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Published by Vickie Gill on 01 May 2017

The Lottery of Birth

A few years ago one of my daughters said, “Mom, the worst thing you did when we were little was make us think that life was fair.” I remember thinking, “Wow, slap on the cuffs.”

I grew up in a house where might won over right, so with my own children I tried to make sure that every present, every treat, every privilege was equal as best I could. I may have gone a little overboard; the family joke is that I carefully counted and sorted the M&Ms before handing them out.

My daughter is right–life is not fair, at times shockingly so. Some babies hit the jackpot, some lose before they’re born; some will have the will power to change their luck, others will be defeated before they ever stand on their own two feet. I see it in schools all of the time.

I’ve worked with kids who hit the jackpot with loving parents who have the financial stability to offer support to their children well into their adult years. Others have loving parents but money is a constant struggle. I’ve known children who grow up financially secure but with parents who are emotionally or physically abusive. And then there are the kids born to drug-addicted parents who cannot provide even their most basic needs.

None of us has a choice about the circumstances of our births — like the lottery, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

But there is such a thing as luck, and often it appears in the form of a gifted teacher. Teachers can tip the scales, even the odds, level the playing field. In this country we have public schools that open their doors to all children, regardless, so at least every kid has a chance.

Published by Vickie Gill on 10 Dec 2016

The Matthew Effect

The Baby Boomer Effect
For the past three years I’ve been working on a project to reopen our local public library and develop programs to get the members of our small community to make use of it. I started this project the same week I retired, so I’ve been busy; in truth, I’m not sure how I would have handled too much time on my hands. This experience got me to thinking about Baby Boomers and retirement and how much talent is out there just waiting for a new challenge.
As a teacher, I specialized in remedial reading and writing for high school students who were struggling to keep up. Most of my students had been labeled failures and/or behavior problems. Many were at risk of dropping out of school. My trick was to create a curriculum that was all about their lives and goals so that I could talk them into doing the hard work of increasing their ability to use the written word to their advantage. My class was an easy sell and we did our best, but many of those students graduated thinking of reading and writing as more of a chore than a pleasure.
A 2011 study conducted by a professor of sociology at CUNY-Hunter College suggests that 3rd grade is the “pivot point” — children who do not read at grade level by then are “four times more likely to drop out of high school.” They call it The Matthew Effect, referring to a verse from the Bible warning that those who have will get more, and those who do not have will lose even more. By high school, kids who have sailed through the K-8 curriculum have the confidence to tackle the most difficult classes in high school; those who continually struggle just to pass to the next grade keep losing ground.
I cannot fix the current state of the Union, but I can try to do something right here in my town. Last year we started a Homework Help program with one-on-one tutoring because our small library does not have room for more than a few kids to gather at one time. Right now 14 adults, all of them retired, meet once a week with students from the local K-8 who are falling behind. None of these volunteers are experienced teachers and many are baffled by the assignments, especially with the new math, but they dive right in and allow the students to witness a persistent thinker tackle a problem. One hour a week won’t get all of the homework done, but the kids and their tutors have created a bond that strengthens our little town. Let’s call it The Baby Boomer Effect.
As Margaret Mead wisely observed, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We just need to show up and do what we can.

Published by Vickie Gill on 04 Dec 2016

The Baby Boomer Effect

The Baby Boomer Effect
For the past three years I’ve been working on a project to reopen our local public library and develop programs to get the members of our small community to make use of it. I started this project the same week I retired, so I’ve been busy; in truth, I’m not sure how I would have handled too much time on my hands. This experience got me to thinking about Baby Boomers and retirement and how much talent is out there just waiting for a new challenge.

As a teacher, I specialized in remedial reading and writing for high school students who were struggling to keep up. Most of my students had been labeled failures and/or behavior problems. Many were at risk of dropping out of school. My trick was to create a curriculum that was all about their lives and goals so that I could talk them into doing the hard work of increasing their ability to use the written word to their advantage. My class was an easy sell and we did our best, but many of those students graduated thinking of reading and writing as more of a chore than a pleasure.

A 2011 study conducted by a professor of sociology at CUNY-Hunter College suggests that 3rd grade is the “pivot point” — children who do not read at grade level by then are “four times more likely to drop out of high school.” They call it The Matthew Effect, referring to a verse from the Bible warning that those who have will get more, and those who do not have will lose even more. By high school, kids who have sailed through the K-8 curriculum have the confidence to tackle the most difficult classes in high school; those who continually struggle just to pass to the next grade keep losing ground.

I cannot fix the current state of the Union, but I can try to do something right here in my town. Last year we started a Homework Help program with one-on-one tutoring because our small library does not have room for more than a few kids to gather at one time. Right now 14 adults, most of them retired, meet once a week with students from the local K-8 who are falling behind. None of these volunteers are experienced teachers and many are baffled by the assignments, especially with the new math, but they dive right in and allow the students to witness a persistent thinker tackle a problem. One hour a week won’t get all of the homework done, but the kids and their tutors have created a bond that strengthens our little town. Maybe The Baby Boomer Effect can counter The Matthew Effect.

As Margaret Mead wisely observed, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We just need to show up and do what we can.

Published by Vickie Gill on 14 Nov 2013

The Business of Education

In her book about Muppet creator Jim Henson’s career, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens questions the myth that the businessman and the artist are inherently at odds:
“For the most part, money is the enemy of art. … Put simply, great art wants quality, whereas good business wants profit. Quality requires many man-hours to produce, which any accountant will tell you cuts significantly into your profit. Great artists fight for such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight against them.”

This immediately made me think of the ongoing struggle for many teachers to enlighten and inspire our students AND produce high scores on standardized tests. Under the pressure of publicized test data that directly affect job security, many teachers feel they must sacrifice the cultivation of wisdom for rote memorization. The Common Core Standards are an attempt to measure students’ actual understanding of the facts they’re learning—I would say a step in the right direction. From here my mind jumped to the image of a CEO who would help his/her employees understand the necessity of the product they make, as well as why the product is sold for the given price. I would love to listen to the head of Coca Cola give that pitch to the workers on the assembly line.

It’s a bit easier for us educators. We would not give our lives to teaching a subject unless we truly believed that it is essential to our students’ understanding of the world. And to delve deeply into a subject, students need to memorize certain facts. For example, I never tried to grasp the mind-boggling conflicts in the Middle East until I learned to place the various countries on a map. The process began using simple mnemonic tricks, “I cover Pakistan with an Afghan (istan) to keep it warm” — teachers are great at coming up with those to help kids memorize what will be asked on a test. But it wasn’t until I placed tiny Palestine inside tiny Israel that my mind kicked into gear and I instinctively started seeking solutions. Suddenly the importance of Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the United States made sense to me and I wanted to find out more.

Memorization does not equate to mastery of a concept, however, it’s often the first step. My guess is the essential facts (the ones you don’t want to look up over and over) can be memorized by, let’s say, 5th grade, and then the rest of a student’s time in school could be spent using those facts to formulate creative solutions to real-world problems. I can’t imagine a business succeeding without being able to demonstrate a steady increase in profit, and I can’t imagine working for a business that produces a product that I didn’t believe in. In my mind, great teachers approach education as both an art and a business by inspiring their students and teaching them how to document their own progress. It’s the best of both worlds.

Published by Vickie Gill on 27 May 2013

Talking About a Revolution

I watched a TED Talk about Education on PBS the other night and I believe I heard the word “revolution” used at least three times. Without question, it’s puzzling that no one is happy with our current system of public education, but we stubbornly continue to do things in the same way–year after year after year. A couple of decades ago I wrote that a school is one of the few institutions that a Rip Van Winkle would recognize immediately. We still have desks in rows, textbooks on desks, boards in the front, and quite a few bored in the back.

I’m not sure why we’re so loath to change. Is the system to big, too unwieldy? Lack of funds? Lack of will? Lack of imagination?

Bill Gates, one of the TED speakers, said research confirms that regular feedback improves teaching which naturally improves learning. Principals are overworked and are lucky to observe a teacher even once a year. What if Boomers who have an interest in kids “adopted” a willing teacher and dropped by on a regular basis — not to write up an evaluation, but to informally offer feedback and help the teacher identify problems and practical solutions? A volunteer could observe quite a bit just by sitting with a kid or two to practice reading.

I’d be willing to do that. I can hardly stand to read another word about what is happening at the national and state levels of government, but I’ve got my eye on that little school a few blocks from where I live. Instead of trying to change everything, maybe I can change a few things.

Published by Vickie Gill on 12 Jul 2012

Lies My Teachers Told Me

I was talking with some friends about the facts we were taught in school that have turned out to be false, mostly in the areas of history and science. I wouldn’t go so far as to say my teachers lied to me because almost without exception, they were all following the teacher’s guide that went with the textbook. None of us doubted that, as with newspapers, something printed as a fact had to be true.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what’s worth teaching, especially now that standardized testing determines the curriculum in most schools, and as we all know, a multiple choice test has to be vetted to include nothing but the facts. This led me to consider the lessons I presented that were not only well-received by my students, but were remembered years down the road. Few of them had to do with the facts. All had to do with ideas that can be argued from different perspectives; the facts were used to clear away the nonsense and grapple with the Big Questions. These never have simple answers, which is why humans have utilized every form of art, writing, science, and math in pursuit of the truth.

I used to prepare my students for standardized tests in the same way a coach would get a team pumped up for a game; it was one of the rare times I would encourage my students not to think or question–just bubble the answers that match the ones in the study guides. I would spend as little of our classroom time as possible with this kind of preparation, then we’d get back to the real work of searching for answers to questions like “Why were we put on this earth and what are we going to do about it?” To find an answer that satisfies, the students needed to use facts to test their theories. Now more than ever, students can access information in moments. My job as a teacher is to help them evaluate the information and use it to form opinions that will influence the decisions they will make throughout their lives.

I would estimate that 90% of our students’ time is spent on memorizing facts and 10% pondering the Big Questions. It should be just the opposite.

Published by Vickie Gill on 14 Mar 2012

Reducing Education to Common Core Standards

One of the teachers at school told me I needed to watch the TED talks with Ken Robinson, so I did. I’ve spent months pouring over test data for the high school searching for “trends” and “critical needs”–Sir Ken was just the shot in the arm I needed. Robinson observes, “The whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” And adds, “We educate students from the waist up and slightly to one side.” I couldn’t agree more.

While The Powers that Be are obsessed with producing spreadsheets of test scores that will guarantee results, I, and many other teachers, have been obsessing over this self-perpetuating business that “education” has become — teach to the test (based on “the standards”) so that they can score well and earn good grades that take them to the next test and the next set of grades and on and on. (Can you imagine the returns if you had been prescient enough to invest in the College Board in the ’70s–who knew?)

But the employers are still dissatisfied with the product the schools are spitting out –President Obama tells us we have 2 million tech. jobs that the graduates of American schools aren’t fit to fill. All of this racing to the top with no child left behind isn’t getting the job done, but it is leaving behind exhausted children and teachers.

Instead of Common Core Standards, what if we tried some common sense? Our graduates need to head into the “real world” being able to read well enough to draw conclusions and make decisions; write well enough to communicate clearly and persuasively; and think well enough to solve problems creatively, effectively, and with compassion. Not all kids will develop these skills at the same pace and the teachers don’t need spreadsheets to understand what the kids need to do next. They already know the projects and activities that are effective and bring out the joy of learning in their students, but those have been relegated to “Fun Fridays” or are hauled out in May/June after the state testing is done.

It’s no longer about memorizing the “right” answer–the kids can find facts with lightning speed on their cell phones. They need to learn what to do with those facts in order to contribute to the well being of their community. Isn’t that why they spend 13 years of their lives in school?

Published by Vickie Gill on 04 Sep 2011

Unschooling

A friend sent me a link to an article about unschooling–I think he thought I’d applaud the concept, but all it did was make me mad. Not at my friend; he’s a gifted teacher fighting the good fight on a daily basis. No, my anger was directed at the growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country–those who are provided with excellent educational opportunities and those who are consigned to sub-par schools based on the lottery of birth. To put it simply, children can enjoy the freedom and advantages of a self-directed education in a natural environment if they have parents who can 1) afford to stay home or 2) pay someone else to monitor their children or 3) live within a community that will provide a place for their children to explore their interests.

To be “unschooled,” a child must have parents who are motivated and capable of making that happen. When we pull these children out of the public schools, we also remove the motivated parents–the ones who show up on a regular basis and volunteer to provide activities and services that the schools can no longer afford. When I taught in a rural school district in Tennessee, I was advised by several of my peers to pull my girls out of the public schools and place them in a nearby private school. It wasn’t that my salary did not allow for extras like tuition; I knew that if my children were enrolled in the schools where I worked, attention would be paid. I was always motivated to do the best I could for my students, but my focus was on my classroom. However, when my three daughters entered the school system, the stakes were raised. I no longer viewed the primary, elementary, and junior high schools as an employee of the district; I watched what was going on in those schools with the eyes of a mother. It matters.

I’ve kept several books that influenced me as a beginning teacher—I can see them on my bookcase right now, their yellowing, dog-eared pages a testament to their worth. Most were written by Jonathan Kozol and Ken Macrorie – Death at an Early Age and Uptaught spun my head around and changed the way I entered a classroom. I also valued John Holt’s practical books about What do I do Monday and Why Children Fail. But if I had known he coined the word “unschooling” and had pulled his children from the system, I’m not sure I would have brought them home. It’s kind of like the owner of a restaurant who eats elsewhere—just doesn’t speak to confidence and commitment.

I’m still in love with the public schools—there is no more potent symbol of the American Dream than the belief that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, can enter a building where they are guaranteed a safe environment in which to acquire the skills that will open the doors to their dreams.
Think about it: If for just five years, every politician, every teacher, every administrator would entrust their children to the public school system, I believe we could turn this ship around. And while we’re at it, if the members of Congress had to use the same health insurance as the average American, we’d fix that mess, too. Don’t criticize what you don’t understand—these times need a’changing.

Published by Vickie Gill on 01 Jun 2011

Motivating Students

I’ve been working with a young teacher who is struggling in the classroom. It’s the same old problem–the students are rude and refuse to learn; the teacher is trying to survive until the end of the school year. This is a dance I’ve watched over the years both as a student and as a teacher–sometimes with horror, sometimes with sadness, always with frustration. This teacher’s students come to talk to me about being treated unfairly by an instructor who they feel hates them; the teacher comes to talk to me about being treated unfairly by students who are lazy and have no desire to learn. The best I can do is to try to get everyone to verbalize what is going on in each other’s heads. It doesn’t always work.

In my workshops, I begin by pointing out that teaching is all about sales and performance art. Inevitably I’ll get some nods of agreement and a few who visibly take offense at this statement. I don’t mean to imply that we teachers are in front of the class singing/dancing/juggling vaudeville-style. I just mean that we have to be interesting to listen to and that we have to believe in our product. This goes two ways. First, our curriculum is our product. It should be clear to our students that we are passionate about what we teach. But in another way, our students are our “products” — not empty vessels by any means, but hopefully we enrich their knowledge, expand their view of the world, and help them master useful skills. And then we send them on their way. We have to believe in the kids; even when our students are throwing up smoke screens by clamming up or acting out, we have to help them recognize themselves at their best and demonstrate our complete faith in their ability to do well in school and in life.

To save money, some schools and colleges are embracing online education. I can see this as an effective way to disseminate information and help students master some skills, but I still believe that nothing can replace spending time face-to-face with an inspirational teacher. Just as with sales, shoppers who already know what they want will motivate themselves to acquire the goods. But for those who are browsing or who don’t even want to step into the store, a gifted salesperson who is in love with the product can pull them in and make them believe their lives will be better if they buy what we are selling. For me, that defines the Art of Teaching.

Published by Vickie Gill on 13 Mar 2011

The Times They Are a’Changing

I haven’t felt this in a long while — change is in the air. The news is full of images of citizens around the world taking to the streets to tell the powers that be that they’re mad as hell and just won’t take it anymore. I’ve always felt lucky that I was in college when the streets filled with people protesting war, racism, sexism. We demanded that decisions made in the name of the American people be based on common sense and the Golden Rule rather than greed and power. The idealism was palatable.

Then it just got hard. We went back to class, got our degrees and started families. Some worked to improve the lives of others, others worked to improve their stock portfolios. It’s easy to just give up and take care of your own, but none of us is on our own; what hurts you, hurts me. The recent earthquake in Japan has made that crystal clear.

For years I’ve begun every school year by displaying big posters that group my students by their common career goals. From the mid-80’s until a couple of years ago, the bulk of my students wanted to go into either Professional Sports or Business. I’d always ask, “What business?” Often the student would reply, “Whatever makes me a lot of money.” So we’d spend the year seeking enlightenment by trying to answer the most basic of questions: “Why were you put on this Earth and what are you going to do about it?”.

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a change–my students are interested in work that’s not all about them, like teaching, law enforcement, health care. They spend their vacations working for Habitat for Humanity or other volunteer activities. And it’s not just for their college résumés–I get the sense that they think it’s the right thing to do. Power and greed have been exposed for what they are: pathetic attempts to make the weak appear strong. Most of my students’ and colleagues’ families have been harmed by a minority who has no concept of when enough is enough. I think my students are saying, “Enough.”

I hope so. It isn’t that we need to change–we just need to redefine power and success. It’s an exciting time.

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