Friday, May 29, 2015

Teachers - Lies your high school may not know they told you

Many people and experiences have influenced my writing and my author's voice. But if I had to pick the one person who impacted me most, it would be my English composition teacher from high school. Miss Box was tough and wonderful. She worked hard to teach us how to write, and her students worked hard to please her. I was forever changed by that 9-week class. Thank you, Miss Box!

I think it must be incredibly hard to be a teacher in modern America. They're responsible for so much stuff that has nothing to do with pure teaching. Discipline. Never-ending paperwork. Meetings and staff development. Sponsoring cheerleaders or baseball teams or student council.

Then there are the parents. Some nice. Some not. Most care. Many don't.

And what about today's kids? Think about the wide range of students that teachers must manage. Smart and not-smart. Well-behaved and out-of-control. Normal wants and exceptional needs. Ready to study and hungry/tired/sad.

My sister is a teacher. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were teachers. I'm in awe of good teachers. They work insane hours. They're not paid enough. They do not spend the summers lazing around. They care about your success, and they remember you much better than you might think.

I'm sorry to say that my girls were rather unlucky with teachers. About half were good, and half were bad, and a handful of the bad ones were despicable.  My husband and I found ourselves in the odd position of having a physician urge us to let our kid abandon school for her health. Ultimately, both daughters "dropped out" of high school and finished their diplomas at home—and it was almost entirely because they were being bullied by their teachers.

The weird thing about bad teachers is that they aren't a secret. The school administration, other parents, and other students know who they are.

So why are bad teachers still around, you might wonder?

Some will have their bad behavior overlooked as long as their students do well on standardized tests; good numbers are just too important for a school and district. Others might have tenure; if that's true, there isn't much you can do about them except hope you never get them.

But don't despair. You do have options if you find yourself taking a class from the wrong teacher.

  • Fight for a different teacher: Ask to switch classes. Get a parent, guidance counselor, community/church leader, or good teacher to take up your cause if you need the support.
  • Drop the class: maybe you don't need to take that class right now. Postpone it for another semester or try alternative education, such as...
  • Petition to take the class on-line: Most states have virtual classes  or dual enrollment (college/high-school credit for same class.) It may require "permission" from the school, but persistence might work.
  • Explore more drastic options: if things get really bad, push for what you need.  There are many ways to earn a diploma that don't involve  your local high school.

Bottom line: Most teachers are good. Some are not, and you don't have to suffer through them. There are alternatives. You may have to find a compassionate adult to help you. You may need to be willing to try something unconventional. But do what is right for you. Your mental and emotional health are important, too.

Other posts in this series:
Online school 

Monday, May 25, 2015

A day for remembering

flag photo by E Langston
Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day to think on the human cost of conflict.  So I'll keep it brief and eloquent by posting the words to the fourth stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott key.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our Trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

IQs - Lies your high school may not know they told you

The American education system ought to be about helping students explore their unique potential and interests. Instead, we ask all kids to grapple with a lot of stuff and only reward those students who have the skill of making good grades.

School success should be about developing talents and not about how well a kid manages assignments, teachers, and rules. We all know geniuses who barely scrape by in the classroom. Or how about those students (maybe even at my house) who coast along in a class, bored out of their skulls--and pass by acing the final with their stellar test-taking abilities? Why can't all of the above kids be celebrated, encouraged, and challenged?

When my daughters were still in elementary school, I remember one of them plaintively asking why she hadn't been called to the stage on Awards Day. The best answer I could give was "because the school doesn't give out prizes for the things you're good at."

In the 1980s, Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard's graduate school of education, identified 8 intelligences, such as  logical/mathematical, naturalistic, and intrapersonal. I know that schools do support many of these "IQs." Kids who are "body smart" can play sports. If you have musical talent, you can join choir or band. The emphasis on reading and writing works out well for students who are good with words.

For over 30 Years, we've known that "book smart" is only one of the many IQs, yet schools still maintain a rigid focus on academics.

There are plenty of deeply valuable intelligences that go un-nourished. What about the student who can quickly see the patterns in a problem and fix it? Or the quietly-effective leader who paves the way to teamwork? Or the kid who has brilliant ideas but is not-so-great at execution? America needs all of them to soar.

High schools create graduates who are expected to succeed at math, English, foreign languages, science, history, fine arts or sports, and other whimsy shoveled onto transcripts by state legislatures. Why? (One of my subscribers sent me a link to some such insanity being forced on high school seniors in Utah.)

This makes no sense. How many jobs require an employee to be good at all of those subjects? Not many. In fact, most companies are delighted to find applicants who are excellent in one specific area.

So there's the paradox--your high school wants to graduate generalists, and the business world wants to hire specialists with a niche skill.

Maybe a better plan is to create an educational system that honors the unique characteristics of each student--a system that can allow broad and brief exposure to core subjects while encouraging students to specialize in their natural gifts.

Bottom line: A traditional high school is designed to nurture those who are good at academics, sports, or (sometimes) the arts. If you're great at something else--something very specific or distinctive--hang in there. Universities or community colleges might be your place to shine. And corporate America wants you!

Other posts in this series:

Online school 


Monday, May 18, 2015

quote in the Durham Herald Sun

I was an author-exhibitor at a book festival in Durham. A reporter chatted with me briefly and I ended up with a quote-ish in the Durham Herald-Sun.

Here is the table that my author-friend Jennifer Delamere and I showed at the festival.

And just because I'm thinking about it at the moment, let me say how much I do not like Facebook. I have an author page there because it feels like it's an expectation of being an author--but that is the only reason. FB is not particularly nice to us. It is clear that they're able to tell when I post about books--and they lower the likelihood that people will see the posts. So, yeah, I would be off FB in a heartbeat if I could be.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Read Local NC

If you live in North Carolina, particularly in the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary), please consider attending the ReadLocalNC book festival at Durham Central Park today (Sunday, May 17), noon - 6pm.

There will be exhibitors from every aspect of the book industry: authors, illustrators, publishers, and book sellers.

Plus food trucks!

I'll be there too. I'll have a few books with me to sell--but mostly I want to talk about stories, so find me and tell me what you love about YA fiction!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Iris in bloom

Iris is my favorite flower. They are blooming right now. It won't be much longer before they disappear for another year.

I'm feeling really thankful for my grandmother Lacey. She gave me some of the bulbs. It allows me to remember her each year.

I'm grateful to the guy who helps us take care of our lawn. He keeps the yard so beautiful that it can be the perfect backdrop to my irises that only show up briefly in the spring.

I had a not-so-good day at the office. It's nice to come home to something that makes me smile!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Grades - Lies your high school may not know they told you

Making good grades is all about playing the game.

When I was in school, I understood that. My teachers made the rules, and I followed them. I turned in their assignments and told them what they wanted to hear on exams. In return, they gave me good grades, which I was able to cash in for college scholarship money.

It worked for me. I succeeded because I worked hard, and the teachers wanted me to win because they cared.

In today's America, the game has changed. Big time.

The teachers don't make the rules anymore; somebody else makes the rules for them. And generally, those "somebodies" know little about kids or how to educate them.

Even worse, the somebodies have given teachers a stake in the outcome. Teachers now need students to win (in part) because the teachers have a financial motivation for kids to succeed.

Too many people have skin in the game. Students, their parents, teachers, principals, schools, school systems, and government officials. This is a huge burden to place on a child's shoulders.

Just look at the news, like those teachers and administrators in Atlanta who gamed the system. It's egregious that they changed test scores. It's equally egregious that their state government tempted them into viewing personal gain as more important than an individual student's learning.

When I attended school eons ago:
  1. My efforts were directly correlated to the grades I earned. 
  2. My parents never helped me. Never. Any assignment or project I turned in was entirely my work.
  3. Lessons made sense and usually advanced learning.
  4. The teachers held all of the power. The vast majority of them deserved that power and did not abuse it.
  5. There were no high-stakes tests. My transcript reflected skills I acquired steadily and organically. A single bad day or week had no impact.

By the time my kids hit the public school system:
  1. Their grades were a complex mix of teacher quality, school quality, legislative insistence on metrics, and--yes, finally--my kids' efforts.
  2. Other parents "helped" their kids. A lot. The more affluent or determined, the more they helped. We resisted until we realized that...
  3. Lessons were as much about appearances as they were about education. Homework was required but often ineffective.
  4. The teachers held a fraction of the power to make the rules. And, frighteningly, in our experience, only about half of our daughters' teachers deserved their authority or used it well.
  5. High-stakes testing occurred often. A single bad day or week could be devastating.
We ultimately pulled our kids out of public schools and sent them to an online high school (via a proper, state-recognized homeschool.) And once we did, we abandoned our concern about grades. Yes, indeed. We phased out the question "what did you make?" and replaced it with "what did you learn?". It was lovely and liberating. The parent/child fights practically ended. The stress faded. Our girls could focus on understanding the material.

Older Kid ended up at a college where there were no letter grades. Just Pass/Fail. Or, really, just pass--because she had to redo all assignments and exams as often as it took to get them completely correct. In other words, she had to prove mastery (what you would call a B or higher) on all classes. The very fact that she has her degree means that she mastered all college-level material in her major.

Bottom line: Don't expect the rules to be fair. Grades reflect more than your own effort; they also reflect how well you understand the game and how equipped you are to play it. Some institutions are turning to a different system--where your transcript is about what you learned instead of how much the rules favored you.

Other posts in this series:


Online school