Saturday, June 19, 2010

Inspiration for Teaching

In my opinion there are two sources of information about best teaching practices which provide inspiration about education and learning.

The first type is writings about education reform ideas written by current or ex-teachers and/or school administrators. They must first outline the problems with public education or mainstream educational theories and practices. Then they tell what they think would be better. I include here general discussions about education, not targeted to one ethnic group, wealth level, or regional location.

The second type varies just a bit differently. These are writings by teachers (present or ex) and/or school administrators which write about children who have failed in the system using the system's definitions. These usually target a population such as focusing on inner-city, poverty-level minority children. These writings usually also involve a discussion of schools that are a physical wreck and complaints of underfunded schools.

The books in this category discuss a change in teaching methodology put into practice WITHOUT MORE MONEY and can be applied even in beaten down, physical school buildings. Learning and test scores do improve with changes in teaching despite no additional funding.

In some cases the teachers ran a private school with a different philosophy and teaching method than the public schools (Marva Collins) while others wound up quitting teaching (John Holt, James Herndon, John Taylor Gatto).

The Money Spent

The solution is not just to throw money at the school to improve student learning outcomes. I recall hearing statistics in an author talk on BookTV (the title eludes me but if I think about this and poke around on the BookTV site or Google I could find it). It was that when achievement scores are listed it is like this:

1. wealthy towns (top scores)
2. blue collar, middle class towns
3. cities with lower income than the above two

The spending per student is this:

1. wealthy towns (from resident dollars mostly)
2. cities with lower income than the rest (from state and federal dollars largely)
3. blue collar, middle class towns

Thus the argument was made yet again that more money does not necessarily equal better physical buildings, better teachers, or equal learning experiences for the students.

Back to the Teaching

I am on the last pages of reading a new book Teaching as Leadership. I've been slowly reading it over a number of months now. This book is about Teach for America's method. I knew what TFA was but I didn't understand their process and it's intriguing for a number of reasons.

First, I need to explain what TFA does, in case you don't know. College graduates agree to teach for a couple of years (even when their major was not education) in order to do service to discount their student loans. They work in cities where kids are underprivileged and at-risk. I have heard in the media that these are places that are hard to lure union teachers to work in.

What I didn't know what TFA has a certain teaching method that is completely different than what is normally done in public schools. This method is taught to the TFA teachers in a short period then the TFA teachers are thrown into the fire. The most surprising thing to me is that a TFA teacher uses method B in a classroom right next door to a union paid, experienced teacher using method A (the same old, same old). In this case despite no extra money and the building being in whatever state of imperfection or disrepair that it may, students suddenly are learning more and scoring higher on tests. There is an attitude change and a new positive outlook on learning within the children.

I see this TFA initiative as a kind of back door education reform. By offering to help with short term fixes (short stints by rotating volunteers) I guess the teacher's union never saw them as a threat. TFA fulfills a need. I just can't believe though that TFA uses a special and better method that winds up upstaging the union member-paid teachers. I'm shocked (in a "I love it" kind of way).

I find it hilarious that union member teachers who oppose education reform methods have allowed TFA to come in and basically start education reform right under their same roof. I guess the only way they were given a foothold was because the schools were desperate for cheap labor, the need was so great that they let it happen.

The pathetic thing is that when a TFA teacher has success using this other method which I consider to be education reform in action, the old school teachers in the building don't change their ways for the sake of the children and learning's sake. They stick to their old ways. This is what is meant when some people accuse school teachers of not putting the needs of the children first and saying that the teachers are in the job for the money or their own power or whatever they get out of working in the teaching field. This is what is meant when people say:

"Learning is an unintended consequence of school. School exists to employ teachers."

Once a parent in town, a mother of a Cub Scout who was in the Den I was co-Den Leader of tried to engage me about homeschooling my kids and the proposed education budget which would raise our property taxes by 11%. I didn't bite. I know when to not have controversial discussions especially when children are right next to us (we were shoveling mulch for a Scout service project where parents and siblings were helping). She then went for my husband and said that we must homeschool because we don't care about the kids who attend public school and we probably don't care about the quality of education in this town so we must then always vote no on the budget. (In my town each voter casts a vote for all expenditures.) This mother had recently been placed on the Board of Ed as a replacement for someone else who stepped down. She got into it with my husband and when he said the line above she seemed to lose it and started shouting. I told them to knock it off, kids are hearing this (her son looked scared to death). I note that a few months after she was active on the Board of Ed she pulled her child out of public school and enrolled him in a very expensive private school.

Actions speak louder than words.

To wrap it up my point is this book is fantastic. I read these books to get inspiration for my home education experience. I have a lot to say about it, some of which is that what homeschooling parents like me are doing is actually outlined in this book as the optimal way! Yet I had never seen it written out in one place like this. Much of this I learned through experience and trial and error with my own kids or hearing a tidbit here and trying it then seeing how that worked.

How to set goals, how to plan lessons to achieve that goal, and how to custom design an education is all here, in an attempt to persuade teachers to take on this way of teaching. I'm so surprised that it's what I'm already doing. So I read a book for inspiration and new information and find out that it is encouraging school teachers to do what I'm already doing. Wow.

Back to Teaching as Leadership

If you are curious about the book, I'll briefly share this.

The book starts off trying to convince the reader that these kids who have failed, have imperfect home lives, low incomes, really are capable of learning and excelling at school.

Once that pep talk is over the book launches into a detailed explanation of the core values of TFA.

The TFA site has their philosophy explained. This book expands each item in the framework in detail. You can read that on this page. Make sure you view the 'expand all' view which has a paragraph under each item.

For an even more detailed description of the six principals, see the book's website and click on the items in the left sidebar. The site has lots of information.

Homeschool curious parents or new homeschooling parents who feel lost may benefit from reading this book. I say this as I don't know of a book written specifically for homeschoolers which puts these same ideas into writing in a neat, tidy package as this does. If that is why you are reading Teaching As Leadership you may want to skip past the beginning and launch right into the details of their six "leadership principals" that describe their framework.

What I Want

What I'd like to see is this framework used with EVERY STUDENT in America.

I also now know the kind of motivating talk and boosting students that they can excel and that learning is important and good is NOT HAPPENING in my wealthy town. It seems crazy to me. Does everyone know this goes on? That it's not happening in mostly white towns with wealthy income levels and high performing schools that student apathy reigns with dominance? Do you know that the psyching up students for academic excellence does NOT take place in those classrooms?

What happens in real life is that students who like to learn or score high on tests and who take learning seriously are labeled nerds or geeks and are uncool? They are ostracized by the others, by the ones who goof off and seem to not care about learning and care more about sports or fashion and current fads and trends, or loving their material possessions publically usually can care less about actually learning. They just go to school as they have to.

In some circles the parents do not talk up education as they feel it would sound elitist. While they may be in the elite due to their income level and education level they don't encourage their children to perform academically so they can wind up with a job on equal footing as they have. It's strange and a notion I cannot understand. Perhaps they feel that by encouraging academic success in their child they are putting down or looking down upon children who are not performing at that higher level? Is this a guilt thing? Is this due to the zero-sum mindset (which I loathe and believe is not real).

There are others who feel that it is more important to love the whole child for who they naturally are rather than trying to mold or shape them into a scholar. They seem to think that if they love their child who is excelling academically that their love is conditional and based on academic performance. I don't understand that mindset at all. (This is a huge topic that could be discussed at lenght but I'll hold my tongue. Suffice it to say homeschoolers in my area sometimes accuse people like me with goals and standards for education as harming their children.)

In the last ten or more years the public school money flows to the kids with learning disability labels while programs to help with all student's academic success are cut and programs for gifted and talented students are sometimes non-existent. I recall a recent media article where a California school district was choosing between necessary replacement science lab equipment for high school science classes (for the smarter kids on a college track who needed to do biology and chemistry) or help for low-scoring kids still struggling with basic things like reading and writing. They chose to help the struggling kids more.

But now I'm getting off on a tangent so I'll just stop there.

Book Recommendations

I do recommend Teaching As Leadership, it's well written even though it's a bizarre experience to see homeschool methods I use written up cloaked in educational-ese language and constant references to checking for test scores as proof it's working. It's freaky for me because teachers who may love TFA's method may be the same one accusing homeschooling parents as not knowing what they're doing or possibly ruining their kids by keeping them out of school.

A great book by new teacher James Herndon talked about the problems in a mess of a school The Way It's Spozed to Be. He blamed the system and funding but changed his teaching and made an impact. He was fired over his different teaching methods.

Later Herndon went to work in a white middle class town that he thought would be wonderful as the school was funded well, but found out, and was shocked at the student apathy there. The book How to Survive in Your Native Land talks about that. I read these about ten years ago and loved them, and in the time since have re-read them once.

Herndon quit teaching in the end.

(Look around for used copies as it seems Native Land is out of print and listed in multiple listings on Amazon. Right now Spozed is in reprint in the 'Innovators in Education' series but used copies of the out of print editions are also available.)

I find Herndon's writings inspirational reading, they're fast reads but their message made a deep impression on me. The main message is that 'teaching method matters' first and foremost and that the teaching can be done in any setting and be effective.

I also was led to believe that the education system was so broken and that large scale reform was so daunting, that I didn't want my kids in the system.


Maria said...


I recently compiled a list of the Top 25 Homeschooling Blogs, and I just wanted to let you know that you made the list! It
is published online at

Thanks so much, and if you think your audience would find useful information in the list or on the site, please feel free to share the
link. The blog is just starting up, so we always appreciate any links as we're trying to increase readership.

Thanks again, and have a great day!

Maria Magher

p.s. Sorry for leaving this as a comment; I wasn't able to find your contact info on the page...

luv2ski said...

Hi Christine,

Thanks for this book suggestion. I just ordered it (and all the books I need for my graduate classes) through your Amazon link.

I empathize with your situation of sometimes having to defend what you do as a homeschooling family and as a mother/teacher on two fronts. First from those in the public/private school sector who take issue with the fact that you have made a different choice, and second, from homeschoolers who have a different homeschooling style. Our family basically "unschools", and have been doing so since our homeschooling odyssey began when my oldest (son, 14) began learning at home. I consider our approach to be eclectic, and we modify our approach to each child and each situation depending on individual child's current developmental needs and educational desires. I, too, have been accused of irresponsibility from the two aforementioned "camps". I wholeheartedly support each family's educational decision, as they alone can know what is best for their personal situation. I am often stung by others' less accepting attitudes. That said, the reason that I ordered the book you suggested today is that 14 yo DS has requested to be part of a homeschooling co-op. So, again I am shifting gears, gracefully, I hope! I will now be teaching a class to other people's children, whose expectations are vastly different than my laid-back unschooling style. I am welcoming some suggestions for structure, as I brush up on (or reject)those educational methods and skills I learned so long ago during my undergrad foray into public school teaching.

Staying true to what we believe as homeschoolers, while remaining flexible and accepting of others' methods and beliefs is a challenge. Doing it well is a great example for our children, no matter what educational situation they are in.