Peace, Love, and Play: Our Future Generations

Education, Front Page, Human Interest, Science, Teachers' Corner

Peace. Love. Play.

This motto perfectly describes the Mamma Mel’s Learning Center, a bilingual, progressive early childhood program in Rincón, Puerto Rico. The school offers a full immersion model, exposing the students, ages 3-8, to English and Spanish every day, all day. Melanie Smith, the program director, believes that children learn through play, and she has created a beautiful, eco-friendly space for the kids, including an art studio, organic vegetable garden, yoga classes, and music.

The Mamma Mel’s curriculum emphasizes respect and love for the environment and our small community… which is where I come in. Since August, my Tuesday afternoons have been filled with the laughter of K-2 students during our weekly oceanography workshops. As a marine scientist, who spent nearly 10 years in academic research, I have discovered my true passion involves ocean education and outreach. Teaching my community, and especially its children, about the sea, a crucial resource that we are inextricably linked to, provides an incredible opportunity to “give back”, after having the privilege of living my dream of becoming an oceanographer.

A firm believer in hands-on education, I have an amazing opportunity to teach these students outside, at the beach. They take a stroll to the ocean for lunch and play;  then we begin our lessons about the deep blue sea. Their eagerness to learn, week after week, astounds me, and they can hardly wait for the topic of the day to be announced. We have covered everything from biology to geology, from the ocean zones to how beaches are formed. The children have created their own marine food chains, learned about sea turtles, built a coral reef, and imagined life as the tiny, microscopic plankton that support the entire ocean food web.

My favorite workshop focused on marine pollution and debris, which is a huge threat to the health of our oceans. Plastics are, by far, the worst offender. Did you know that ~74 million pounds of plastic are spread throughout the world’s ocean gyres (circular currents)? Over 50% of all marine mammal species on the threatened list have been observed entangled in or ingesting plastic. Tiny, toxic micro-plastics have increased 100 times in the North Pacific Gyre over the past 40 years and are eaten by marine life, which then are consumed by us.

After discussing the problems with ocean trash and how long it takes to biodegrade, the students happily (and quite enthusiastically) helped with a beach cleanup, filling an entire garbage bag in less than 15 minutes. They were so proud of every piece of trash, and my heart filled with joy while observing their precious hands tidying Mother Earth. To wrap up our lesson, we made a pact to reduce the amount of trash we created, pick up litter during every beach visit, and share what we learned with friends and family.

As I watched the kids walking, with lunch boxes in hand, back to school, I realized the importance and impact of spending time with our future generations. It truly makes a difference. We are leaving this planet to these brilliant and passionate children, who deserve a beautiful Earth to enjoy and care for.

What can you do to help minimize marine debris? Use less plastic. Recycle. Opt for reusable bags. Cut apart plastic 6-pack rings before disposal. Avoid single use plastics (straws, utensils, plates, to-go cups, water bottles, etc.). Bring your own to-go containers.

I dedicate this piece to my mom, Cindy Schwierzke, a beloved Flour Bluff ISD kindergarten teacher, who passed in 2012. Her legacy shines bright.

Source: One World, One Ocean. The Plastics Breakdown: An Infographic. http://www.oneworldoneocean.com/blog/entry/plastics-breakdown-an-infographic

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Sorry I Forgot I Am Here

Education, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Science, Teachers' Corner

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     If the title of this article seems a bit ambiguous, it is.  I did not write it; my 8th-grade granddaughter did.  When I dropped her at school just as morning was breaking, I asked her to send me a text when she got inside the building so that I would know that she arrived safely.  She agreed, then promptly forgot.  When I finally received her text, I laughed out loud.  Had she arrived safely, or was she distraught at not knowing the status of her existence?  Texting, tweeting, and other modes of short, fast communication are ruining the fine art of writing.  Add to that a general lack of practice in the modern English classroom, and we find that we have a generation of kids who are not adept at producing good writing.  Let’s face it.  They text and tweet more than they write formal compositions, which means they are practicing bad writing all day long.  But wait, there’s more!

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     In the August edition of the Texas Lone Star, a publication of the Texas Association of School Boards, writer Ellie Hanlon addresses this topic in Texas.  She refers to an article in the Education Post that describes the “angst of employers who have to manage far too many employees who cannot produce comprehensible written material.”  She further notes that writing assessment results in Texas have been poor, with only 72 percent of seventh-grade students meeting even the very basic standards in 2015.  As a teacher who taught writing successfully for nearly thirty years, I will add one more reason for the lack of writing skills in Texas: ten years of over 80% of Texas schools using a heavily criticized, error-riddled, “teach-to-the-test”, scripted, K-12 online educational curriculum (CSCOPE).  Teachers are struggling to recover from its adverse effects in many areas, only one of which is writing.  Because it was in existence for so long, even many graduating college students are unable to write a decent sentence or paragraph these days.

     Prior to CSCOPE, teachers who asked their students to write regularly, deducted points for style and mechanical errors, and insisted on complete sentences for all responses created good writers. Writing is one of those subjects that only has so much to learn in terms of the mechanics of the skill. Once students learn the rules, that’s it.  No one is inventing new ones.  However, as the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”  In Frans Johansson’s book, The Click Momentthe author contends that “deliberate practice is a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures.” For example, in tennis, chess, classical music, and writing, the rules never change, so you can study up to get better and even become a master.   One of the many weaknesses in CSCOPE was its lack of direct writing instruction coupled with lots of independent – not group – practice.  When teachers and parents fail to insist that their children use the skills they have acquired – well and often – they will lose them.  Students must practice good writing at least as much as they are practicing bad writing.  So, how can the teacher and the parent help the child become a better writer?

     Hanlon’s article offers up a few valid questions for all educators to ponder as they attempt to overcome the deficiencies in reading, writing, and speaking:

  • Are students reading, writing, and discussing ideas every day in all classes?
  • Are students reading and writing a variety of text types?
  • Are students revising and editing written work by incorporating feedback from teachers and peers?
  • Are students learning how to use reading, writing, and thinking skills to learn new material and develop ideas in ALL content areas?

     Reading, writing, and speaking skills may be taught in the English class, but they must be practiced in all classes and – yes –  even at home.  Here’s a list of questions I devised for parents of these little destroyers of the language:

  • Are parents discussing matters of importance with their children and asking them questions that promote thoughtful responses?
  • Are parents asking their children to tell about their daily experiences using rich detail and good story order?
  • Are parents taking the time to read articles from newspapers, magazines, and books with their children to prompt such discussions?
  • Are parents insisting that their children speak clearly and explain or defend their thoughts?
  • Are parents checking homework for legibility, clarity, and logical thinking and asking their children to re-write the responses when even one of these elements is missing?
  • Are parents asking questions that encourage the children to be more specific in their responses?  That is, are they teaching them to elaborate?

     Even pre-school children can carry on intelligent conversations, think logically, articulate their positions on a wide variety of topics, and turn those thoughts into elaborate, coherent stories. Texas kids and teachers are recovering from the Dark Ages in Texas education, (aka, the CSCOPE era), a time when a one-size-fits-all curriculum traded creative thought and lively discourse in the classroom for mindless group work and repetitive lessons that were geared toward a test score instead of an education.  If our children are to become adept at writing, we must ask them to read the master writers.  When Arnold Samuelson interviewed Ernest Hemingway and picked his brain on how to become a master writer, Hemingway handed him a piece of paper and said, “Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you, and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”  When students read great writing regularly, their brains are exposed to the patterns of language in a meaningful way.  The titles are below:

  1. The Blue Hotel (public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat (public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary (free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners (public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black (public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage (free ebook | public library) by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace (free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks (public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell (public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse (public library)
  13. The Enormous Room (public library) by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights (free ebook | public library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago (free ebook | public library) by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American (free ebook | public library) by Henry James
  17. Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” — Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (public library)

     Long before Hemingway’s advice to Samuelson, Benjamin Franklin knew the importance of emulating the masters.  He was so embarrassed of his writing skills that he sat for hours copying the writings of the literary greats.  He knew something then that many have forgotten or just ignore:  Practice makes perfect.  Even the latest brain research supports what ol’ Ben was doing; he was learning the patterns of writing by practicing what good writers do. If we want to get better at anything, we must put ourselves in situations where we can hone the skill by learning the simple patterns of language that lay the foundation for understanding and producing more complex patterns through regular practice.  Leslie Hart wrote in a scholarly article about how the brain is a pattern-seeking device.

The brain is not logical or sequential in the ways it takes in and makes meaning of input from the world outside. Instead, it is constantly searching for patterns to understand in the surrounding environment. In their instruction, teachers should allow students to identify, understand, and apply patterns. We cannot predict what any one particular child will perceive as a pattern because so much depends upon prior knowledge, the existing neural networking of the brain used to process the input, and the context in which the learning takes place.

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       To be clear, my granddaughter knew what was wrong with her text, and she chuckled about it, too, but we had “the talk” anyway. She is not offended when her granny points out or corrects her errors. After all, everyone makes a mistake now and then, even Granny. (She really enjoys catching me out, as do most of my friends and family.)  Her cousin got a similar talk from me when he was doing his math homework last week.  He tried to use a sentence fragment to answer a math question that required that he give the reason behind a wrong answer from a make-believe student. He wrote: “Because she multiplied by 2 instead of 3.” I made him erase and write a complete thought with proper punctuation: “Because the girl multiplied by 2 instead of 3, she got the wrong answer.”  I learned this from my seventh-grade English teacher, Miss Waterman.  Thanks goodness she set me on the proper path of using complete thoughts because my senior English teacher, Mrs. Lawson, required that we stand and address her in proper English, which meant using good grammar, good sentence structure, and clear speech.  It was good training. (She would be proud that I don’t allow children, mine or anyone else’s, to mumble an answer.  Clear speech is as important as legible handwriting if the message is to be conveyed.)  We must serve as the examples for proper speech and writing, planting language patterns in the brains of our children if we want to help them get better at such an important skill, a skill that is in danger of destroying our ability to express our thoughts.

For more information on how the brain works, visit:  http://nationalgeographic.org/education/brain-games/

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The Importance of Having a Pencil

Education, Front Page, Opinion/Editorial, Teachers' Corner

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     “Pick your battles,” the lady who had never actually taught school said at the teacher in-service training. “If a student fails to bring a pencil, just lend him one.”

     Then, she proceeded to tell the group of novice teachers how to set up a station where a student could simply borrow a pencil and then return it at the end of the class period. It sounded like a good idea since some parents had criticized my policy of giving after-school detention to students who came to class unprepared. I rarely had more than five kids for detention in any given week, but maybe that was too many. Plus, I only had one year under my belt. What did I know? Surely, the teacher trainer knew more than I did, so I tried it.

     I placed 24 freshly sharpened, yellow pencils with new eraser tops in a coffee can I decorated with colorful paper flowers. I put up a cute little sign that said: Borrow and Return, Please. I even drew a smiley face on the sign and colored it with a highlighter so that the students would notice it immediately upon entering the classroom. “Great!” I thought. “This is going to save time!” I wouldn’t have to write detention slips for kids with no pencils or call parents on kids who failed to show up for detention or defend my philosophy of how to make kids responsible by actually holding them responsible. That lady at the service center was some kind of a genius!

Pencil

     I don’t recall exactly how many days went by before all the pencils disappeared, but I am sure it was less than a week. I reminded the little rascals that part of the privilege of borrowing is returning that which has been borrowed. “Do you understand?” I asked. They nodded. “You are on your honor. I realize it’s easy to forget to return the pencil when you are hurrying to get your things together to get to the next class.” They nodded. “So, I am taping a big flower to the top of each pencil so that you won’t forget.” They giggled.

     “But, how can we use the eraser?” one bright little chap asked.

     “Well, I thought of that. In here,” I said, pointing to a second decorative coffee can, “are 24 big, red erasers. The rule for them is the same as for the pencils. Return what you borrow. Got it?” They nodded again. All was well – or so I thought.

     Again, I am not certain when every pencil – and its decorative blossom – went missing. I guess about the same time as the 24 big, red erasers! I decided at that very moment that the lady from the service center was an idiot, and I wanted to tell her just what I thought of her stupid idea. Alas, I controlled myself and simply returned to my former practice of giving kids the “opportunity” to be responsible. Those who came prepared to my class were able to complete their work without receiving detention. Those who didn’t suffered the consequences. It was that simple.

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     Years later, a sociologist, who was selling the idea of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems), told me that the pencil-lending program failed because I didn’t reward the little darlings immediately and without fail for returning the writing utensils. I actually tried this when I was forced to hand out good-behavior coupons (30 per week) to students who came to class on time, waited to be recognized to speak, treated others with respect, and brought a pencil. The idea was to reward the obedient child in front of the non-compliant one so that Mr. Naughty would get the big picture: Those who follow the rules receive rewards right away. Once again, I put the pencils out. I thanked profusely the students who returned the pencils and gave them coupons they could turn in for a chance to win a Walkman or a bicycle in a drawing at the end of the six weeks. (This was about 90% of the students, the ones who always did what I asked of them anyway.)

     I could go on, but the following is the short version of what happened next:

• The good kids continued to display good behavior, danced to music on new Walkmans, and rode new bikes around the neighborhood.
• The teachers often made things up so that Mr. Naughty could at least get a coupon and a taste of life on the other side.
• Mr. Naughty often left this highly coveted coupon on the floor and sometimes even refused to take it.
• Schools spent lots of money on food and prizes.
• Mr. Naughty still received detention, in-school suspension, and sometimes even a trip to the alternative campus.
• Teachers tried to convince the authorities that we were wasting valuable resources and lots of teaching time on a program that failed to reach the targeted 10%.
• Many of us retired and quit fighting the system.
• PBIS conditioned kids to acting responsibly only if there is an immediate reward.
• The good students grew up, went off to college, and failed because they just didn’t see a good grade or a good education as reward enough for doing the work.
• Then, they entered the workforce and expected to have well-paying jobs just because they had degrees.
• They wrote “IDK” on job application forms when asked to describe their “work ethic.”
• Cities such as Richmond, California, started paying career criminals (to the tune of $9000 per year) NOT to kill people. (This is for real.)
• Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I lost a record number of pencils!

     Okay, maybe I’ve exaggerated a bit. We still have many great kids (maybe not 90%) who have overcome such nonsense and will go on to be successful, contributing members of society. I wouldn’t bother getting up each morning if I thought otherwise. My best advice to a new teacher, however, is to ask her students to walk through the classroom door with tools in hand prepared to work hard every day. Then, hold them accountable. This approach might just revive the strong work ethic that many of us remember so well.

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