The intersection of progressive education and athletic coaching

I had an odd moment this morning while I was running around in the cold moving the car.  I was walking back from having parked too far away from my building.  As I am prone to doing, I started kind of talking to myself.  The topic this morning was thinking about what I’ll say at the end of the year athletics banquet when I have to get up and give the remarks about this year’s season with my girl’s soccer team.  I started thinking (talking about) the challenges I faced, the girls I have on the team, and how we made it through another season by accomplishing things together.  But my area of focus the longer I talked (it was a long walk) was the challenge I faced trying to mesh my ideals as a progressive educator and my ideas of what it means to be a soccer coach.

When it comes to soccer I come from, but am not necessarily married to, a bit of the old school.  When coach speaks, you act.  Practice is priority one, and is not to be missed.  Being a part of the team takes precedence in all the best ways.  There is no question about effort level: always the max.  Teammates are like family.

This list, and more, are what drove me in competitive sports growing up, and to some degree still do.  I believe that competitive sports offer something that few other things can, and in a way are a microcosm of real life cause-and-effect that few other settings can replicate as accurately.  The ball will do what the ball’s going to do.

And this is increasingly true as we struggle to figure out what it means to educate and develop a human being.  I feel like people used to see education as a more black and white issue.  Students were buckets, and teachers filled them.  And discipline and conformity were job one for the student.  As we have learned that those things might not be as true as we thought, especially for the changing world, the world of “school” is trying to adapt and change.  Students now are growing up in a very different world than the one their grandparents and even parents did.  I’m sure this is true of most generations to some degree, but the ideals I mentioned for sports are some that aren’t being gotten in the same ways as they were when I was in school.  Of course, this may all just be one aging man’s perspective, but I don’t see as much overlap as I did when I was in high school and college and at the peak of my school/sports crossover.  The attitudes of students/players aren’t the same as the ones I encountered then.  Both school and sports seem to be more of an afterthought to them.  I’m not saying this is all bad, mind you.  I think my players are more well-rounded as human beings and much more independent thinkers than we were as student athletes.  It’s just different.

But I think that emphasizes the importance of each arena separately now.  School offers something different than the sports team, and vice versa.  There are differences that I, even as someone who has experience in both arenas, am just now learning.  Here are a few that I  have noted:

1) The concept of team – In the classroom we use cooperative learning, but the focus us still on individual outcomes.  Sport is one of the few areas where individual outcome is truly secondary.  Your role in a play lasts split seconds.  Your sum total role in a game will most likely be a tiny fraction of the minutes played.  Outcomes are judged almost solely on team achievements.

2) The physical nature – A physical action is different from a mental exercise.  There are many different ways to achieve the thought process behind many mathematical operations and still achieve the same outcome.  The perfect shot or pass has a narrow range of kinesthetic forgiveness to be correct.  Repetition and observation are vital to getting that right.  It’s not really a “do it whatever way makes sense” kind of thing.

3) The power to poison the well – Players are like apples: one truly bad one can destroy everything.  A player’s attitude and approach are everything, and they all have to be in synch to make a team hum.  In a classroom this is true to some degree, but you can remove a student from the environment and get back to work.  Individual outcomes are key after all.  But even a few weeks into practice, a team dynamic comes to rely on all the talents and personalities in it.  Even bench players have a massively important role in dynamic.  If you remove one player it sends waves of messages and losses that can affect the team, and it takes time to reestablish identity even if the move was for the best.

And so it is with these things in mind that I am trying to bring consistency to my approaches.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to do everything the same, no, especially not after having said what I did about the differences.  But at least a consistency of belief.  If I see them as independent thinkers and individuals in the whole sense, rather than just buckets to be filled, I can’t treat them that way in the classroom and then expect them to just be good little soldiers on the field.  “Do what your told” goes against my beliefs as a teacher, so it would be hypocritical of me to use that approach as their coach.  I’m still figuring it all out, but it was a big focus for me this season.  I’ve still got a lot more improvement to make, and a long way to go both as a teacher and a coach, but here’s a few things I’ve come up with.  These are a mix of similarities and differences that I think are all notable in making me the best, and most consistant, teacher/coach combo I can be:

1) High expectations in the class and on the field – Expectations do not determine pedagogy.  Just expecting a lot out of my students and my players doesn’t determine if I take a traditional approach or a progressive approach… authoritative or authoritarian.  The actual methodology can be many things, but expectation comes first, and must be clear.  I want my players to be giving maximum effort and taking maximum pride and benefit, the same way I want my students to.  I cannot and should not back off on expectation just because I’m afraid of drifting too far into an authoritarian approach.  Conversely, I cannot allow myself to be convinced that having high expectations is a sign of a traditional or authoritarian approach by outside sources.  That’s just good coaching…and good teaching.

2) When you have to achieve together, sometimes you have to fall in line – As I’ve pointed out, in the classroom the emphasis is on individual outcomes.  If a student’s group is sabotaging that individual’s ability to achieve, or if the group is poisonous to achievement over all, sometimes one student can either take that group on their back and do the lion’s share of the work, or they can withdraw and complete something that shows that they’re still achieving.  While the group won’t have been as successful, that one student will still succeed and learn.  An athletic team has to grow together, or not at all.  I can’t make the right run or the right pass, have everyone else do the wrong thing, and still wind up with a positive outcome.  Sometimes there are moments of individual brilliance that benefit the team: a great individual shot or dribble ending in a goal, a beautiful individual defensive play that saves an otherwise dragging squad, a heroic goalkeeping effort that turns a game on it’s head, but a team can’t achieve on the back of those kinds of moments alone.  Sometimes the MVP is what’s crippling the team.  In order to make any kind of growth and achievement as a team sometimes the individual needs or wants have to go by the wayside.  You may not feel like practicing today, but if you aren’t there then the dynamic for your team will be completely different then what you’ll see on game day.  The team can’t practice the right scenarios to grow.  In a classroom it’s individuals working at max capacity that makes a group strong, but you walk away with different individual levels of success.   Teams live and die by the team.  Individuals work at max capacity to make the team strong, but you walk away with the same outcomes.  The team has a right to ask your individuality to take a bit of a back seat where it doesn’t step on you as a person.

3) The experience factor – In both classroom and on pitch we who are in charge of the education of these young people are trying to develop them in the best way possible to be competent in what they do.  But we are coming at it from a perspective of vast experience in these fields.  I’m currently 32.  I’ve been playing soccer since I was 12.  That’s 20 years of experience and knowledge about this game.  When I’m dealing with a 15 year old player, or even an 18 year old player, it can be hard for me to realize that the concept I’m trying to teach them has developed in me over a long period of time.  They’re not going to get it to the same depth I have in that 2 hour training session, and probably not over the 8-10 week season either.  Possibly not even in the 4 seasons I’ll have most of them.  But it’s easy to get over zealous in trying to convey information.  It’s also easy to mistake mimicry for mastery.  i.e. – If they can make the good pass that splits the defense in practice those few times when I yelled at them to see it, they can now read the game and see it on their own, they’re looking for it and understand when to attempt it or not.   The same holds true in the classroom, but I think teachers tend to be way more patient than coaches.  I will give a student multiple classes, multiple weeks, sometimes even months, to demonstrate that they are starting to master a concept, and then it’s much easier (I feel) to keep in mind that they will continue to build on this their whole lives.  We’re trying to recreate for them, in both settings, our vast experience and expertise.  But you cannot create experience without patience.  Experience by it’s definition, by it’s very nature, takes time.  They go hand in hand.  And not surprisingly, it seems to go hand in hand with failure as well, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Failure is an important part of experience, which is the best teacher.  In the classroom this is easy to set up and understand.  On the field less so because we are waiting for things to click.  When they don’t it can be frustrating because it means more repetition, and that’s hard on our attention spans.

Good coaching, I think, balances repetition and focus.  And doing that, while respecting your individuals but getting them to fall in with the team’s objectives, and holding everyone to a high standard, is the essence and beginning, I believe, of being both a progressive educator and an athletic coach.

If you stumble across this and happen to have read this far, please please feel free to comment and give me your thoughts on this subject that I’m immensely interested in and yet still seeking my own thoughts and best practice on.  I am open and interested in all view points on both education and coaching.


Executive functions: suddenly we begin to understand

Ever since we moved away from the archaic idiom, “children should be seen and not heard,” teachers have been asking themselves how they can better engage students in learning.  Once we gave students a voice in the classroom, many of them chose to use it to say, “this is boring”.  The struggle to bring learning to a place where the students will engage with it in the modern school setting has become one of the top struggles in the world of education.  We now refer to many of these changes that are taking place as 21st century skills.  But in the end, regardless of what we’re teaching students content or skill-wise within the walls of the classroom, we have to admit that classroom learning and real world application are two rather different worlds.  We are just now really beginning to understand what it means to actually learn in a meaningful way that can transcend initial circumstances and become true skill that is aiding the human in moving forward.  Essentially, in the classroom we are trying to shortcut the process of gaining experience (the only truly proven teacher) so that a student leaves the academic world with the knowledge of experiences that it would have been extremely difficult, if not otherwise impossible, to gain by seeking out true experience with this knowledge and skill base.

In our attempts to engage we struggle with the predilection of youth to be disorganized, to jump from topic to topic, to be far more interested in what they perceive as ‘play’ over what they perceive as ‘work’ (even if the two were the same thing), impulsivity, and a host of other things that we as adults consider impediments to learning…often lumped together and called ‘issues’ in staff meetings.  Very often these things are what lead us to consider a student as a candidate for testing of learning disabilities, which in and of itself can cause us to over react to the student as a ‘Special Ed case’. But all too frequently these things are chalked up to them being young and inconsiderate or non-serious students.  What if there was another option?  What if these students were in fact serious students with enormous creative potential, who had a deep capacity to succeed, and whose presence could in fact be a benefit not only to themselves but to our learning environments, but their tool box was not functioning properly?

See, the tool box is a handyman’s life blood that contains the basics.  A handyman can keep the tool box with them at all times and can draw from it to accomplish all the basic tasks they might need to do.  True, some specialized jobs require specialized or large equipment that doesn’t fit in the toolbox, but those jobs are often done by specialists or more experienced handymen.  But every handyman has a tool box.  If the tool box wasn’t equipped properly, or equipped with tools that weren’t up to the job, then they wouldn’t be able to complete even the most basic jobs, regardless of their other skills.  In this metaphor, as related to students, the executive functions are the tool box.

Tasks such as focus, task-initiation, emotional regulation, remembering, decision making, organization, self-monitoring, and a whole host of others that are necessary to utilize to even approach most school assignments fall under the heading of executive functions, which are regulated most often in the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain, an area which doesn’t fully develop until later in adolescence, are things that are often overlooked when dealing with trouble with classroom tasks.  Even in students who don’t have trouble with them, they are often overlooked in the actual instruction of a classroom.  These skills are the gateways or bridges which have to be open and functioning for a student to even access the learning potential stored in their brain.

Imagine this scenario: you place a math test in front of two students.  Student A exibits no E.F. deficiencies and is able to skim the test, prioritize which problems they are most comfortable with and begin.  Student A is then able to move onto the problems they were more uncertain about, breaks them down into steps and tackles them.  Student A is organized enough to use their existing knowledge to work through these problems, and their work on the paper is clean and useful to them.  After finishing, Student A is organized enough to remember to give a quick glance back over the test, check to see that their name is on it, and hands it in.  No problems.  Student B has multiple E.F. struggles and looks at the number of problems on the test and is immediately overwhelmed.  Their working memory slots are nearly full up with other distractions and what happened that morning before school, so they are having a hard time accessing their memories of the studying they did.  Student B also has a hard time organizing their work in the page, so even the problems he/she is thinking through correctly aren’t coming out right on the paper.  Student B struggles with prioritizing, so they just begin with problem 1 and work from there, but problem 2 proved especially difficult, so they spent way too long there.  By the time they finished, they were exhausted mentally and running out of time.  They rush through a lot of the rest of the test, even skipping problems that they could normally do, but that they are blanking on where to start.  They forget to put their name on the test, which is filled with errors that the quickest glance back would catch (but it doesn’t occur to them), and they sit silently frustrated until you take the paper from them at the end of the class.  In this scenario you would grade Student A’s test, and have a reasonable understanding of what they know on the topic.  Student B’s test would seem to reveal a deep and profound trouble with whatever mathematical concept you were testing for, when in reality his struggle had nothing to do with the math itself!

Executive function skills are too often overlooked because so many of us developed these skills over time as our frontal lobes developed, or because they are hidden under a larger diagnosis in students that overwhelms us as teachers while that student is in our room.  If a student has an ADHD diagnosis, we’re apt to be focused on the ADHD symptoms and actions rather than looking at each executive function skill to differentiate for each individual struggle.  In the long run even a student who is able to manage their ADHD with medication will still struggle with their E.F. and therefore with school.  We have to begin to change the way we look at the struggles of our students, and we can do that first and foremost by adjusting how we look at teaching itself.  No teacher should have the burden of an overcrowded classroom and a solitary setting.  Team teaching or smaller class sizes allow for more personal understanding of not only the work students are turning in, but the way in which that work is getting done.

In the next post I’ll talk more about some specific executive function skills, and how to differentiate for some of the common struggles students have with them.

The “special education” myth (imho)

I teach (therefore I am?).  And on top of that fact, which says something about both my character and my tolerance for pain, I teach Montessori.

I also talk to myself.  Periodically I will find myself in the car speaking out loud to the nobody callously ignoring their seatbelt in the passenger’s side of the car.  In addition, I usually have little memory of how I got into a self-discussion on whatever topic I’m pontificating on.  I’m not sure if this is a sign of insanity, but I’m pretty sure it makes me a very verbal person.  But I digress.

Just yesterday I found myself going through a one-sided discourse on the idea of full-inclusion and special education.  It may have been tied to a thought I had about why educational theory is even relevant to the average teacher, which in turn came from something else, but I’m not sure.  Anyway, I know that the idea of full-inclusion verses pull-out teaching is a bit of a hot button issue.  My housemate happens to have a Master’s in special education, and is a damn-fine educator.  If I’m not mistaken, he has expressed the opinion that a full-inclusion environment is not best for students with learning disabilities.  To be fair, he works in a traditional-education model charter school.  In that case, I agree with him.

But here’s my rant:

The idea of “special education” as it currently stands bothers me.  Let’s address the stigma attached to the term first.  When I say “special education” the concept that first comes to most people’s mind is students with learning disabilities…those students who are not learning on an ‘average’ level.  Why?  Why is it that the gifted and talented student is not included in these initial reactions?  Because far more focus and effort is given to this first category of students.  This is the category that the majority teachers find most frustrating.  When I talk to a teacher who works at another “Full-Inclusion” (notice the capitals) school, what they’re referring to is that they accept students with learning disabilities (although there are almost always qualifiers attached – “We don’t work with behavioral students.  We don’t work with students on the Autism spectrum.  Etc…).  But why shouldn’t students who need the challenge to progress be given this same amount of effort?  Why do we so often reward their innate academic abilities and curious nature by ignoring them to focus on those who aren’t as naturally academic?  And even further, why aren’t we challenging them to be peer-teaching the students who need help from and modeling of skills just like theirs?  It’s not like we as teachers can take credit for these student’s natural skills, but we can certainly take advantage of them, if we allow for it to not bruise our egos that a student might be a better teacher of a topic or skill in a particular instance within the day.  Students who find school comes more naturally to them should be given the same focus as any other student, and should even be an integral part of our teaching strategies.

With this premise now we find ourselves with 2/3 of our possible student population being qualified “special education”.  The remaining 1/3 are the normal students–but what the hell does that mean?  Is “normal” those students that meet our expectations at a reasonable pace?  Are they meeting state standards at a pace that allows them to get through the 7th grade standards within the 7th grade year?  Seems very arbitrary to me.  Besides, an educator in the state of California once told me that he did the math for the standards, and if you started on day 1 with standard 1.0 and worked systematically through the standards till the last day and the last standard, you’d have just seconds to cover each.  That certainly doesn’t seem reasonable.  Are they the students you have to pay attention to the least?  I don’t know of any teachers that would admit to not paying attention to a full third of their class…even if they wanted to.  In fact, if you talk about individual students with most teachers you would discover that almost every student falls to one side of that concept of “normal”…further, most students cross the divide and have BOTH talents that give them an advantage in certain areas, and difficulties that cause them to struggle in certain areas.  The concept of the normal student is not a category of students in your class, but rather an imaginary pivot point on a number-line like spectrum of your students.  It is is a hypothetical, conceptual, and practically non-existent idea of a student.

What I’m proposing is NOT that we do away with the study of and understanding of learning disabilities, or how to recognize the gifted and talented students, or the strategies as to how to work with both.  What I’m proposing is that we adjust the way we’re thinking about these things until we see that these exact strategies can be applied to almost every student in existence.  I’m arguing for the end of the concept of “Special” education, and the beginning of differentiation as the standard model for classrooms.  In this way, I am for inclusion in all but the most extreme cases.  As a colleague of mine once said, “We may write them for students with LD, but what student couldn’t use an IEP (Individualized Education Plan)?”  If we stop tracking our classrooms to have students all move at the same pace we eliminate the concept of the student who is “behind” or “ahead”, and instead create a differentiated environment where every student can be exactly where they need to be.  We accomplish this by encouraging peer-teaching so that any student who needs help has access to it at any given time, regardless of the current responsibilities of the teacher or the knowledge of the teacher.  We can give open-ended topics of study that allow students to create their own projects and decide how far they want to go with that topic, rather than simply assigning projects that are single-objective over and over again until we have touched on every standard.  We can stop giving grades that encourage students to work only until they have reached a rating that is satisfactory to them, and instead encourage them to pursue knowledge of a topic until they have slaked their own thirst for knowing, which we carefully cultivated through an air of excitement for learning and respect for knowledge.  We as teachers can focus on the skills the students are learning in the projects rather than the informational bits they are getting.  We’re in an age where the conversation about the doubling of all human knowledge is taking place, and that very event will probably happen many times within their lifetime.  It’s impossible to teach them everything they need to know about any subject.  The skills to learn on their own are far, far more important.  This frees them up to choose topics of interest which will drive them to a higher work level.  And lastly, although there are plenty more, we can make it part of the culture of our class to respect that each student will be in different places, both because of learning styles and interests.  This serves many purposes, but mostly it allows us to differentiate for students within the social structure of the class with no other thought than what is best for that student’s learning of that given skill.

Differentiation must become our standard approach to education, and we must eschew the current concept of special education, if we hope to teach the modern student to achieve their full potential.  As we move towards an ever broadening cluster of future opportunities and challenges students need to be moved out of the pidgin holes that the currently operating idea of special education mandates we put them in.

Please feel free to help me to a better understanding if you feel I have missed something.

The education Race

I found an article today in the Washington Times that describes a mentoring program for black males in Maryland Schools.  I’m writing about this for two reasons.  First off, the need for males as teachers within the education sphere is constant.  I’m not in any way trying to knock the teaching ability of females, quite to the contrary.  But the balance in teaching right now leans heavily to the females, and I’ve seen the effects that a balanced teaching staff can have. 

The second, and more important issue of this article, is the issue of black males in teaching (or at least in this case mentoring) roles.  I’m a caucasian male teaching in a mostly minority school.  There is no friction between me and my students, there are no racial issues within my middle school.  BUT, whenever we have all school staff meetings, I look around and see 6 or so black teachers out of our staff of 30 or 35.  Considering that our student body is almost 90% minority (largely black), I feel like an oportunity is being missed.  The unofficial mission that is passed among the teachers at my school is to prepare these students for life after they leave us, and yet they’re being taught to do so by people that have no real connection to their ethnic or cultural heritige.  I’m a big believer in our planet as one people and all, and I’m in no way insinuating that there is some sort of racial prejudice at our school.  I just feel a slight twinge for these students and the disconnect I see between what we want to be doing as a school and the unintentional message our staff composition is sending.  I worry that the minority students in our school are getting the message that they need education to be successful, but that the truly educated people are white.  Maybe I’m making that up, maybe that’s only in my head…but I haven’t been able to shake that concern.  A program like this one provides some male students with positive role models that are their own gender and are culturally and ethnically relatable.

 One more thing before I go: in this article the mentor, a gentleman by the name of Will Trice, is confronted with something that I myself have heard on occasion…the dreams of a young student to grow up to be a pro-athlete.  As teachers and adults (who may or may not have had this dream ourselves) we often approach this situation as either amusing, or a reason for a scolding.  We want the best for them, and as a result end up imposing adult-style realism on a young mind that doesn’t deserve it.  I love that Mr. Trice treats these kids dreams as something that is real and possible…because it is.  It is reality and it is possible to those boys, and Mr. Trice treats their dream with the respect it deserves.  And yet he craftily steers the conversation to accomplish what he wants.  He helps them see that flexibility is important, as it is with any career ambition, not just athletic ambitions.  The education and teaching world needs more programs like this, and more individuals like Mr. Trice.  Hopefully a program like this will create an mind-set where minority students will believe that their influence on the education system is important, and they will in-turn pass that on later in life.

How the immigration issue is now picking on kids

Well, it’s not like it didn’t pick on kids all along…but I need to read more specifics on that before I go shooting my mouth off on things other than what I’m writing about now.What I do know is this (and it’s something you should know before you read any further): I am a complete idealist in my heart-of-hearts. I’m a realist too, after all I would just be blind to ignore some of the truth behind why idealism can’t always work. But there are times when I feel that idealism trumps realism and I’m forced to ask the question, “I know ‘that’s just the way it is’, but for God’s sake, have a heart!” This is one of those cases.We are all citizens of a greater world, no matter what any hillbilly tells you. It is impossible to separate ourselves from the world at large. This is becoming especially more true as we move through this new century and the world become smaller and smaller. People are more mobile than ever before in history. We are becoming one people of this Earth, and because of this nationalism is begining to struggle back. I would love nothing more than to see borders be only lines on maps that deliniate space, rather than baricades designed to keep foriegners out. To see people freely move about this planet and among one another regardless of culture or place of origin…would make me happiest. But nationalism and national pride, government’s responsibility to it’s people and therefor it’s need to define who “it’s people” are make that difficult if not impossible right now. But when that idea begins to tread on children who are trying to make the best of an available education…I get upset.

This is about how the immigration laws are now forcing bright, hard working children out of education systems in which they are being successful and forcing them into unknown futures because we have not yet figured out a way to handle immigration without blindly and dumbly cracking the whip at these people and simply labeling them “lawbreaker!” I’m sorry, but we need to do better as a country. There’s got to be a better way. It just feels to me like this entire issue is based completely on the money. That’s disgusting. I understand the view that hard-working tax-paying citizens of this country shouldn’t have to shoulder financial burden for people who aren’t paying into the system themselves. I’m a realist, remember, I get it. But to me this entire immigration issue reeks of a lack of empathy…a lack of ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes. We are blinded by the fact that we have grown up here and are accustomed to our way of life. We have no concept of how life would be if we had grown up in a situation where we were not so fortunate. Can these angry people honestly say they wouldn’t try to do better by their family if given the chance, just because the country that offered that chance hadn’t pulled it’s collective head out of the sand and decided exactly where it stood in immigration? Maybe I’m completely misguided…I’d love to hear what others have to say about it, but I just know there’s got to be a better way.

In which I read the Washinton Post editorial page and come out 50/50

I wasn’t going to write today because I really didn’t have much to talk about (or nothing that I thought was worthwhile anyway, which some people have a problem with…but that’s a whole other blog), but I ended up reading the newspaper after school today.  I don’t necessarily have a preferred paper unless you count “on the floor and open” as a preference. Anyway, I started out with out an article on the Texas Democratic caucuses in today’s Post, and after reading it I just kept flipping through the paper until I’d come to the editorial page. Well, I’d have to say they went 1-1-1 for this issue.

It took me a minute and a phone call to the Post after reading the three editorials, but I found out that the editorials for the Washington Post are written by an “editorial board.” This committee apparently meets, led by Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor, and Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor, and includes about seven other writers. They decide upon the position and write the editorial. Is this normal? Personally I actually like the practice, but I always had the image of editorials being written by some opinionated J. Jonah Jameson type. Eh…you live and learn (and lose your delusions of Spider-Man comics as real life in the process).

Anyway, the first editorial didn’t really make me feel one way or the other (something about…something. Political I think.), but the second one was great. The second editorial was about our legislative body finally showing some chutzpah and actually helping (mark this day on your calendar folks!) average American citizens hold the government accountable! Apparently (but certainly not surprisingly) citizens have been suing the Bush administration over violations of civil liberties, related to spying and other wonders brought to us by the Patriot Act, but getting no where. In most of these cases the administration withholds evidence by claiming it’s a matter of national security, and the case is tossed, and the baby of the civil liberty question goes out with the executive privilege bathwater. But a new bill introduced in the Senate aims to allow the civil liberty questions to be addressed without compromising national security by putting sensitive information in the public square. To read more specifics about it you can read the whole editorial here (you will be asked to sign in or sign up to the Post online). I think something like this is ABOUT FREAKIN’ TIME! During the past seven years there has been far too much secrecy and loss of civil liberties in the name of national security, and not nearly enough protection left over for us the people. In her book, Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America, Molly Ivans makes the point that taking away our freedoms can never make us safer…it only makes us less free! I’m not saying that I think the President doesn’t have to make some difficult decisions, or that we the people don’t need to recognize that tough decisions need to be made, when it comes to issues of our country, but there is no way that those making these decisions right now are actually thinking about average Joe American…we have been left out of the loop. Too much of what has been claimed under the banner of Sept. 11th feels like power grabbing to pass the smell test. This feels like a good thing. I’m rooting for this one. If it works it will allow protecting civil liberties to become important again.

The last editorial actually gets my goat…the whole goat. Apparently Virginia is attempting to be the first state to get out from under the unrealistic and harmful expectations of the No Child Left Behind law. I am a teacher. I have taught in both a private school setting and a setting where No Child Left Behind ruled the roost. As someone who is a practitioner of this education thing…NCLB is a bad thing!  While I agree with the idea of accountability and giving students and families in failing schools options (believe it or not, I’m all for what’s best for the student) this law is a horrible execution of this goal.  If you want more specifics as to exactly how bad NCLB is and how detrimental to it’s own stated goals and education as a whole I’ll post on that later, but I just want to hit some of the editorial’s high points here and now:

1) “Most notable was its ill-advised rebellion over the testing of children with limited English proficiency.”

Please allow me to shed a little light on why they may have been in a tizzy about testing children with limited English proficiency.  In most cases tests are not administered in the language the students are proficient in…they’re administered in English!  How fair is it to give a student who has difficulties with English an English version of a math test and then say they don’t know math when they fail it?  Or, even worse, an English version of an English test?  The NCLB law has very few provisions for students outside the norm.  This creates difficulties when dealing with students who have exceptionalities…take it from me: every student learns differently and NCLB doesn’t even begin to address that in an appropriate fashion.

2) “…but the reluctance to hold all students to the same standards says much about why No Child Left Behind is needed.”

The idea of holding all students to the same standard is exactly one of the major flaws of NCLB.  I work in a school that is designed to serve high-functioning students with learning disabilities.  To hold every student to the same standard, regardless of learning style, learning disability, language proficiency, or any one of a hundred other factors involved in learning and educating a person is asinine and blind.  Different students who don’t have learning disabilities have to deal with difficulties based on learning style, not to mention the difficulties created for students who are ADHD, dyslexic, dis graphic, have various anxiety disorders, have reading difficulties, on the autism spectrum, and much more.  NCLB is completely out of touch with the realities of our diverse population of students across this nation of ours.

3) “In passing the measures, lawmakers talked about sending a message to Washington.  Too bad it’s one that ignores the interest of children.”

When are we as a population going to realize that if you want to accurately test the effectiveness of something you have to go to the source?  If I want to know how the fishing is, I’m gonna talk to a fisherman.  If I want to know about my health, I go to a doctor.  If you want to know about education, talk to a teacher.  Not a lawmaker or a journalist or a blacksmith…a teacher.  When teacher’s unions and school boards are against something and the only ones for it are the people who want accountability but don’t know how (and the textbook companies who are making a fortune in test-specific materials off this law) that should be a red flag.

The only thing I agree with in the editorial is that by opting out of of NCLB Virginia risks loosing up to $300 million for it’s schools.  That’s a lot of money for the children of Virginia to loose access to.  It is so much that it’s certain to be an almost immediate, negative impact to the school systems.  But if Virginia is able to pull the band-aid off quickly and figure out how to make it work then other states may follow.  We may then be forced to really take an honest look at how to achieve accountability that is honest and reliable without patching it over with standardized tests and a musical chairs of administrators that NCLB causes.

Maui, Montessori, and…Texas (of all places)

Another motivation I’ve realized I have for entering the blogosphere is my impending move from my current location in the DC-metro area to the island of Maui. This is not the whim that the words “moving to Maui” might bring to mind.  I teach in a small non-public school for learning disabled students who weren’t being properly serviced by the public school districts surrounding us. But I’ve been hired by a Montessori school in the island town of Kihei. I’ll admit that a tiny portion of my decision to accept this job was based on that ever present desire in me to live on a small island equidistant from the mountains (or volcanoes, in this case) and the ocean and write poetry. But of course I have to live with the job that I have accepted to get me there. I’m actually psyched to be taking this job in Montessori. I’ve only worked in a traditional teacher-centered classroom for a year, although I interned last year in a program that had me co-teaching with a mentor teacher full time in the classroom, but I have already run across the glaring disconnect with the traditional model and the way different students learn (not to mention their interest level). I feel Montessori answers a lot of questions that I have about a better way to educate.

Ironically, the most difficult piece of this path that I have grappled with is the necessity for me to go to Houston, Texas for two months to complete a short course in the Montessori method before I take on the alternative classroom in Maui. Please don’t misunderstand me…I don’t have any particular disdain for Texas (at least no more than I have for the state of Connecticut), but I can’t say I’ve ever run across too many things that excite me about the “Great State” either. I’m not a fan of the Texans, the Cowboys, the Mavericks, Rockets, or Spurs, the Stars, the Rangers, or the Astros. I don’t even like FC Dallas or the Dynamo (and I’m a HUGE soccer fan). I don’t like rattlesnakes or George W. Bush. I can’t stand the “Don’t Mess with Texas” attitude, seeing as it’s responsible for a lot of the global mess we United States-ers find ourselves in these days. No, about the only thing I can think of that I’ve ever liked that came out of that chunk of America is Molly Ivins, the newspaper columnist and political humorist commentator who died in January of 2007. Now I don’t consider myself an expert or even fairly educated on all the state has to offer, but I know enough to be nervous about not knowing what to expect when I arrive for my two month stay.