Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sex Ed Classes

            I stood out in the hall at the classroom door watching the kids working in their Art class.  When I caught Naomi’s attention, I motioned with my index finger for her to come out in the hallway.

            “What?” Naomi asked guardedly when she got outside.

            “Naomi, have your parents said anything more to you about going to the Sex Ed classes that start on Wednesday?” I asked.

            Naomi’s eyes narrowed.  “Why?”

            “Because you told me last week they didn’t want you to go, but they’ve never sent back the form saying they don’t want you going to the class.”

            Naomi looked down at the floor, and her eyes began darting back and forth.  Then, “They don’t want me to go.”

            Sex Ed classes are a touchy issue in school.  Parents can opt kids out, but they must do so in writing.  Naomi’s parents had not responded to my email or phone call.  I didn’t want this blowing up on me if Naomi went to a class her parents didn’t want her going to.  I swear, some days all I do is run around covering my tail.

            “Then why didn’t they send back the form?” I asked.

            Naomi hesitated again. Finally, “I don’t want to go to the class.”

            “You don’t get to make that decision.  Your parents do.”

            “WHY?  Why do I have to go to class if I don’t want to?  What are they going to teach me?”

            “Nurse Martin teaches the classes.  You like Nurse Martin.”

            “I don’t want to go!”

            “So you lied to me last week about your parents?”

            Naomi clamped her mouth tightly closed and stared back defiantly.  There would be no confession today.

            “Go back to Art Class,” I said disgustedly.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Bible and Benjamin Bloom

            Benjamin Bloom was an educational psychologist who led a team that classified a hierarchy of thinking skills that is referred to as Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This “ladder” of thinking skills is drilled into teachers during their basic training courses. 

            The taxonomy of skills really does make sense.  The lowest level is knowledge; can you remember the facts?  The next level is comprehension; do you understand what the facts mean?  The third level up is application; can you apply what you know and understand?  There are three more levels that deal with analyzing, evaluating and creating.  Teachers are always encouraged to present lessons that push students into the higher levels of thinking.  A lesson that merely asks students to regurgitate a set of facts has not pushed kids into higher levels of thinking.

            When my children were very little, our church was just beginning the Awana program.  Awana is a children’s program that demands huge amounts of Bible memorization from the kids.  I can remember several parents in the church questioning the value of having kids memorize so much scripture that the kids themselves did not even understand.  Anyone listening to the kids say their verses each week knew the kids were just rattling back a lot of rote memorization.

            I knew there was value to having the kids memorize the verses, even if they did not always understand them; but it wasn’t until I began formally teaching that I could get my head around what was going on.

            In church today, the message was from II Timothy 3.  Within that passage Paul tells Timothy, “. . .from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation” (II Timothy 3:15).  I was struck again by the description of Timothy being taught scripture by his mother and grandmother that he probably didn’t fully understand, but that later gave him wisdom and led him to salvation.  There it is!  Bloom’s taxonomy – knowledge > understanding >application.

            Many skills start with basic rote memorization.  The greatest mathematician might have first learned his numbers as his mother counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on her toes.  Before any of us learned to read, we were probably saying or singing the alphabet (remember the elameno pea?).  Even a great chemist was probably once shown a simple drawing of one proton, one neutron, a circling electron, and was told to memorize it because that was a Hydrogen atom. 

            So the next time you hear someone bashing rote memorization, remember - everything has to start somewhere.  And a lot of things start with just memorizing the facts in front of you.    

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Educating the Kids

            When students with an IEP turn 13, we begin adding transition goals to their plan.  We start with an overarching goal, and for most of my students, I write, “Naomi (or whatever their name is) will be an independent learner.”

            There is a lot of debate about what kids should know at each grade level today.  You can even find books titled, “What Your Fourth (or Third, or Fifth) Grader Should Know” at Sam’s Club!  Most parents aren’t aware of this, but the education system in this country is getting ready to undergo another major shift.  The majority of the states have adopted The Common Core Curriculum, and they are busy developing a timeline for implementing this new curriculum.  The idea driving it all is the belief that what is taught at each grade level should be standardized across the country.  (For those of you who thought it already was . . . uh . . .sorry.)

            Bringing consistency to the states regarding school curriculum is a good idea.  But I think it can lead people to think of education this way:

We sum up education by the content that is poured into the student’s head over a course of 13 years.  If you are “educated,” you have slurped x-y-z into your head.

            I believe education is better illustrated as this:

 The educated person is someone who knows how to solve problems.  They have the tools to get the information they need.  They are an independent learner

            The “stuff” we’re supposed to know today is overwhelming.  Education cannot be condensed down to a set of facts.  There’s just too many.  Yes, I do believe there are some basic facts and information all students should know before we cut them loose.  But even if some of these facts haven’t stuck, does a student know how to learn them on his own?

            A current debate today among parents is - what’s better, formal schooling or homeschooling?  I heard an opponent of homeschooling telling about a college freshman, who had been homeschooled all his life, entering a college biology class completely unprepared for what was ahead of him.  During the first weeks of the semester, the new student left class in a state of panic as he first went to the library and then back to his dorm each afternoon to read and study a mountain of material that he had never covered before he got to college.  That first semester of college biology was grueling.

            “That boy just proved how important it is for kids to be in a formal program with specific guidelines of what needs to be covered before someone is given a high school diploma,” the homeschooling critic summarized.

            My takeaway from the story, however, was completely different.    If you haven’t been in a high school biology class in 30 years, you’re in for a shock at what is covered now.  I marveled that the homeschooled student had the skills and drive to learn all that material on his own.  As far as I’m concerned, that student was educated.  He was an independent learner.

           In the next year I'll be going to a lot of inservices on the new Common Core Curriculum, but my ultimate goal for my students will continue to be that they become an independent learner.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You're A Mess

            “You need to brush your teeth Mrs. Jones.  They’re all yellow!”

            My mouth dropped open and I stared at Naomi, astonished at her rudeness.  Then I remembered that my teeth had just been insulted, and I pulled my lips back together.  My dentist had bawled me out at my last visit for brushing too hard.  I also knew the school nurse had just sent Naomi’s parents a notice letting them know that she had several cavities that needed filling.  Teeth were heavy on her mind.

            Kids have a way of shaking your confidence.  You’re three or four times their age, and compared to them you know everything.  They know nothing.  But still they comment without apology on what they see, hear, or think, leaving you feeling like an idiot.

            My day of scrutiny wasn’t over.  During 7th period I got to hear from Naomi again.

            “Why do you have so much skin on your arms?”

            I’m wearing short sleeve tops with sweaters these days.  My classroom is on the west side of the building, and in the afternoon when it gets hot, the sweater comes off. 

            “I guess because I’m fat,” I smiled.

            “No, you’re not,” Naomi countered.  “But your arms have too much skin.”

            I stared back at Naomi.  Are you just trying to get out of work?

            “If you don’t finish your math this period, you’ll be taking it home for homework,” I reminded her.  I spent ten more minute going over how to recognize “some, some more, and how many all together” word problems.  As I talked, Naomi studied my face, her head tilted to one side. 

            “Do you have any questions,” I asked.

            “You should go brush your hair,” she said.  “It’s all messed up.” 
            This was getting ridiculous.  Naomi sat looking at me with her brown, course hair flying all over the place.  She’d made an attempt to pull it back with some clips, but they had given out before noon.

            “Naomi, you really need to get working on your math.”

            Naomi studied me a few seconds longer.

            What now?  My clothes?

            Finally she bent her head down and started working. I pulled my sweater back on, nonchalantly got up from the table and strolled across the room to check on another student working at the computer.  When no one was looking, I opened the supply closet and looked at my hair in the mirror on the inside of the door.

            I studied my reflection.  My hair looked fine.  Hey, my hair looked great.  But maybe I’ll ask the dentist about whitening my teeth at the next checkup.         

Friday, March 9, 2012


            Naomi gathered her hair into a ponytail over her left shoulder.  She held it there and slowly began twisting it into a coil.  When she could twist no more, she pulled it around in front of her face and began examining the ends, tapping at the tiny spikes of hair held tightly between her thumb and forefinger.  After a few minutes she released the twisted rope of hair and combed her fingers through it to straighten it onto her shoulder.  Then she put her hand under it and tossed it to her back.  She slowly stretched her head back over her chair and let her hair fall loose.  As her hair hung above the floor, she began shaking her head back and forth.

            I sat at my desk, resting my chin on my left hand, watching the show. 

            “How’re you coming on your math test, Naomi?  Do you have any questions?”

            Naomi sat back up and gave her hair a final shake. 


            It was like watching the dust get shaken out of a dust mop – only there was no dust . . . and no mop - just a 12 year old girl having a hard time staying on task during a test.

            Naomi looked down at her shirt.  She grabbed the bottom, wiggled her shoulders, and tugged the front of her shirt down.  She smoothed her hand down the front of it and the watch on her left wrist caught her attention.  She studied it for a moment and then adjusted the watch face 7 millimeters to center it on her wrist.  She continued studying her watch and decided to pull the watch face around to the inside of her wrist. 

            She held her arm up to her face with her palm turned inward, and stared at her watch.  Her head was tilted to one side, and she was biting the tip of her tongue.  She quickly turned her hand back over and studied the back of her wrist.  She must have decided the traditional placement of the watch face was best because she slid the watch back around to where it started.

            Naomi continued to study her watch a few seconds more and then suddenly twisted around and looked at the clock on the wall.  She held her wrist up, studied her watch again, and then looked back at the clock.

            “You’re clock’s not right Mrs. Jones.”

            “My clock is fine.  All the clocks in the building are set to the bells.”  I switched arms, tilted my head even more, and settled my check completely into my right palm.  “How’s your test coming?” I called dryly.


            Naomi turned back to her desk, picked up her mechanical pencil, and pressed it down to the paper.  Not satisfied with what she felt, she held the pencil back up close to her face and began clicking it.  When nothing came out she unscrewed it to retrieve some lead.  Finding no lead stored inside, she stood up, went over to her book bag on the shelf and began rummaging in it for extra lead.

            I hate mechanical pencils.  All teachers hate mechanical pencils.  I lifted my head up off my hand. 

            “Naomi, do you need a pencil?”

            “No."  Rummage.  Rummage.  "I’m good.”  She continued poking through her bag until she found the little plastic box. 

            Naomi walked back to her desk and began feeding tiny sticks of lead into the tip of her pencil.  When it would take no more, she tilted the pencil back down and began clicking it again.  Finally a tiny shoot of lead peeped out.  Satisfied that her writing tool was now ready, Naomi looked back at her test.  As her head bent down, her mouth dropped open into a wide yawn.

            She bent her elbows upward and leaned back as her yawn deepened into a low throaty “aaahhhgg.”  As she brought her elbows back down, her left hand slid through her hair and pulled it over her left shoulder.  She gathered it into a ponytail and slowly began twisting it again.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thrown Under The Bus

            “Naomi says Mrs. Jacobs swore at her.”

            “I don’t believe that.”

            “Well, I have a hard time believing it too, but Naomi’s dad was in my office for 45 minutes this morning telling me how uncomfortable Naomi feels with Mrs. Jacobs.”

            I stared back at the principal and felt an angry burn starting in my stomach.  That little stinker!  She got to her dad first.

            Yesterday as my new para Mrs. Jacobs was leaving, she paused at the door.  “I need to talk to you about Naomi,” she said.  “I was helping her find a book in the library today, and after she checked her book out, she asked if she could go on a computer.  I told her she could, but she could only look at the approved sites from her teacher’s web page.”

            “What happened,” I asked, already suspecting what was coming.

            “Well, I turned away from her for just a few minutes, and when I looked back, she was playing a video game.  I told her the game sites weren’t allowed and she had to get off the computer.”

            “That’s pretty typical of Naomi,” I reassured her.  “I don’t let her near a computer in here unless I’m able to sit right next to her.”

            “Well, when I told her to get off the computer, she called me a . . .”  Mrs. Jacobs hesitated and then spelled a not very nice word.  “Then she said I couldn’t boss her around, that I wasn’t a real teacher.”

            I felt bad for Mrs. Jacobs.  She is a 26 year old mom with two little kids, and she needs this job.  She is really good and is learning things very quickly.  The challenge from Naomi was typical but the language was over the line.  I wish I’d known about it earlier so I could have dealt with Naomi immediately.  Speaking like that to anyone was an office referral.  “What did you say back to her?” I asked.

            “Well, I told her even though I wasn’t a teacher, I was an adult in the building, and she needed to follow my directions.  I also told her she wasn’t allowed to speak that way here.  She just rolled her eyes at me and walked away saying something I couldn’t hear.  I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept my eye on her the rest of the period.”

            Naomi’s behavior was a classic challenge to a new authority figure.  “You were right to make her get off the computer,” I reassured her.  “I’ll take care of this tomorrow.  Don’t worry. You did the right thing.  Unfortunately, your honeymoon is over, and you’re going to be challenged by some of the kids.”

            The next morning students were waiting for me when I got to school, and I forgot to go to the office.  Naomi was going all out against Mrs. Jacobs.  She had gone home and complained to her dad, and he had come in first thing this morning complaining about Mrs. Jacobs.

            “Naomi was the one who was swearing, not Mrs. Jacobs,” I explained to the principal.

            “Why didn’t she refer Naomi to the office?”

            “Naomi caught her off guard.  She didn’t know what to do.  I only found out about it last night on my way out the door.  I just haven’t had time to see you about it.”

            “OK,” the principal sighed.  “I’ll talk to Mrs. Jacobs and then talk to Naomi, and call her dad back.  This is always so much harder when the kids go home and give their version first.”

            As the principal walked away I stood at my classroom door doing a slow burn.  I thought I had a pretty good relationship with Naomi and her parents.  But now . . . not so sure.    

            The bell rang and the hall filled with kids.  Naomi strolled by with a couple of her friends.  I found myself just staring at her.  As she walked past me, she noticed I was watching her. 

            “What?” she said with an exaggerated wide-eyed innocence.  I could see a tiny smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. 

            I pointed to my eyes with two fingers, turned my hand around, and pointed one finger at her.  The miniscule smile vanished from her face, as she quickly turned her head away and accelerated down the hall.  I was pretty sure her head was ducking down just a little lower as she walked around the corner.