More on Technology

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I wrote a while back about technology in the classroom.  This obsession with technology at school is present even in homework, I am finding, and this parent isn’t happy about it.

I remember back in the day – when I was in school – we actually took typing classes.  We learned the correct finger positions, and we did typing drills to build our speed and accuracy.  That was in high school.

Today, elementary school students are expected to type reports.  The problem is, there are no typing classes given in school anymore – not in high school, and certainly not in elementary school.  I guess that the powers that be just assume that every kid is a proficient typist because every kid has a computer at home that they’ve been using since they were babies.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Some families cannot afford a computer – yes, in this day and age.  Some families, like ours, do have a computer, but have not been allowing their children to be on it since babyhood.  Also, the fine motor skills required for proficient typing is often absent in young kids, so what you end up seeing a lot of is hunting and pecking.  A single paragraph might take an agonizing hour to type for a little kid.  Which means, of course, that Mom or Dad often ends up typing Junior’s papers for him.  Which is counterproductive on numerous fronts.

My fourth-grade twins were recently given an assignment whereby they each had to research a certain aspect of California missions and type a short paper about their findings – just a paragraph or two.  The teacher then wanted their work products emailed to him.  We bought a MacBook for the kids this year, specifically for them to use for school work, because frankly, I was getting tired of sharing my laptop with them all the time.  (I am very aware of how fortunate we are to be able to own more than one computer, when some families cannot afford any.)  In order to save costs, however, we only installed Pages on the kids’ laptop to use for word processing.

So the girls hunted and pecked their way through each of their mission papers.  As neither of them have email accounts at nine years old, I attempted to email their papers to their teacher to no avail.  I tried multiple times, and the attachments failed every time.  I printed the girls’ papers and told them to just turn in the hard copies.  they were told by their teacher that he required them to be emailed to him, and that if they were not emailed to him, they would receive zeros on the assignment.  I confess this is what my daughters said; did their teacher really say that?  I don’t know.  If he did, I think that’s pretty appalling.  I then put the documents on a thumb drive and attempted to open them in Word from my laptop.  No go.

By now I was fuming.  Why weren’t the hard copies enough?  Why was their assignment creating so much work for me?

In the end, I retyped both papers in Word on my laptop and emailed them to the girls’ teacher.  And not with a smile, either.

Kids need to be taught how to type in school, and there needs to be much less of a reliance on and requirement for the use of technology for homework.

Is Homework Done At School Still Homework?

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An acquaintance recently contacted me to talk about issues she’s having with her child and homework.  She wanted to know what I’ve done to deal with homework.  She has a daughter in grade school who has recently been diagnosed with a learning disability, and homework has become a nightmare – it’s just too much for her daughter after being in school all day (which, really, I think can be said of the majority of kids, learning disability or not).

So, I told her what I’ve done.  I told her all about the battle I took on last year with the district, and how I didn’t get anywhere, and how finally at the beginning of this school year I just put my foot down and wrote each of my kids’ teachers a letter setting down the limits I was going to stick to with regard to my kids’ homework.

Consequently, she landed in a back-and-forth with her daughter’s teacher.  She tried setting down limits, but apparently the teacher wasn’t willing to budge, making all the usual arguments about the value of homework, blah blah blah.

In the end, apparently the teacher has decided to just have this student complete the homework assignments at school.  I’m not sure what this means – is the student therefore missing recess or other instructional time in order to complete homework assignments during the school day?  I mean, how is the teacher managing to fit this into this student’s daily schedule?

My real question, though, is: what is the point of this?  If “homework” is not actually being done outside of school, then it’s not homework, it’s extra school work.  And that raises the question: what is the value of homework anyway, for crying out loud?  The usual arguments in favor of homework say that homework is reinforcement for material learned in class, that it teaches good study habits and responsibility.  Well, if “homework” is being done at school, doesn’t that invalidate those arguments?

There seems to be this belief that simply the act of doing schoolwork in a setting outside of the walls of school has intrinsic value.  I say BS.

Technology in the Classroom

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I came across this article about the current technology boom in schools across the nation, and it’s spurred me to write about my own concerns about technology at my kids’ school.

Our district is all about technology.  For several years, there was a 1:1 laptop program at my kids’ school for sixth graders, which meant that in sixth grade each student had his or her own Mac laptop.  I’m not exactly sure how it worked because we moved our oldest son to a K-8 school in the district when he entered sixth grade, and that school did not participate in the “Laptops for Learning” program at that time; my general understanding/recollection is that parents could purchase a laptop for their child that met certain specs, or they could lease one from the district, paying a monthly fee, or they could apply to borrow one at no cost based on financial hardship.  The district was actually sued over the program because requiring families to pay for public education is illegal.

In any case, now laptops are passe, and we’re all about iPads.  Our school now has a 1:1 iPad program in the sixth grade, so all sixth graders are required to have an iPad.  This program differs from the previous laptop program in that families can choose whether to purchase or borrow an iPad from the school, and no proof of financial hardship need be presented.  We opted to borrow an iPad from the school for our sixth grader this year – not because we can’t afford to buy an iPad, but because, frankly, we don’t take that kind of purchase lightly, whether we can afford it or not, and frankly, I’m not sold on the benefits of this type of technology in the classroom at this grade level.

The first problem that arose when the iPad program was launched this school year was a lack of iPads.  For the first several weeks of school, there was not actually an iPad for each student – rather, there was one iPad for six or eight kids.  We are talking about the iPad Mini, so you can imagine what it’s like to have six or eight kids crowded around one iPad Mini, trying to utilize it for educational purposes.

When all the iPads finally came in and were distributed to the students, there was a firewall problem.  Despite reassurances that the iPads would be unable to access websites with restricted content, kids were, in fact, Googling butts and boobs and having no problem accessing adult websites.  Apparently the firewall either wasn’t actually installed, or it wasn’t properly installed.

There is an ongoing problem of time wasted in the classroom while waiting for apps or websites to load; it often takes a while for everyone to arrive at the proper destination on their iPad.

Some kids, thinking it funny, have been known to take inappropriate photos with their iPads, sometimes involving other, unsuspecting students.  At our school, our principal is pretty useless in dealing with these types of situations (as in, he tends to chuckle about them and not do anything else).

Some parents that I know feel that technology like the iPads are often used to “babysit” the students while the teacher involves herself in some other activity.  Perhaps this allows teachers to multitask in the classroom, I don’t know, but I could certainly see it becoming a crutch if actual engagement with the students is not required.

There is also a concern about how wireless classrooms may impact children’s health.

What I’ve noticed is that there is this big push for technology at the elementary school level, and then it’s not really used in middle school or high school.  My oldest son did not need an iPad in middle school, that’s for sure.  They didn’t use them in the classroom, and he didn’t need one for homework.  We did end up buying him a laptop for eighth grade graduation so that he would have his own computer on which to type papers in high school, and that’s been the extent of its usefulness for him for purposes of his high school education (he’s a junior now) – basically, it’s replaced a word processor.  So all that elementary school technology seems like a pretty big waste.

How high-tech is your school?  Do you feel it is mostly beneficial, or mostly not?  What are your concerns about technology in the classroom?

 

Let’s Talk Turkey

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Two full days after I sent that email to the Second Grade Team, I had not received any response.  I was irritated – as a parent, my questions and concerns surely deserve the courtesy of some kind of response, even if the “team” disagrees with me, right?  And surely if the project actually has value and merit, the teachers should be able to tell me what that value and merit is, right?  I sent a second email on Friday morning asking again that my questions and concerns be addressed.

Early Friday evening, I got an email from my daughter’s teacher apologizing for not responding sooner, but it had been a very busy week (teachers can be too busy to respond to parents’ emails, apparently, but parents can’t be too busy to do ridiculous projects), and if I wanted to chat about my concerns, I was welcome to stop by the classroom one day the following (this) week.

Sigh.

Really?  Now this warrants a face-to-face meeting?  Can’t you just respond to my email?  Tell me what’s so educational about this project?

I waited the weekend out, respecting that everyone deserves a break over the weekend, and sent her an email Sunday night telling her that it was not going to be possible for me to schedule a time to come to the school to chat with her this week.

(By now, I was onto what was really going on: I’ve learned enough in our dealings with the school district pertaining to our son, Finn, who has Down syndrome, that there is an unwritten policy that admin and school personnel will avoid written communications when possible, because written communications leave an inarguable record.)

As expected, I received a phone call from my daughter’s teacher early yesterday evening.  Let me just say up front that this teacher is an extremely nice lady, and she’s pretty non-confrontational.  The conversation was fine: I again raised my questions about the value of dressing a large paper turkey in human clothing, the difficulty of completing such a task by the average second-grader, and my concern that my daughter was being asked to undertake a research project when she has not even been taught how to conduct research.  I explained that the entire project places too much of a burden on parents, and I said to her, “You do realize that probably 90% of these projects that are turned in are actually done by the parents and not the kids, right?”  She chuckled and said, “Yes.”  “What’s the point of that?” I asked.  She really couldn’t come up with any real value to the project except to say that the team thinks that it can be a fun way for kids to learn a little bit about their heritage.

In the end, she said that Lilah is doing well in class and that she’s a conscientious student, so she’s really not concerned if Lilah turns this project in or not.  I told her that I would leave it up to Lilah.

On the one hand, I feel validated that I took a stand on this.  I really do believe that projects like this should be done in class with the teacher’s guidance.  If an assignment or a project is going to be sent home, it’s absolutely valid for parents to question its value.

On the other hand, I feel frustrated that I expended this much time and energy on such a silly, pointless project.  I could have just done the damn thing myself in less time than it took to engage in this back-and-forth with the “team” about it.  And there are undoubtedly lots of people out there who are rolling their eyes, wondering why I bother – the teachers know best, just do what you’re told – or something like that.

All I can say is: nothing will ever change if people don’t speak up.

Turkey Project

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Sealing my fate as one of the most-hated parents at my kids’ school, I sent this letter via email this morning:

Dear Second Grade Team –

Lilah is the fourth of my children to be assigned the Turkey Project.  Frankly, I still do not understand the point of it.  What is the point – the educational value – of dressing a paper turkey in human, ethnic clothing?  This isn’t even a project that a second-grader has the fine motor skills to accomplish.  I am concerned because the instruction sheet is actually addressed to the parents, and not the students.  Am I to assume that means that I, the parent, am actually the one being charged with dressing a paper turkey in ethnic, human clothing?  Because I’ll be honest: I paid my dues in school already, and as a very busy mom of seven kids, I do not have the time or the inclination to do projects on my child’s behalf – something she will be graded on, and of which I am having great difficulty even seeing the educational value.  If I am to do it for her, where are the lessons in responsibility and independent learning that are so frequently touted as benefits of homework?

I understand the value of the social studies portion of this assignment.  Certainly, learning about one’s heritage and about other cultures is valuable.  However, Lilah has not been taught how to conduct research, either.  This leads me to believe that either I am also supposed to do the research for her on this project, or teach her how to conduct research.  I am not a teacher; this is something she should be learning in class.  In fact, this entire project should be done in class with the teachers’ guidance.  It’s a burdensome (and not enjoyable) “family project.”  I’m not even sure a research project like this is appropriate for second graders.

(I might as well warn you that I have the exact same thoughts and concerns about the Pig Project that is a second grade staple in the spring.)

I am asking you, the Second Grade Team, to please reconsider the value of this project, and in the future, if you insist that it does have value (which hopefully can actually be explained), to make it an in-class project so that you can guide these little students properly.

Respectfully,

Lisa Morguess

I’ve been given lots of advice, some humorous, some serious, on how to get this project done in a way that shows how ridiculous it is, but I’m of the mind that unless it actually has educational value which the teacher can explain clearly to me, this isn’t a project that should be undertaken at all. Parents have to speak up – if we keep going along with things that we question or object to, nothing will ever change.

Pointless Projects

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It has arrived – the project I’ve been dreading: The Turkey Project.

The Turkey Project was cooked up by some masochistic teacher I don’t know when, but my current second-grader is the fourth of my children to be assigned this project.  It’s a second-grade staple at our school.

So, what is The Turkey Project?  It’s part of the second grade social studies unit at my kids’ school.  Rather than explaining the whole thing, I present you with an explanation in photos:

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IMG_2884IMG_2883IMG_2882I despise this project – second only to The Pig Project, which is a second grade staple at our school every spring, as well (stay tuned).

While studying family history and different cultures is certainly valuable, the problems I have with this project are many:

  • Do you see how the instruction sheet is addressed to the parents, and not to the students?  It appears that I am expected to do this project.  I am being instructed to cut out and dress the turkey (and I may use whatever materials I wish!).  I already did second grade, thank you very much.  How will it help my child if I do the project? How does that instill responsibility and independent learning skills – both things that are touted over and over again as some of the supposed benefits of homework?
  • ” . . . a family project that we hope you will enjoy.”  Well, thanks for the sentiment, but we have plenty to do as a family and really do not need or appreciate these filler projects.  Our family time is our time, not the school’s time.
  • Even the second instruction sheet which is addressed to the “families” rather than just the “parents” is still mainly directed at us parents.  It is telling me what sources to use for “our” research.
  • The main problem I have with this project is the turkey itself.  WHAT IS THE POINT OF DRESSING A PAPER TURKEY IN TRADITIONAL ETHNIC CLOTHING?  What educational purpose does this serve?  I understand learning about family histories and cultures, and I get how turkeys tie into the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, but WHAT VALUE IS THERE IN DRESSING A PAPER TURKEY?  Not only have I come up empty-handed on this question for four years now – ever since my  now sixth-grader was assigned this project in second grade – but I also can’t figure out how any teacher can possibly expect a second-grader to have the fine motor skills to carry this out.  Do you know how awkward it is to try to fashion clothing for a paper turkey?  It’s absurd.  But wait – I am expected to do this, right?

The turkey was traced onto cardstock and is about 18 inches high.  Lilah had her older sister cut it out for her, because I refused.  It’s not that I don’t want to be helpful to my child – it’s that I refuse to invest my precious time in time-wasting projects like this.  Lilah sat down at the laptop, eager to begin researching her chosen country, Germany.  Only, she doesn’t even know how to spell “Germany,” and she hasn’t the first clue as to how to go about conducting research.  I asked her if her teacher had talked to the class about how to do research for their projects, and she said, “No.”  Great.  So, either I’m supposed to teach Lilah how to do research, or I’m supposed to do it for her.  Isn’t that the teacher’s job?

I do plan to bring my concerns to the teacher’s attention.  Can we stop the madness?

The Neverending Homework Debate

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So, I was interviewed many months ago by a writer for Parents magazine who was writing an article about homework.  The article appears in the current (November) issue of Parents.  Since there is no digital version of the magazine that I can link to, I include here a couple of screen shots of the digital version from my iPad – just the pages on which the author references her interview with me:

photophoto copyI think it would have been far more worthwhile to note that despite doing or turning in hardly any homework during the second half of first grade, Lilah continued to work at or above grade level in every area.  The fact that her teacher gave her a “satisfactory” under “completes homework” on her report card is still a mystery to me, and really means nothing except that teachers can make arbitrary decisions.  In any case, Parents magazine isn’t exactly known for scratching much below the surface of things, so it’s not all that surprising that this article wasn’t really taking any sort of stand.

Nonetheless, in spite of stating – correctly – in the article that numerous studies have shown that homework at the elementary school level is pretty pointless (and can actually be harmful), the article goes on to give tips on how to make homework go more smoothly anyway.  Frustrating!  How about some useful tips on how to put an end to useless homework?  Additionally, on the parents.com website, there’s currently a different article about homework, How Parents Can Help Kids With Homework, which reads suspiciously like a guide on How to Get Extremely Overinvolved In Your Kids’ Homework, Because That Will Teach Them Responsibility and Good Work Habits, which could also be titled I Bet You Didn’t Know You Wanted To Be a School Teacher, Didja?

Back to the original article: another frustrating thing these types of articles (and conversations with teachers) seem to include are the claims about all those parents out there who actually want MORE homework for their kids – not less.  And you know what?  I believe it – I believe there are parents out there who really do think their kids should have more homework, because they mistakenly equate quantity of homework with academic “rigor,” achievement, success, and overall intelligence.  An excerpt from the article for which I was interviewed:

Another reason for the heavier workload might surprise you: “Many parents request more homework because they want their kids to be achievers, even in the earliest grades,” says Dr. Cooper.  Vinita Khanna, a mom of two in Haddonfield, New Jersey, is a perfect example.  Even though her daughter Ria had daily math, spelling, and reading assignments in second grade, Khanna felt she wasn’t being challenged enough.  So she asked the teacher to send home extra math problems.  “Now Ria’s ahead of the other kids in her class,” Khanna says.

Okay, a couple of things:

  • So, because some parents demand more homework, we all pay?
  • So what if little Ria is ahead of the other kids in her class?  How does Mom even know where the other kids in the class are at in relation to her daughter?  And if Ria really is ahead of the other kids, what does that mean in the big picture?  That she’s better?  Smarter?  Destined for greater things?  I mean, seriously, I’d like to know.  I wonder if Mom is at all worried about Ria becoming bored, or burned out.

I think rather than continuing to promote this homework agenda, and allowing parents to believe that homework is the path to achievement and success, we need to get real and disabuse these parents of these silly notions that are hurting all of our kids.

On Being Reasonable

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Last week was conference week at our kids’ elementary school, so we had Parent/Teacher Conferences with three teachers.  They all went fine.  Fall conferences are for “goal setting,” and sort of an opportunity for parents and teachers to sit down and size each other up.

So far, I like all my kids’ teachers this year just fine.  One stands out, though, and it’s a teacher we’ve had in the past for two of our older kids.  I’ve always liked him.  And it hit me during our conference last week what it is I like about him so much: he’s reasonable.  That may sound like a silly thing to take note of with regard to all the qualities teachers should possess in order to be effective, but reasonableness stands out to me more and more these days in this climate of extremism that seems to be overtaking so many aspects of school and just life.

There are too many teachers – teacher’s I’ve dealt with – who are so hung up on “My Way Or the Highway,” who are so inflexible because They Know Best, that it’s just impossible to have a true dialogue with them about concerns or anything else for that matter.  These teachers have adopted an almost dogmatic stance on how to educate that, yes, begins to resemble a religion.  And in many cases, it boils down to an authoritarian stance that demands obedience and compliance above all else – and what gets lost?  So much: actual learning, and enthusiasm for learning.

I have a friend right now who is a parent of kids in a neighboring district, and she is dealing with a teacher who will not budge on ceasing to withhold recess as a consequence for unfinished homework.  My friend has tried to set reasonable limits on the homework she will enforce for her child, and has asked – in fact, insisted – that the teacher not punish her child for not completing homework, and the teacher simply will not budge – despite letters, meetings – no matter.  And the teacher is backed by the principal!

What does that have to do with educating, with learning?  Nothing, that’s what.  And what teachers like that are failing to see (which absolutely blows my mind) is that in the process of so stridently asserting their authority, they are turning children off to the process of being educated.  Who wins then?  Who?

In any case, it struck me during conferences last week how reasonable my twins’ fourth grade teacher is, and how much I appreciate that.  He’s an innovative and enthusiastic teacher who is committed to teaching – and he gets that kids come in all shapes, sizes, and learning styles.  He wants the kids to enjoy learning.  And he’s flexible in his approach.

Reasonableness.  It goes a long way.

College Bound?

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This afternoon, my sixth grader told me that one of his homework assignments that is due tomorrow is to talk to his family about the importance of college, to find out who would be most proud of him for going to college, and then to write about that.  I was a little confused, so Joey told me I could find the specific assignment on the class website.  Here’s what I found:

This week I would like you to have a discussion with your family about how important it is to them that you attend college and earn your degree.  This may even include your extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I would then like you to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to these questions:

Who would be proudest of you when you graduate from your university of choice?
Why would they be so proud of you?
Remember to state your claim, then provide evidence (examples, details, etc.) to support your claim.

I have to say that I was quite taken aback.  I’m weary of the achievement mindset.  My perspective has been changed so much in recent years – probably for the most part by having a child with an intellectual disability, but no doubt just by parenting my typical kids as well. 

We are a society that is obsessed with achievement – and by achievement, I mean that we seem to define success through a very competitive lens: there are winners and there are losers, period.  The winners are the kids who get really good grades, excel in sports and/or other extracurricular pursuits, who have schedules crammed with activities, who are above grade level, ahead of the crowd; they are adults who have high-paying jobs, live in nice houses, go on killer vacations, have plenty of stuff, and who can shell out the money to pay for all their kids’ pursuits.  The losers are the average kids and people – the ones who don’t necessarily shine academically, who aren’t especially athletic or artistic, who live in so-so houses and have so-so jobs and don’t have cleaning ladies or hefty savings accounts – let alone college funds for their kids.  Happiness, fulfillment, character, integrity, kindness, compassion, healthy relationships – none of those things seem to play into the “success” equation.

It’s fine to encourage higher education – and don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not against college.  I hope my kids do go to college.  But I’m more concerned with them growing up to be good people – decent, compassionate, emotionally healthy, honest people who can take care of themselves but who don’t measure their worth by the grades they get or the money they make or the stuff they have.

I feel like this assignment is divisive.  What about the kids whose families can’t put them through college?  What about the kids who just aren’t cut out for college?  Should kids be made to feel that their families might not be proud of them if they don’t go to college?  It implies that college is THE path to “success,” and I just don’t believe that’s true.  There are many paths to success, and I think we really need to take a hard look at how we define success in the first place.

The Reading Log: The Quickest, Most Effective Method of Killing a Love of Reading

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Who came up with the idea of reading logs?  I’d like to know, because I’d like to tell that person what he or she can do with their joy killer.  What were they thinking?  And how did they go about marketing the idea to schools and teachers so effectively that there may not be a single classroom below the high school level in the United States of America that doesn’t utilize reading logs nowadays?

Reading logs weren’t around when I was a kid, I can tell you that – and they probably weren’t around when you were growing up, either, were they?  Sure, we had required reading, and we had to write essays and book reports analyzing themes and characters and underlying meanings of some of the things we read.  And that was good – that got us stretching ourselves and reading some material we may not have otherwise read, and it got us thinking, and it got us writing – all important muscles to flex.

Despite not growing up with forced daily reading and reading logs, however, past generations still managed to produce lovers of literature, as evidenced by the millions of book clubs across America.  I never had to fill out a reading log – ever! – and I ADORE reading.  I devour books like crazy, and I’ve been in a wonderful book club for ten years!  And nobody ever forced me to read or to provide an accounting of my reading.  Imagine that!

There is so much wrong with reading logs and everything they’re based on.

First of all, I am a firm believer that you cannot force a kid to love reading – especially not by forcing him or her to read.  Reading is a skill that every child needs to become proficient at, but not every kid is going to exceed at reading or adore reading.  Like any other activity – swimming, cooking, playing piano – whatever – some kids are born with a natural affinity for it and a natural aptitude for it, and some are not.  Reading should absolutely be encouraged – parents should read to their kids from the time they’re babes, and books – lot of books – should be made available to kids.  But a love of reading just cannot be manufactured.  A kid who does love to read is going to look for opportunities to read whenever possible – there is no need to force it.  And kids who do not love to read are going to grow to truly resent reading if it’s forced on them – and worse, if they are forced to account for their reading.

What is the point of reading logs, anyway?  Teachers want kids to read – I get that.  But a reading log says, “I don’t trust you to read, so you must prove to me that you actually read for the prescribed number of minutes by writing down what you read and for how long you read.  And even then, I won’t take your word for it, so have your mom or dad sign the reading log as a witness that you actually did said reading, because you cannot be trusted.”

And frankly, I resent being expected to sign these silly logs.  Take my kid’s word for it, okay?  Is she doing okay in class with reading materials?  If so, then leave her alone with the stupid reading logs.  If she’s struggling with reading, can’t we come up with a better plan of action to get her reading than demanding that she read for twenty or thirty or however many minutes per day and then provide an accounting of it?

Here’s what reading logs actually do: they turn reading into a chore.  They teach kids that time spent matters more than content or understanding of content.  Reading logs tell kids that they are untrustworthy and must continually prove themselves.  They send the message that kids cannot be independent learners – they must rely on Mom and Dad to back them up.

This is not learning – it’s obedience.