kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/30/07 - 10/7/07

Saturday, October 6, 2007

kitchen table fear & loathing

from the Wall Street Journal:

Maybe I'm missing something, but when did schools determine that the best place for kids to learn math, science and English is at their own kitchen table?

Even better:

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point U.S. schools decided that if you can't teach 'em, test 'em...or pile on more homework.

First line in the article:

I hate school!

Me, too.

Having a kid in the middle school is misery. In August, facing the prospect of another year dealing with the place, I had bad dreams. I was thinking that was nuts, until I talked to a mom I hadn't seen in a while, who said she was having bad dreams, too.

That's what you pay the big bucks for, I guess.

Yes, I know that's a bit immature for someone 41 years old. But it's true. I hate school -- so much so that my wife, Amy, and I have hired a college student to help our fifth-grade son manage his schoolwork a few times a week.
It's not that we can't do the work with him, or that we don't want to. Just this evening we helped him study for a reading test, and over the weekend I was quizzing him on customary and metric units of measurement one day and biological definitions the next.

No, it's that the volume of homework and tests that fill his docket is, in a word, ridiculous.

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point U.S. schools decided that if you can't teach 'em, test 'em...or pile on more homework.

The result is that my son's life -- and by extension our family life -- is a constant, stress-laden stream of homework and tests and projects. It overshadows everything we do, always hanging over our head. It affects our weekends, our meals, our vacations, our work time, our playtime, our pocketbooks.

And to what end? Maybe I'm missing something, but when did schools determine that the best place for kids to learn math, science and English is at their own kitchen table?

Yes, I know that's a bit immature for someone 41 years old. But it's true. I hate school -- so much so that my wife, Amy, and I have hired a college student to help our fifth-grade son manage his schoolwork a few times a week.

It's not that we can't do the work with him, or that we don't want to. Just this evening we helped him study for a reading test, and over the weekend I was quizzing him on customary and metric units of measurement one day and biological definitions the next.


But the level of homework and anxiety my son deals with on a daily basis is well beyond anything healthy. And from talking to other parents, this problem is hardly unique to our family.

Amy and I knew there was a problem several weeks ago when our son brought home a D and a C. This was the first time that he earned anything less than a B. And then, a week later, another D.

At first we were mad. He's just not paying attention to the questions; he's rushing through the tests; he's being careless. We quizzed him before the test and again afterward. How is it that he can know the information before and after, yet not during?

It turns out he's stressed out. He told Amy that he wishes he could do better. But he already wakes up on school days between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., panicked that he doesn't know the material he has already studied. He wakes up Amy to help him go over his notes one more time. He studies in the car on the way to school. Some nights he's up past 10 p.m., writing, reading or memorizing. He spends parts of many weekends reading and doing projects.

Then he sees the Ds and Cs and gets dejected, wondering how he could possibly study any harder or any longer.

The truth is, he can't. His childhood is already all but consumed by textbooks, notebooks and flashcards.

Bermuda triangle

Compounding the problem, as Amy says, is that this barrage of schoolwork "is killing our family." Amy says it makes her "feel like the worst mom in the world." Here's why: Many times our efforts to help our son lead to short tempers and blown fuses because at some point he simply has had enough of all this studying. He just wants to be outside on a Saturday, but he's stuck inside on a project, or reciting the synonyms and antonyms to justify, villain and abandon.

One of Amy's colleagues calls it the Bermuda Triangle, because first the child gets mad, then the parent helping gets mad, and then the parent listening to the meltdown gets mad.
Homework is Hurting Our Family

Ed and I may have had the single worst fight of our entire married life over homework, come to think of it.

help desk - homework proposal for the site committee

A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first site committee meeting a week ago, thanks to the efforts of two activist parents and the PTSA. (The PTSA here has been great, by the way. They're working on openness, communication, information flow --- great, great job).

Anyway, thanks to two activist parents (that I know of), the PTSA, and the newly constituted school board, we can now attend site committee meetings.

Which was always our right by law, but never mind.

The first meeting was devoted to choosing an agenda for the year, so the principal came prepared with a long list of possibilities.

One was "homework."

Some parents want less homework, he said. (I'm in this faction.)

Some parents want more homework.

So....homework. That could be a focus.

I'm going to put together a homework proposal for the site committee to consider and reject, and I'd like some help. (Yes! You, too, can be thanked for your input, without even having to live here.)

Roughly, here's what I'm thinking.

The site committee could put together a voluntary pilot project to gather information about homework.

Specifically (I'm thinking) what you need to know about each homework assignment is this:

Could the student complete the assignment in a reasonable period of time, without assistance, and do a good job?

That is to say: could the student complete the assignment in a reasonable period of time, without assistance, and receive a grade of 90 or above?

I don't think it would be too hard to figure this out.

You could include, with some (most? all?) homework assignments, a simple set of questions, the answers to which could function as a survey of sorts, or a diagnostic assessment.

The sheet might list:
  • homework assignment & date
  • start time (when child began work on assignment)
  • finish time (when child finished work on assignment)
  • one question: did child need help to do this assignment?
  • grade received (and...uh...yes, this would require whatever teacher piloted the system actually to collect and correct homework)

I would set this up as a pilot program, asking for teacher volunteers. You'd want to start with your most confident and competent teachers, because you'd want to set things up to succeed.

You wouldn't force students and parents to participate, either, but if the feedback proved valuable, you might want to help students develop a habit of tracking their time to the extend they are able. (I still don't understand time myself; I have no idea how long tasks take, and constantly underestimate the time involved in this or that commitment.)

Most middle school kids could probably handle these questions on their own, though it would be better if parents monitored the time recording.

I would start this pilot program by telling people that the school wants to look at what's going on with homework, ability grouping, differentiated instruction, etc.

I'd invite people to make suggestions about questions to include.

I would ask for volunteers (teachers, parents, students).

I would share all data with any parent, teacher, resident, or citizen who wished to take a look, removing student names, of course.

I might also ask for volunteers to run some statistical analyses, or advise on ways to analyze it correctly.

That's as far as I've gotten------what do you think?

And: how would you analyze the information that came back?

from instructivist:

I think teachers of rotating classes should coordinate the amount of homework assigned to prevent overloading. Teachers tend to forget that they are not the only ones assigning homework.

Homework should also be meaningful practice of what's being learned and not be wasteful busywork.

This, the middle school is either doing or trying to do - except for Math A and Earth Science. The Earth Science teacher has free rein to "work the kids" (direct quote), because "this is a high school course."

from anonymous:

Homework quality and quantity is always a topic that generates a lot of parental discussion. PTA has a guideline about it; I think it was 10min X grade level for time. The Wall Street Journal had piece about h.w. recently too.

On the survey: Right now I have 4 things nightly to sign between 2 children besides the responsibility of checking the fifth grader's h.w. and reteaching if necessary as well as digging up art supplies when some teacher assigns a time consuming craft project as part of a 'multiple intelligence' assessment. I wouldn't want another piece of paper to fill in unless I knew a) that my answers would not be held against my child and b) the results would be representative of everyone, not just the concerns of a vocal minority.

What I'd like to see is no homework for Gr. 6 - 12 other than a research paper, assigned reading, projects with an academic not arts/crafts purpose and instrumental music practice. The remaining time would be used for studying and enriching extracurriculars, and be determined by the student's needs.

As it stands now, if my child realizes he didn't understand a point in the math lesson, or he would like to read the science text, he has no time to do so because he must allocate the rest of the evening to the multiple intelligence homework, word searches, literature novel, and projects as well as make sure all notebooks will pass the forthcoming but unannounced 'notebook quiz'.

Other things I'd like to see: no homework over vacations. No assignments without a grading rubric, no class without a syllabus - in other words, expectations need to be clear and stated up front.

My final h.w. request: assignments that change from year to year so that the lil' sibs don't have such a big advantage over the noobs.


I wonder whether there is a way to blind the answers.... because this Commenter is right; most parents don't want to say, "My kid took two hours to do this assignment."

I'm an outlier in this respect, and I can only get away with it because Ed and I both have Ph.D.s & because C. is a pretty good student with no "issues" etc. -- and because we've had it up to here with the b*s, and everyone knows it. Somehow, the message has been conveyed that if it's taking C. 2 hours to do 10 math problems, we're not interested in hearing that there's something wrong with him.

This isn't a normal relationship to have with your school.


What do people feel about vocal minorities?

I probably like vocal minorities just fine.


parent triangulation

from anonymous:

"The top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn't exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technologies that haven't been invented in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

An administrator from my district said this quote verbatim followed by a plea for more money. I raised my hand and said, "This could have been said in 1930." I rendered him speechless.

Bravo, anonymous! Well done.

I personally have managed to render an administrator (temporarily) speechless only once. I remember the moment fondly, and like to tell the story whenever I see an opening. So....if you've been reading ktm for a may want to skip down to the next post.

My speechless administrator triumph was the moment in which I finally overcame parent triangulation.

Parent triangulation means that whenever a parent makes a request or raises a concern, the administrator instantly rejects that request or concern on grounds that other parents have the opposite interest or concern.

It took me years to catch on.

One year, when C. was still a little guy, we had a terrifically cold winter. The kids weren't allowed to play outside, so by spring C. had gained all kinds of weight and was being called names by his friends and bursting into tears when he stepped on the scale.*

From time to time, during that very long winter, we would say to the school principal, "We know it's freezing cold, but C. needs to get outside and play."

The principal -- one of our favorite people in the district to this day, btw -- would say, sympathetically, "I know he does. But other parents want their kids kept inside."

For years, we failed to see the flaw in the logic here.

Possibly my favorite moment of triangulation happened at a board meeting, where Ed and a confederate were pressing the board to post more information about their doings on edline. Without missing a beat, one member replied, "We can't do that, because some parents feel there's too much information posted on edline."

That may have been the high water mark in parent triangulation here in Irvingtonland. The board member's statement was absurd on the face of it, because, practically speaking, there is no information posted on edline. Sure, there's stuff. Log on to edline and you will see stuff.

But nobody can find the stuff he's actually looking for, because edline is impenetrable. The information architecture is incomprehensible, and the thing has no search engine. Plus it crashes a lot.

(Have I mentioned that one of my schemes is to create an edline knock-off that actually works? You know, a web site with all the same stuff, but with information architecture and a search engine? If I had the time, I'd do it. That would royally tick people off, I bet.)

Back on topic.

So this went on for years. Ed and I would make a reasonable request in our then mild-mannered way; we would be told that the administration would like nothing more than to do things exactly the way we wanted them to do things, except for all those other parents out there who wanted the opposite of what we wanted. I spent years of my life thinking Ed and I were parent outliers, people who wanted weird stuff, like recess in winter, no other Irvington mom or dad would countenance.

Eventually I caught on.

Those other parents, the ones who always got what they wanted while we never got what we wanted, did not exist. They were a simple rhetorical ploy we had spent 6 years of our lives falling for.

My moment of triumph arrived at a Coffee with the Principal.

Edline had just been installed, and all the parents present were eager to use it. Problem was, the teachers weren't using it. In place of the promised homework assignments, test schedules, and grades, there was.....nothing.

Edline was empty.

The two principals parried the numerous queries from the parents present by saying that it would be dangerous to put too much information on edline, because some parents would become obsessed, and would start clicking onto edline many times a day, anxiously checking to see whether there had been a change in their children's grades.

This went on and on. At one point a parent confessed that she herself would be at risk for edline addiction, and then went on to request that more information be posted to edline.

So there we were, a room full of parents who wanted information posted to edline.

And there they were, the two principals, explaining that they couldn't post more information to edline, because other parents didn't want more information posted to edline.

Finally it was my turn to speak.

"This room is filled with parents who want more information posted to edline," I said. "Other parents, not in this room, don't want information posted to edline. Why are you choosing to honor the wishes of those parents, but not to honor our wishes."

That stopped her cold.

Stopped her cold, but didn't knock her off her game (she's one of the smartest people around - thinks on her feet). The problem, she said, was the teachers. They were resisting; they were dragging their feet; they were recruiting early adopters to lead the way and persuade the others through example to follow; etc.

That didn't seem particularly reasonable to me, I must say.

I mean, I'm the parent and taxpayer; I've just paid for edline, and.....the teachers are refusing to use it?

Well, fine. I'm sure the teachers are refusing to use it; I'm refusing to use it myself, at this point. Edline is a lousy, miserable excuse for a web site; it's so out of date and amateurish in nature that it's prehistoric. If it's impossible for a parent to find and download stuff from edline, how easy can it be for teachers to upload stuff?

So let's bag edline.

Let's get together a committee of people with web expertise, research the various options, and purchase a district web site that actually works.

Maybe Anonymous could get that point across.

parent triangulation update

My solution to the parent triangulation business has been to start talking choice.

Other parents want something different?


Give them something different!

Give me Singapore Math; give them Trailblazers!

This tack, believe it or not, has done some damage to the top-down, my way or the highway model of school administration.

"Choice" is easy to say. Choice, choice, choice.

There are very few parents who, hearing "choice," will say, or feel, "I don't like choice, I prefer to have a winner group and a loser group."

Well, guess what?

The administration has adapted.

No longer do we hear tell of a non-existant group of parents who want exactly the opposite of what we want (and who, miraculously, have the clout to get it).

The new meme is: parents are cats.

Parents all want different things, there's no rhyme or reason, they send 100 crazy emails to the board each week.

So: since all you parents want different things, and we administrators just want one thing, our path is clear.

* That prompted a successful family foray into child dieting: Trim Kids and Shangri-La Diet are the books you need here.

Friday, October 5, 2007

really big numbers

Just found this at de Havilland blog, while looking around for the post on the Frederick Hess article I want to link (is that clear?)

Remember really big numbers?

In Trailblazers?

The slides in this YouTube are set to what is possibly my favorite movie theme of all time, from what is possibly the most romantic movie of all time, Last of the Mohicans.

Half of this video is a blast; the other half is 21st century fear and loathing set to music - fun!

...predictions are that by 2049 a $1,000 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the human race...

Sure, sure.

But will a $1,000 computer be able to read the wavy letters in the Comments window?

That's the question.

TERC baby works the system

This 4th grader is afterschooled at home, is advanced beyond 4th grade TERC Investigations, and has learned to "work the system." As such, he memorized the easy stuff a long time ago.

Notice how he finesses the question on the Pearson worksheet.

In case you can't read the handwriting, it says
"I just knew but if I didn't i'd use 9 x 3 + 9 x 3 = 54."

He knows he's being clever.

Time to sell SAS stock?

(If I had any, that is; all my money's in Vangaurd index funds, so I wouldn't be able to get rid of it even if I wanted to).

It appears that its CEO doesn't quite have a firm grasp on logic:

Countries like China, India, and Korea have invested heavily in education over the last decade. They are now producing more scientists and engineers than we are...

Sounds about right - so he's going to call for us to invest in rigorous math & science programs like they've got in China, India, and Korea, right?

...Today’s generation of kids is the most technology savvy group that this country has ever produced. They are born with an iPod in one hand and a cell phone in another...

...Their world is one of total interactivity. They’re in constant communication with each other, but when they go to school, they are told to leave those “toys” at home. They’re not to be used in school. Instead, the system continues teaching as if these kids belong to the last century, by standing in front of a blackboard.

Ah. In short:

1. America has a shortage of scientists and engineers.
2. China, India, and Korea have a glut of scientists and engineers.
3. Therefore, we need a completely new and revolutionary teaching method to teach math & science, unlike the traditional, content-heavy systems employed by the Chinese, Indians, and Koreans.


To be fair, he does appear to have some bad inputs which are screwing up his conclusions ("Education has not changed, and that’s a problem. It was a good system when I came through, but today’s kids have changed, and that’s the part that educators are not realizing."), but identifying bad input is a pretty fundamental part of any IT project.

Catherine here, parachuting into Independent George's post --

For months I've been meaning to put up a link to de Havilland Blog's post about Frederick Hess's article on how business people can help education.

I'm glad I didn't get to it, because this is where it belongs.

I think Hess has a second article on this subject....will drop in the link if I find it.

from the article:

Two titans of the new economy—founders of Apple and Dell—clashed at an education conference earlier this year in Texas. Steve Jobs and Michael Dell were discussing technology and school reform when Jobs disturbed the usual pallid comity of these sorts of events. “What is wrong with our schools in this nation,” he said, “is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K–12 teachers [are] off-the-charts crazy.”

Jobs elaborated, “What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that, when they came in, they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? Not really great ones, because if you’re really smart, you go, ‘I can’t win.’”

Dell responded that unions were created because “the employer was treating his employees unfairly and that was not good. So now you have these enterprises where they take good care of their people. The employees won. They do really well and succeed.”


The hostility that greeted Jobs’s comments is familiar to business leaders who get serious about school improvement. The education establishment is happy to take corporate America’s money and in-kind support, but is ultimately skeptical of business.

The sense I get is that American businessmen and women, overall, in their many forays into education reform, have operated as boosters, loyalists, and fundraisers.

I'm with Hess. American business needs to change its model, or get out of the way and let people who enjoy political work -- or who don't enjoy political work but can't help themselves, as the case may be -- do their thing.

It's easy to give money when you've got it.

It's hard to go up against entrenched power.

Perhaps some parents could use some "home enjoyment"

We began long division last week, with remainders. It's 3 exercises in the Primary Math 3A workbook with plenty of teacher-made worksheets for home enjoyment. One student came in with his worksheet filled with decimal points. The whole group worked remainder problems together on whiteboards and in their workbooks.

The next day the same kid didn't have his work at all. He told his mom he wasn't doing it at all. That afternoon, I thought I'd give mom a heads up about the "OOPS-I wasn't prepared for class" form in his planner and pointed out that he had done the previous night's work all wrong with decimals, and I thought he might just be overwhelmed and needing some extra help.

"No," she replied. "I helped him with his homework. I thought there were decimals in there somewhere."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Real math on the sly...


My 7th graders math teacher brought out some antique math text books from 1991 to supplement the assigned, district bought, "new integrated math" text books.

My 7th grader was told that they would be using the old school textbook most of the time.

The books are on the their last legs (16 years of abuse), but they are light years better than the new books.

Teaching the "New Literacy"

Along with all parents and guardians of K-12 children in my district, I've been invited to listen to a keynote speaker from The New Literacies Research Team explain how I can effectively prepare my children for their literacy and learning future. The title of this presentation is Beyond the Textbook: Developing The Skill and the Art of Reading (Yes, they capitzalized "The" and underlined the title. )

Apparently this "new literacy" thing is soooo 21st century it even involves learning on the Internet. It seems we parents haven't quite figured out the technology aspect on our own yet.

According to the lovely, lilac handout in my child's backpack today, my district's personnel is going to "translate what teachers do at school that parents can do at home to develop [ ] a critical reader and reinforce good reading strategies and skills." We will learn "how our schools are addressing, responding and teaching the "new literacy."* I think the bottom line is that they get to check off the box for "Information and Technology Literacy" still pending on the to-do list.

According to TechLearning this is the "new literacy" in a nutshell as it applies to reading:

Finding information: Locating relevant information not only from a local library or newsstand, but also from the Internet. Literacy includes the ability to identify needed information, use Web searching tools to find it, and employ research strategies that expose the best information.

Decoding information
: Beyond decoding text, literacy requires reading deeply for meaning in multimedia content.

Evaluating information: It is critical that students learn
to evaluate the information they encounter, and also identify its value in terms
of their goals.

Organizing information into personal digital libraries: A key strategy for handling the overwhelming amount of information available to us is the construction and cultivation of personal digital libraries. When we create and organize information that is relevant to our ongoing interests and goals, then we can handily find answers to our questions.

I imagine that about covers it. Nevertheless, I still plan on attending even though I could think of many other topics I'd rather discuss insuch a forum. Like Everyday Math, CMP2, project based learning, discovery learning, mixed ability classrooms, the elimination of the gifted program, standardized tests that are far from rigorous, etc. Instead, we get to hear about the "new literacy".

How very 21st century.

*Interestingly enough, I found another version of this announcement online that states that we will learn how our district is "addressing, responding and teaching the "new literacy" while maintaining a traditional approach to teaching and learning." I wonder why they edited out the "traditional approach to teaching and learning"? Sounds like a good question to ask.

UDPATE (10-11-2007)

The first half was pretty much what I expected (see above). We never got to "organizing information into personal digital libraries" and that actually might have been quite helpful. I did learn that by 2009, the PISA will test Internet literacy.

Let's see, we had material included in our nice three ring binder from Reading First and Lucy Calkins was listed as a resource too. I learned that I should always use a search engine and not enter a random "subject + dot com".

Memorable quotes:

"We should teach our weakest reader the technology first. We should privilege them."

"Emailing grandparents is just like a bedtime story."

Oh yes, and apparently we're losing jobs to other countries because our student's lack Internet literacy.

On the upside, there was praise for phonemes and syllabication and the reading specialist said that despite the guest speaker pushing the "new literacy", it was her opinion that there is nothing like a BOOK when it comes to literacy in the lower grades (at which point I finally was able to nod and smile).

Your vicarious visit to the New Literacy would not be complete if you did not watch Medieval Help Desk (which is actually quite funny) and learn about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus (which is actually not).

We're not allowed to pre-teach

A second grader's worksheet was corrected because she didn't capitalize a proper noun. Only trouble is, this was never taught.

When asked about this by the mother, the teacher replied, "We're not allowed to pre-teach."

So this is discovery learning? They have to "discover" that proper nouns get capitalized by doing it wrong first?

I'd almost sooner return to the days when self-esteem was god. Almost.

Homework for parents has come out of the closet . . .

. . . and is on full display in a school in New Jersey.

The parents of Damion Frye’s ninth-grade students are spending their evenings this fall doing something they thought they had left behind long ago: homework.

So far, Mr. Frye, an English teacher at Montclair High School, has asked the parents to read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by
Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Their newest assignment is a poem by Saul Williams, a poet, musician and rapper who lives in Los Angeles. The ninth graders complete their assignments during class; the parents are supposed to write their responses on a blog Mr. Frye started online.

If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.

I don’t even know what to say. Except, most parents have meekly accepted this. BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID.

The voice of reason:

“Common educational wisdom is that you don’t assign homework that kids can’t do on their own,” she said.

Catherine here, diving into Tex's post.

Tex has just inspired my first full-length Irvington Parents Forum op-ed of the school year.

And, let me just add that Mr. Frye is extremely lucky he does not work in Irvington.

We'd make short work of Mr. Frye.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

great moments in world history, part 2

C. just finished Megawords 4!

woo hoo!

Great Moments in World History, part 1 5-14-05
mission accomplished 3-7-06

thank you for your ongoing this, that, & the other

So....I'm thinking I may have to get this book. know......I probably haven't spent enough money on books this month, yet.

You can go get a "Look Inside" on Amazon.

So far I don't see any thank you for your ongoing cooperation and supports, and the only thank you for your interest in the middle school-type sign-off appears to be in a letter to a job applicant, not a parent.

Well, all I can say is, our middle school principal better put thank you for your interest in the middle school on a macro, because I am darned interested.

I'm so darn interested that I'm going to request copies of all materials concerning the middle school model the middle school Scheduling Committee has reviewed.

Of course, now that I think of it, it's entirely possible the Scheduling Committee has been asked to review no materials concerning the middle school model.

That would be interesting in and of itself.

which teacher would you rather have?

this teacher:
Fluent Writing: How to Teach the Art of Pacing
by Denise Leograndis

Chapter 1

Synthesizing a Definition

When I first saw that NCEE New Standards bullet—provides pacing—I checked my memory for any knowledge of pacing in writing. Nothing. Apparently I had either forgotten or never heard of it in a writing context. I was careful to check way back to memories of lessons in my high school and college writing classes. Still nothing.

I proceeded to search out a definition. I found many similar and different and overlapping references. Eventually, I synthesized all these references and my supporting inquiry work into something that, I believe, makes sense and more importantly works well for my students.

Checking My Schema

As with any new learning that we encounter, we start building an understanding based on what we already know. As I had no pacing in writing connection, I checked my own schema for any references to pace and pacing. I found pace car, pace yourself, pick up the pace, and memories of my track coach hollering at me over his stopwatch.

All references to controlling speed

Let’s look at the ubiquitous “Pace yourself.” We use it in all sorts of different situations. We pace ourselves when we take on projects. For our students, we pace individual lessons and our yearlong plans. To pace something well is complex. To get the overall plan to work, you’ve got to consider and have control over all the details, big and small.

Control over all the details, big and small, to control the pace. True in life. Also true in writing?

I started asking around.

Advice from Others

“You know, short, medium, and long sentences,” a veteran teacher told me. I nodded. I had (and still do) read plenty of student writing where each sentence ends predictably at the same length as the last. Lifeless writing. Droning writing. Certainly sentence length is a critical element for the writer to control.

So I had the specific detail of sentence length. But is that the only detail that controls the pacing in writing? I needed more.

I asked a literacy coach. “It’s spending time on the important moment in the piece,” she said. Yes, I understood that. I remembered a fourth-grade student from the year before. He had spent every moment of our writing time nose down, writing and writing. By the time I conferred with him, he had nine pages of meticulous details of a five-hour plane ride he took to visit a relative he rarely saw. He recounted his journey from the car ride to the airport parking lot, to the ticket counter to the takeoff, the meal, the movie, everything. The joyous two-day reunion with the relative got one short paragraph. Followed by a “The End.” Boring writing. Disappointing writing.

Now I had two ways to focus a pacing lens on a piece, a small lens—controlling the pace through the details of a sentence length and a big lens—the balance of proper attention and time spent on the important moments in a piece. Anything else? I kept searching.

References in Professional Books

I gathered every professional book I owned or could borrow. I scanned the indexes, tables of contents and read every possible paragraph where pacing might show up. I found a little help here and there.


What’s on the Net?

There’s the axiom “consider the source.” Always good advice, but when comparing information gleaned from the Net as opposed to say, a book, I would prefer “judge the message, not the medium of conveyance.” So I surfed and I judged. I was determined to find definitions and explanations that made sense and would be helpful.

or this teacher:
Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking by Emily Kissner
ISBN-10: 0325007977
ISBN-13: 978-0325007977


I started teaching language arts at the height of the whole language movement. The supervisor in my district had removed the old scope and sequence, drill and kill-based curriculum in favor of a far more open curriculum that allowed teachers to plan their own lessons and make their own judgments. “But I have no judgment!” I remember wailing to my mother, also a teacher. “How do you think I learned what to do?” she asked, and showed me her bookshelf, which was covered with stacks and stacks of professional books. I got the message. I couldn’t expect to make it through a career of teaching with only the knowledge I had picked up in a handful of undergraduate courses. If I was going to be successful, I needed to read. And read. And read.

During the next few years, I amassed my own collection of books. When I came to a thorny patch in my instruction—for example, how to get students to apply grammar skills to their writing—I would look through the books for ideas and solutions. If I didn’t find the answer in my own books, I would borrow from my mother’s bookshelf or the reading specialist’s. I knew that I couldn’t become comfortable with every aspect of teaching reading and writing in one year, so I slowly built on my knowledge base and developed my own judgment.

This helped me to cope with the changes that swept through my classroom during the course of the next seven years. I started teaching seventh grade writing, then added sixth grade writing to the mix. When Integrated Language Arts came to our school a few years later, I was thrilled to be able to teach a ninety-minute block of reading and writing. Our state outcomes became content standards, our state testing program was transformed from performance-based assessment to “selected response,” or multiple choice, and the district middle school reading and writing department was headed by three different supervisors who dispersed three different curriculum manuals. As if these changes were not enough, I uprooted myself after seven years and went to teach a self-contained sixth grade class in a tiny rural district. Moving from a district with 28,000 students to a district with 1,80 was quite a culture shock.

Some people may have found the pace frustrating, but I liked the excitement. I learned how to adapt to new thinking and new ideas while still holding on to the philosophies and structures that worked in my classroom. The more things changed, the more I could see how some things remained the same. Whether I was teaching to outcomes or standards, whether my curriculum was organized according to theme or genre, whether I had a classroom with windows, I faced young adolescents every day. All the books in the world cannot prepare a teacher for what happens once the students walk into the room.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to teach summarizing. Included as a content standard and an assessment anchor, I knew that summarizing was important, and I dutifully tried to help my sixth and seventh graders write summaries of both fiction and nonfiction texts. I envisioned smoothly written short pieces, like those in TV Guide, that would elegantly capture the essence of a text with a minimum of words.

What I got were stacks of bizarre constructions that claimed to be summaries —or “sumeries,” as my students often wrote—that either copied whole sentences of text, focused on just one section, or missed the main points altogether. Sometimes I wondered if the students had read the same text that I had. The more able students could occasionally pull together a coherent comment or two, but often they would try to jam a summary into the traditional paragraph template — topic sentence, supporting details, concluding sentence.

I learned many things from the article. How tomb robbers took things from tombs, what they stole from tombs, and what they were like. It was a great article.

I wasn’t sure of how to help them. My usual comments—”Elaborate. Add more. Give more detail” —are not helpful for summarizing. The students thought I had become temporarily insane when I told them, “That’s too long. Make it short. Are those details necessary?”

Standing in front of the classroom with a student summary on the overhead projector, I struggled to explain to the students why it was not effective.

“But the article is about trees, right?” Patrick asked from the front row. “So why can’t I say, ‘This article is about trees?’”

I floundered. As the teacher, I was supposed to know these things! “It’s not good writing,” I said, finally.

“It sounds good to me,” Patrick said, to a chorus of agreement from elsewhere in the room. “I think it’s fine.”

I tried to use various graphic organizers or catchy formulas, but I couldn’t find anything that would work with every text every time. “Write down the main points and important details,” I told the students, only to realize that they could not find the main points or identify the important details.

To make matters worse, the usual rubric we used to assess reading comprehension questions did not work for summaries. We were focused on getting kids to include text evidence in their responses to questions. However, summaries don’t require explicit text evidence or references back to the text, and when kids tried to add those elements, they created some pretty strange responses.

This article was about tomb robbers in ancient Egypt. I know this because the author made the title be “Tom Robbers and the Mummy’s Treasure.” The author explained what treasures were in the tombs and how the tomb robbers stole the treasures. I know this because the author said so.

So I was faced with teaching something that I couldn’t explain and couldn’t assess. It was time to hit the books and find out what was really going on.

Strangely, though, I didn’t find very much written about summarizing. There were a few pages in a content area reading textbook, scattered mentions in books about reading strategies, and philosophical ruminations about what is important in a text. Most discussions of summarizing cited the same research and listed the same steps for helping kids to improve their work. I found little to tell me why students don’t summarize well, what skills students need to write good summaries, or the relationship between summarizing and reading comprehension.

Not much of a contest if you ask me.

update 10-5-07:

The right answer is teacher number 2!!!!!

Teacher number 2 is a mensch!!!!

Teacher number 2 also took it upon herself to go out and REALLY research what-is-a-summary-and-how-do-I-teach-it, and then to write a funny, self-deprecating story about this process by way of an introduction to her book on the subject of summaries, paraphrases, and retelling, which is terrific, btw.

Teacher number 1 is pretentious, self-obsessed ("I synthesized," "I checked my schema," "I surfed and I judged"), and disrespectful to young children ("Boring writing. Disappointing writing.")

It's appalling to write such words about a child's writing; it's even more appalling to write such words about a child's writing in short, two-word sentences that are clearly intended to display the author's command of variety in sentence length.


I found Teacher Number 1's book on Amazon nearly a year ago (I own the book by Teacher number 2).

The opening passage of Fluent Writing was really the first time I "got" the grandiosity of so many of these people.

I'm starting to think it's possible to spot a closet instructivist simply by analyzing the language he or she uses in letters and emails.

Direct and frank language may be a tip-off.

It's possible.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

help desk

I just had an email from a reader who is looking for those fantastic planets instructivist posted a while back, which I now can't find.


She wants to print them out for a student, and of course I had Big Plans afoot to show them to Chris.


Does anyone remember the general time frame instructivist posted those?

I'm thinking summer?

update 10-3-07:

Concerned has the link:

Relatively Speaking

key words: instructivistplanets

now what?

oh for pete's sake

so yesterday, after repeatedly following the jury service directions to the letter (You must call the recorded message before traveling to the courthouse [boldface & italics in the original]) and receiving no message at all as late as midnight last night, I think it was....

I concluded there was no reason for me to carry on calling The Recorded Message, seeing as how it was no longer The Weekend Or Evening Before You Are Scheduled To Appear.

I figured: ok, I'll call again tomorrow, after 5pm.

I just did.

The Recorded Message tells me to appear in court today, Tuesday, at 11:30 am.

I don't think I'm going to make it.


Any thoughts about what to do tomorrow?


Jury Duty or Jail?

Sadly, jury duty or jail is no longer a choice, seeing as how I have failed to select Door Number One.

I guess it's going to be jail, then.

If they'll put me in federal prison, I'll go quietly.* State prison, no. I will have to flee to Canada.

* I have this on the authority of my sister-in-law, the federal prosecutor, who said, just this weekend, "federal time is time you and I could do."

can you FOIL the answers?

Answer is yes.

I can.

Just got off the phone with COOG, whose existence I know about thanks to Matthew K. Tabor.

Incredibly helpful.

COOG has full information on:

state test coming right up (2006)
throwing money at the problem
more stuff only teachers can buy
help desk 1
state test coming right up (2007)
help desk 2
my life and welcome to it
progress report
28 out of 30

all the answers are belong to us
email to the math chair
second request
teacher's manual
it would be unusual
2 weeks off

can you FOIL the answers?
can you FOIL the answers, part 2

Sign Rules

OK. Maybe it's me, but here is what's in my son's Glencoe Pre-Algebra book (2008 ed.), section 2-2 (Adding Integers).

- - - - - - - - -

Key Concept Number 1


To add integers with the same sign, add their absolute values.

The sum is:

- positive if both integers are positive
- negative if both integers are negative


-5 + (-2) = -7

6 + 3 = 9

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Key Concept Number 2

To add integers with different signs, subtract their absolute values.

The sum is:

- positive if the positive integer's absolute value is greater
- negative if the negative integer's absolute value is greater

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It seems to me that you can't make it much more complicated.

And he hasn't even gotten to subtracting integers, which states:

"To subtract an integer, add its additive inverse."

(Then use one of the rules above.)

It sounds like they are defining a foolproof method, but how about

4 + (-4) = ????

Neither integer is greater.

and how are these rules going to help when you get to variables, like

X +(3-2X) = ?????

You can't combine

X + (-2X)

because you don't know the absolute value of X?

Perhaps they will get new rules when they introduce variables.

And what about decimals? The sections only talk about integers!

- - - - - - - - - -

The simple rules I taught my son during the summer are:

1. When adding or subtracting, you often get two signs in a row, like:

5 + (-2)

If the signs are the same, combine them into a '+'

If the signs are opposite, combine them into a '-'

This works for numbers or variables. I told him that there is no difference between a sign and an operation, since: -5 is the same as (0 - 5).

2. When multiplying, you often get two signs that get multiplied together, like:


Remember that this is the same as (-1)(+5)(-1)(+2) = (-1)(-1)(5)(2)

If the signs are the same, combine them into a '+'

If the signs are different, combine them into a '-'

3. When dividing, it's the same rule:

If the signs are the same, combine them into a '+'

If the signs are different, combine them into a '-'

[You just have to make sure that the signs are for factors. For (-3)/(-2+x), the sign in the denominator is a '+', not a '-'.]

The same rule applies to all three cases and for numbers or variables. It couldn't be easier. [I changed some flash cards to add minus signs to many of them.]

There are some things you have to watch out for and they need to understand variations, but it all boils down to one simple rule about combining signs.

- - - - - - - - - -
Things to feel comfortable about:

1. 5 = -(-5)

2. 2-5 = 2+(-5)

3. 5 = (+1)(+5)

4. -5 = (-1)(+5)

5. (-4)/(5) = (-1)(+4)/(+5) = -1(4/5) = 0 - 4/5

I told my son that there is a case where two positives equals a negative, and he said "Yeah, right!"

I'm sorry, I couldn't resist.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Learning in the Castle of Fear

Almost two years ago, my wife and I were looking for a public school for our son, A. He had been attending a private school since Pre-K, would be starting first grade the next fall, and we didn't want to continue to pay for private-school tuition. (Note: The private school had been doing a fine job, and its price wasn't unreasonable as private schools go, but the cost was putting a serious constraint on our ability to pay for other things.)

We had chosen that school, and entered A in Pre-K there, at the recommendation of A's daycare provider. The staff had recommended that we move him into a more rigorous environment, because he was pretty clearly bored with the limited stimulation available in the daycare facility.

Colorado allows parents to choose schools out of their home districts (usually with a lower priority than in-district families), but we started by looking at the schools in our school district, Adams County District 1, in the Denver metro area. Of those schools, only one was even marginally acceptable, though it (Valley View Elementary) looked pretty good. We visited the school, talked to the staff, and had pretty much decided to have A attend that school. Then we went to the open house held at the school in the spring. At that open house, we found out that the previous principal was leaving and that the new principal, promoted from another district school, was going to bring in all of the wonderful innovations that had made the rest of the district one of the worst in the metro area. (She didn't present it in quite those terms.) After that open house, we agreed that we would no longer consider this school for our son*.

At the same time as we were looking at in-district schools, we were also looking at schools in the neighboring district (Adams 12), which had several schools that wouldn't be impossible for our commutes and that looked like they would provide a good education. The first of these was a GATE school, but we knew that we were wait-listed and unlikely to get A in that year**. (In fact we were unlikely to get A in at all; the list is long and in-district kids have priority over out-of-district kids. The school admits almost no out-of-district kids.) The second was a very good charter, but its waiting list was also very long. (They recommended that we talk to them again when A was ready for middle school.) The third was closer to our home than the other two, but had been a bit troubled recently.

Pinnacle Charter Elementary didn't have very good test scores and it looked like there had been some problem with financial irregularities in the recent past, but we decided to visit during its open house as well. (Our options were a bit limited by this time.) The school had a new principal, its teachers seemed to be enthusiastic, and it was a Core Knowledge/Saxon school. It was also the closest of the marginally acceptable schools on our list. When Valley View fell through, we decided to take a chance on Pinnacle.

A has now been attending the school for a bit over a year, and last week we had our first parent-teacher conference of the new school year, and I thought this a good time to reflect on our experience with the school:

Math – Pinnacle uses Saxon's math curriculum. As many of you know, Saxon's focus in first and second grade is automaticity in addition and subtraction. In A's case, this goal has been partially met; he is automatic on about half of his math facts. To this point in the year we have had essentially nothing but review of last year's work, which point was made by A's teacher. She also said that the students would now be going into more difficult work and that we shouldn't worry if grades dropped a bit in the short term. Importantly, she made the decision not to continue with review by giving a diagnostic test to the students in the class. Most of the class was well over 80% on the test, even though it included a couple of questions about material that hadn't been covered yet.

As an aside, after seeing problems with students being unable to generalize from the specific format of Saxon's canned tests, the teachers in the school decided to give the students tests in other formats as well. The specific test we were shown included a few subjects and terms that had not previously been shown to the students. I'm a bit ambivalent about the latter issue, but rather support the former.

Reading – Reading is regularly assessed and students are given time to read ability-appropriate materials. The level of materials is customized to the student. In addition, the students spend some time reading to a “reading buddy”, who is an older student (6th grade, in A's case). We had a bit of a problem with A's reading buddy giving A some anti-intellectual feedback. When we mentioned this to A's teacher, she immediately agreed that this was a problem, that his reading buddy would be changed, and that the problem would be addressed with the older student. I don't know that I especially like students being used as ad hoc teachers, but if this is to happen, I appreciate the responsiveness when problems arise.

Another aside: A's teacher said that in one case A wanted to take his dictionary out to recess to read. She didn't allow that, because he needed to burn off some energy. I fully support and sympathize with the teacher in this even though I'm glad A likes to read on his own time. 8-)

Writing – “Voice” and content seem to be more in the focus of the teacher's attention than grammar and spelling. I think this is the wrong order, but this area seems completely captured by constructivists in ed school. Still, the teacher seems to be emphasizing that transcription, at least, have correct spelling. Regular (weekly) spelling tests often cover words that have similar phonemic patterns, which makes reinforcement of phonetics more effective.

Handwriting – As noted in a comment to another post, A does not have good handwriting. The school has handwriting books on backorder, but has not spent much time this year on this, in part because the (young) teacher “used a computer all the way through college” rather than writing anything by hand. We discussed the requirement for proficient handwriting in math, which seemed to be a bit of a revelation. We'll see how this progresses.

Social Studies and Science – The content here is Core Knowledge, which I think is a very strong curriculum. The homework we've seen seems fact-based and entirely grade-appropriate.

Specials – Specials include Art, PE, Technology (computer use), and Music (I don't think I missed any), only one of which is studied each quarter. Specials teachers are nominally available, and if there were a real problem, I suspect they'd be available in practice. But meeting these teachers for a conference is much less convenient than meeting A's regular teacher. As could be expected from craft/skill-based subjects, the material in these classes seems grounded in the real world.

Discipline – Discipline is occasionally a bit too zero-tolerance for me, but at least the rules are well understood by the students. In addition, the administration seems willing to entertain the possibility that problems are not necessarily on the side of the students. In A's case, the teacher commented that “A only has a problem with speaking out of turn when he's really excited about the material”, and she indicated that she thought that was very normal for a young boy. The teacher also related that the 2nd and 3rd grades were have a bit of a discipline problem in the lunchroom this year. Upon observation, they determined that the staff was using negative reinforcement almost entirely. They implemented a program of positive reinforcement of good behavior which (per the teacher's report) has dramatically reduced problems. I view this as a generally positive situation.

Finally, nothing in this most-recent parent-teacher conference, or in any previous PT conference, was a surprise. We receive regular updates on A's progress from the school that include his score on each assignment and a weighted average of his score in each academic area. Grading is on a strict 90/80/70/60% scale, though the grades are 4/3/2/1 rather than A/B/C/D. In addition, his graded assignments are sent home for our perusal every day. If there's a problem, we can address it before it becomes unmanageable.

In summary, we're very happy that we had school choice available and also that we took a chance on this school. It's not perfect (by our lights), but it's strong in many areas and its weaknesses are remediable. We've seen good progress on A's part and responsiveness from the school staff. Barring evidence of undesirable changes, I expect that A will stay in this school through the elementary grades.

Oh, and the title of this piece? The school building used to be a K-Mart. Between the time that the K-Mart closed and the school opened, the building was used for a commercial haunted house called “The Castle of Fear”. (I worked for the man that also owned the haunted house as the editor of the “catalog for independent gaming shops” referred to in this article; my old office is now the office of the dean.

* I'm convinced that this was the right decision. A parent comment from the Great Schools website: “I have watched the school decline in the past two years due to district wide changes and the fact that the school has had 3 different principals in as many years. Constant change is not good for the students or teachers. Valley View was once the only school in this district or any other near by district that I would consider sending my children to, but now I am rethinking that decision.”

** In addition, we found out that the school had just gone to Everyday Math, which substantially decreased our enthusiasm for the school, in spite of its reputation.

your tax dollars at work


Jury duty.

I am called.

It is 8:56 pm; I am, possibly, supposed to be at Ground Zero tomorrow morning, 8:30 am, to report for duty. Which would mean taking the 7:15 am train.

I say "possibly," because I don't know whether I personally am to report to duty tomorrow morning or not. To find out, I am to call this number:


Try it.

Right now. 8:57 est

See what you get.

I feel a big, fat case of hooky coming on.

Karen A on a science teacher's speech

At our school's Honors Night last spring, one of the Science teachers, prior to introducing the winners of a particular award, remarked at how great it was to recognize these academically motivated and high-performing students, because after all, they are our future.

It was just such a sweet moment, because it was so heartfelt on his part. As a teacher, he pours his heart and soul into teaching his students because he understands how important it is for them (and for the betterment of society) to learn the fundamentals of Physics.

K, my daughter, has no plans to pursue Physics at a higher level, but to be an informed citizen, she needs to have a basic knowledge of the principles. Other kids, who do have an interest in those fields, must have that base so they can go on to the next, higher level in college. And so on.

It was just nice to hear that sentiment expressed out loud. Our children--teach them well--they are our future.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

redkudu on grouping & behavior problems

Here is a brilliant, illuminating post by redkudu on the educational causes of sh**** students. (I'm sorry; it is bad form to call sh**** students sh****. Truth is no excuse).

Seeing as how redkudu's former web site chewed up and swallowed her equally brilliant, illuminating post on How to Break Up a Fight, I am re-posting this new one in its entirety, here, just to be on the safe side:

Mamacita raised a few eyebrows with this post a few weeks back, a rant about the poorly behaved students in schools. From The Trenches followed up with this mostly supportive post, which also examined some criticism from another blogger.

I'm not really going to discuss the posts (you should go read them), except to use the original as a springboard for something I keep saying over and over, and which I believe to be true: we could solve 60-80% of these disciplinary problems if we put students in classes where they were able to perform at their ability level, and excel from that level upward - something which might also help solve the engagement problem.

I recognize these students Mamacita is talking about - but for the most part I recognize them as the students in my class who are either above or below the "middle ground" I am expected to teach to. The ones below the middle ground become listless and frustrated with material that is over their heads, and a teacher who is too busy juggling ability levels to give them the concrete instruction they need. The students above the middle ground grow bored and resentful as they see themselves being held back by both the middle ground and those below it.

I went to a professional development meeting this morning in which we were given concrete strategies to use in what are now being called "stacked classes." Differentiated classrooms with ability levels so diverse they require teachers to teach two (or more) different curriculums in the same class period. The basic premise is that we begin with the same literature or subject matter, and with a unified activity (such as a journal). We then split the classroom up and teach one thing to one group, and another to another group, all the while finely splitting the hairs of a timer so that instruction for both is timed down to the minute. (And what if one group runs over? I hear you asking. Why, we do what we've always done...tell the other group to find something to do, or whip out some busy work for them. Alternatively, stop the slower group and have them complete the assignment for homework.)

The teacher then bounces back and forth between groups, but we have the same problem as ever - the implication is that we can trust ONE of those groups will be self-sustaining and self-motivated while the teacher works with the other group. So while we're making more work for the teachers, we've backslid into the exact same position as before - those kids who know how to learn on their own will, at least to the extent of the lowest-common-denominator of expectations the teacher is able to set, and the kids who can't learn on their own will be given activities which don't actually increase their ability level, but rather maintain them at their level while making it appear we're giving them more personalized time.

It just seems so odd to me that though we are now able to admit students have wildly varying needs in the classroom, we cannot bring ourselves to assign students to classes according to their ability, where a teacher would teach one specifically targeted lesson that might have the potential to bring students up to the level of their peers, instead of simply maintaining their status quo.

I guess that will have to wait for when I have my own school. :)

I'm pretty sure there is a parent version of this post to be written.

Stalker moms aside (and, speaking of stalker moms, is it getting to be time for parents to come up with a set of nasty labels for ineffective teachers?),* reasonable moms and dads can find it difficult to maintain a tone when we are always and forever on the receiving end of comments like, "If students need distributed practice, parents can find worksheets online," and, "I will not discuss curriculum and pedagogy with parents," and, "It will be possible to move your child down to Phase 3, but it will not be possible to promise to move him back up to Phase 4 in the fall," and so on and so on.

Even Ed, who has had years of experience maintaining a tone, suffered a lapse with the math chair during our last encounter, at one point telling her to "shush."

Afterwards, he was mortified.

In any case, it's clear to me from conversations with other parents that, yes, there are some nutty parents out there. I may know one myself. But, and here is the point, I would not call her funny names, and nor would anyone else I know.

I should add that "stalker mom" is funny; it's good writing.

But, speaking as a writer, I am here to tell you that in personal writing a lot of one's best phrases and images must be squelched. If a teacher wants to write a blog post about a "stalker mom," and I think teachers should write blog posts about stalker moms, a good editor would tell her simply to describe the parent's wingy behavior as it occurred.

That will do.

How to Handle Difficult Parents, TOC
Dealing with Parents 101

A Short and Subjective History of Parents

The Acorn May Not Fall Far from the Oak

Problem Parents:
  • Pinocchio's Mom
  • Caped Crusader
  • Ms. 'Quit Picking on My Child'
  • The Intimidator
  • The Stealth Zapper
  • The Uncivil Libertarian
  • No Show's Dad
  • Helicopter Mom
  • The Competitor
Who's the Fairest of Them All?

Tips for Effective Parent Conferences


! ! !

ok, here's a tip for effective parent conferences

don't call people names

also, while you're at it, don't write a whole book cooking up a big, long set of names for teachers to start calling parents behind their backs

we call this Dealing with Other Human Beings 101

* the answer is no

sh---- kids and their sh---- parents

I've just skimmed the Scheiss Weekly post Ken linked to earlier, and found this passage, which is interesting:

Secondly, many of the parents who are involved with the school are the parents of these same brats. School administrators fear negative PR, and to a principal or superintendent, negative PR is when a loud-mouthed parent with a shitty kid calls the newspaper office. Entitlement is the bane of our society's existence, and it's alive and well in our public schools.

I don't think I've ever seen a loud-mouthed parent with a sh**** kid call the newspaper office.... but, otoh, would I know if this were happening?


For me, this teacher's observation raises a couple of issues.

First of all, this sounds like the Boss Parent meme that circulates amongst parents as well as teachers. Here in Irvington, for years, I've heard tales of killer, teacher-principal-stomping parents who get what they want, or else. I hear these tales from other parents, mind you.

Everywhere I go, I meet parents who think other parents are getting stuff they want, not them.

I used to think that myself.

But all of the tales are just that: tales. There's never a real person in any of the stories, just a hypothesized person. I've reached the conclusion that these parents don't actually exist.

PITA parents per se exist, absolutely. I'm in the PITA category, though not for most of C's teachers, I would hope. I'm a royal PITA for administrators. (Most of C's teachers are good; some are terrific; the problems in the district aren't explained by individual good-or-bad teachers.)

But I don't know any PITA parents who are actually getting what they want, outside of SPED.

At least, not in the middle school. By rights, the middle school principal should post a sign on his door saying, "The answer is no." Save everyone a lot of time and trouble.

I have yet to talk to a parent of a middle school child here who doesn't feel the same way.

what the school board attorney told me

It's entirely possible that Irvington is an outlier when it comes to loudmouth parents of sh**** kids. For a number of reasons, some having to do with the ginormous* amount of tutoring going on at Horace Mann (a subject for another day), I have developed a mental category I call compliant rich people.

IUFSD having more than its share of the working rich, the town may be, statistically speaking, underpopulated by LPOSKs.

In any case, the idea that the parents of "bad kids" might be more involved with the schools than parents of good kids gets at something I've thought about since becoming involved in district politics.

It has always seemed to me that, for me, a condition of becoming politically engaged was having a good kid -- and by "good kid" I don't mean a good kid who's a "handful. "

I mean a kid who is easy to deal with inside the classroom.

I'm not sure why I've thought this, but I have. (And I certainly don't think that, if your child has ADHD, you should skip the politics and stick to Team Meetings.)

I once asked a school board attorney how an administration would be likely to view Ed and me. (Sorry if this is a repeat - I think it's in a Comment somewhere.)

She said we would be in 3 fairly separate categories:

  • SPED - "know their rights, give them what they want" (for newbies, "what we want" means education of our two severely autistic children in special classes, not inside the regular classroom except where the school can make it work)
  • "reasonable parents, not PITA parents who are going to make you un-discipline their typical kid"
  • "bee in their bonnet about academics, probably something to what they're saying"

This is a paraphrase, but it's a close paraphrase.

The second item is the one that intrigues me, and is, I presume, the opposite of the category Scheiss is talking about.

Apparently, gauging by the board attorney's observation and by the Scheiss post, this category exists, and is understood to exist by administrators and teachers alike.

What's unnerving is that "reasonable" is defined as "not going to make the school un-discipline their typical kid" -- and that, at some level, I knew this from the get-go.

* that's: ginormous

"statistics hides problems"

Keeper Comment from Ken's post on ambiguity in teaching:

I've said in the past that many teachers think that the problem of education is defined by what walks into their classroom. As kids get older, it's very easy to blame the kids and external causes.

"As Engelmann suggests, let's save the excuse making until we clean up our instructional act."

Unfortunately, this is done by trying to bring more kids up to very low cut-off levels. I'll call this the guess-and-check approach to educational improvement.

This reminds me of students trying to fix a computer program that has many different internal errors. The errors interact and produce all sorts of odd results. There are no clear cause and effect relationships. Invariably, students try to fix the program by changing something and looking at the results. The program might be fixed in one area, but the fix might cause a problem in another location. This happens because they don't take the time to really understand what is going on in the code line by line. Things change, but they don't really know why.

A lot of research abhors individual anecdotes. It's almost a dirty word. However, by performing a detailed analysis of individual cases, one really understands what's going on. You see a direct connection between cause and effect. Fixing this problem won't fix all of your problems, but it is a necessary step in the process.

Statistics hides problems. It's a process of reducing large amounts of data (many errors) into a more manageable amount. In doing so, information (problems) can be lost or confused. You might think you know what's going on, but you don't. If you want to understand why some kids are successful and some are not, you have to analyze a lot of individual cases. You aren't looking for one error and one solution. You're looking for many.

Why do so many educators try to find the "one thing", like better teacher preparation, that will solve the problem?

Guess and check.


Statistics hides problems.

Ed calls this death by data.