Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning and Retention

A public school teacher friend of mine was recently telling me that there is talk of eliminating summer vacation, going to year round school with more frequent, shorter breaks. The idea is that children forget what they have learned over the summer, and teachers have to spend a lot of time in review. Eliminating summer break may or may not be a fine idea, but I question whether it will solve the problem with retention. My guess is that the break, which is less than 3 months, is not actually the cause of this forgetting.

Thinking back to things I learned in school, I still remember much, and I am 42 years old. For example, I still know my times tables. In the 5th grade I learned the sign language alphabet, and I still know it. In my 20s I worked at a department store and had a hearing impaired customer. I was able to spell out words well enough to communicate with her! I know the ABCs song from kindergarten. In high school I memorized a passage from Shakespeare that I can still recite. And I can tell you that on Moe's Scale of Hardness, diamonds are the hardest mineral, and talc is the softest. Am I a genius? Why, of course! But seriously, why did I retain this information and much more without any review from a teacher and despite years (and years and years) passing since I learned these things?

My theory is that I really, actually learned this information, I was interested in it at the time that I learned it, and in some cases I have had occasion to use what I learned in a practical way. For example, I like to bake. In 8th grade home economics, I learned that 3 teaspoons equals a table spoon. When one measures brown sugar, one packs it firmly. However, when measuring flour, one does not pack it, but rather over fills the measuring cup and levels it off with the straight edge of a butter knife. I use all of this information on a regular basis.

Teachers today must focus on preparing students for proficiency tests, and students have the added stress of passing the test in order to move on to the next grade. Information is packed into students' brains, and the methods used must result in the regurgitation of this knowledge for the test, so there are considerable limits on a teacher's creativity and responsiveness to individual learning styles. What results is memorization, which is not the same thing as learning, and what has been crammed into the brain is quickly forgotten.

My experience as a Montessori classroom teacher gives me valuable insights. I worked primarily with preschool and kindergarten aged children, 3 to 6 years old. The key to Montessori education is what is called "the prepared environment." Children are allowed to freely choose activities, called "work" in Montessori lingo, as long as they have been presented the correct way of using the materials by a teacher. Children through the 6th grade do not sit at desks. They can work at tables, or sit on the floor with a work space delineated by a rug, or they can sit on a couch to read. They are free to move their bodies, and movement has been linked to better learning. Through the 6th grade, children stay in the same classroom for 3 years. This provides consistency, and older children are role models for younger ones. There is team teaching, with at least 2 teachers to a classroom. Children do have some whole group lessons, but most presentations are made to individuals and small groups. Kids follow their interests, and they have many choices of concrete materials with which to work.

One of my most poignant moments as a student teacher occurred when I held a square of five rows of five beads and realized that this was "5 squared."  Five squared is an actual square?! Why didn't the teacher mention this in algebra class? I felt cheated and mourned the insufficiency of my own math education. I still well up with tears when I think of that five squared moment. In Montessori, the concrete comes before the abstract. Children learn math by touching it, seeing it, and manipulating the materials. By the age of six, many Montessori students know their place values, can identify geometric solid shapes, and can do multiplication and division in this way. They can learn the concrete basis for algebra in kindergarten!

My memory is a bit hazy, but from what I understood during my training, Maria Montessori did not think high school students should even be spending time sitting and learning in a school building. She would have them riding horses and caring for them, building houses, cooking meals, apprenticing to a blacksmith, learning to make shoes, and other real world experiences where they learned their subjects by doing them. And speaking of subjects, I had another revelation in college. During one of my quarters at Ohio State, I had classes in English, history and mythology. These 3 classes happened to have a lot of overlapping information, and I loved learning that quarter! The mythology related to the history, the history to the literature, the literature to the mythology. Isn't that how things should be learned, with their connections to each other, not as separate "subjects" in little boxes? Baking cookies involves reading, math, the senses of sight, touch, taste, and smell, using tools, and creativity. Creating a dance choreography involves musical interpretation, math, rhythm, physical movement, and visual artistry.

Another note about college. My husband teaches composition at IPFW and has taught English at many colleges in different cities and states. He laments that his students do not know how to think for themselves! They stare at him blankly when asked to choose a topic to write about. They want to be spoon fed. When I took college history, I noted the extreme difference between the focus of history in high school. High school history is about MEMORIZING facts--who, what, when, and where. Who remembers the year of the Battle of Bull Run, where and when it was fought, and who the generals were? I don't. In college, history focused on the question of WHY. What were the social attitudes? The underlying political agendas? How do the circumstances that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire compare to what is happening in the United States in modern times? In a liberal arts education, students must give their opinions and support those opinions with the text. They must think! In American public schools, children are not prepared for college. By and large, they are not taught to think for themselves, and this is having a tremendous negative effect on college education.

Let's look at the issue of needing to review after summer vacation. Should this be considered a problem? When I teach my belly dance classes, I always review the steps. Even as we progress, we revisit basic steps. We put them together in different ways. I have had many advanced level students who come back and take beginners classes. Continuous practice is necessary to retain the steps and to grow and develop as a dancer. Mastery comes from years of study and the deepening of knowledge until it exists on a cellular level, and the dancer becomes the dance. Review, repetition, and practical application are necessary for the learning and mastery of any subject. Repetition is especially necessary in early childhood. When a child learns to read, it is common for him to be able to read a particular word on page 1, and by page 4, when he sees the same word again, to have forgotten it.

So does summer vacation cause a deficit in learning retention, or was the information not solidly learned in the first place? Can you still ride a bike? Do you remember the words to your favorite Christmas carols? Can you divide M&Ms evenly among 12 children? Can you recite the Preamble to the Constitution? I can. You know why? Because I learned it on TV during School House Rock on Saturday mornings, set to music and with great cartoons. Here's another School House Rock I can give you right now, with no review, over 30 years after I learned it, really truly, on a cellular level and because I was interested, learned it: "So if you're happy--hurray! Or sad--aw! Or frightened--eek! Or mad--rats! Or excited--wow! Or glad--yeah! An interjection starts your sentence right!! Interjection, for excitement, or emotion, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!!!  Darn! That's the end." If you are of a certain age, I know you are singing along!

I'll leave you with this consideration. For every single Montessori lesson plan, there is a section called, "Points of Interest." What if every teacher had to identify what was potentially interesting about every single lesson she taught, and then what if she had the freedom to teach it using her creativity, reflecting the learning styles of individual students? What if she had 3 years with her students, really getting to know how they learn and what methods work best with each child, giving them the freedom to pursue their interests and the opportunities for real world, practical application? Would retention be an issue at all?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fall Fashion & Flashbacks

Looking at Glamour magazine this evening, I saw that biker jackets are in for fall. Not that they ever go out of style. They are basically a classic, whether you are a motorcycle mama or not. I bought a black, "pleather" one in the 90s that everyone thought was so cool. I wore it with everything, even a vintage 60s, plaid wool mini dress. I paid $50 for it and walked out of the mall feeling sorry for myself, because I only had enough money to buy that one item. While walking back to my car, I passed a homeless woman asleep on the sidewalk. Children were yelling things like "Eew" and "Yuck" at her, but the woman seemed to be out cold and didn't hear them (I hope). I immediately realized how spoiled I was in my self-pity and changed my attitude to gratitude. God works like that. No coincidences there! I put a $5 bill in her hand and hoped she would hold onto it until she woke up. Obviously, I never forgot her.

The last time I wore the black pleather jacket was to hear a live band when I lived in Columbus. I left it at the club, and by the time I realized it and called the place, it was nowhere to be found. I grieved. I also had an awesome, butterscotch suede biker jacket that was one of my favorite vintage pieces. I still have it, in the attic. I "outgrew" it, so to speak.

So looking at Glamour and seeing some affordable choices, I thought, hey, maybe I'll get another biker jacket! It's so easy to be lured into a mild panic--Fall is coming! Am I prepared?!--that you don't stop to think, "Is this trend really 'me'?" I also saw that argyle (incidentally my husband's favorite "color") is back in style. Not that it ever goes out, being a classic... Didn't we cover this with the biker jackets? My first day of high school, I wore a new outfit--a grey wool argyle sweater and grey corduroys. Oh, and my penny loafers, of course! Also saw pics of those in the fashion forecast. It was still technically summer, like it is now, and I was uncomfortable all day. But in style!

And once again, for what seems like the 100th time since I've been conscious of fashion, the mod 60s look with boxy, color blocked dresses, mini skirts, and jackets are all the rage, complete with go-go boots. I used to wear go-go boots out dancing in my single days, zipping my driver's license and money into them so I didn't have to carry a purse. I was once thanked at a night club by a young man who appreciated the unzipping of my boot! My mod clothing was, of course, vintage--the real thing. My boots were new, shiny black vinyl.

Another often-repeated trend: western. Cowboy, prairie girl, American Indian. You know the drill. I do have some Native jewelry, which coincidentally I wore today, not even aware of being right in style! Ah, now we're on to something. I wore my Zuni animal fetish, beaded necklace and similar earrings because I FELT LIKE IT. Not because some fashion editor told me it was not only okay, but necessary. 

I do wish the butterscotch biker jacket still fit. I would wear it. But fringe? Maybe the flapper kind on a belly dance costume. And argyle? I really haven't been preppy since the 80s. And penny loafers are Mom shoes. Seriously. When you really are a mom, the worst thing you can wear is a trend like penny loafers, along the same line as mom jeans. I actually saw bandanas tied around the neck in Teen Vogue and remembered actually doing that over 20 years ago. It scared me.

Every so often I like a look in a magazine, and I add a new piece or two to my wardrobe. But ONLY if the look works with my figure, my style, and my life. And, I hate to admit, it must be reasonably comfortable! When it comes to fashion, there really is nothing new under the sun. And you can never, ever buy style.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Homeschooling: Dealing with Doubters, Part 2 (the public school crisis)

Homeschooling is the fastest growing educational demographic in the United States. There is no question that homeschoolers fare better academically than public schoolers. Standardized tests bear out this fact, including college entrance exams. The specifics of this information are readily available online. Yet many people are not aware of the statistics, and favorable toward homeschooling though the studies may be, statistics do not measure the intangible benefits of a home education.

My grandma recently asked me if my daughter, getting ready to start the 2nd grade, will be homeschooled all the way through high school. As I tell anyone who asks, I am doing this one year at a time. She asked if I thought Beezy would be prepared for college. I mentioned that homeschooled kids all over the world go to college, and in fact, Ivy League schools are actively seeking out homeschooled children due to their academic excellence. Aside from this facet of simply not being aware of homeschooling's success, as in Grandma's case, there is certainly more to the strong resistance that I and other homeschooling parents have encountered.

Some of it comes down to misconceptions. The other thing Grandma spoke of was whether Beezy would be ready for college after being in "an adult world the whole time." This struck me as a curious thought, considering that Beezy will be an adult when she goes to college. The real, underlying concern is a familiar one to us homeschooling parents, that is, the dreaded "s" word--socialization. One woman even told me that she was concerned about the "socialism." I knew what she meant, and I didn't have the heart to correct her, but that is an interesting avenue to ponder. What most people seem to mean by socialization is really socializing.

Since homeschooling is by far more successful educationally, the only other advantage public schooling could have is in the social sphere. The misconception is that homeschoolers are isolated from the rest of society and won't be able to function in the so-called "real world." Being in the real world involves active participation in one's community, being able to function in society and make a positive contribution where you live. Conventionally schooled children are segregated away from their communities for about 8 hours a day, including bus rides, 5 days a week for most of the year, for 13 years. At some schools beginning at the elementary level, kids have an additional 2 to 3 hours of homework, plus more on the weekends as they progress. At school, they are surrounded exclusively by peers their exact same age, race and socio-economic background (see John Taylor Gatto on the issue of tracking), with very few adults, who have unquestioned authority, even sometimes openly usurping the authority of parents.

Does this scenario mirror the real world? I have never in my life had a job in which I worked exclusively with people my exact same age, race, and socio-economic background. Like our senior citizens who are shoved off to nursing homes, our kids are sequestered away from the rest of the community. When they finally get out, they often don't know how to function in the real world. (My own adult dysfunction in society will follow in Part 3).

I listed some of Beezy's preschool activities in Part 1. Beginning with kindergarten, we joined a homeschooling co-op called Keystone. For two 10-week semesters a year, area homeschooling families get together on Monday mornings at a church. Parents teach various classes, so children get to learn from other adults, and yes, socialize! We also go on field trips together. Such cooperative learning groups are quite common these days, so homeschoolers can be part of a like-minded community and share each other's expertise. Even if one does not belong to a co-op, there are many other opportunities, from scouts, church groups and 4-H to sports and any number of lessons. When people ask me about socialization, I usually remark on that being one of the reasons to homeschool--to avoid negative socialization!

Now back to "socialism." That woman I mentioned earlier was closer to the truth than she realized. In John Taylor Gatto's tome, The Underground History of American Education, the foundation he exposes of American public education is chilling. It was founded on a Prussian model to create a working class of obedient drones who are not prone to individualism or critical thinking, to be controlled by a superior, elite class with all of the money and power. Incidentally, this Prussian model is where Adolf Hitler got all of his grand ideas. If you are interested in getting to the heart of what's wrong with our public schools in a shorter form, go online and read Gatto's articles, such as "Against Public Schools" and order his book, Dumbing Us Down from the library. Gatto taught in public schools for over 30 years and was a NY state and NYC Teacher of the Year winner multiple times. After retiring, he dedicated his life to speaking out against public schools.

The ultimate reason that public schools keep doing what they do, despite the fact that they are progressively failing, has to do with big business. Teachers easily get tenure, which means they can never be fired, regardless of whether they do a good or bad job (see the documentary film, "Waiting for Superman"). Large corporations, such as McDonald's, sell curriculum to schools in order to advertise their products. Children in American society are primarily seen as consumers, socialized to be the unthinking, vulnerable, consumerist, controlled masses! The two largest teachers unions have among the strongest political lobbying power in the U.S., more so than the NRA and other big lobbies. Teachers in Washington, D.C., home of the nation's very worst schools, had the opportunity to vote to be able to receive a six figure income based on performance if they were willing to give up tenure. They refused even to vote, unwilling to give up being stuck with their mediocre salaries or allow systems to be able to fire bad teachers.

Too many people profit from the system functioning exactly as it is. The only reform possible seems to come from charter schools and similar programs, but the kids who need them most have only the chance of getting in via a lottery system. Public charter programs such as SEED and KIPP have proven that the most disadvantaged, at risk kids can flourish if they have excellent teachers, regardless of the nature of their home lives or what neighborhood they come from. The difference is, very specifically, in the quality of the teachers and methods used. But the tenured, unionized system makes universal, high quality public teaching impossible to achieve. There are many wonderful public school teachers, but even the most brilliant often have their hands tied from being able to teach to the best of their ability due to preparing students for standardized tests, which has become the priority in public education. Also, in some schools behavior problems are such an issue that classroom management must take the place of real learning. A friend of mine in an inner city school was applauded by her principal for simply getting her students to sit at their desks!

Surprisingly, "Waiting for Superman" did not even mention the option of homeschooling as a solution to the crisis in public education; and it is a crisis, with the U.S. scoring at the bottom of developed countries in key areas such as literacy and math. This country hosts several hundred high schools known as "drop out factories." However, homeschooling is simply not a viable option for many families, with parents who have to struggle just to make ends meet at low-paying jobs because they, too, received an inferior education. The plight is worst for blacks and Hispanics. I heard on NPR just today that by the time they graduate high school, these kids have only the skills sets of 8th grade white kids. By 2040 it is projected that half the U.S. population will be black or brown, so this educational trend has tremendous consequences for the whole of society.

Considering all of the evidence, how can anyone think that public schools are the superior choice over homeschooling? I think it is because they went to public schools themselves. They may be conformists with tunnel vision; or they are idealists who can't let go of the once promising dream of equal opportunity education for all children. They are simply in denial that the dream has faded and all but died. Free thinkers, parents who reclaim their authority, are threatening to those who are afraid or unable to take the responsibility for the education of their children into their own hands. One of my friends was worried that her children's school was going to close due to the levy failing. When I suggested homeschooling, she said, "I'm not that brave." I had never before considered my choice to homeschool as brave, but yes, you really do have to be just that.

Homeschooled kids do equally well regardless of the parents' educational level. In other words, a mother with a high school diploma is statistically as successful at educating her child as a certified teacher with a master's degree. Do you see the threat? Teacher colleges are big money. Homeschoolers have proven that teacher colleges and certification are not necessary to an excellent education. A stay-at-home mom with a GED can be just as effective.

Unfortunately, some people aren't really curious about why I homeschool. They are defensive, and they wish to pick a fight. You can recommend books to people and print off articles that show the facts in black and white. You can invite them to programs at your homeschooling co-op. You can refer them to this blog! But the short answer will usually suffice, save you a lot of grief, and avoid accidentally offending a public school teacher or parent: "We are able to do it, we enjoy it, and it's what works best for our family at this time." Then change the subject and get on with your life, feeling confident and guilt-free in the validity of your choice!!