social impact

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

1.     YOUR CHILDREN LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.


What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if students were connected to working experts in the field of what they are learning?

How many times do you hear students say, “when am I ever going to need this?"

When I was teaching I tried to bring experts into the classroom to talk about their work in light of the content or skills I was teaching. But it’s hard! All of that scheduling and making sure the experts know how to talk to children. Oy.

I dreamed of a world where I could contact experts at my fingertips and video-chat with them in my classroom for 20-30 minutes of sharing about their work, making what I was teaching relevant to my students, and broadening my students’ ideas of the jobs and careers that are out there.

Last week I attended the NYC Education Forum where 11 startups in the education-technology sector presented their projects for a chance to win $10K. Nepris, the winner, recognizes this need and has done something about it! Teachers go on Nepris and look for experts who use what they are teaching in class and then schedule a time for them to video-chat with your class. The brilliance of Nepris is that it leverages the LinkedIn community to find industry experts, vet them, and connect them with students.


What if for everything you learned in school there was an expert who uses that content waiting to video-chat with you?

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if college students had to create public art projects that maximized social impact?

College students in Mumbai are addressing the needs of their city through school projects. They have created and implemented, with police support, murals, political commentary, repurposing of places that are frequently peed on (you read that right), and play spaces soliciting community feedback. They also created "The White Wall Project: A whitewashed wall, stage and canopy" to inspire gatherings, performances, and film screenings."

But my absolute favorite of these college students' projects were the ones that interacted directly with young children. They created playgrounds in the slums made from reused materials (tires, bamboo scaffolding). They hosted interactive art festivals fostering creative self-expression. And they performed plays inspired by the oral history of Mumbai on top of buildings next to public squares. Who said a rooftop can't be a stage?

Through these initiatives, read: university projects, these students have begun to transform the largest city in the world. Living in India I'm all too aware of the filth and forever-accumulating garbage in the streets preventing public gatherings. One college student began stenciling an image of Gandhi which ignited into a public-cleaning campaign and now, these inspiring college students, are also cleaning the streets of their beloved city. This is the next generation of India.

This is what higher education could be. 

What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.

What if teachers were fired for not doing their job well?

In most professions employees receive warnings that lead to getting fired when they do not perform their job to a certain level of standards. Imagine that teachers who fail their students by ignoring IEPs, playing favorites, grading inconsistently from their colleagues or the Common Core Standards, got fired. When students and parents complain enough, in the current system, teachers who are a year away from retirement can be convinced to retire early. This only accounts for a very small portion of poor-performing teachers. What if teachers had to always do their job well in order to keep their job? What if teachers couldn't hide behind tenure with poor-performance? What if teachers worked hard because they had to? What if teachers didn't have unlimited job security? What if tenure didn't exist?

What if parents spent more time, not money, on their children?

What if there was a way for parents to spend more time with their children? What if more parents worked from home? What if more parents got time off from work to volunteer in their child's school or chaperone field trips? What if being a parent was socially viewed as a priority over your job? What if your job recognized, appreciated, and allowed for this too? 

What if ALL teachers had certification in general AND special education?

Can you imagine a classroom where all teachers have a "toolbox" to work effectively with all kinds of learners? Teachers who can read a child and know what strategy to use in a particular moment are rare. In my experience they are not the teachers who have had the most experience, rather they are the teachers who had a variety of experiences and time to reflect on them and share them. We live in a world where everyone, including typically-developing children, needs a little extra help at least once in their lives. Teacher training programs, in essence, Masters in Education programs, give teachers 2 important pieces of becoming a skilled teacher for all populations. In both general and special education programs, the 2 components are taking classes (ie. reading and learning within a teacher-community), and real world experience, often called field work or student teaching, where the student shadows a master teacher and gets first-hand experience in a particular educational setting. I am here to invent the possibility that there's only ONE license and it is a combination of BOTH general and special education. If this were the case, all teachers would have field work from a special education setting. They would have seen master teachers in action, tried out lessons as well as created their own in a master teacher's classroom with feedback from that master teacher, and networked with master teachers through email and social media, and develop relationships with them so that years down the road when they are confused about a child they have a network of professional colleagues to connect with for ideas, resources, collaboration, and help. Special education teacher training programs differ from general education ones in that the field of special education is aware of and celebrates the whole child. As a teacher in a special education program you learn about all kinds of child development, what it looks like in the child, in the home, in the classroom, and what kinds of strategies teachers can use to reach all students. How invaluable! This is how we can meet every child's needs. This is how we can best prepare teachers.