Lessons from Mothers

Lessons from Mothers on ParentChat with Regina

Can being a mother make someone a better teacher? The answer is “definitely yes.” I already knew this before I read Starr Sackstein’s Mother’s Day article, “How Being a Mom Changed My Teaching,” in Education Week Teacher. But I was glad to have my opinion confirmed.

I remember the year I helped to open a new public high school in New York City. It was a small school—that was all the rage in 2009—and we co-founders had the privilege of handpicking a brand new faculty of six very bright, mostly young professionals. Three were married, but only one had any children.

All six were full of high expectations—just the way we wanted them—for our first class of ninth graders. But, as it turned out, some of those expectations would need to be put through the “mother filter,” which they didn’t have yet. Ms. Sackstein said it best in her article: “. . . I’d characterize my early career self as rigid. The expectations were clear and absolutely NO exceptions were made.”

Ms. Sackstein tells us in her article that her son was born in her fourth year of teaching and that she has now been a mother for a bit over 10 years. Here are a few of the ways that she believes being a mother has changed her teaching (excerpted and quoted from her article):

  • “Seeing the ‘special’ in every child became easier. I imagine what his/her parent loves about the child and suddenly they aren’t just a student but someone’s baby and who can’t empathize with that emotion. Trying very hard to treat this person’s child, like I’d want my own child treated in a similar situation, helps put it all in perspective.”
  • “Exceptions must be made and differentiation must happen. Every child is different and expecting the same result from every person in a room is downright foolish.”
  • “Flexibility in deadlines, projects and classwork must be assumed.”
  • “I’m far more patient now than I’ve ever been.”
  • “My stance on homework has changed a lot since having a school-aged child as well. I value home time differently and therefore have worked hard to make homework (when necessary) flexible. Projects are done over time rather than on demand.”

If you are a mother (or a father, of course), you can probably relate to these, and you likely hope that your own kids’ teachers feel the same way as Ms. Sackstein.

When teachers at our school saw me on the way to their classrooms to talk to them, they used to say, “What do you want now? Which student needs an extra day, an extra chance, an extra make-up assignment?” Looking back, I don’t regret one single request I made on behalf of one of our students. Not one. Thank goodness that our exceptional principal didn’t mind my making those trips to chat with our teachers. Here’s why: He has three kids of his own, and he is a great father. He gets it. All mothers and fathers watch their kids and their kids’ friends get into scrapes and get out of them—and sometimes they just need a little help from a teacher.

So, happy belated Mother’s Day and happy early Father’s Day to all the teachers out there who bring what they have learned from having their own kids into the classroom—in the best possible way. We parents are truly grateful.

The Newest High School Graduation Requirement

The Newest High School Graduation Requirement on ParentChat with ReginaWhat if your state were as progressive as Louisiana? Well, that should get you to sit up and take notice since Louisiana is not usually the state that other states look to for education leadership. And yet, here it is: Beginning with Louisiana’s graduating class of 2018, all public high school seniors must apply for financial aid for college in order to graduate from high school (unless a student submits an opt-out form signed by a parent).

Louisiana students can meet this new requirement, adopted by its Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, by applying either to the federal government though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (widely known as FAFSA) or to the Louisiana’s state office that provides assistance with obtaining both state and federal aid. According to the Education Commission of the States, Louisiana is the only state with this sort of high school graduation requirement.

An Education Week article by Catherine Gewertz explains that, each year, only about 44 percent of public high school seniors in Louisiana apply for financial aid. The national average is about 55 percent.

If Louisiana could get its rate of applications up to the national average, those students would produce about $54 million in revenue for higher education systems in the form of state and federal aid, according to FAFSA. In other words, students would get financial assistance to attend college, but colleges would get the government dollars that students would bring with them to the campus.

The article points out that, according to the research, “failure to complete financial-aid forms is one of the most powerful stumbling blocks on the road to college.” To be sure, filling out the forms is not straightforward, and a lot of specific personal financial information is required. For many families, the application is daunting—no matter how many times the government claims to have made it simpler.

For that reason, I have always recommended that families use a reasonably priced service (available by telephone) to fill out and submit the form, even though many schools have workshops of all sorts to help families with the process. By the way, Louisiana intends to make school-based help available by providing some funding to organizations that offer that kind of assistance, according to the article.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your high school address the problem of applying for financial aid, especially if you do not live in Louisiana:

  • All parents: Ask your school board if the board has a policy on whether completing financial aid applications is an important part of your school district’s definition of “college readiness.” Does the policy include providing help for high school seniors and their families in completing those applications? Does the board require that kind of assistance to be available districtwide? Ask the board to discuss Louisiana’s new graduation requirement and to consider whether the board might want to make a similar policy for your school district (that could be done regardless of whether your state has a Louisiana-type policy). This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent before the meeting.
  • High school parents: Whether your school district does or does not have a board policy on completing financial aid applications, ask your principal what financial aid workshops are available at the high school. Who is running those workshops—school staff or staff from outside organizations? What if students and parents need more help than those workshops can provide? Ask the principal and guidance/college counselors to discuss any procedures for advising seniors individually about the financial aid process. How are parents brought into or made aware of the information from those individual sessions? Are you satisfied that, as parents, you are getting the help you need in understanding and completing financial aid applications?

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How To Teach Reading

It turns out that kids would be better readers if teachers would just teach them stuff. By “stuff,” I mean content—for example, information about things, facts and theories, people and places, and the like. Even though some of that stuff might end up being forgotten in 30 or 40 years, there are still a lot of things that most parents want their elementary school kids to know—for example, how the 13 colonies won their independence from England, what civil rights are, where the continents and oceans are, what makes up our solar system, how the human body’s systems work, what happens during an earthquake, and so on.

How To Teach Reading on ParentChat with Regina

So, what’s the question? The question puzzling researchers and experts is whether students can become better readers by teaching them reading strategies and skills (like skimming, re-reading, and summarizing) or by teaching them content. While it is probably obvious to every parent that kids likely need to be taught both reading skills and subject matter content, some teachers have been following the skills approach at the expense of content. That has now become a problem.

Susan Neuman, a New York University professor of literacy education, was quoted in Education Week as saying, “You have to have background knowledge to read. It’s not just decoding. But how do you activate what you don’t have?” (See Liana Heitin’s recent article: “For Reading, Knowledge Matters More than Strategies, Some Experts Say.”) Professor Neuman noted that missing background knowledge is a particular concern for lower-income students, who often do not have as many enriching out-of-school experiences to draw on as their classmates do. Of course, teachers who teach a curriculum full of content can help make up for those missing experiences, some experts would argue.

A colleague of mine once went to a talk for educators by Nobel Prize winner James Watson, known for his work as one of the discoverers of the double-helix structure of DNA. Someone asked Watson this question: “What kind of student becomes the best scientist?” Many teachers in the room probably thought that he would say something like “the student who is the most curious, who is most able to collaborate with his peers, or who is the best critical thinker or problem solver.” But what he said was this: “The student who knows the most science.” It turns out that knowing a lot of science—vocabulary, facts, figures, theories, laws, lab procedures, and so on—makes a student most able to advance in the study of science and to go on to discover the next thing. At least according to Watson. As I am fond of saying to teachers who are interested in producing critical thinkers, “You can’t think about what you don’t know.”

And evidently, now researchers are saying that you can’t read about what you don’t know, either. Well, you can, but just not as well. You know this from your own reading. Even in this Internet age when students can find information in a flash by searching it out electronically, it still pays to know some stuff—at least the fundamentals of all of the subjects that kids study in elementary and secondary school, so that students can continue to improve their reading ability and so that they are ready to do the demanding reading they will meet in their college classes or on the job.

It is time to take a look at how your school district and your school teach reading in the elementary grades and literacy in the middle and high school grades:

  • All parents: Ask your school board whether the board has a policy on reading instruction, which it should, given the importance of reading to most parents and to most elementary school teachers and administrators. Ask the board to discuss its policy with you. Keep in mind that the board will speak in policy language, which is designed to guide the superintendent in overseeing the creation of a reading program for the district. The policy should leave room for the superintendent, central office instructional staff, and perhaps principals and teachers to make and implement more detailed decisions about reading instruction. This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to get the input of the superintendent about the policy’s implementation before the meeting.
  • Elementary school parents: Ask your principal and classroom teachers to discuss your school’s reading program. How does it carry out board policy? How are reading skills taught in each grade? What materials are used? Is reading taught using subject content from other subjects, like social studies and science? What evidence is available to show that reading instruction in your school is successful?
  • Middle and high school parents: Ask your principal and teachers to explain how literacy is taught in English language arts, math, science, and social studies in your school. Is literacy taught in other school subjects as well? How do these practices carry out board policy? What evidence is available to show that literacy instruction in your school is successful?

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Parlez-vous français?

There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. (By the way, foreign languages are now often called “world languages,” which makes sense, or “languages other than English,” which makes sense, but is a bit awkward, I think. I am using “foreign languages” here because I believe that is still what most parents would say.)

Parlez-vous français? | ParentChat with Regina | There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. You might want to read up on the subject in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society—“Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?”:

She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack up—or don’t.

Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to parents of elementary school children. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:

An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects).

We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.

I recently returned from a visit to a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you think are more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.

While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science, I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experience—one that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school, especially if they are not going on to college and this is their last chance to learn a second language as part of their formal education. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second language—even at a fundamental level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three years of high school study—could be a big help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.

Furthermore, there are still quite a few colleges, including some of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on their applicants’ high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are expecting three or even four years—typically of the same language.

Parents, the fact that your state might not require any foreign language study for high school graduation or might require just one year’s worth (as New York State does) does not mean that your school district cannot require more (just as your district might require more of any given subject than your state requires)—that is, more foreign language study to ensure that your children are, literally, college and career ready.

It is time to take a look at both your state’s and your school district’s requirements for studying a foreign language:

  • All parents: Ask your school board to talk about your state’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your state and then about your school district’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your district. Are those requirements the same or does your district require more years of foreign language study (it can’t, of course, require fewer)? What is the school board’s reasoning for the foreign language requirement in your district? What was the superintendent’s reasoning for recommending that requirement? How were the specific languages offered in your district chosen? What do labor market statistics or other indicators say about the value of learning various specific languages (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin)? When does foreign language study start in your district? If you are not lucky enough to have foreign languages in the elementary schools, why not? What does the school board think is more important? What community input was obtained when all of these decisions were being made?

This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialist, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly what the district’s decisions were based on and to determine whether there are any grounds for rethinking any of those decisions if you are not satisfied.

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