Reading Log Revolt

Parents and teachers of elementary school aged students, I have a confession to make:

I loathe the reading logs my daughter brings home.

So, just to be clear, the reading logs that return from my house, faithfully filled out each week or month — those reading logs are big fat lies.

My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Each year since kindergarten, she’s brought home some version of the nightly “reading log.” Depending on the year and teacher, it’s been as simple as writing down the name, the book, and the number of minutes read (initialed or signed by a parent, of course), or it’s been as involved as a reading response journal that requires her to summarize, or pick out key details, or connect the text to her own life, and to record the number of pages read, time spent reading, etc. 

But each reading log comes with one universal expectation: every single night, there’s some minimum requirement for reading (i.e., number of pages read, or amount of time spent reading). And on a nightly basis, that reading must be tracked.

My older daughter (unlike my little one) started kindergarten as a fluent reader, who had already moved on to reading simple chapter books (Magic Tree House, Beverly Cleary, etc.). More importantly, she started kindergarten as a lover of books. My biggest concern (and oh-how-I-wish-my-mom-was-here-to-laugh-as-I-finally-emphathized-with-her-experience-with-me) was how to pry her away from books. But within weeks, the reading log began to change all of that: “Mom, am I done with my fifteen minutes yet?” “Mom, why do I have to write this?” “Mom, I don’t know what to say.” And worst of all: “Do I HAVE TO read?” This, from my voracious reader. This, when previously my bigger concern had been prying books out of her hands: “Stop reading! Go outside and play with your friends!”

Something had to be done. I was watching my daughter’s joy in reading disappear before my eyes. So I made a deal with her: as long as she continued to read voluntarily on her own, I’d stop timing her, stop nagging her, and just sign whatever she brought me for a reading log as long as it looked vaguely reasonable (and honestly, even if it did not). Despite my general emphasis as a parent on honesty, I discovered that I didn’t care in the least if the reading log was accurate or not, because I knew that she was doing far more reading — with far more joy — on her own than the reading log required. Accurate logging was sucking the joy out of reading. It was like my billable hours requirement. For first graders. As a lawyer, tracking my time at work is a necessary evil. But I’m in my forties. My daughter is nine.

And for five years now, that’s how it’s worked in my house.

But there’s always a tension. Now teachers require the kids to write down which pages they read each night. Teachers, my kid doesn’t want to constantly track, track, track. And my kid doesn’t want to constantly be tracked, tracked, tracked.  My kid wants to escape into the world of fiction, where time loses its meaning as she inhabits its characters. My kid wants to read last thing in bed at night, and first thing when she wakes up in the morning, and in the bathtub. She wants to bring her “emergency pack” of books to her little sister’s family picnic for school, and she doesn’t complain when she doesn’t see the iPad for weeks on end, because she has her books.

And I fully believe that part of the reason she still wants to do those things in fourth grade is because I long since agreed that her reading log could be a work of fiction. But I hate lying, and I hate undermining your authority, and I’m wondering if maybe, perhaps, this can be the year that I come clean and we can make a deal: stop requiring the reading log, so I can stop lying on the reading log. But if not, be assured: this is the one and only aspect of my life in which my signature on that reading log my daughter faithfully brings back to you each month is not worth the paper it’s written on. And my daughter is learning a lesson from that — that sometimes, when the system is stupid and counterproductive, the greater good makes it okay to lie and game the system. I don’t like that lesson, but we’ve talked about it, and in this case, I think it’s worth the trade off.

So, for now, the joy my daughter continues to take in the printed page far outweighs the momentary discomfort it causes me to sign — and certify — as true, a reading log that is generally a patchwork of guesses, at best. Because I love my kid.  But wouldn’t it be better if we simply refused to make reading a chore?

 

I’ll trade lying on reading logs for photos like this any day.

 

How I Almost Became an Education Reformer

by Sarah Blaine

By 2011, I’d been practicing law for about six years. That spring, I hit a watershed moment in my practice. I was put on a crazy project that culminated in the one and only time I billed over 300 hours in a month. During that month, I never saw my children awake for more than a few stress filled moments in the morning, and I worried that my “Mommy always comes back” mantra was appearing less and less true in my three year old daughter’s eyes. I had no idea what was going on in my seven year old’s life.  At the culmination of the project that forced my 300+ hour month, one of the partners I worked for came into my office to praise my efforts. She told me that I should keep doing what I’d been doing. G-d forbid.

This partner happened to be a single mother who’d moved a kid sized desk and kid sized folded couch into her office so that her preschooler could sit, headphones engaged, for hours watching videos on a portable DVD player until she passed out asleep on the fold out couch, as mom juggled conference calls. Being a single mom cannot be easy, and in between the 300+ hour months, partner-mom took plenty of vacations with her daughter, and for some of her work binges, she shipped her daughter out to her parents for some actual attention (and presumably less screen time). Nevertheless, while her work-life balance choices seemed to satisfy her, the model she presented did not inspire me. I didn’t want to disappear from my kids’ lives for months at a time. Big law partnership looked more and more like a booby prize. One month at a pace of over 300 hours was problematic enough for my marriage and my children: as fun as the work challenges and accomplishments it had brought had been, it was not an experience I cared to repeat on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t aspire to it as a permanent state of being.

And while the work was intellectually challenging, it was not fulfilling. Helping hedge fund principals and private equity gurus achieve their litigation goals did not leave me feeling that I’d done the world a solid. The intellectual challenge was not enough, since I felt that I was using my brain to leave the world a little worse off. A little less fair. And I watched, from the inside, as the scales of justice continued, in my estimation, to tip a little further away from the have-nots.

As a result, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that partnership at a large law firm was not a future I wanted for myself. I would happily spend the rest of my life driving Mazdas rather than Mercedes in return for a job that would allow me to make plans with my family and friends. My ideal job would let me, on balance, get paid a living wage to leave a positive mark on the world. I no longer dreamed of riches; I simply dreamed of enough.

So I wanted out. As I considered next steps, I began thinking about actually doing what my law school essay said I’d applied to law school to do: to marry my old career with my new one by putting my legal education to use helping students, especially disadvantaged students like the ones I’d taught a decade before in rural Maine.

But still. We had, like so many others, bought our house at the height of the housing boom, and our hefty mortgage payment loomed each month, without hope of a refi. A few more years of preschool tuition loomed, and there was only so much expense reduction we could manage. Leaving my community was not an option. So poverty wages were not an option.

As I considered my future, I started coming across programs. Interesting programs. Financially lucrative programs. Programs and jobs that paid wages I could live on. All I needed to do was to buy into the education reform agenda.

For instance, The Broad Residency helped mid-career professionals transition to jobs in education. And education jobs must mean doing good for the world. Along with annual salaries of $90,000 – $100,000. For jobs in education. Doing good. That sounded like something I could live with. Education Pioneers offered a similar career path. Less money. But still, it had possibilities. Maybe I could earn a comfortable wage and do some good.

So I started applying. I vaguely knew that the programs supported “education reform,” but I’d left teaching a decade earlier, so I had little idea of what that meant beyond support for charter schools. For the chance to do some good (and a comfortable wage), I could probably support the charter movement. Although I had some reservations, I wasn’t in the trenches or up to date on the latest education reform policy wars, and the reformers’ slogans sounded appealing. After all, they wanted to put students first, close the achievement gap, and accept no excuses. That all sounded good to me. As the misery of my big law career dragged on, I desperately wanted to find some work that would allow me to see my family and feed my soul. The education reform organizations sounded more and more tempting. As I revamped my resume for these fellowship opportunities, I conveniently forgot to mention my experience as a volunteer member of the contract negotiations team for my local teacher’s union up in Maine. I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I’d figured out that much.

So I applied. For the fellowships, and other jobs at charter schools and reform-oriented organizations. Luckily, I was not their ideal candidate. Looking back, I suspect that I was too much of an unknown quantity: yes, I had only a few years of teaching experience, but that experience was in an unknown rural public school, and I’d gotten into teaching by a traditional method (i.e., obtaining a traditional teaching certification by earning a Master of Arts in teaching degree at an actual university). My experience mirrored that of TFA students, but my preparation for teaching far exceeded TFA’s summer training. And my teaching experience predated No Child Left Behind. I might actually believe in portfolio assessments. Or project-based learning. Or that class size matters.

Similarly, I’d attended an elite undergraduate university, but I’d earned my advanced degrees from (much cheaper) public universities. I’d graduated from law school with high honors, but it was Rutgers, not Harvard. And pedigree seems to matter to the education reformers.

I was parent of a public school student in a town with a reputation for socio-economic diversity that resulted in our public schools never making the top rankings in NJ Monthly magazine.

My pro bono legal experience including partnering with the Education Law Center on impact litigation intended to increase the access students with disabilities had to inclusive classrooms.

I simply did not appear malleable enough.

I got to the final round of interviews with one of the education reform fellowships, but looking back, I am sure that I tanked myself in the group activity when I suggested taking parents’ and teachers’ concerns seriously and advocating obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders rather than ramrodding my hypothetical superintendent’s agenda down resistant parents’ and teachers’ throats.

I did get out of big law. Here I am: a parent who eats dinner with my husband and kids almost every night, a practicing attorney at a small firm that does not do education law, but also does not expect me to aspire to bill 300 — or even 200 — hours in a month. I am an occasional education blogger, and a volunteer in my children’s schools when the stars align between job responsibilities and school volunteer opportunities.  My paid work is not particularly fulfilling, but my colleagues are lovely and it could be worse.  It’s not a bad life.  And I put my kids to bed every night.

My ambition is still to find an opportunity that would allow me to actually manage to do what I went to law school to do: that is, to combine my legal and teaching backgrounds to improve our education system. Or maybe, just maybe, if the opportunity was right, to go back to teaching. Because after all these years, I still miss students. I miss the classroom. And I miss the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in children’s lives. This time, however, it would be Social Studies. If anyone is even teaching that anymore.

But in the meantime, I try.

And I intend to try more.

And, when I can, I intend to write more, so that I can reach an audience beyond my indulgent neighbors.

I try to educate those around me concerning why due process rights matter for public school teachers.

I try to suggest that while teachers’ unions certainly could benefit from reform (and a revamp of their communications operations), they are not inherently evil.

I try to explain the pernicious insidiousness of attaching high-stakes decisions to standardized test results.

I try to be an ambassador for the teachers who were once my colleagues, as they are maligned in the media and beyond.

I try to explain what I learned about the unique problems of rural schools, and why one-size-fits-all education solutions don’t work for a country as diverse as ours.

I try to explain why I am a true believer in the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring schools to provide students with special needs access to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

I try to be an effective advocate for my own kids within our local school system.

I try to explain that while technology can be a valuable tool, it is not a panacea that will cure all that ails education. That data, while valuable, is just another tool.

I try to explain why poverty matters.

I try to explain the distinction between educating future citizens versus training future cogs for our economic engine.

And I try to keep educating myself, and to keep measuring my own knowledge and assumptions against research, experience, and common sense.

And in all of that trying, I try most of all to remember that I flirted with the land of education reform. If I’d appeared a little more malleable, perhaps I would have ended up a bona fide reformer. I am sure that many of the so-called reformers were once in my shoes. Many of them, I am sure, also wanted out from careers they found unfulfilling. Many of them wanted jobs where they felt that they could make a difference. And The Broad Residency, and Education Pioneers, and the charter schools, and the other reform organizations: they promised those opportunities. The chance to make a difference. To put students first. And to make good salaries. Really good salaries. The job boards tell the stories.

The education reform world is tempting, particularly to those who feel trapped by golden handcuffs. So I try not to demonize the Education Reformers, because I know how easily I might have ended up one of them.

But instead, I am just me. So I will continue to try to add my spin to the policy discussions. And maybe, there will come an opportunity that will allow me to marry my teaching background, legal expertise and writing skills. Someday.

The Best For Me

by Sarah Blaine

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I expect my Facebook feed will be replete with one of my pet peeves: “Thank you to the Best Mom in the Whole World!” and “My Mom is #1″ and “My Mom is the Most Awesomest Mom Evah!” I hate that. When someone announces that his mom is the BEST mom, he’s implicitly stating that the rest of our moms are the second-best moms. Ugh.

So when one of my daughters told me that I was the best mom, I didn’t just say thank you. Instead, I asked if that meant that Quinn’s mom and Max’s mom and Grey’s mom and Zane’s mom weren’t the best moms for Quinn and Max and Grey and Zane. As a former English teacher, I believe that language matters. So I was thrilled when she altered her language to say what I love to hear: “You are the best mom in the world FOR ME!”

Teachers are the same way. As a high school senior, I took AP Calculus. I had a legendary teacher, Mr. Winkler, and I know that many of my high school friends mourned his loss when we read his obituary a few months ago. There was group work in that class, and challenging assignments intended to help students to really dig into why Calculus worked, and so forth. Many of Mr. Winkler’s students went on to study advanced mathematics and related subjects in college. But I wasn’t ready to buckle down and study, and the bulk of what happened in that class went over my head. He couldn’t get through to me. I was too wrapped up in other things, including but not limited to the nasty nightly battles in my parents’ acrimonious divorce. So in the spring of 1991, I took my “Gentleman’s C,” which Mr. Winkler was kind enough to provide, and my failing score on the AP exam, and I went off to college, fully intending to never study math again.

But as a college sophomore, I had one of those life changing professors, Professor Howard Bernstein, who was a professor who challenged me and taught me and inspired me and transformed me. He was an adjunct, and the class I took with him was Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education. We read Rousseau and Plato and Dewey and John Holt. We read E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch (this was many years before Ravitch’s change of heart). We talked about the canon, and standards, and curriculum, and the whats and whys of education. We talked about what it meant to educate, and what it meant to be educated. We talked about what it meant to teach, and what true learning looked like. Professor Bernstein inspired me, and empowered me, and kindled my interest in education — the interest that sparked this blog more than 20 years later.

One of the things we talked about in Professor Bernstein’s class was the achievement gap between men and women in math and the sciences. I got inspired to examine why I hated math. So the following semester I took calculus. I earned an A+. My college Calculus professor was decent, but he was not, by any means, a better teacher than Mr. Winkler. The difference was me: I, the student, was ready to learn.

Last year, my daughter was in second grade. I’d heard mixed reports about her teacher (some really positive, some less so), but I always begin the school year by assuming the best. Her second grade teacher turned out to be a lousy fit for my daughter. But for some of my daughter’s friends, she was terrific. Thankfully, my daughter’s third grade teaching team has been terrific for her, and she’s gone from, among other things, “hating math” to considering “math teacher” as a future career. But I imagine that there are other kids in the class for whom that is not the case. And that’s okay.

Just as kids are not one-size-fits-all, neither are teachers. Some teachers will inspire some of us. Other teachers will leave us cold. And there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason there. It’s like falling in love. Someone can look great for you on paper, but in real life, you just don’t click.

We all make our way through school: sometimes we have teachers who inspire us, like Professor Bernstein. Sometimes we have terrific teachers we’re just not yet ready to learn from, like Mr. Winkler was for me. And sometimes we have teachers with whom we just don’t click. That’s an inherent part of the human experience. I know it was true when I taught: there were kids I know I reached, and there were kids I know I didn’t reach.

It should go without saying that teaching is an inherently subjective profession, and that different students have different needs at different times in their lives. That’s why I find the attempts to rank and sort teachers by value-added measurement so preposterous. Value-added measurement leaves common sense in the dust.  It forgets that all important prepositional phrase: “for me.”  

There is no more one objectively “best” teacher for all students that there is one objectively “best” mom for all kids. I hope my kids will continue to believe that I am the best mom in the world for them. But when my kids enter a classroom, the most I can realistically ask of their teachers is that their teachers try to differentiate their teaching enough to be the best they can be for my kids. It’s not realistic to expect all of my kids’ teachers to be transformational. But I do expect my kids to learn a little bit about the human experience in many different classrooms with many different teachers, even (and perhaps especially) in the classrooms of the teachers with whom they don’t click. That is where they will learn that humanity comes in many different sizes and shapes and form, and that no human beings, be they teachers or students, are one-size-fits-all. What will remain consistent for my kids are my expectations: each of my kids will be expected to work hard in every classroom, regardless of how well she clicks with the teacher.  

P.S. I love this article, which demonstrates the fallacies that can result when we confuse correlation with causation.

To Love Me, To Civilize Me, and To Keep Me Safe

by Sarah Blaine

I think we all, whether explicitly articulated or not, indeed, whether we are parents or not, have a parenting mantra.

As my neighbors will attest, I regularly ask my daughters: “What’s my job?” Their canned response, developed as a family over time, is: “To love me, to civilize me, and to keep me safe.”

I truly believe that about sums it up.

My job is to love my children: wholly, unconditionally, and deeply.

My job is to keep my children safe: and by safe I don’t mean wrapped in a bubble, free from injuries, but rather safe to explore, safe to take risks, and safe to push the boundaries of their worlds as they grow and change.

And finally, my job is to civilize my children. That is, it is my job to ensure that they learn to value kindness, to be considerate of others, and to learn to effectively navigate the shoals of growing up in the contradictory and confusing culture we call — sometimes without noticing the irony — western civilization. Civilizing them also includes teaching them not to fart in public and that locking the cat into a “cat haven” under the bed is a recipe for laundry, not entertainment.

Civilizing children is transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next. Teachers and parents need to be partners in this endeavor: neither can cede responsibility to the other.

My family developed our mantra over time, and I imagine it’s not done evolving. When my oldest was still an only, only the civilizing part of the mantra had evolved, and we used it as a party trick. I’d ask, “What’s my job?” and my daughter would pipe back in her two-year old lisp: “To civilize me.” My friends would chuckle. Love and safety didn’t need to be explicitly stated. For her, they went without saying.

But the concept of civilization became a powerful force: discipline (both positive and negative) became about encouraging civilized behavior, and discouraging uncivilized habits. It started as a joke, but the tool worked. Discipline stopped being as much of a power struggle and instead became an attempt to guide my daughter into channeling her self-centered, selfish, animal impulses into a more nuanced, adult, and, yes, civilized view of the world, one where everything wasn’t ME ME ME NOW NOW NOW. One where she was a willing participant in civilizing herself.

But then my little one, my younger daughter, my pixie as my neighbor calls her, came along. And eventually, she learned to talk. The waters run deep in that one, and it’s a magical experience to discover the corridors of thought her mind explores. They could not be more different than my own.

It’s easy for me to figure out what the big one is thinking: it’s usually similar to what I’m thinking.

But the little one is contemplative, and full of little quirks and notions, and sometimes dark thoughts, and always full of questions. She cannot be hurried. She has fears. She is also anxious to a fault, and I work hard to help her examine and keep her anxiety in check.

My little one was the one who evolved our party trick into a mantra: the words were not these, but the intent was clear: all discipline wasn’t just about civilizing her, she pointed out; sometimes it was about teaching her how to keep her body and her soul safe. So we evolved our saying into mommy’s (and daddy’s) job being “to civilize her and to keep her safe.” It went along with a parallel mantra: “What do mommies always do?” I’d ask. She’d answer, “Come back.”

My little one is the most affectionate, generous child I have ever encountered: she is full of “hug alerts” and “I just wanted to give you a kiss” and constant snuggles. Her gift is for giving. She made it clear that parenting wasn’t just about civilizing her and keeping her safe: it was also about loving her enough to recognize and adapt to her unique spirit, which I love and cherish, even though it is so very different from my own. And she needed me to state my love. Explicitly. My job is to love her.

So our mantra evolved — again — into its current form: our job as parents is to love our children, to civilize our children, and to keep them safe.

Parenting children and especially, for me, parenting two very different children, has stretched my soul and, I hope, given me a little insight and humility concerning my character and experience. One thing parenting has certainly taught me is that parenting is an expansive and evolving endeavor: it isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor.

I can be as judge-y as the next person, but I try harder these days to refrain from indulging in that cathartic exercise in superiority: the decisions I make for the youngest are sometimes so different than the decisions I make for the oldest that I’m sure an outsider would judge me out of my mind. But my children are so different, and one-size-fits-all does not meet their needs, nor would it help them develop into their wisest, kindest, and most civilized selves.

My oldest thrived on learning to sound out words at age 3. At pick up on her first day of kindergarten, her experienced and gifted teacher looked me in the eye and said, “I see we have a real reader here.” And we did: she came into kindergarten reading Magic Tree House and other chapter books, and during “book buddies” with the second graders, she discovered that she was a more fluent and accomplished reader than her second grade buddy.

My little one will be 6 this fall. She hasn’t started kindergarten yet, but I know that her sister’s entering-kindergarten reading fluency is far-off. However, from the time she could talk, she has wanted to know about skeletons and bodies. We google images of animal skeletons together, and my iPad is full of apps about biology and the human body because of her. She once spent about forty-five minutes detailing — for my somewhat stunned cousin — how to dissect a rat, which, I hasten to add, she learned from an iPad app aimed at high schoolers, with the eponymous name “Rat Dissection.

As parents rather than full-time educators, it is hard to feel that we can have a meaningful voice in the education policy world. I think that many parents sit out these debates not because they don’t have thoughts and concerns and ideas, but because they worry that they are non-expert participants in an education world that teems with experts, both actual and self-anointed.

Who are we? We are just parents. We defer to those in the know.

But we parents do have insight, and we need to have a voice, because we do have some wisdom, wisdom that is worth sharing, wisdom that can add richness and perspective to a debate that is often sadly lacking in both.

That is why Louis C.K.’s comments about his daughters’ math homework, standardized testing, and Common Core were so powerful. We have heard so few parents weigh in on this debate.

And that vacuum is why I read this Success Academy teacher’s response to Louis C.K. as so tone-deaf:

So instead of throwing in the towel, what we must teach alongside these more difficult—yet completely achievable—standards is grit. Parents and teachers have to work together to model and reinforce perseverance both at school and at home. A few tears shed over homework or a test is simply not reason enough for us to balk at meaningful, thoughtful math that will better prepare all kids for a changing and more dynamic workforce. When we as adults complain that the bar is too high, we send students the message that we don’t believe they’re capable of greatness.

Of course, I empathize with Louis C.K.’s frustrations to a certain extent. This math looks very different. The worksheets his daughter brought home might not have been the best quality—indeed, teachers are still figuring out the new standards, too. And nobody wants to see his child upset. But a Twitter tirade doesn’t help anybody, least of all students.

For my older daughter, this teacher’s comments are spot on. For her, occasional tears shed over math homework are character-building exercises in resiliency: academics come so easily to her that it’s a powerful lesson for her to learn to persevere when she does hit a stumbling block.

But for my younger daughter, the same tears might be a devastating watershed that could undermine her future academic success. And what is most upsetting about this slippery critique of Louis C.K.’s parenting by a teacher is that it’s a call from a teacher to shut out parents’ voices, to shut down the conversation: well, that’s not the kind of teacher I seek out for my children. Plus, she’s wrong. I bet Louis C.K.’s tirade did help two small people: his daughters, who experienced a powerful lesson from their dad’s empathy.

One thing that parenting has taught me, viscerally, in a way that classroom learning and book learning and even my experience as a teacher could not, is how different children truly can be, and that one-size-fits-all assembly-line education does not — and cannot — fit all of our children.

My youngest will enter kindergarten this fall. I have no doubt that my youngest is full of insights and connections and intelligence and deep thoughts and wisdom and imagination. In my experience, Common Core and its related standardized test preparation have not been significant stumbling blocks for my oldest. But I fear that squeezing my youngest into the standardized, common mold is not going to be effective. It’s not going to contribute toward civilizing her.

I hope and pray that my youngest will thrive, and I will do my best to differentiate and provide support at home, but my primary fear about where we are headed as a country is that we’re attempting to impose one-size-fits-all education on infinite-unique-needs-they-each-have individual children. And we have a movement that attempts, as the Success Academy teacher did, to drown out parents’ voices when those voices are raised in protest.

I am all for high standards; I am not for standardization.

My little one says that she’s a witch, she’s a wizard, she’s a secret agent, she’s a fairy, she’s a kitty, she’s a cat. But there’s one thing she never identifies herself as: a widget.

 

A Wrinkle in Math

My daughter has been quite fortunate this year — she has a terrific math teacher, and she has blossomed and grown in her math skills. Most critically, she’s gone from hating math to loving math, including declarations such as, “When I go to college, I want to major in math.”

But I know that across the country, many children (and their parents) are not having the same experience. Every time I hear elementary school parental frustration about “Common Core math,” I’m reminded of this passage from one of my favorite novels as a child, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time:

“Have you done your homework, Meg?”
“Not quite,” Meg said, going back into the kitchen.
“Then I’m sure Calvin won’t mind if you finish before dinner.”
“Sure, go ahead.” Calvin fished in his pocket and pulled out a wad of folded paper. “As a matter of fact, I have some junk of mine to finish up. Math. That’s the one thing I have a hard time keeping up in. I’m okay on anything to do with words, but I don’t do as well with numbers.”
Mrs. Murray smiled. “Why don’t you get Meg to help you?”
“But see, I’m several grades above Meg.”
“Try asking her to help you with your math, anyhow,” Mrs. Murray suggested.
“Well, sure, “Calvin said. “Here. But it’s pretty complicated.”
Meg smoothed out the paper and studied it. “Do they care how you do it?” she asked. “I mean, can you work it out in your own way?”
“Well, sure, as long as I understand it and get the answers right.”
“Well, we have to do it their way. Now look, Calvin, don’t you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?” Her pencil flew over the paper.
“Hey!” Calvin said. “Hey! I think I get it. Show me once more on another one.”
Again, Meg’s pencil was busy. “All you have to remember is that every ordinary fraction can be converted into an infinite periodic decimal fraction. See? So 3/7 is 0.428571.”
“This is the craziest family.” Calvin grinned at her. “I suppose I should stop being surprised by now, but you’re supposed to be dumb in school, always being called up on the carpet.”
“Oh, I am.”
“The trouble with Meg and math,” Mrs. Murray said briskly, “is that Meg and her father used to play around with numbers and Meg learned far too many short cuts. So when they want her to do the problems the long way around at school she gets sullen and stubborn and sets up a fine mental block for herself.”

I think that for some kids, what is being marketed as the Common Core’s approach to math is intuitive and makes a lot of sense. But why are we insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach? I’m all for having kids show their work, but why do we insist that all of our kids must show the same work, rather than simply ensuring that the methods they’re using are mathematically correct and make sense to them?

For some kids, subtraction through “counting up” makes sense. For others, the traditional method of borrowing make sense. If both methods are mathematically sound, and both methods produce the same result, then why the insistence on forcing one method on all kids?

And, of course, although Meg may have been labeled “dumb in school,” at least her graduation and her future were not tied to high-stakes exams that forced her to demonstrate her proficiency at “the long way around” of completing a certain math problem (unlike the sample 3rd to 5th grade PARCC math problem that requires the kids to, one-by-one, click 48 boxes in an array to demonstrate their “understanding” of 6 x 8 = 48).

This all reminds me of this oldie but goodie from second grade math last year, with the teacher who inspired last year’s hatred of math:

  

 

Hard Times (or Everything Old is New Again)

Unfortunately, my mother-in-law took ill, and passed away last Saturday morning.  As a result, although I’ve continued to read and learn from all sides of the education policy debate, I haven’t had much of a chance to crystalize my thoughts sufficiently to finish another post.  But to whet your appetite, here’s a brief intro to a far more eloquent thinker than I could hope to be.

In reading the current education policy debates, one thing keeps nagging at me: I’ve read and heard this all before.  So I went back and re-read one of the summer reading texts I’d first encountered as an AP English Literature student: Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  And I was amazed: not only is Dickens as timely as can be when it comes to the modern education policy debates; he is also prescient regarding the class divisions between the haves and the have-nots.  I highly recommend that all modern policy makers go back and review their Dickens.  He — far more ably than I can — points out the horrors of capitalism without regulation (i.e., capitalism run amok). 

And as far as education policy goes, who can forget Mr. M’Choakumchild and Mr. Gradgrind?  

Who are our modern M’Choakumchilds and Gradgrinds?  

Gradgrind’s methods largely contributed to ruining his children’s lives.  

How many lives are we willing to ruin in service to ideals that Dickens rejected in 1854?

To get you started, here (with thanks to Project Gutenberg) are the first three chapters of Dickens’ Hard Times, which make the point that true education is about so much more than stuffing a child’s head full of facts.  The modern analogue, of course, is that true education is about so much more than turning our children into trained test-taking monkeys.

 

CHAPTER I
THE ONE THING NEEDFUL

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.

‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

CHAPTER II
MURDERING THE INNOCENTS

Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind—no, sir!

In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words ‘boys and girls,’ for ‘sir,’ Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.

Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?’

‘If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.’

‘You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’

‘Oh yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

She curtseyed again, and would have blushed deeper, if she could have blushed deeper than she had blushed all this time. Bitzer, after rapidly blinking at Thomas Gradgrind with both eyes at once, and so catching the light upon his quivering ends of lashes that they looked like the antennæ of busy insects, put his knuckles to his freckled forehead, and sat down again.

The third gentleman now stepped forth. A mighty man at cutting and drying, he was; a government officer; in his way (and in most other people’s too), a professed pugilist; always in training, always with a system to force down the general throat like a bolus, always to be heard of at the bar of his little Public-office, ready to fight all England. To continue in fistic phraseology, he had a genius for coming up to the scratch, wherever and whatever it was, and proving himself an ugly customer. He would go in and damage any subject whatever with his right, follow up with his left, stop, exchange, counter, bore his opponent (he always fought All England) to the ropes, and fall upon him neatly. He was certain to knock the wind out of common sense, and render that unlucky adversary deaf to the call of time. And he had it in charge from high authority to bring about the great public-office Millennium, when Commissioners should reign upon earth.

‘Very well,’ said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. ‘That’s a horse. Now, let me ask you girls and boys, Would you paper a room with representations of horses?’

After a pause, one half of the children cried in chorus, ‘Yes, sir!’ Upon which the other half, seeing in the gentleman’s face that Yes was wrong, cried out in chorus, ‘No, sir!’—as the custom is, in these examinations.

‘Of course, No. Why wouldn’t you?’

A pause. One corpulent slow boy, with a wheezy manner of breathing, ventured the answer, Because he wouldn’t paper a room at all, but would paint it.

‘You must paper it,’ said the gentleman, rather warmly.

‘You must paper it,’ said Thomas Gradgrind, ‘whether you like it or not. Don’t tell us you wouldn’t paper it. What do you mean, boy?’

‘I’ll explain to you, then,’ said the gentleman, after another and a dismal pause, ‘why you wouldn’t paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality—in fact? Do you?’

‘Yes, sir!’ from one half. ‘No, sir!’ from the other.

‘Of course no,’ said the gentleman, with an indignant look at the wrong half. ‘Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact. What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact.’ Thomas Gradgrind nodded his approbation.

‘This is a new principle, a discovery, a great discovery,’ said the gentleman. ‘Now, I’ll try you again. Suppose you were going to carpet a room. Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?’

There being a general conviction by this time that ‘No, sir!’ was always the right answer to this gentleman, the chorus of No was very strong. Only a few feeble stragglers said Yes: among them Sissy Jupe.

‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.

Sissy blushed, and stood up.

‘So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’

‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.

‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’

‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—’

‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’

‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’

‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

The girl curtseyed, and sat down. She was very young, and she looked as if she were frightened by the matter-of-fact prospect the world afforded.

‘Now, if Mr. M’Choakumchild,’ said the gentleman, ‘will proceed to give his first lesson here, Mr. Gradgrind, I shall be happy, at your request, to observe his mode of procedure.’

Mr. Gradgrind was much obliged. ‘Mr. M’Choakumchild, we only wait for you.’

So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained. Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

CHAPTER III
A LOOPHOLE

Mr. Gradgrind walked homeward from the school, in a state of considerable satisfaction. It was his school, and he intended it to be a model. He intended every child in it to be a model—just as the young Gradgrinds were all models.

There were five young Gradgrinds, and they were models every one. They had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed, like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture-room. The first object with which they had an association, or of which they had a remembrance, was a large black board with a dry Ogre chalking ghastly white figures on it.

Not that they knew, by name or nature, anything about an Ogre Fact forbid! I only use the word to express a monster in a lecturing castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.

No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles’s Wain like a locomotive engine-driver. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.

To his matter-of-fact home, which was called Stone Lodge, Mr. Gradgrind directed his steps. He had virtually retired from the wholesale hardware trade before he built Stone Lodge, and was now looking about for a suitable opportunity of making an arithmetical figure in Parliament. Stone Lodge was situated on a moor within a mile or two of a great town—called Coketown in the present faithful guide-book.

A very regular feature on the face of the country, Stone Lodge was. Not the least disguise toned down or shaded off that uncompromising fact in the landscape. A great square house, with a heavy portico darkening the principal windows, as its master’s heavy brows overshadowed his eyes. A calculated, cast up, balanced, and proved house. Six windows on this side of the door, six on that side; a total of twelve in this wing, a total of twelve in the other wing; four-and-twenty carried over to the back wings. A lawn and garden and an infant avenue, all ruled straight like a botanical account-book. Gas and ventilation, drainage and water-service, all of the primest quality. Iron clamps and girders, fire-proof from top to bottom; mechanical lifts for the housemaids, with all their brushes and brooms; everything that heart could desire.

Everything? Well, I suppose so. The little Gradgrinds had cabinets in various departments of science too. They had a little conchological cabinet, and a little metallurgical cabinet, and a little mineralogical cabinet; and the specimens were all arranged and labelled, and the bits of stone and ore looked as though they might have been broken from the parent substances by those tremendously hard instruments their own names; and, to paraphrase the idle legend of Peter Piper, who had never found his way into their nursery, If the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at more than this, what was it for good gracious goodness’ sake, that the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped it!

Their father walked on in a hopeful and satisfied frame of mind. He was an affectionate father, after his manner; but he would probably have described himself (if he had been put, like Sissy Jupe, upon a definition) as ‘an eminently practical’ father. He had a particular pride in the phrase eminently practical, which was considered to have a special application to him. Whatsoever the public meeting held in Coketown, and whatsoever the subject of such meeting, some Coketowner was sure to seize the occasion of alluding to his eminently practical friend Gradgrind. This always pleased the eminently practical friend. He knew it to be his due, but his due was acceptable.

He had reached the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town, which was neither town nor country, and yet was either spoiled, when his ears were invaded by the sound of music. The clashing and banging band attached to the horse-riding establishment, which had there set up its rest in a wooden pavilion, was in full bray. A flag, floating from the summit of the temple, proclaimed to mankind that it was ‘Sleary’s Horse-riding’ which claimed their suffrages. Sleary himself, a stout modern statue with a money-box at its elbow, in an ecclesiastical niche of early Gothic architecture, took the money. Miss Josephine Sleary, as some very long and very narrow strips of printed bill announced, was then inaugurating the entertainments with her graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act. Among the other pleasing but always strictly moral wonders which must be seen to be believed, Signor Jupe was that afternoon to ‘elucidate the diverting accomplishments of his highly trained performing dog Merrylegs.’ He was also to exhibit ‘his astounding feat of throwing seventy-five hundred-weight in rapid succession backhanded over his head, thus forming a fountain of solid iron in mid-air, a feat never before attempted in this or any other country, and which having elicited such rapturous plaudits from enthusiastic throngs it cannot be withdrawn.’ The same Signor Jupe was to ‘enliven the varied performances at frequent intervals with his chaste Shaksperean quips and retorts.’ Lastly, he was to wind them up by appearing in his favourite character of Mr. William Button, of Tooley Street, in ‘the highly novel and laughable hippo-comedietta of The Tailor’s Journey to Brentford.’

Thomas Gradgrind took no heed of these trivialities of course, but passed on as a practical man ought to pass on, either brushing the noisy insects from his thoughts, or consigning them to the House of Correction. But, the turning of the road took him by the back of the booth, and at the back of the booth a number of children were congregated in a number of stealthy attitudes, striving to peep in at the hidden glories of the place.

This brought him to a stop. ‘Now, to think of these vagabonds,’ said he, ‘attracting the young rabble from a model school.’

A space of stunted grass and dry rubbish being between him and the young rabble, he took his eyeglass out of his waistcoat to look for any child he knew by name, and might order off. Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa, peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board, and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!

Dumb with amazement, Mr. Gradgrind crossed to the spot where his family was thus disgraced, laid his hand upon each erring child, and said:

‘Louisa!! Thomas!!’

Both rose, red and disconcerted. But, Louisa looked at her father with more boldness than Thomas did. Indeed, Thomas did not look at him, but gave himself up to be taken home like a machine.

‘In the name of wonder, idleness, and folly!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, leading each away by a hand; ‘what do you do here?’

‘Wanted to see what it was like,’ returned Louisa, shortly.

‘What it was like?’

‘Yes, father.’

There was an air of jaded sullenness in them both, and particularly in the girl: yet, struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow, which brightened its expression. Not with the brightness natural to cheerful youth, but with uncertain, eager, doubtful flashes, which had something painful in them, analogous to the changes on a blind face groping its way.

She was a child now, of fifteen or sixteen; but at no distant day would seem to become a woman all at once. Her father thought so as he looked at her. She was pretty. Would have been self-willed (he thought in his eminently practical way) but for her bringing-up.

‘Thomas, though I have the fact before me, I find it difficult to believe that you, with your education and resources, should have brought your sister to a scene like this.’

‘I brought him, father,’ said Louisa, quickly. ‘I asked him to come.’

‘I am sorry to hear it. I am very sorry indeed to hear it. It makes Thomas no better, and it makes you worse, Louisa.’

She looked at her father again, but no tear fell down her cheek.

‘You! Thomas and you, to whom the circle of the sciences is open; Thomas and you, who may be said to be replete with facts; Thomas and you, who have been trained to mathematical exactness; Thomas and you, here!’ cried Mr. Gradgrind. ‘In this degraded position! I am amazed.’

‘I was tired, father. I have been tired a long time,’ said Louisa.

‘Tired? Of what?’ asked the astonished father.

‘I don’t know of what—of everything, I think.’

‘Say not another word,’ returned Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You are childish. I will hear no more.’ He did not speak again until they had walked some half-a-mile in silence, when he gravely broke out with: ‘What would your best friends say, Louisa? Do you attach no value to their good opinion? What would Mr. Bounderby say?’ At the mention of this name, his daughter stole a look at him, remarkable for its intense and searching character. He saw nothing of it, for before he looked at her, she had again cast down her eyes!

‘What,’ he repeated presently, ‘would Mr. Bounderby say?’  All the way to Stone Lodge, as with grave indignation he led the two delinquents home, he repeated at intervals ‘What would Mr. Bounderby say?’—as if Mr. Bounderby had been Mrs. Grundy.

 

 

Can I Be Both a Technophile and a Luddite?

Is it possible to be both a technophile and a Luddite?

I taught high school English from 1999-2001. That was during the era when the rallying cry for technology in education was, “A Computer in Every Classroom.”

And my response was, “Why?”

You know, because I’m a Luddite.

I taught in an almost brand new school building, and one of the points of pride for that rural district, which, incidentally, had immense teacher turnover because it couldn’t pay its starting teachers a living wage, was that it had “a computer in every classroom” at the new high school. And yes, there, at the back of my classroom, were two desktop computers. No printer, mind you (and not even access to a network printer). But two computers, ostensibly for student use.

Maybe I could have made better use of them — in fact, looking back, I’m sure I could have, but for the most part, the two student computers were a distraction, a classroom management nightmare. The kids were drawn to them, but not to support the language arts curriculum. Rather, they wanted to check their email, to play games, or to just goof around. Granted, I was brand new at classroom management (looking back, I think I should have just unplugged them unless they were part of a lesson plan), but I didn’t have the self-confidence as a new teacher to do that (and I didn’t want to inadvertently upset an administrator who wanted to see them on).

But what was the point of having two computers in my language arts classroom? I spent a lot of time working with students on developing thesis statements, and on helping them to gather evidence and develop arguments to support their theses. I spent a lot of time doing close textual analysis with my students of the books and poems we read.  I taught some grammar, and worked extensively on vocabulary.  I facilitated class discussions, and encouraged debate.  I designed group projects and activities.  I would have loved to have brought my students to a well-equipped computer lab that would have allowed them to type and edit their essays. But as I recall, we didn’t have a computer lab available for classroom teachers to use on a sign-up basis. We just had two computers. In every classroom. Because that was useful.

The United States and world maps on my bulletin board got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money. The inexpensive paperback dictionaries and thesaurus and rhyming dictionaries got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money, too.  But for me and my style of teaching, the two computers were useless.

I have no doubt that it would have been helpful to have had four or five computers so that I could have designed lessons requiring small groups to rotate through stations, one of which would have included the computers.  But two computers?  Not so helpful.  Frankly, I’d have preferred to have none.

The computers in my classroom had no software (other than MS Word) to support language arts education.

But our politicians were happy. Our school board members were happy. Because we had “a computer in every classroom.”

Are computers (and related technology) the keys to student success?

Will computers and technology, alone, boost student achievement?

Computers and technology might help. I don’t know. I think the jury is still out.

But a rare point of agreement I see on all sides of the current education policy debates is that good teachers boost student achievement. Even if we can’t define what constitutes good teaching, we know that teachers matter. People matter. Human interaction — it matters.

I am all for the use of technology to support and supplement learning.

But inspiration comes from human interaction, not iPads.

That is not to say that I think the iPads are useless for supporting learning. Quite the opposite!

Indeed, as a parent, in the past few years, I’ve found the iPad to be an invaluable tool to support my children’s learning. We have dozens and dozens of education-focused apps on the two iPads our family owns, and we’ve used them for everything from learning foreign languages to inspiring my daughter’s interest in epidemiology (at the moment she’s torn between whether she wants to be an epidemiologist or a math teacher).  My five year old loves to dissect frogs and rats.  She loves to learn about the human body.

For instance, while my oldest learned to read with Bob Books as her primary resource (other than me), my youngest and I sit together and work through the Reading Raven apps. That’s a fundamental change in their reading instruction (there was no iPad when my oldest learned to read), and they’re only four years apart. But in working through the phonics of Reading Raven, I quickly discovered that I need to sit at my daughter’s side and stop her from “gaming” the game by avoiding the hard work of sounding out words and reading them into the app (which kids can definitely do). Reading Raven on the iPad is a valuable tool; however, it is pretty much useless without adult support and interaction. That has been true for many of the education apps I’ve purchased, especially those aimed at young children.  I wonder how many early education teachers have encountered similar issues.  Maybe we should ask them (before buying technology for their classrooms).

The iPad has been invaluable for math as well. For my little one, I am a fan of Native Numbers and the math portions of the Teach Me apps. I could do a whole blog post just about math apps for my oldest, but some of the highlights are the arithmetic drills of Instant Interactive’s Math Drills, the fun of Factor Samurai, the beauty of Algebra Touch, the entertainment of Operation Math, and so on, and so on.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Squeebles apps, which are so popular with my kids that they have their own folder on the iPad, nor the amazing Splash Math apps, each of which covers a whole year’s math curriculum (although my older one groans about firing them up). And then there is Motion Math, and Lobster Diver, and Hungry Fish. I’ve been able to not only assist my eldest to drill and excel on the basics (e.g., math facts), but I’ve gotten help from apps in assisting her to see, intuit, and understand concepts that my explanations alone couldn’t help her to fully grasp (e.g., negative numbers and fractions).

In addition, broader technology offerings have helped my oldest to solve problems and learn skills. For instance, when she struggled with the question of why 0/3 is 0, but 3/0 is “undefined,” a frantic plea to my Facebook friends was answered by, among others, a college friend who is an astrophysicist, and a former math teacher colleague (he now teaches physics). Those two generated an explanation I could relay to her that relied on only 3rd grade level math, but nonetheless made sense to her. We’ve also used Khan Academy for area and perimeter, and countless websites for various research projects (although I’ve had to do a lot of supplementing the school curriculum on the issue of how we determine which websites are reliable sources of information).

We have dozens of apps that teach various science and social studies topics, that let my kids browse works of art, tune their musical instruments, and practice their Spanish and Hebrew. I grew up with an Apple II+ computer in my house starting in 3rd or 4th grade, and although I am far from a techie, I can’t imagine not having technology play a significant role in my kids’ lives, including — perhaps especially — their educations.

So yes, I’m a technophile. I think there is amazing educational technology out there. We should make technology resources available to all teachers and students to support classroom learning. In fact, I think there are some things that technology does better than traditional paper and pencil can.

But just like the answer isn’t always “a computer in every classroom,” I think we need to be thoughtful about the technology we bring into classrooms.

We need to not only say, “Wow!” to new technology, but we need to always be asking, “Why?”

Most critically, we need to remember that technology can’t replace the human interaction between teachers and students.

For instance, rather than slogans like “a computer in every classroom,” it makes much more sense to me to have sufficient computer labs and iPad carts to make the technology available to whole classes at the same time. A teacher who is doing a technology-based lesson should be able to sign up for an iPad cart or a tech lab. But a teacher who is not doing a technology-based lesson should have the option — without getting labeled a Luddite — to teach in a traditional classroom free of high-tech distractions. Our kids need both.

As parents, as community members, and as taxpayers, we need to support our teachers, including supporting our teachers’ use of technology as one tool — among many — in their toolkits. But it is a waste for everyone involved when a district makes technology purchasing decisions that aren’t teacher driven. Our teachers know what will work for them and their students in their classrooms.  That’s why I support teacher-requested projects through DonorsChoose.org (although it would be even better if our teachers had the budgets to pay for those projects without donor help).  

As a parent, it seems to me that too often these days, we treat our teachers as technology’s tools, rather than the other way around. We need to trust our teachers’ professional judgment, and not impose technology on them for the sake of technology. We need to make sure that our teachers’ focus is on the quality of our children’s skills, and not on the gee-whiz value of the embedded gifs in their PowerPoint projects. I’d rather see a thoughtful and well-reasoned handwritten essay free of grammar and spelling mistakes than a fancy PowerPoint riddled with careless errors and so focused on mastering the technology that it fails to display careful thought or reasoned argument.

I’d rather our teachers tell us what they need for their classrooms.

What really worries me is looking at our local school budget and seeing that we are downsizing the staffing line items (e.g., for instructional aides) while we increase the technology line items. At my last local board meeting, I heard a group of our elementary school teachers ask the Board for many things, but instructional aides and reading support people were much higher on their list than new technology (although to be fair, they certainly said that the antiquated technology at their “Science & Technology Magnet” was a problem).

I am all for technology in schools, and I think that positing staff vs. technology is a false choice. We can staff our schools appropriately, and we can fund appropriate technology if we get away from catchy slogans like “a Smart Board in every classroom” or “an iPad for every student.” Choices about classroom technology should be driven by teachers’ requests and instructional needs — which may vary substantially from teacher to teacher, and not by computer-based standardized testing concerns. Yet, here, at least, it seems to be quite the opposite, as our district’s business manager is quoted as saying that the district has a sense of urgency because the state-mandated PARCC assessments will require students to take the tests online.

As parents and as taxpayers, upcoming standardized tests aren’t acceptable reasons for choosing technology over teachers.

If we have to make a choice, the choice is simple: pick people over technology. There’s really no contest.

And before we go buying technology for the sake of technology, we taxpayers need to stop saying “Wow!” and start asking “Why?”

Maybe we’ll like the answers, but we won’t know until we start asking the questions.