Thursday, October 15, 2009

Play All Day

At our school we have a saying that even the children will recite. K through 2 is play all day; 3-5 is play half the day; 6-8 is work all day; 9-12 is work all day and night. In other words, as children grow and develop through the grades it is natural and appropriate that their work load increase accordingly. In the Kindergarten-2nd grade class the children are allowed to "play all day" meaning that everything they do should be perceived by THEM as fun. Reading is taught through card games and bingo and matching words to tiny dollhouse objects. Math is taught with blocks and tape measures and pennies. Science is taught outside collecting mushrooms and catching bugs and on the tree swings. In 3rd grade this "play all day" mentality shifts, as this is the age when children are ready to sit for longer periods of time and do the more typical pencil and paper work which adults perceive as the "real work" of school. This transition is difficult for some children and easy for others, but what we have found is that if, for example, you teach how to capitalize before third grade the child may be able to fill out the worksheet, but they don't really understand the concept. Third through fifth grade is the core of the grammar stage of education and it is the appropriate time to teach the core: reading, writing and arithmetic. Yes, there are children who are ready for more advanced work at this point, and there are children who struggle, and our school's individualized program meets those needs. But either way when a child enters middle school they need to have the core firmly in place. When they do, they enter adolescence confident and ready. That is why we say 6th-8th grade is "work all day." If children aren't challenged during this period they start to experiment with ways to challenge themselves, and these ways aren't always positive. Most people agree that children should play during their preschool years and research bears this out (see this article). But our culture has unfortunately been moving away from children having the opportunity to play much beyond that. This article decries the high pressure kindergarten that has taken over American education, but where is the outrage over the fact that third graders are being given end of grade tests which determine whether they pass or fail? These kids are 8 years old! Twin boys came to our school this year because in public school third grade last year one of them "failed" the reading test and was going to be held back, while his brother would have gone on to 4th grade. Their parents, rightly outraged, pulled them out. Guess what we discovered about the "failing" brother? He reads on grade level, albeit a bit slower than was needed to pass that one test. Finally, a student came to us last year from an elite private school where he had attended preschool and kindergarten in a very structured academic environment. When he came to us he was "behind" (academically speaking) for a first grader. He spent six months at our school playing with blocks and building some of the most amazing structures you have ever seen. At the end of the six months he had learned to read, and he was able to entirely skip two math books WITHOUT formal instruction. As parents and educators and citizens we need to rely on research and the facts of child development, instead of being scared and pressured into believing that our future depends on a 5 year old knowing how to read or an 8 year old passing a test. Let those 5 year olds play all day, and let those 8 year olds climb trees all afternoon, and as a society we will have more positive results for years and years to come.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Experts without Degrees

One of the interesting things about reading and writing on education is that to some degree everyone is an "expert." Whenever there is an article in the New York Times about education inevitably there are several hundred comments. The comments come from educators and administrators, but they also come from parents and students and even from adults with no children because, of course, they were once students too. Everyone in America has been to school so everyone has an opinion.  That is actually a great thing, because the people who post comments often have a greater ability to think outside the box and make common sense suggestions than the writers do.  The people with the most passionate comments have usually been "failed" in some way by the American public school system.  Unfortunately, most of the people who are selected to write on the blogs are actual "experts" and therefore have an agenda. For example, on a recent NYT debate blog on whether or not teachers need education degrees, the people who weighed in were deans and professors at education schools (duh, I wonder what they think?) and the rest were teachers, principals, presidents of non-profits, and a founder of a charter school. Guess what they all have in common? Correct. They all have advanced degrees themselves. So by definition the American education system "worked" for them!  How can these people, who sit in their air conditioned offices, and go to roundtable discussions and conferences and meetings where every other person in the room is a graduate of a top university, make truly innovative suggestions on how to reform a system which they themselves have mastered? The person who wrote the philosophy of our school, my fellow founder and director Kate Hyde, sat in school bored to death for years and years. It was her own personal experience of the failure of the public school system which led her to spend years on her own researching educational philosophy in order to create something new. Everyone in America has a stake in our school system. Everyone deserves the chance to be educated and succeed. As long as only the degreed and "successful" sit at the table making decisions we will never have true reform. The frustrated voices of children and parents who are suffering every day under a broken system need to be heard. The kids at my school are so lucky. They have parents or grandparents with the resources to give them a better chance. What about the kids who aren't so lucky?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Go Slow

I'm sure you've heard of the slow food movement, but how about the slow parenting movement? In a recent New York Times article, Lisa Belkin says there has been a revolt in the parenting blog world. Parents are getting off the treadmill and stepping back from micro-managing their children's daily lives. This is great news and fits in perfectly with our educational philosophy. In fact, in the past few months I have begun calling what we do the "Slow School Movement."  This recognizes that children develop on their own timetable, not on ours. Some kids seem to be born reading. Other kids could care less. When my son was 6 and I was trying to sit him down to teach him to read he said, "Mommy, when my sisters were my age did they WANT to learn to read?" I didn't have the heart to tell him that when his sisters were his age they could both read chapter books. As it turns out Frank (now in 5th grade) was better served by waiting to learn to read. You see Frank, unlike his sisters, was taught to read phonetically. He can now sound out and correctly pronounce many words that his sisters, who learned to read by sight, find difficult. Another aspect of the slow school movement is time spent outdoors. People often ask if we have P.E. at the school. The answer at this point is no. Instead our children spend at least one full school hour everyday outside playing. Yes, just playing. Imaginary games, big group games, Star Wars, regular wars, "bunny", run monkeys run, capture the flag and countless other games all of which are invented, taught and run by the children. Could we be using that hour to raise test scores or tutor struggling kids or give advanced work to others? Sure. But we feel that play is a necessary, in fact mandatory, part of childhood. Does it look aimless? Yes, sometimes it does. But the slow school movement, like the slow parenting movement and the slow food movement,  all recognize the same thing. Life is short. Instead of rushing, pushing, striving and stressing we should be enjoying, savoring, loving, observing, laughing and living. As short as life is, childhood is even shorter.  Don't waste it by constantly rushing around and pushing your children to succeed. Slow down and enjoy it. And if at all possible find a school which supports your belief that childhood, like life, is way too short to spend it behind a desk.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Lately I have been completely uninspired when it comes to writing about education. Everywhere I turned it seemed the arguments were the same, the problems were worse, the budgets were slashed, the kids just pawns. Sometimes it is hard not to feel that it is all pointless. Then this morning I watched this video. Wow. Here, in just a few minutes and coming from another country, was everything that is wrong and right with humanity all at the same time. Susan Boyle is an unemployed 47 year old woman who has "never been kissed." The audience and the judges make fun of her and judge her on her appearance and ridicule her dream, just as we all do at some level when we first see her. Then she opens her mouth to sing and the world is turned upside-down instantly. She sings like an angel! What an amazing talent! And that is entirely the point. This woman, who from the outside ostensibly has "nothing" going for her is in fact incredibly gifted. How many Susan Boyle's are there in the world? How many are there at your school, in your classroom, at your work, in your neighborhood? We are surrounded every day by people with hidden gifts and talents, with inner beauty that we cannot see, with quirks and idiosyncracies which we denouce. For me Susan Boyle represents the fact that it doesn't matter where you came from, what you look like, what your IQ is or how rich your parents are, or whether you are gay or straight or asexual, or educated or a drop-out, every human being has value, and it is our job as educators and simply as human beings to recognize it. This is the fact that gets lost in our educational system. It doesn't matter who you are or where you started from, what matters is that you are treated with dignity and given an opportunity. This is what we must all pledge ourselves to every day. 

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Merit Pay and Lack of Merit Firing

Well it's official- Arne Duncan and President Obama have set out ideas to "reform" American education which won't work and are, for the most part, pointless. Raising the cap on charter schools is fine and will help somewhat by increasing innovation. Extending the school day and year is ridiculous (note my previous post and extend the same argument to a longer school day: well-off kids go to soccer and piano lessons and poor kids don't. This is a POVERTY issue, not an education issue). But the idea that really gets me is merit pay for teachers. Don't get me wrong- I think good teachers deserve to be paid far more than they are right now. But attaching merit pay to test results is the worst idea I have heard in a long time. These comments from New York Times readers sum it up pretty well. Here is my idea instead: have every public school child and parent rate teachers on several criterion on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the best. Average the results then fire every teacher with a score of 1 through 4. Give merit pay to every teacher with a score of 8 to 10, and have them mentor the teachers with a score of 5 through 7. If after a year of mentoring the 5 through 7's don't improve, fire them too. You see every kid and every parent in America knows already who the "good" and "bad" teachers are. They talk about it on the playground and in the carpool line. They dread it over the summer and rejoice in the fall if they get the right one. The good teachers love what they do and connect with kids and are effective, in spite of the fact that single grade large classes with too much emphasis on testing is flat out the wrong way to teach.  I have had five children join my school in the past month, and four out of five of them had "bad" teachers. These kids were miserable, and when you are miserable you cannot learn. If the Obama administration isn't really going to reform public school, then at least they could do the kids of America this one favor- get the people who don't love kids, and love what they are doing, out of the classroom. The people to make this decision are not the administrators, not the statisticians, not the policy wonks, but the kids and the parents. At my school we call these people the "customers", and even in education, the customer should still be king.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Quality over Quantity

As I sit here on a snowy Sunday contemplating whether to shorten the school year one more day by canceling school tomorrow, my thoughts go to this article about our new Education Secretary's idea to extend the school year through the  summer. A dad from school sent me the link, and rightly pointed out that more does NOT equal better. What makes Secretary Duncan think that simply having kids spend more days in a broken system will help? Unfortunately, the "more is better" mantra seems to have taken over our country. So how does this apply to education, and specifically to summer? Well for children of families with economic means, summer is the time for true enrichment. My own children have traveled across country, gone to summer camp, been to foreign countries, sold lemonade on the corner, climbed trees, built forts, explored streams, and a thousand other things that are just as valuable, if not more valuable, to their lives than school. The types of things my children do outside of school cannot easily be replicated in a school setting. But what about children without economic means? For the most part, these are the children we should be concerned about, as they score consistently lower on academic assessments than their peers who are not in poverty.  This is where Arne Duncan could really make a difference. Rather than taking the joys of summer away from our kids, why not extend them to less privileged kids? I'm guessing that vouchers for summer camp would be a whole lot cheaper than keeping schools open. Not only that, the skills kids learn at camp would be more valuable than a few extra hours of academic instruction. Whether I cancel school tomorrow or not, my students will have a worthwhile day. They will go sledding or build fires or make cookies or read books or all of the above.  At my school, kids are guaranteed two weeks off at the end of December and a full week at Spring Break, and I will never extend the school year into summer. This is not because I want more days off, but because even though I am a teacher, and even though I love school, and think my school is a valuable place to be, I honor the time my students spend outside of school. It renews and rejuvenates them. It readies them for the "real world" outside. It is a sacred part of an American childhood. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

One Day I'll Fly Away

Just wanted to share a bit of myself in this post as up until this point they have all been somewhat impersonal and, of course, related to education which is my passion (but not my entire life). This evening my husband (of 20 years whom I love more than life)  said, "You talk about school too much."  So here it is- my post about me. I am very sentimental and cry very easily. My favorite food is bread, and my ideal daily menu would be: smoothie for breakfast, big gourmet excessive lunch, and bread, butter, wine and cheese for dinner.  I talk too much and listen too little. My daughters know me better than I know myself and I wish I were more like Ghandi and the Dalai Lama. I love to read religious texts. I love animals and small children and my favorite recent movie was Moulin Rouge. I wish I went hiking more and driving less, although having lived in LA and DC I am very used to driving and really don't mind it at all. I love to travel and I hope I am remembered by my students as someone who loved them and had high expectations and was fair.  I recognize how far I am from enlightenment and yet I strive for it everyday. I love Lou Reed and David Bowie and Madonna and the Beatles and Dave Alvin and X and the Sex Pistols and Johnny Cash. Sometimes I see a glow around things in nature. My children are completely awesome and I wonder how on earth I birthed them. I love to sit in the hot tub and drive fast cars and go to the library and drink coffee and eat sushi and travel in foreign countries and watch my son set up StarWars lego wars. Thanks for reading, and I promise my next post will be about education.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Our State Report Card

It was reported today that the state of NC ranks 30th in the nation for math and reading proficiency scores.  Apparently, the state lawmakers have a few ideas about how to fix this problem, such as more charter schools, more options for high school students, merit pay for teachers and of course, the omnipresent more testing. While I don't necessarily disagree with these ideas, they seem to be missing the point. According to the National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice, "the seeds of failure are sown early in life; children who do not read by the fourth grade have a very low probability of ever learning to read."  The statistics from the state report cards bear this out. If you compare the reading scores from the 4th and the 8th grade, only four states have scores which go up. Seven states had scores which remained static and 39 states, including North Carolina, have reading proficiency scores which went down. That means that if you can't read well in the 4th grade you are reading even worse by the 8th. What does this mean for our state? According to the state report card only 66.6% of North Carolina students graduate from high school. Have you seen the unemployment rates lately? Not surprisingly, the highest rates are for those who haven't graduated from high school. What does this all mean for education? That first and foremost, we should be focusing our resources on teaching children to read. Teachers need the ability to sit down in small groups, or even one-on-one, to teach decoding skills to our most at risk students.  A student who cannot read is more likely to drop out, be on welfare, and go to prison. When state lawmakers try to increase our state ranking, they should be thinking about real solutions to the underlying problems. Intensive, small group, individualized phonics-based reading instruction works, but at this point it is not widely available in our public schools. Identification of a child's learning style, recognizing the early signs of dyslexia, and the time to immerse children in a language rich environment at school, to make up for a poor one at home, are considered luxuries when they should be necessities.  Instead of applying band-aids which are too little too late, those 4th grade reading scores should take top priority. At our school this means that we allow young children time to play and hear stories and talk and listen to books on tape. They are given reading instruction starting in kindergarten which is fun, low pressure, and targeted to their individual needs.  If they haven't learned to read by the middle of second grade they are given one-on-one tutoring until it is mastered. In this way, no child really IS left behind, and this is an opportunity that every child deserves, not just those that can afford private school or tutoring.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration Day

I want to tell you about a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which I hope I won't experience only once. Yesterday I stood in the freezing cold for 5 hours with two million other people and had one of the happiest most positive days of my life. I have been in crowds before, we all have, but this was completely different. Though the subways were so packed you could hardly move, and the only toilets were port-a-johns, everyone was completely joyous. There was literally no anger, no resentment, no complaining, no whining. Just happiness, hopefulness, and the most positive kind of pride. On the subway we sang and joked and passed the time by naming all the fifty states and capitals, and by helping our neighbors name all the countries with four letters (apparently there are ten).  When we exited the underground we were greeted with a sight I have never before seen: every street, block after block in every direction, was completely full of people walking toward the mall. It looked like some sort of apocalyptic movie (except everyone was happy!)  When we got to the mall it was a sea of people as far as you could see. We wandered around for while, got a glimpse of the Capitol, then chose a spot near the Washington Monument and a jumbotron to camp out and wait. We had a picnic lunch and tootsie pops, and there was nothing to do but observe the scene. It was AMAZING! Black and white and Asian and gay and straight and young and old and women in fur coats and people wrapped in blankets, everyone was there to celebrate.  People talked and made friends with the people standing next to them and shared food and were polite and thoughtful in a way that I have never seen in a large crowd. I have been trying to figure out exactly what made it so different. I think one thing is that everyone was there for the same reason. You know how you go to a festival or a concert and some people are there to listen to music, and some are there to dance, and some are there to eat, or drink, or find a date? Well yesterday every single person in that crowd was there to celebrate this historic moment. No one had any other agenda. We were all on the same page. It really felt like we were all connected by our humanity. Being in that crowd made you feel like you could do anything. It made you feel like America is still the best hope that the world has for peace and prosperity and good will toward all. It felt like you were a resident of a city where everyone was positive and energetic and confident of success all the time. It felt the way life should be. When President Obama finally spoke a hush fell over the crowd and two million faces were turned, quiet and focused for over 15 minutes. Later my children said they had no idea the speech was that long. Time stopped, and as corny as it sounds, we were one.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


A friend likes to tell the story of being in the grocery store before she was a parent. A child in line in front of her was whining and squirming and complaining. Sherri couldn't take it any longer and finally said to the woman, "Why don't you take that child home and give her a nap?" Ten years and three children later, Sherri says that comment haunts her to this day. She now has two rowdy boys who NEVER behave in grocery store lines. I have a similar story. When I had only two "perfect" little girls who were calm and easily separated from me, I used to sit in judgement as my friend's son jumped on my couch with a sharp pencil in his hand, or at events where boys sat in their mother's laps while my girls confidently sat down in front enjoying the show. Then I had Frank. Though he is calm now, as a two year old we called him "Bam Bam" and he is a momma's boy supreme.  But that's what you get. Call it Karma or simply getting what you need to learn most in life.  One thing I have learned having three children is that each of them, though raised in the same household with the same biological parents, is an individual. They each have strengths and weaknesses, and while I would like to take credit for their strengths, I certainly don't want to be blamed for their faults. Of course you can't have it both ways, and that helps us at school as we strive to help our students grow.  If a child is struggling, rather than looking for fault or assigning blame, we look for solutions. We believe that everyone is doing the best that they can, given their present circumstances, and this includes both students and parents. It is easy to judge. It is hard to reserve judgement and focus on solutions. The bottom line is it doesn't matter why Johnny is rude, or Susie cries when she gets "out", or Billy hides under the table when he gets upset. What matters is that we help that child overcome those issues so that whatever their genetic makeup, and whatever their home environment, and however crazy their parents may be, each child can become their very best.