Friday, September 19, 2008

Do this every Wednesday...

There’s a lot being said today about securing our borders. Defining boundaries makes everyone feel more safe and secure, and the same holds true for children. It’s just human nature, and even the wildest child is almost always human. Because of the many choices our modern children get thrust upon them, they seem to have a more difficult time with boundaries than their ancestors. Some things today – like bedtimes, table manners, and respecting your elders – aren’t as important as they were in the past. Which sometimes make figuring out where they belong a little emotional.

The two most consistent things in a child’s life today are television and school. And no wonder. Both of these things are the same every day. We still operate on the “same time, same channel” routine even if parents have pre-recorded programs to fit into more convenient slots of family time. It’s the same with educators. Running a smooth classroom – much less getting any actual learning accomplished – can only be done by using a dependable set of rules. For the most part, children do not rebel against these things. Amazingly, they even derive a great deal of comfort from them. To know what’s coming next actually makes a child feel more secure. In the real world, a good schedule will almost always opt out over emotions for figuring out what you should do. No matter how old you are.

So, the next time our kindergartener asks if they can have Fruit Loops for snack every Wednesday, or our second grader wants to pick out a share toy two days in advance before the event… should we be so quick to talk them out of it because of the inconvenience? Maybe it’s just their way of trying to define their own boundaries in this big, wide, crazy world they live in.

Just like all the rest of us.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Are you smarter than...

I don’t know how anybody else feels about it, but – although highly entertaining – I find the ARE YOU SMARTER THAN A FIFTH GRADER game show a bit of an embarrassment to educators. It is proof positive that the best-working part of our memories is the short-term division. If this is any indication (and I believe it is) of the majority of end results coming from our present-day educational system… YIKES!

Are we all getting dumber and dumber? I don’t think so. But something has definitely gone berserk with our priorities. The fact that we are coming to the close of a second season with this show and nobody has ever won the million dollars is a good example of that. What does it tell us? That the getting of money is the most important thing in life, even if you have to cheat, peek, copy, or degrade yourself to do it. So, ummm… what is that telling our kids?

Don’t get me wrong, I love this show. It's better than the murder and mayhem that's happening on most of the other channels.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Taking care of basics...

What has carried me through many tough situations in teaching is to keep going back to the basics. I call it changing the oil and spark plugs. If a car doesn’t run right, you don’t worry about major repair costs until you have done all the basic things of engine maintenance. Many times the problem turns out to be something simple you can handle yourself and not have to pay the expensive mechanic. It’s the same with kids. If you have provided basics like motivation and enthusiasm, you will not only get good results eventually, but also fix many other problems along the way.

However, it’s interesting to note that many of the parents I have worked with over the years did not want to reward children for doing schoolwork. They felt their child "should be doing it anyway, and if they didn’t, they were going to get a swat from dad." The truth is, the swat just doesn’t work the same way. Although it may discourage certain behaviors, it does not encourage others. Motivation and modeled enthusiasm does.


Monday, April 14, 2008

First things first...

While there are many opinions (and even some controversy) on exactly what "tools for life" are, it might be best to start with the most obvious ones. I discovered two of my favorites during my first year of teaching, when I found twenty-nine first and second graders thrust upon me who weren’t the least bit interested in listening to me. Or, didn’t seem to be. Given the fact that I was born with a voice that hardly carried to the back of the room – much less across a playground – I managed to convince myself during the first week that I had clearly chosen the wrong vocation. What was I doing here? Even if I was willing to try another year with the upper grades (who were at least already trained to listen), I was still going to be stuck there for the duration. No way out of it.

I had signed a contract.

I prayed, and wept, and prayed some more, and – short of asking to be stricken with some fatal disease (which was the only honorable way out of the situation), I began spending hours in the teacher’s library, groping around like a blind person for anything that might possibly help. It turned out to be a spectacular place, and the best thing that could have happened to me that year. Because the teacher’s library was not only full of wonderful books, it also contained shelf after shelf of amazing "curiosities." Things like full size replicas of the human skeleton, chemistry kits, and fantastic models of the solar system. And even though most of that stuff was quite above grade level for my students, something wonderful happened.

I accidentally "tapped in" to two of the strongest impulses that are natural to children. Curiosity and enthusiasm. What’s more, I could see exactly how those two things functioned when used together. It happened one morning when I was struggling to shuffle a six-foot metal locker into the classroom, and had more than a few offers of help.

"What is it?"

"Something huge!"

"Maybe a basketball hoop."

"No, that’s an outside thing."

"It’s something science – she always brings something science!"

"It’s wonderful science," I finally reply, after a surprised realization that there were no stragglers to round up out of the hallway this morning. "It might be a little scary, though."

"Ah, nobody gets scared in the daylight!"

"Well, if anybody does, they can stand close to me while we open it. It isn’t dangerous though, I promise. And it isn’t real. It just looks real. Made especially for us to see what we look like inside…"

At any rate, the fanfare of presenting that model skeleton was a lot easier (and more fun!) than getting them all to sit down and take out their science workbooks. That was the morning I learned that curiosity and enthusiasm were "tools" that every child already comes equipped with. And to any teacher who learns how to use them properly, they are like flint and steel. Because whenever you strike the two of those things together…

They make sparks!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Welcome to the lounge!

This is the place to take a closer look at teaching methods and philosophies, and catch a few glimpses of what has worked for others. Dave and I will be taking turns on this blog, and occasionally even inviting guests. In a world where almost any information you can imagine is at your fingertips, we're hoping we'll all enjoy sitting around the "lounge" with familiar colleagues (you'll be surprised at how many you know already), trading ideas with those who think along the same lines we do. What are those lines? Well, starting at our very "bottom line philosophy" it would be the necessity of equipping children with tools for life. Real life.

In many ways, the world has become a rather scary place for children these days. It is our belief that the best way to combat those fears is to make every effort to raise up confident individuals who are capable of not only thinking for themselves, but who do a good job at it. Kids are amazing! And the more we focus on that, the more we will all be amazed. Take for instance the recent review one young reader posted on Amazon. He had just finished reading Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (whether as an assignment or for pleasure, he didn't say), and wrote: "After reading this book, I now know I could survive..."

Wow. That's the kind of impact every teacher dreams about. What exactly was it that got to this kid? Can the same things work for others? More importantly, will it work for ours?

Let's find out together. I'm really glad you stopped by!