Tag Archives: teaching

Natalie Munroe, A Glimpse Into The Mind Of Our Teachers

As you may or may not have heard, there’s a news story that’s burning up the parenting blogs at the moment. It seems that an English teacher from a Pennsylvania high school kept a blog, where she anonymously commented on a variety of subjects,which included her students. Eventually, just a short time ago, she was outed, and has since come forward and acknowledged that she, Natalie Munroe, is the teacher in question, and that the words from the blog entries are indeed all hers. Once the administration at her school, Central Bucks East High School, read her blog entries, they suspended her. While we may debate the appropriateness of her actions in writing about her students with such candor and such vitriol, the bigger picture here is the dramatically clear window into the mind of a teacher. We need to discuss the underlying issues that are addressed in her uncensored, unfiltered perspective. We need to examine it all, from teachers’ expectations to students’ level of effort to parental involvement. Will we take advantage of this blogger’s shaft of sunlight and use it to disinfect our system as best we can? One can only hope.

Below is a verbatim entry from Natalie Munroe’s blog. Continue reading

School Roulette

section of roulette wheelLast night, we had back to school night for my middle school son.  I am simply astounded, amazed and thankful for everything the teachers are doing in the classroom, integrating blogs, podcasts, online assessments, and more into the classroom day in and day out.  The opportunities my son will have are ones I don’t think I would get if I sent him to private school, and I left excited for him, and frankly, wanting to go back and do it again myself.

Because I am writing a book on differentiating instruction in the classroom currently, I got home and looked at all the resources the teachers had provided us with, and then I compared it to what resources were online for other instructors in the same school, and I was surprised that there seemed to be a big difference- some teachers had little or no information about their class online, and if they did, it was basically limited to due dates and assignments only.  I came away feeling like the kids within this school are going to end up with radically different experiences depending on the teacher they have gotten.  The kids in advanced classes will get an education that makes me hopeful for American education at large.  The kids in the mainstream classes will get an education as well, but it may not be nearly as exciting and engaging on a daily basis.

I’m starting to understand in a more practical way, how a teacher, along their attitude and enthusiasm for learning, dramatically transforms an educational experience for kids.  For teachers that love their subjects and can’t wait to show the kids the new video they found over the weekend, or share a podcast or more, it’s not the technology that makes the classroom cool- it’s the technology that breaks down the walls of the classroom and makes anything possible that’s exciting.  The same can be done in an analog way, but it’s much more exciting to share something that is multimedia, or interactive than just giving kids another article to read.  But at the heart of it, it’s the enthusiasm that sparks kid’s interest and creativity.  Teachers are the gatekeepers to so much nifty and interesting stuff- they just have to let kids in and let them play.

I think it’s the sense of play, exploration and adventure that makes things exciting to kids.  When I tell my kids about the “old days”  (mid 1980’s) when their dad and I worked in labs during college, extracting and sequencing DNA in gels, now something that’s done incredibly fast with the help of computers, we can all have a good laugh.  I catch myself thinking how exciting it was then, and how much has changed in that relatively short time frame, but how still, I can tell them all the cool things we got to do and communicate how amazing it is, and how lucky they are to learn these things.  This sense of fun and story and personal engagement is at the heart all of the best learning, and we need teachers who want to do that for kids every day.

Largely, your child’s experience and thus also their opinion of subjects are held in the hands of whatever teachers they pull that year.  They might get lucky, they might not.  And I don’t think we can bottle education and serve it up online or through videos alone- kids need that mentor, that guide, that facilitator that makes the whole subject area come alive- and that’s something that’s really hard to communicate through a screen.

But it also means that teachers who hold onto their knowledge like it’s a zero-sum resource; that each effort they make, each fact they give out, somehow makes them poorer, or uses up the limited supply-these teachers give kids a fundamentally different view of education.  Maybe education is something you have to earn in their eyes.  Maybe it needs to be hard and difficult rather than a playground for them, because maybe it was hard for them.   But I can tell you, the teachers who look at school like one giant opportunity to send the electric shock of learning through their students- those teachers are worth their weight in gold, and I wish I could clone them.

I don’t know what to do or what we can do to prevent our children’s education from seeming like one giant crap shoot, dependent on which teacher they get assigned for which class.  I know it’s frustrating when you get one who isn’t engaged, just like it must be frustrating for teachers getting students who seem to care less.  But the more we can match teachers who do care, the more students who naturally will as well, and then we all will be better off.

But here’s the big secret: it’s not the school and the curriculum that matter as much as the teacher and their level of engagement- all the kids in our school will have different opinions and know different things by the end of this year, not so much based solely on the curriculum, but based on the instructor.  I am sure of that.

by Whitney Hoffman

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The Teaching Power Of Stories

Every culture has a tradition of oral storytelling. The 35,000-year-old paintings on the walls of the Lascaux Caves are our earliest recorded evidence of storytelling1, and Aesop, a 6th century BC greek slave, wrote tales which even today are used to teach moral behavior to children. Stories are a means to pass on information, values, and knowledge. They provide the structure and framework through which humans sort, understand, relate and file information.2 In short, through stories people learn about the world and themselves.

Throughout time, narrative has been the most natural and fundamental teaching method and it seems that any lesson begun with the phrase “once upon a time” rivets the attention and interest of students. Simply put, stories are how we learn. The progenitors of the world’s religions understood this, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation3. Much research is available today to validate the powerful effect storytelling has as a teaching tool and an instrument to enhance motivation, communication and interpersonal skills.

When writing his book Story Proof: The Science Behind The Startling Power of the Story, Kendall Haven reviewed over 350 research studies and, perhaps unsurprisingly, each study agrees that stories are an effective and efficient vehicle for teaching and motivating, and for the general communication of factual information, concepts and tacit information.4 Specifically, it has been shown that material not learned within the context of a story is less likely to be retained,5, 6 whereas stories “engage us. … and help us to understand by making the abstract concrete and accessible”7. The benefits of the storytelling approach to education have been found to apply in very diverse subject areas. These include teaching literacy8, 9 mathematics,10 science11 and history to children,12 and educating professionals in such field as business13, nursing14 and adult education of foreign languages15 to name just a few.

Massachusetts based historian and folklorist, Merrill Kohlhofer uses storytelling to teach history to elementary children, both in schools across New England and at historic sites including the House of Seven Gables and the Peabody Essex Museums. According to Kohlhofer,  “Stories can help make what might otherwise seem dry facts and boring, irrelevant events come alive for the listeners. Because the events and characters of stories help create an emotional connection with the listener, the ideas the story carries make a greater impact, and seem both more relevant and more easily remembered and understood.  Listening to stories, participating in them, helps develop children’s linguistic skills – well-crafted stories both entice and challenge the listener to love language and its communicative power and serve to model verbal art.”

“I began by asking my listeners [3rd-5th graders] how many liked history – the response     was pretty lukewarm. After the question and answer session with which I conclude these programs, I asked the same question – and the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. …stories appeal to the child’s verbal intelligence, not something that happens that often these days where we appear to be shifting to a more visual culture.

Stephanie Wilkins, a longtime third and fourth grade teacher at Odyssey Day School in Wakefield, MA, relies heavily on story telling in her classroom.  Stephanie describes the power of story as a teaching tool stating, “Sitting and listening doesn’t do it [educate].  If they are just presented with material, it goes in one ear and out the other.  Role  play and drama, with them making up their own skits and acting out the stories, helps the students learn to handle and utilize concepts.  When kids get up and play a part they are going to learn and be more likely to remember.”

Odyssey Day School builds its entire curriculum on the concept of overriding themes and stories.  For example, the school -wide theme last year was Milestones: The path from yesterday to tomorrow.  When Stephanie’s class was studying the ancient Greeks, instead of just talking or reading about them they became part of the story. Each child researched and played a role of one of the Greek gods or goddesses. The theme was worked into all aspects of the curriculum. In science, they studied astronomy. In math, they learned about the algorithm and how the Greeks used stars to tell time, while in Art they were making sculptures and dioramas of ancient Greek Columns.

Stephanie expounds on the fact that storytelling not only enhances academic knowledge, but “fosters interrelationships between the kids. When they don’t even realize it, they are learning to step out of their own comfort zones and recognize similarities and differences in others,  learning from their ideas. They learn to compliment, cooperate, communicate,  plan, organize and they learn to listen. The story is not just about me presenting the material, it is a spring board for discussion for asking questions for probing further.  It brings it [the teaching] full circle.”

Another place where storytelling is still growing strong and aiding the development of self-esteem, creativity, and team cooporation is at Guard Up Family Swordmanship in Burlington, MA.  Guard Up runs summer camps, after-school and weekend programing based on interactive story telling and role-playing with an emphasis on teaching the values of good sportsmanship, teamwork, compassion, honor and courage. Guard Up really brings the story to life through role-playing which is a means of merging the power of stories with the benefits of active learning17. Children of all ages are fully immersed in medieval fantasy stories designed to entertain and educate. The story lines change and adapt based on the behavior of and choices made by the kids. The broad story arcs are planned in advance by a team of counselors, and evolve daily. Campers, as a group, devise strategies, find solutions, and choose their course of action whether defending their city from an invasion of living puppets, or negotiating a peace agreement with a horde of scurvy pirates.

We interviewed four of the Guard Up counselors, Chris, Lauren, Hannah and Joseph, to find out what inspired them, how they utilize the stories as a tool to impart knowledge and some of the surprising paths the stories took based on the actions of the campers, or Heroes, as they are called. They recognize that storytelling is a co-creative process.  Although there is a general story arc the counselors know the importance of letting the plot flow in the direction that the kids take.  As Joseph explains, “We can’t plan the specific details because it depends on the decisions of the kids.  We change the plot based on what the characters are doing.”   Lauren agrees “You want to take it where they take it.  You don’t want to be so stuck to the plot.  You want them to figure it out and feel excited.”  Guard up gives the kids the opportunity to design their own reality or as Joseph putt “the kids get to live their dreams”.  They design their characters and have a chance to be who they want to be and try out new things.  Many of them choose positive attributes and get rewarded for playing them.  On the other hand, if a camper decides to, say, fight her own team mates, she learns consequences within the game which makes her not want to do it in the future.

The motto of Guard Up is “courage, honor and compassion. “ Chris, another Guard Up instructor describes how the heros are given many opportunities to choose to display these attributes, such as the option to help other people without getting anything for themselves.  Once, for example, when a village was attacked by monsters, the campers stayed by the side of a shopkeeper, protecting her and even giving her their own healing potions when she was injured. When recollecting this tale, Hannah reflects that “these are the real teaching moments”.

Whether participating in adventure at the summer camp, after-school programs,  or weekly classes and activities, the children are, as Lauren says, “learning without even knowing they are doing it”.  Some knowledge is applicable in the academic sense, for example they learned basic anatomy during a quest to  reassemble the body of their village’s mayor – including his nervous system – or utilized mathematics and deductive logic to answer riddles, figure out clues and solve puzzles.  Additionally, history is incorporated both through mythology and true historical figures and settings.

Beyond gaining academic knowledge, they are also learning about themselves, social interaction, values and morals. Getting to be the hero they always wanted to be helps them gain confidence.  The emphasis on honor, courage and compassion flows through all of the activities.  For instance, when they were on the quest to “re-assemble the mayor” they needed to prove they were true of heart before they could retrieve the heart.  As Hannah so aptly put it, “We teach kids social skills by letting them explore outlandish possibilities.  They find the boundaries of their personality in a safe environment”.  They learn how to work together, negotiate, treat others with compassion, and attempt to solve issues through analytic skills instead of aggression.  It also gives them a chance to express their emotions, creativity and imagination.

When we first interviewed the campers, many stated that the characters they designed were more creative than they, themselves were.  When shown the paradox that they had designed their characters and that all of the character’s actions were coming from their own minds, one camper, Connor, stated enthusiastically, “If you come here I bet you’ll find out that you’re more creative than you think and that you have more talent than you notice.”

When asked, Connor and his fellow campers, Travis, Casey and Ethan offered many different lessons learned, including:

“Sometimes, you can have the best adventures where you don’t do war – do politeness first”
“Honor the game, be truthful, help others, and always try manners before violence. ”
“Teamwork and thinking about problem-solving can help in the real world.”
“The choices you make can really effect what goes on around you.”

Storytelling, besides being perhaps the oldest method of teaching, still plays a vital role in child development. When schools are becoming focused on teaching to standardized tests, it is more important than ever that children still have a way of learning through imagination and participation.  If parents are willing to look, there are still great opportunities for children to benefit from this timeless teaching method. Have you spun a story for your kids today?

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Toilet Etiquette And The Visual Learner

a man in a madras shirt with a lightbulb for a headLast week, in grossed-out desperation, I put a sign up above the toilet with “Directions for Use” written upon it in fancy font. I’m not kidding. And, mothers of sons, it’s a breakthrough. All of my ranting, explaining, and pleading have never had the stunning effect of this simple sign. The same things that I have SAID, to unanimous family eye-rolls, have become Serious and Important when put into writing.

Thus, the sign says “Kindly pee into the water there” and LO! There is not a splash anywhere else! “Close lid before flushing” is Law, apparently. And so, an exercise in the sarcastic parenting of pre-teens has reminded me that sometimes, kids just need instructions in different ways.

We already know this, if we really think about it. All kids learn differently. Some need to look at pictures. Some need to DO stuff. Some rare few only need a quick verbal instruction, and they ‘get’ it. For many kids, a visual prompt, like a list, is really helpful. (We’ll disregard the fact that my big boys are tall, smelly adolescents, not kids… the same tactics work.) It’s easy for us as parents to say something like, “Go clean your room.” But most kids need something more specific, and for a child who seems to be having a hard time with the task, written instructions might really help.

How about breaking it down:

  1. Place books on shelf
  2. Put dirty clothes in hamper
  3. Straighten duvet

Short, simple, and completing even such a short list will make a noticeable difference in a messy room. Start small! Perhaps you can set an example by making two lists, one for yourself and one for your child, and see who can complete their room-cleaning tasks first.

A list, or written instructions, gives kids something tangible to work with. It is good practice for later on, when you can look your adolescent in the eye and say, “Take the garbage out, honey. Oh, and while you’re there lock the bikes and turn off the garage light.” Being used to getting clear instructions, they will learn to place those three items in their heads and mentally tick them off as they go. Of course, with some things, you will still need to spell it out!
Lists are good for our communication, too. You have to know what you mean to say, when you write things down. You wouldn’t write “Would somebody just give me a hand around here?” You’d be specific, and that is what families need.

I have learned to write things down everywhere. You can use a sharpie for permanence. I have used dry-erase pens for impermanence on the bathroom mirror, and post-it notes everywhere. I even sent one son to school with a post-it note stuck to his forehead once. I swore that if he forgot to do what the list said, I would use a stapler next time. He laughed merrily, but he did do what had to be done, and amused his teacher in the process. (His teacher said that for Sam, stapling reminders to his head is probably a good idea…) Sam is a visual learner, to the power of a zillion. Next term at his new school, he will have a ‘Diary’ for writing homework down and it fills me with joy to think of all the things I can write there! But most kids can benefit from lists.

They can check back to see what they have forgotten. They can tick things off, if they like. You can draw pictures (for a non-reader). They will never be able to say “You never said to feed the dog”, because you will have WRITTEN PROOF! And the splendid opportunity for adolescent eye-rolling will be much appreciated, I promise you. I get an enthusiastic eye roll every time anyone uses the bathroom, and I don’t have to say a word! Peace, love and pleasant toilets reign in the household; the only woman in this large family is safe to sit on a toilet in the dark without falling in or having an unpleasant surprise… and all thanks to written instructions!

by Nan Sheppard

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Celebrating My Birthday

a cake with candlesI recently turned thirty-seven.

I’m always baffled by some of the responses to that statement: many women look politely sorrowful, as if I’ve just told them their cat who has been ill has finally died. I feel that I need to defend my joy at growing older. Some people soothe that it’s okay, I’ll always be twenty-one, really, and I give them a withering look and say that when I was twenty-one I was as dumb as a bucket.

The quest for youth really puzzles me. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch TV, and seldom read glossy magazines? When I DO read glossy magazines, I tend to scrutinize myself more critically in the mirror. I see ‘Uneven Skin Tone’, ‘Wrinkles and Lines’ (wrinkles AND lines?) and many grey hairs. When do ‘Grey Hairs’ become ‘Grey Hair’, I wonder?

I worry: gotta hide those wrinkles! But why, really, do women despair at looking older? Okay, beautiful skin and perky boobs were nice, but I like myself so much more now. I’ve achieved things. I’m wiser. These boobs have nourished three kids and STILL look awesome in a push-up bra. And my husband, who is the only other one that matters, says he likes my ‘lived-in look’. (I know, it took me a couple of days to come to terms with that one!)

I am lucky. I am surrounded by classy role models. My Mum, my aunts, my grandmother, have all taken care of themselves and are beautiful. They stand up straight, exercise, and have a great sense of fashion. The fact that my husband thinks I’m awesome with or without a push-up bra is wonderful… but in fact, it may be my own confidence, handed down by generations of confident women, that makes him see my droops through beautiful-coloured glasses.

I’m training my sons: When they say, “Your tummy is jubbly,” I tell them how wonderful it is to have a tummy that reminds me that I’ve made three wonderful children. I’m not sure if they’re fooled, but at least I’m doing my bit for the wives and mothers of the future.

If you say to a man, “I am beautiful, and you are a lucky man!” I think that he will believe it. And we should not look at THOSE magazines and compare ourselves. The models are fifteen years old! Of course they look like that!

I hope that one day, those models, and all of the young girls I know, can look at their faces in the mirror, and count their wrinkles… one for every sorrow overcome; and their laugh lines… one for every scandalous laugh; and their brown spots… one for every day they stayed out in the sun too long playing; and their grey hairs… one for every obstacle surmounted. I hope that those girls allow these markers to happen, and to show, otherwise what will they see in the mirror? Just the same old face. Same old, not the new old!

So how did I celebrate my birthday? I had lunch with a friend (a few more scandalous-laugh lines, there) and then I jumped on the trampoline with my kids till I was stiff and aching all over. With a few bathroom breaks, because OH, the pelvic floor!

I’ve heard that when you hit forty, It’s all downhill from there. That sounds awesome. I wonder if my kids will lend me their skateboard?

by Nan Sheppard

Photo graciously provided by ThaRainbow., through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved