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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.