Award Ceremonies as Privilege on Display

Last week, I went to two award ceremonies for both of my children in one day. The parents were there with their cameras and telephones taking photos and videos. It was standing-room only, but I am not working this summer and I live close by, so I was there early. It was a proud moment for all the parents who received word from their teachers that their daughter or son was receiving an award.

A Sad Moment

As the names were called, I saw proud children run up on stage. Many were cheered on by their classmates. At one point the students who made it to the Honor Roll were called. These were students who received A’s and B’s on their 5th grade report card. I noticed that there was one student on stage who began crying. I thought it was because she was overcome with joy. It turned out that she was crying because she did not make it to the Principal’s Honor Roll, that is, students who earned all A’s. She was expecting to be called up for THAT list, not the list that included "B" students. She was overcome with disappointment to the point that not just her teacher had to talk with her, but two other teachers did the same in an effort to calm her down during the ceremony.

Then there were those students who did not receive anything; those students whose parents did not come up to give hugs of congratulations or words of conciliation after the ceremony. I am not one of those parents who believe that every child should get a trophy, or that we need to protect our students from disappointment. On the contrary, I fully support teachers who have consequences for missed homework and irresponsible behavior. What bothers me is that in this school, in this district where the average household income is well over $110K per year, privilege is what was on display that day. The children who received all A’s for the most part have tutors, parents who stay home with them, or attend tutoring programs like Sylvan and Kumon. Those children receive extra help. The same is likely for children who receive athletic awards in our district. Those students are part of club teams and have coaches helping them improve their skills. As I've heard, many also have parents who do their homework for them "in order to fit it all in." To me, awards ceremonies such as these are more a display of income and privilege, rather than ability. Should this sort of behavior be rewarded?

Music Students

A similar display took place at the Spring concert this past June. For some background, the K-6 music program in our district is run by four teachers who teach instruments and chorus across five schools. At our school specifically, they manage music instruction for over 100 students at a time and most students do their best to learn their instrument. If they want to excel, though, they are instructed to find a tutor to supplement the learning. Everyone in the class, still receives an A, but that is not quite reflective of the actual learning or instruction that occurs there.

During the concert, the better players, the ones that receive tutoring and outside help, are seated up front. The remaining students are then seated behind them, out of view, and (hopefully) further away from earshot. I found out that this is common in music programs. Towards the end of the concert, seven of the very best students were highlighted as exceptional and the teacher even used the term "gifted" to describe them. With much fanfare, they were moved to seats right in front of the parents to play a solo piece. They played a song from the Beatles called “Yesterday” but it might as well have been "Imagine" to complete the irony. Of course, these were all students who received music instruction outside of school, and have likely been playing for many years already. What kind of message is that for all the other students? Are they not "gifted"?

The Message

Schools can be great institutions of learning and equalizers of opportunity. Sometimes, though, they become institutions that replicate the social order of the town or district in which they are located and thus mirror the existing income stratification of our society. Awards ceremonies in these schools perpetuate inequality, and increase the pressures students feel to do well.

Next year, we are thinking of opting our children out of the public acknowledgement of their achievement in the Awards Ceremony. Competition is a good motivator, but when it becomes the means to an end we do not desire, then it erodes compassion and becomes a way of perpetuating economic privilege.

Recently I heard that one of our local students attempted suicide at the junior high down the street - the child was just 12 years old. Is the example we want for our children?

In Defense of Finger-counting

Image courtesy of  pixabay.com

Image courtesy of pixabay.com

In the recent Atlantic magazine article entitled, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, the writers talk about how neuroscience sees using finger-counting in math as essential for improving math comprehension. Essential! Go figure…

I’ve always been told to encourage my children to stop using fingers to count. My children are now practicing “mental math”, where they must figure out how to do a problem WITHOUT writing it out first. You know what? I’ve always had a problem with that idea. My math teachers insisted that we showed our work, every…single…step. If not, we got marked down. I learned to “see” numbers in my head because I first saw them on the paper, and saw them using my hands. My math teachers were right! Turns out that our brain comes equipped with a somatosensory finger area. In this area of the brain, “we ‘see’ a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation.” The article goes on to say that we need to encourage students to count with their fingers because if they stop, it is “akin to halting their mathematical development”! Wow…

And if you’re wondering, this also can be one way to close the achievement gap created by income inequality. Finger counting is part of a large area of brain research that focuses on visual representation and its impact on the brain and learning. The article highlights a study that talks about the benefits of board games for low-income preschoolers, it was found that “after four 15-minute sessions of playing a game with a number line, differences in knowledge between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds were eliminated.” In other words, we should not stop using what educators call “manipulatives” to help children learn math. We come equipped with 10 very good “manipulatives” that our students should continue to use during math.

We should not short-circuit the brain development of our children by placing them too quickly in front of electronic devices. We cannot make them reliant on electronics to do the thinking for them. Working with the brain, rather than against it or ignoring it altogether, is one way we can help all children do well in school. We don’t learn anything new from machines. The best “machine” is the one sitting right in between our ears. We should learn how to use that one better. Math is cool, fun, and can continue to be if we just use our hands!

Opt Out Part 2 - Don’t believe the hype: there are no penalties for opting out!

Image courtesy of  morguefile.com

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

The testing season is in full swing in CA this month and will continue through May. The CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress) and the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting ) Science test will be given at our children's school. As a reminder, California Education Code 60615 allows a parent “to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered”. So don’t be afraid to opt your children out. In speaking with other parents, I constantly hear them say: “We can’t opt them out! They won’t graduate to the next grade!" or “They’re supposed to take it…aren’t they?” and "Won't it affect their funding?" This is echoed in a recent email from one of our teachers to the parents, “students must take the CASPP”. To be fair, when I explained to the teacher than this was misinformation, she did promise to correct the wording on subsequent emails.

The fact is, parents should not believe the hype from administrators, teachers, PTAs, and fellow parents that do more to scare than inform. Some school administrators will say that if the children don’t take this optional and, as it turns out also dubiously relevant test, that the school will be penalized, somehow. According to FairTest.org, “…eight states (California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin) have specific language in their statutes allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. More importantly, not one school or state has ever been sanctioned - ever. Last year, the Department of Education (DOE) took absolutely no action at all when Oregon made it especially clear and easy for parents to opt their children out.

The fact is, no state or federal agency has ever withheld funds for children’s education because the school did not have a high enough participation rate for this optional, and frankly irrelevant, test. And even if they tried this, the backlash would be tremendous. Lawsuits would undoubtedly follow based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This protection was applied to educational institutions by the Supreme Court of the United States in May 1975, in Plyler vs. Doe, and confirmed that public education cannot be withheld from children based on criteria over which the children have no control such as race or income. In the case of standardized testing, where the argument would be whether it was required or not, this would also be outside of their control. The bottom line is, there is a shifting tide away from standardized testing and the proponents of testing do not want to test this in court.

One thing parents should do when talking with teachers about their choice to opt out is to have a proposal for an alternative learning experience. This is because teachers may not even be prepared for this and will likely ask the child to spend those three hours in front of a computer watching video - this is not recommended. For example, I am taking my children to the California Science Center and the African American Museum in Los Angeles. We worked out an agreement with their teachers that they will be writing up what they want to get out of the experience and then have a chance to present it to the class. They also will be volunteering in the kindergarten classroom as helpers during other test days. Both our children are very excited about this plan for a variety of reasons, but most of all because they get to do something special that they actually want to do. For the teacher, their students will continue to learn the content that directly relates to the learning objectives. As it turns out, our teachers have been incredibly supportive, for which I feel very fortunate.

Parents contact me asking what to do during the testing period. I tell them simply opt out! It's really not that hard and I calmly tell them that the tests do nothing but hijack the teaching time, stress everyone out, and contribute nothing to the educational well-being of the child - they are over-tested already. Let me be very clear. As I said before, I am not against all tests. I just will not allow our children to become trained test-takers at the expense of so many other things they could be learning that will benefit them in life. In the end, our children are why we invest in schools. Let’s do our best to ensure that their education isn’t sacrificed at the altar of the testocracy.

For part 1 of this article, "Opt Out! The Harm of Standardized Tests," see below.

Opt Out! The Harm of Standardized Tests

Image courtesy of  morguefile.com

Image courtesy of morguefile.com

Around the country, school districts are frantically preparing for the annual standardized test. In southern California, where I live, those tests are administered in May and June. At our last PTA meeting, our school principal said that our version of the test, the CAASPP (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress) will be administered during the last couple of weeks in May. As a family, we’ve decided to opt our children out from all assessments that fall outside the normal formative and summative assessments (in-class quizzes and tests) that their teachers administer and that count toward their school grade. Fortunately, California Education Code 60615 allows parents here “to excuse his or her child from any or all parts of the assessments administered”. So why do we opt our children out?

According to FairTest.org, “testing overuse and misuse is damaging public education by eating up classroom time, narrowing curriculum and driving many students out of school." They go on to say that "it perpetuates a false narrative of failure by putting schools in low-income communities at risk of closure or privatization”. In our family’s Opt Out letter to the school, I made sure to include that “I believe our teachers are our children’s benchmark, and only they should have the skills and training to do what standardized tests cannot.”

Let's be clear, I fully support public education because a robust public education structure is a founding pillar of an equally robust democracy. Standardized tests, however, create standardized thinkers. As a college professor, I see and hear my students struggle more and more to try and answer simple questions like: “What do you think of such an issue?” or "Can you say that in your own words?" This is a very recent phenomenon, and very much unlike when I was in college, just a couple of decades ago. So it is time to ask the question of whether our public education system is being adversely affected by standardized testing. Fortunately, I am not alone in my refusal to make my children take these tests.

There is a movement being spearheaded by United Opt Out, a grassroots organization committed to informing people on what to do in order to end the privatization and corporate influence on public education. They see standardized testing as a distinct element of the trend because it takes testing out of the hands of teachers and into the hands of testing corporations. Dr. Diane Ravitch in her blog discusses the use of tests to dismantle our public education system. You can read about her warnings to “not feed the machine of state testing" in her well-publicized 2014 Huffington Post article.

Teachers themselves, are also standing up for the education of their students. For instance, Dr. Wendy Bradshaw, an elementary school teacher from Polk County Florida, who’s resignation letter went viral after she wrote: “Developmentally appropriate practice is the bedrock upon which early childhood education best practices are based, and has decades of empirical support behind it. However, the new reforms not only disregard this research, they are actively forcing teachers to engage in practices which are not only ineffective but, actively harmful to child development and the learning process.” You can read Dr. Bradshaw’s letter here.

Another example is from history teacher Jesse Hagopian, at Garfield High School in Washington State, who writes about standing up against standardized testing in schools, among many other issues. In his letter to his son’s school explaining why the child will be opted out, Jesse writes: “We are opting him out of standardized tests because we have seen the way an over-emphasis on scores has distorted what matters most in elementary education-such as creativity, being a good friend, communicating emotions, and problem-solving.”

I had a discussion recently with a fellow parent at our children's school about the upcoming standardized tests. She was distraught because she wanted her son to do well but didn’t know how to help him prepare for the tests. I reminded her that these tests were not tied to whether he advances to the next grade. Her response, “then why is he taking them?” Good question. United Opt Out has a list of the Top Five Myths of Standardized Testing. One of those myths is that “opting out does not prepare children for the real world” because testing is something they will need to do their whole lives. The argument that children will be taking tests their whole lives, and therefore need to practice them over and over, is false. Human beings do not take tests their whole lives – they take a handful of tests and the rest of the time, they are expected to be engaged critical thinkers that are compassionate, responsible, and engaged in the world around them.

Let me be reiterate, I am not against all tests. I just will not allow our children to be trained like mindless beings to be test-takers at the expense of so many other things they could be learning. The world our children will inherit will require them to understand big ideas, be critical thinkers, know more than one language, appreciate art and music, and be able to interact with different kinds of people and situations. Standardized tests point children in the wrong direction, and consequently puts the the burden on them for one more of our many mistakes: standardized testing.

In Defense of Handwriting

Did you know that January 23rd was National Handwriting Day? I know, it’s February 2nd, but I had a conversation with my children last night that reminded me why I think handwriting should be saved, not just with a national day but because our humanity may depend on it.

We have all see the recent Bic advertisements promoting the benefits of handwriting instruction. The point of the “Fight for your Write” is to bring to the public’s attention the importance of handwriting in the cognitive development of human beings. This move by Bic can be seen as a little self-serving, but they back up their claims with the latest neuroscientific and psychological research. And it is not just them. The September 2012 report of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) summarized the research on the benefits of cursive writing instruction that has come out in the last 10-15 years. Some of the benefits include: cognitive and motor skill development, literacy development, brain development, memory, written expression, and how it helps students with learning disabilities. On June 2, 2014, there was a NY Times article articulating how handwriting helps make learning easier, and allows us to express our thoughts more fully. The article also speaks to the negative effects that typing has on the adult brain: it impacts our ability to process new information. And finally, there is Master Penman Jake Weidmann, the youngest of the 12 master penmen in the world. He speaks in the video about his love for writing, how he sees it as an art form, and the benefits of mastering penmanship and cursive writing. His 5-minute video is well worth watching and sharing with your loved ones…especially the little ones.

Schools are moving away from handwriting instruction to typing in order to better prepare students for the computer-based Common Core tests (more on why you should opt out of those in my next post), and an as-of-yet determined technological future. All this, they say, is necessary in order to help our children become college and career ready. Although well-meaning, this is done without fully understanding what effects this shift will have on the brain and mental development of our children. Instead of drinking the VERY expensive Technology Kool-Aid – which by the way has not proven to be the magic bullet for increasing educational outcomes, let alone make children college and career ready – let’s clearly understand what handwriting helps us do: improve brain development across the lifespan, learn better, express ourselves more meaningfully, helps individuals with learning disabilities, increase attention span, and connects us to each other and our past. Now, aren’t these skills what will truly make us ready for life?