Is Spelling as Riviting as Calculus?

A new movie opening today is about the National Spelling Bee. I’m not sure I believe that last sentence either but from the reviews I’ve read, Spellbound is actually a very good documentary that follows eight kids in their path to the 1999 national contest. The filmmakers seem to have made what could have been a very dull subject into a real-life suspense story. Maybe this could be another tool teachers can use to inspire their kids.

But using commercial movies to motivate kids to excel academically isn’t that unusual. Stand and Deliver, the film about Jaime Escalante’s efforts to teach calculus to his East Los Angeles students, came out in 1988 and I remember giving students in my Algebra II class extra credit for seeing and reporting on the movie. Later when it came out on video tape, it became a must show in many high school math classes. Mr. Holland’s Opus, the Richard Dreyfuss movie about a band director who shares his passion for music with his kids is another film that get shown in a lot of music classrooms.

There are other inspirational movies for other subjects (Nick Nolte’s film Teachers is NOT among them :-). I have no doubt that a Spellbound video will show up in many elementary classrooms in the fall. Considering all the other images coming at kids from the popular media (largely negative), it’s nice when teachers can find positive influences to use.

Yet Another Memorial (Day)

Americans devote way too much energy to memorializing the past. Maybe it’s because I live near Washington, DC (home to 535 historial monuments collectively known as Congress) but it seems to me as if we spend a hell of a lot more time and money on building memorials and holding retrospectives of one kind or another than we do on creating the future. The fight over building a huge memorial to World War II in the middle of the mall (in which Congress violated the law and their own rules to shove it through) is just one good example. Maybe it’s just easier and less scary to look backward than to look forward.

I’ve always the idea of “creating” the future instead of just letting it happen. That’s probably why many of us became teachers. The best teachers I’ve ever met always felt that they were doing something to create a better future, if not for the world in general then at least for their small part of it. Great teachers – both in and out of formal classrooms – are optimists. I don’t see how you can teach and not be an optimist. The whole concept of education assumes that you and your students are going to become better people in some way.

Unfortunately, we come back to my first point: Americans are more interested in looking backward than moving forward. Too many people running this country seem to want to rewind society to some vague version of their good old days. Yet another memorial to the past.

Goals? What Goals?

An article in yesterday’s New York Times (free registration required) talks about how some states, including Texas, are lowering the passing scores on their standardized tests. The motivation is to avoid the penalities that come with low scores as dictated by the No Child Left Behind act.

So, if you can’t hit the target, move it closer. What does that teach our kids about setting goals and achieving them? Sorry… I forgot. That topic isn’t on the test.

How are Education Reform and the Vietnam War Related?

According to this article by a writer named Rob Stein, both are wars that “we have neither the will nor the willingness to win”. With that great analogy as the start he goes on to list the major so-called reforms being proposed – standardized testing, vouchers, prayer (!), etc. – and illustrates how each is nothing more than a diversion from the real educational reform that is sorely needed.

With only eighteen years of teaching experience and no doctorate, I’m no educational expert but I think this guy is right on target. The educational system in this country needs much more substantial (dare I say radical without the feds showing up at the door) reforms, ones that require completely new ways of thinking about teaching and learning.

Let’s start with continuous schooling rather than the start-stop, nine month, highly segemented approach to the school year that was only valid when most kids came from farm families (at least a century back). Another is losing the concept that teaching is something that anyone can do with minimal training and little or no additional training. And flush the old theory that teachers are only in it for the love of the kids (and are the second income in the household) so we can pay substandard salaries. Plus kill the idiotic concept that standarized tests will improve learning!

The magazine this article came from, HeadFirst Colorado, says they try to bring together diverse viewpoints on educational policy in Colorado. But the articles I’ve read from the current issue have lots to think about for anyone in American education. This site is going on the regular read list.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

It’s been a long time since I was a beginning teacher but I still have many memories of those first couple of years – and some of them are rather scary in hindsight (I feel sorry for the kids in my classes that first year :-). For the people just starting out in the profession today things are even tougher with all the standarized tests, No Child Left Behind, large numbers of students who speak little English and other major problems hanging over their heads.

So I wasn’t surprised at all by this article from the Arizona Republic that says that nearly 30 percent of all new teachers will leave the profession by the end of their third year. While the combination of long hours, low pay and lousy schedules (try five periods of senior “last chance to graduate” math :-) is bad enough, none of those factors top the list of reasons why new teacher leave. The number one reason cited is the lack of support and assistance in their schools. Most schools still just assign a classroom, add the kids and wish everybody good luck. We don’t do that with lawyers, doctors or even hairdressers.

Some school systems have set up some kind of new teacher induction program (and a few states require one) to provide support and training for beginning teachers. But obviously not enough considering that 30% statistic.

A few months ago I moved into a job in the office in our district that manages such an induction program. The problem is that we have a very small staff and a very small budget to provide help to the 500+ novice teachers our system hires every year. So we have a program but it’s underfunded and understaffed. I guess that’s better than not having one.

You’d think the cost of high turnovers would make putting more money into induction programs a no brainer. But school systems, like most government bureaucracies, don’t think long term. Planning is only in one year increments even though most kids will be with us for twelve. And we’d like the teachers to stick around for more than five which is when most studies say a teacher learns their profession well enough to be effective.