not aware of, that’s great; it’s not the norm, though.

- There are many charters that accept students from behind their host community.  From those areas, only families who can provide transportation to and from school are enrolling in the charters.  This is an obvious divide on a socio/economic level and on a logistical capacity level.    

- Because families often have to apply to school lotteries by a certain date, anyone moving into a district beyond that date (as early as January/February) has a better chance of being excluded.  They would not only need to know they’re moving into an area in time to apply, but also need to be able and willing to do the research and potentially apply without talking to anyone who’s gone to that charter.  It’s not always so, but transient children - and their families - are often at higher academic and social/emotional risk.  Moving is traumatic under the best of circumstances, so when it’s caused by unexpected divorce, job loss, home foreclosures, family death, child relocation, family homelessness, etc., families are coming to the true public schools at all times during the year with high needs.

- While there are some charters with some ELL (English Language Learner) students, families with limited English proficiency, especially those who move from another country, are not applying into charter schools.

- Students with parents/families who aren’t able, willing, or generally inclined to be heavily involved in schooling aren’t going to get into the lottery.  There are rumors out there of charter schools that mandate parents pay fees and sign up for volunteer hours.  I don’t know if that’s true.  What I do know is that there are a lot of parents who don’t keep their phone numbers up to date, don’t make it to conferences, miss established teacher meetings, don’t come for teacher conferences, aren’t at home doing homework with their kids, and/or who just don’t trust public institutions like schools and police.  Sometimes these families don’t want to come in and don’t bother to come in.  Other times, they are kept from coming in by a wide variety of reasons like the hours they work and/or the family members they take care of.    Not all PTO meetings and band concerts are fully attended.  Not all family are going to apply to charter schools.  

The major question with this ballot question is this:  Do you want an industry that rests on so many uncertainties - like those here and those about school economics that I’ll cover in future posts - to expand at all, much less without any reflection and improvements to the system?  Here is a link to Newburyport’s resolution against the ballot question, in which you can read about a number of common sense upgrades to the charter model in Massachusetts.  
I hope this brief overview help you to understand that the issue around charter schools’ lotteries system absolutely doesn’t boil down to everyone equitably have a chance to attend charters and accepting that chance.

As always, I am in interested in the conversation and welcome your feedback. By the way, in case you don't believe me, here are a few "accountability charts" from DESE. They show the Performance Rating for the River Valley Charter School and a number of its sending towns. This is just one small example of how a regional charter school has NONE of the "high needs" students from its home district and/or its sending districts. Even I thought they'd have some students who fit into at least one of the categories. Many people will just see "Level 1" vs "Level 2," though. My question is about how setting up this regional charter is going to help these districts' neediest students.

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - The Question Itself

In November, because our state government has abdicated its responsibility to research and make a decision about the expansion of the already troubling charter-school program in Massachusetts, the citizens of the Commonwealth are going to be voting on ballot question #2, whether or not to allow an increased number of new charter schools and additional seats in existing charter schools.   We live in a Republic - a representative democracy - for a reason, most notably because of the difficulty citizens have doing the research and objectively understanding issues.   

I want to explain how charter schools are adding to the devaluing of our public schools and why it’s important to not just vote against the expansion ballot, but also to dramatically improve, and potentially even reverse the systems within which Massachusetts charter schools exist.  I speak not only with the emotions of a parent and public-school advocate, but also as a professional educator of 18 years and a current school-committee member.  I work and live in towns being negatively affected - economically and politically - by charter schools.  

Even though I am against this legislation, I want to be clear that I hold no malice against people who work in charter schools or send their children to them.  I know some very talented educators who teach in and run charter schools.  I have friends and relatives who send(t) their child(ren) to charter school(s).  I also don’t at all kid myself and think that public district schools and our systems don’t have a lot of room to improve.  

For clarity’s sake, I’m planning on releasing a few separate blog posts on this topic.  I need to write about the legislation itself to start.  Then I will write about its lottery admittance system and why charters are absolutely not serving a representative cross section of our student population.  This series will also discuss how and why this inadequate admission strategy divides communities.  Another post will discuss the economics.  

About the question:

  1. “Charter School” means so many things to so many districts.  There are different approaches, different charters, different levels of success, different locations (local and regional), and other differences that make a discussion about charter schools as a whole a dangerous proposition.  They were designed to support local school districts - to be labs of innovation, strategy sharing, and improvement - and should therefore be approved only - if at all - by local communities.  A statewide ballot means that people who have no knowledge of how they work or connection to them at all will be voting on something that has big consequences for other places.   

  1. While I don’t doubt that there are some people who will spend the time to fully investigate and understand the issue at hand, I wonder if you feel that enough people:
    1. Know why charter advocates and opponents disagree on whether or not charter schools are public schools.
    2. Know how per-pupil spending formulas work and why opponents don’t think they tell the whole story
    3. Know how charters are paid and the percentage formula the state uses to reimburse the sending districts.  
    4. Know the philosophical foundations for establishing charter schools in Massachusetts
    5. Understand the processes required to apply into different charters’ lotteries.  
    6. Actually know who attends charter schools.  Advocates and opponents disagree on whether or not charters actually serve a representative sample of all student demographics (race, special education needs, English Language Learner needs, socio-economic status, homeless, etc).

  1. Even the name of the question “An Act to Allow Fair Access to Public Charter Schools” ought to give people pause.  The propaganda in it is implying that access to charters isn’t “fair,” which is actually one of charter opponents arguments.  What this questions seeks to do is to allow “increased” access to charter schools.  In my future posts (coming soon), I will deconstruct why the words “fair” and “public” in this question are so controversial.

Without even reading any more, I hope I've helped you to understand why this process and this ballot are troubling.  My other posts will come soon.  As always, I welcome and look forward to your comments and feedback.  

Thursday, October 15, 2015

An Open Letter About Testing to Massachusetts State Representatives

October 15, 2015

An Open Letter to State Senator Kathleen O’Conner Ives and Colleagues:

I’ve recently read about your work crafting legislation around the choice and use of standardized tests in Massachusetts Schools.  As a parent and career educator, I always applaud when government officials spend time reflecting on education policy in search of what’s best for our schools and our children.  I want to offer a word of caution on this matter, though, as it has become so politicized and obscured by misleading biases and poor press coverage.  I fully believe that you’ve done your research, so I won’t get into too much of the background itself so much as speak to the article that ran in Newburyport’s Daily News on Monday, October 12. ( http://bit.ly/1KcjcxG )

It is obviously important to think about the cost of transitioning to PARCC.  There are technology costs, curriculum costs, time and staffing expenditures for the training and setup, and costs to the state involved.  On top of the money to consider, there are emotional and classroom costs that go along with this.  Furthermore, since Massachusetts has become so proud of its MCAS being the top rated standards-bearer in the nation, there are costs to our systemic ego.  Finally, we have to consider the costs incurred by our students’ futures, although this will be harder to gauge since all factions in the debate will cite the issues with siding with their opponents.

The biggest issue, though, as I see it, is inaction in either direction.  DESE and Jim Peyser are being absolutely irresponsible by delaying their decision.  Currently, districts are in limbo, either preparing for a PARCC test (and maybe even having taken it last year) that won’t happen or preparing for another MCAS that may not happen, leaving them to scramble if DESE goes with PARCC.  This indecision is not only unbecoming of the leadership we need but also puts all of the aforementioned costs into play.  And what does the state have to gain by waiting...nothing but drama I imagine.  PARCC scores are uncomparable to MCAS and Massachusetts will likely fare pretty well relative to the few other states still considering PARCC.  I was at one of the public forums that DESE had on the transition; nothing new came up, even though dozens of people spoke about both the MCAS, PARCC and dropping all tests.  If there are some unique mitigating circumstances that may affect the decision, it’s irresponsible for them to be discussed in a bubble.  

With regards to your concern, there is nothing “hasty” about the transition over to the Common Core or the move toward the PARCC exam.  These shifts have been in the news and legislative plans since 2009.  The bigger question is why districts and our profession have moved so slowly.  We could push back the switch date by five years and some places will still be at a place of purposeful inertia and other places will be too underfunded to join an evolution, regardless of their motivation to do so.  Your efforts ought to be, therefore, placed towards holding the government of Massachusetts accountable for its unfunded mandates and ineffective funding formulas; fixing those will begin to allow education organizations to concentrate on moving our curricula and students towards readiness for the modern age we’re in, which ought to be our goal under the umbrella of any testing schema..   

I’m not sure how teachers can believe that PARCC isn’t aligned with our updated curriculum framework.  There aren’t enough specifics in the article to question that assertion.  I can easily agree, however, about the fallacy of using standardized test scores to grade teacher and schools and keep students from graduating.  This is a question of Massachusetts’s willingness to stand up and speak to what’s actually important to us.  Value-added teacher evaluations and singleton tests deciding on graduation for students are clearly wrong-headed practices.  They are political grandstands at best.  The real work is devising a means of ensuring that schools are continuously working in favor of rigorous curricula and assessment without objective, for-profit tests.   

The takeaway here is that stopping the testing won’t improve our schools any more than using PARCC or MCAS on their own will.  Schools will only become better at educating and supporting students when we come up with a viable plan and move towards that.  Doing away with testing doesn’t necessarily leave us anywhere.  

If you’d ever like to speak further, please be in touch.  

David Hochheiser

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Lessons from Outside of Schools

Do you know what these are?  I didn’t until a stranger tossed the red one to me, and my seven-year old lit up with a “That’s the kind I usually use.” The joy in his face and the fun we had after will forever be a perfect example of differentiation’s power to me as an educator.

I’m having an amazing summer. There’s been a bunch of work, some solid reading (Lost at School, Switch, Freakonomics), some personal time, and a lot of funs with my kids and wife. Part of this has been three activities that struck me deeply as an educator who has always been in search of the best ways to help all students.  They hit me immediately as examples of things I believe schools absolutely need to continue improving upon.  

Karate: You’ve all most likely heard of the different belts martial arts students earn.  I can’t speak for all styles and all dojos, but the one where my son takes lessons has multiple belts that signify an attained skill level and different age brackets that - more fluidly than the belts - help put students in classes with other students who approximate their ability level.  Mind you, this isn’t “tracking” at all.  There are two or three belts within each class for each age group, each of which covers around 7 or so years.  There’s a definite range in each class.  What are they doing that we should move towards replicating?

  • Multi-age classes work
  • Badges that signify the appropriate time for students to “level up” can be effectively used if each level has a clear set of desired outcomes and students are offered repeated lessons and coaching that include formative assessments and a summative exhibition.
  • Timing must be fluid.  It takes some people longer to become proficient with skills and knowledge than others.  Once a student has been to a required number of classes, he/she becomes eligible to come for testing on that level’s skills.  Attendance is a baseline requirement.
  • The comments given to students by the Sensei at their promotion all have to do with the character they’ve shown and the work that went into the achievement.  It’s never about the height or the force of their kicks or the speed of their punches.  The students there are just that, students.  There will be a time when perfection of form and nuance of movement becomes important, but while these things can be attained by some students at all age groups and level, the ethic is around growth.     

Yoga: I spent July really enjoying an unlimited pass to a Yoga studio (via Groupon).  While I certainly believe in the benefits that mindfulness and Yoga practice could have for all adults and students, I’m not going to write about that here, other than to offer you a link to my Diigo library on mindfulness: http://bit.ly/1g3U0Cl .  Instead, I’ll tell you how amazed I was that a single teacher could help a room full of up to forty students greatly benefit and grow from their time during class.  All poses came with options for less stressful and more advanced movements, all of which were discussed under the umbrellas of: “If it feels right for you...” and “If it’s within your practice today…”  The teacher modeled each version as the classes went through them.  What can schools learn?

  • The beginning of each class is spent bringing the students out of the rest of their day and into class, both spiritually and physically.  Music, mannerisms, greetings and time are all used to bring people into their class.
  • Every student is supported in bringing their practice forward.  From wherever they are to whatever’s next.  Using aids such as blocks, straps and blankets, by the way, is encouraged instead of called “cheating.”
  • Moves go through what are called “Vinyasas,” which means that everything is done in a flow, or context of other moves.  Yoga classes don’t just have students do one move, stop, and then do another move.  Things make sense together.  
  • At the end of class, students are given time to think about their practice and drift into a bit of meditation in a way that clears their heads and creates space for being successful throughout the day.
  • Teachers always thanked us for coming and sharing our time and practice at the end of class.  

Tennis lessons This is the big one, the one that got me writing.  Yet...it’s the shortest, smallest moment I’m explaining in this post.  My son is seven and went to our city’s tennis camp for a few weeks this summer.  A week or so afterwards, I thought it’d be fun for the two of us to hit the ball around for a while.  It’s a twist on the old-school, father-son baseball catch, and we were both psyched.  The problem was that he’s seven, and I’m not at all a tennis player, so enjoyably volleying was proving difficult.  And then, a pro stepped in.

Next to us was a guy giving lessons.  He must’ve overheard me trying to teach Declan to either go towards the ball as it’s going to bounce or back away so that he gets it as it’s falling from its bounce.  We only had three balls with us, so there were a lot of misses and a lot of time spent getting the balls back from out of play.   The instructor tosses me a red-striped tennis ball and put a bucket of them next to our court and says: “Try these, they have less compression.”   One hit, and I was sold as the ball only bounced enough to get up to my son’s racket at a speed that he could manage.  “Daddy,” he says, “that’s much better.  These are the balls we used at camp.”  Volleys came easily.  His face continued to light up.  He loved even showing off his “mad skills” for me with serves and backhands.   What can schools learn?

  • Differentiation comes in many different forms.  It should be - as Universal Design for Learning tells us - all about doing whatever it takes to help students access the lesson we want accessed.  Whether it’s modifying the tools, the context, and/or the assessment, my goal was to play tennis with my son.  My other goal is for him to love playing enough that he’ll keep at it over the years.  Regulation balls would have had us fail at both of those objectives.  “Modified” balls made both possible.
  • Everyone needs a coach.  I wasn’t taking a tennis lesson that day, but that coach gave me a quick hint at an instructional modification that changed the day for us.  How many of us instead ignore and / or even push away help when it’s offered?

I know we don’t have the same conditions in schools as were there for karate, yoga, and tennis, but let’s not forget that we can create a culture in our classrooms that make it a place where all student want to come and learn.  In fact, that’s really the heart of our careers as educators, isn’t it?