Friday, December 31, 2010

You Never Know (Top Ten Posts From 2010)

New Year's Eve is my least favorite holiday, mainly because I'm a lifelong early riser and staying up past midnight screws me up for several days thereafter. That said, I like the idea of celebrating the new year, being a natural time to reflect, to take stock, and then get on with your life of doing. So without further ado, I'll get on with what all the cool kids are doing and take a look at my first full Gregorian calendar year as a blogger.

Here are the posts you read the most this year, followed by a few statistical details about Teacher Tom's blogging year that I, at least, found interesting.

2.  Ghost Mud

4.  Boy Art

The blog saw a 1001.23 percent increase in readership in 2010, perhaps not particularly impressive given that I was only at it for the last 6 months in 2009, the comparison period, but still it feels good to look back and see the last year has been a time of growth. Nearly 100,000 visitors dropped by the site, viewing nearly 200,000 pages in the process.

Most of you live in the U.S., but one of the beauty parts of the internet is that geography is no longer a factor, although language continues to be. The top ten Teacher Tom reading nations in 2010 were:

  1. U.S.
  2. Australia
  3. Canada
  4. United Kingdom
  5. Singapore
  6. New Zealand
  7. Italy
  8. Germany
  9. Philippines
  10. India

And, of course, it's only natural that my home town (Seattle) was number one when it came to breaking it down by cities, but Australia lead the way with 4 of the top 10:

  1. Seattle
  2. Melbourne
  3. Sydney
  4. London
  5. Silver Spring (MD)
  6. New York
  7. Austin (TX)
  8. Perth
  9. Chicago
  10. Brisbane

Most of the other statistics are even more navel-gazingly boring than these, although I was interested in the top "key words" typed into search engines to find the blog. If you exclude all the versions of "Teacher Tom," or "Teacher Tom's blog," the top searches are:

  1. preschool water wall
  2. reflection of a preschool teacher
  3. sea otter lyrics chris david

Now I get how the "water wall" search takes people to Teacher Tom because I wrote a couple posts on the topic, and "reflection of a preschool teacher" makes sense because the tag line at the top of the blog used to read "Reflections on teaching and learning from preschoolers," but since the folks who used that search term only spent an average of 2 seconds on the site it tells me they are deeply disappointed. "Sea otter lyrics chris david," however seems odd, even though I know what these people are after: we sing a song in class called "Sea Otter" and I learned it from Chris David, my own daughter's preschool teacher. The sad part is I've never written a post that includes those lyrics, meaning that 255 of you have clicked away empty handed. I suppose I ought to be writing a post that includes those lyrics in the new year.

But the oddest thing of all . . . Several times a week, someone finds my blog with some version of the search term "J. William Oldenburg," and if you add them all together it amounts to one of the top ten searches used to find Teacher Tom in 2010. I tried it on Google myself, and sure enough, my post entitled "The Blueberry Story" from back in July of 2009 is at the top of the list with a "star" no less. Mr. Oldenburg, who I'm not saying is guilty of anything, is obviously still out there being charming.

It just goes to show, you never know. Blogging is a strange and wonderful thing.

Happy New Year!

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coffee Beans

Woodland Park doesn't always smell so good, but during the last week before the holiday break, we had both cinnamon dough and coffee beans going at once. It was an olfactory pleasure to come into the classroom each morning.

I don't know how easy it is to get coffee beans in other parts of the world, but around here it's a fairly easy thing. Home to Starbucks and at least a half dozen other large roasters, there seems to always be some around if you just know who to ask. In fact, our garden paths were once paved with over-roasted, unroasted, and partially roasted beans, and while we've lost our source for such massive quantities, there's still Teacher Aaron across the street who has family ties to the business. This batch came from him.

This is a mixture of roasted and green coffee beans -- rather pretty. The adults joke that the caffeine will somehow make its way into the kids blood streams, and maybe it does judging by how enthusiastically the beans get to scooped and poured. Our magnificent sensory table was slammed all week.

As you can see, we're using large yoghurt cups and funnels made from the tops of 2-liter soda bottles to go along with the shovels and scoops. That was enough.

We talk a lot about trying to keep the beans in the table, and the kids get it, even the 2-year-olds, who after a few experiments with throwing it into the air, are usually pretty good about keeping them at home. Still, a lot of it winds up on the floor and when the brooms come out, they want to help so much. The problem with young children and sweeping, however, is that as hard as they work at it, the net result is usually to just scatter the debris farther and wider. 

This idea from my friend Jenny at Let The Children Play worked wonderfully.

We put a target on the floor.

Some of them insisted on using the adult-sized brooms.

But we had more success with brooms our own size.

As you can see in the lower right-hand corner of the picture above, 2-year-old Henry got the idea of helping his friends with the fun by intentionally adding to the mess.

And it was more fun, but I'm glad his friends didn't decide to imitate his thoughtful efforts.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Oh No, The Chinese Are Beating Us!

Despite the fact that American parents report that they are more satisfied with public schools than at any other time in the last quarter century, we continue to be force-fed the urban myth that public education is failing our children and threatening America's greatness. The latest volley in what looks to me like a "long game" to make education a for-profit enterprise, is the hysteria over China's recent success on international standardized tests, prompting Education Secretary Arne Duncan (a businessman with no teaching experience) to hyperventilate:

"We have to see this as a wake-up call . . . I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable . . . We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we are being out-educated."

Consider me more than a skeptic, Mr. Duncan, consider me an opponent. And it's more than a quibble to many of us, but rather a fight for the future of our children. This response is typical of the pedal to the metal, trust-us-we-know-what-we're-doing-we're-businessmen propaganda surrounding the issue of education reform. They've spent billions of dollars convincing us that we are in crisis and are now attempting to march us into a future for our children that will look a lot like China.

Consider how the Chinese have managed to achieve these test scores, essentially turning their schools over to full time training for these tests. It's also interesting to note that while our elected officials have rushed in to tout the results of these tests, the Chinese government, notorious for blowing its own horn at the slightest provocation, has remained suspiciously silent.

Michigan State University professor Yong Zhao has been keeping a close eye on China's official response by monitoring it's main state-controlled media portal, finding nothing applauding the results, but instead this from parents and students:

"Since my daughter began 7th grade . . . she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don't have any self-study time, or physical education classes . . .

"This kind of practice has seriously damaged students' health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child's health gets worse day by day . . .

"This is not the end. After coming home after 10 p.m., she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5 a.m. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?"

And from a student:

"I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school," says one student. "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day." 

Zhao concludes:

That's the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.

Is this the future Arne Duncan and his gung-ho cabal of "reformers" envision? If so, it's not what the American people want.

From Monty Neill writing in The Washington Post:

Surveys have found that parents, communities, even legislators want far more from their schools than only academics -- never mind academics reduced to test prep. Their goals for schools include basic skills, critical thinking, arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills, citizenship, and physical and emotional health.

Yet despite our overall satisfaction with our public schools and our desire for a genuine, well-rounded education for our children, we find our top education officials calling for the opposite. And not just calling for it, but pulling the fire alarm, inventing a crisis where none exists.

Yes, we do have schools that are failing and for the children in these schools it is a real crisis. It's not an accident that these failing schools also serve impoverished communities. Schools in affluent or middle class neighborhoods are not failing -- those are the ones receiving high marks from parents. The problem here is poverty, not education.

From Chales M. Blow writing in the New York Times:

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42 percent of American children live in low-income homes and about a fifth live in poverty. It gets worse. The number of children living in poverty has risen 33 percent since 2000. For perspective, the child population of the country over all increased by only about 3 percent over that time. And, according to a 2007 Unicef report on child poverty, the U.S. ranked last among 24 wealthy countries.

This is the real crisis, one that will be compounded if the Duncan-style reformers have their way, who are hell-bent on blaming teachers with a well-funded propaganda campaign, epitomized by the "documentary" Waiting for Superman.

From Leonie Haimson writing over at NYC Public School Parents, while debunking the movie's use of fraudulent statistics:

In reality, one of the most serious problems plaguing our urban schools, along with excessive class sizes, overcrowding, and poor support for teachers and students, is the fact that we have far too many inexperienced educators revolving through our high-needs schools each year. Can you imagine if 40 percent of physicians or attorneys left their jobs after four years? A national emergency would be declared, with a commission appointed to find out how their working conditions could be improved.

Yet instead of examining this critical issue objectively, the movie Waiting for Superman cites false statistics in their effort to scapegoat teachers, unfairly blaming them for all the failures of our urban schools. The film features the views of Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institute, a well-known conservative critic of equitable educational funding, claiming that the best way to improve our schools would be to fire 5-10% of teachers each year.

Fire the teachers! Even in those middle class schools where parents are satisfied. Fire them and replace with . . . what? Well, according to the Duncan crowd, experience doesn't matter when it comes to teaching, so we can just replace them like we would a cashier at a McDonald's.

From Michael Dunn writing on his blog Modern School:

Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and others have been spewing the ridiculous lie that teacher experience and education do not matter very much, as indicated by the fact that student test scores are often low, even when their teachers are experienced.

This should come as no surprise since standardized tests measure students' material security and social privilege, not the quality of their teachers. Any teacher at a low income school, whether young, old, experienced, or novice, will have lower test scores than those teaching at middle class schools.

As Neill writes in his Washington Post piece:

. . . the attacks on experienced teachers seem more motivated by politics and budgets than by research evidence. In a period of sharp budget cuts, the claim that teacher experience does not matter is increasingly used to justify the hiring of under-prepared novices to replace experienced teachers. The novices are expected to use scripted curricula to train, not educate, their mostly low-income and minority-group students, in order to boost test scores. If test scores rise like hot air balloons, that will be presented as "evidence" of success.

And from Renee Moore writing on her blog TeachMoore:

. . . the students of high needs schools need stable, highly accomplished teachers, not just enthusiastic, short-term missionaries. All new teachers are enthusiastic and determined to make a difference for their students. But when placed into districts and schools that have suffered long-term neglect and inequity, many of them either leave the setting, leave the profession, or leave their passion for teaching behind.

I don't think these reformers are stupid people, so in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, and the entire lack of evidence (other than anecdotes) supporting their positions, why do they keep pushing this crazed reform agenda? And not just pushing it, but sounding the alarm for it, inventing a crisis when there are plenty of real ones to address?

I think this post from Bob Valiant strikes pretty close to the truth:

In April, 1999 the Wall Street financiers at Merrill Lynch published a 193 page "in-depth report" titled The Book of Knowledge, Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry. Early in the report they noted: "The K-12 market is the largest segment of the education industry with approximately $360 billion spent annually or over $6,500 per year per child. Despite the size, the K-12 market is the most problematic to invest in today. Entrenched bureaucracies and personal and political interests contribute to the challenges facing this sector."

Public schools HAVE to fail in order to crack open this egg and give these financiers access to the $360 billion they are after (estimates are that it is around $700 billion today). No matter what logic you use to explain the problems or successes of public education, it will be of no avail: public schools HAVE to fail.

Public schools have to fail. There is no alternative. So give up trying to argue otherwise with facts and logic.

The mockumentary Waiting For Superman made this clear. Funded by millionaires, the movie told the story of some privatized schools in Harlem portrayed as saviors of the children otherwise condemned to public schools. Privatized schools mostly funded by hedge fund millionaires on Wall Street. They spent two million dollars to promote the film nationally. Another major film titled The Lottery told a similar tale: children in Harlem desperate to escape public schools. Funded by more millionaires.

In tough economic times, business needs to seek out new profit centers and with a $700 billion pot just sitting there waiting to be looted, who can blame them for eyeing it greedily? But first, they need to improve their prospective investment by cutting costs, the biggest of which are teacher salaries. Hence the campaign to demonize teachers and their unions (contrary to evidence), to de-professionalize them, to insist that experience doesn't matter, and to create as much job insecurity as possible because people who are worried about losing their jobs won't complain.

Of course, they're going after the teachers. Like I said, this is a long game designed to turn our educational system into just another profit center.

(And before you jump into the comments with "But what else can we do?" types of laments, please know that there are mountains of better ideas out there, all of which have more real world data behind them than the approach of these millionaire reformers. For starters, we can look at nations in which education seems to be working for all, like Finland, proposals for holding schools "accountable" like the one found in Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, or any one of Alfie Cohen's dozen books. The solutions are out there, they just don't have millions of dollars promoting them like the Brooks Brothers reformers do.)

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another Snap Painting Failure

Earlier this month I started to write a post about "snap painting," but the children grew quickly bored and/or frustrated and turned it into a pirate ship painting party. In fact, ever since that day whenever there is black paint outside, the boat's exterior gets a further touch-up, although the interior has remained clean.

So while boat painting has been on the children's minds, snap painting has remained on mine. It is just too good a concept to let drop: painting rubber bands then snapping them on paper to create these cool, spidery, freckly splats.

I was working on the theory that I'd made this simple concept too complicated the first time. Not only did the kids have to paint the rubber bands, a challenging target, but then hold the entire frame down with one hand while pulling up on the rubber band with the other. Then, as a reward, they received a backspatter of tempera paint in the face. Is it any wonder that most of the kids only gave it a single go before wanting to do something else?

I sought to eliminate the "holding the frame down problem" by building larger PVC frames that hooked under the bottom of the work bench on either side, which would allow the kids to stretch the bands as far as they wanted without lifting the entire apparatus.

I designed them to be a little bit loose so that as the paper got filled with paint, an adult could carefully move the frame to unpainted parts of the the paper, hopefully without smearing what we'd already done. I even provided milk crates and step ladders for the kids to stand on when they wanted to reach the middle of the table.

I was imagining that when we covered the entire sheet of dark blue paper with white dots and squiggles, it would look like a starry night, an appropriate image for us to consider during the run-up to the long night of the winter solstice. And, in all honesty, I thought by limiting the paint selection to white (pirate ships, I'm told, are "black"), I'd avoid having it turn into just another boat painting extravaganza. I really wanted to give snap painting a fair chance.

To address the "face full of paint" issue we got out our safety glasses.

So now it would just be about painting those rubber bands and snapping them. Of course, if you look closely at the photos, you'll see that kids lost patience with the process almost immediately, and while there was a little more snap experimentation than the last time, the frames and rubber bands were really just in the way of a painting project.

After about 20 minutes, we got the frames out of their way.

Darn it! I'm still not ready to give up on snap painting, there is a good idea here, but we just haven't figured out the execution. 

The reliance on paint brushes is part of the problem. It's too tempting to just use them to apply the paint directly to the paper without hassling with the intermediary of a rubber band . . .

But I'm also starting to think it's too much of a one trick pony -- one or two snaps and you're done. Maybe there needs to be more to it, like a target . . .

Or maybe I still need to work on the frames. Of course, I'm already imagining a giant one involving massive amounts of paint and butcher paper on a wall some feet away, kind of like a huge paint slingshot. If we can make an "everyone clear out event" from each snap it could be a blast . . .

Or, going the other direction, maybe we need smaller, hand-sized frames so the kids can move them around easily and quickly on their own, letting them "dip" their rubber bands in paint rather than painting them . . .

And thinking about the back splash issue, maybe we need to be doing this in Halloween masks . . .

So far I've failed to succeed, but that's how we learn.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Three Tales From Boxing Day

As we played with our boxes and other packaging just before the holiday break, 2-year-old Henry watched Calder disappear into a large box. He waited for a time, wearing a worried expression, before muttering, "Calder, come out." When Calder didn't come out, he walked to the box and touched it. "Calder, come out."

He still didn't come out.

Henry walked around the box, speaking softly, almost to himself, "Calder, come out. Calder, come out," circling until he got to the open end. He squatted to peer in. There was Calder. Henry sprang back to his feet and hit the box with both hands. There was a hole in the top of the box and he shouted joyfully into it, "Calder, come out!"

Calder scrambled out of the box. The boys stood beaming at one another, face-to-face for a moment. Then Calder dropped to his knees to crawl back into the box. This time Henry knew what to do. He shouted into the hole, "Calder, come out!"

Again, Calder came out.

They did it again and again, each time more delighted with themselves, one another, and the game they had made together.


Among the miscellany of materials we played with on our "boxing day" were these spongy, plastic "bricks" that had protected our new lockers in shipment. At some point freshly minted 4-year-old Sylvia found herself alone among the packaging materials. She quietly got to work coloring them with markers, telling the adults in the area that she was making a TV show.

These bricks aren't exactly made from the most marker friendly material, resisting instead of absorbing the color, but it didn't seem to bother her as she dove into her world of creation, working for a long time before finally arranging them on (behind) the screen.

Sylvia was not the one who promoted her new program (although she did declare it was ready to watch), that would be me, the self-appointed head of the network marketing department. "Sylvia made a TV show for us." I just said it once, and that not very loudly, but it was enough to draw an eager audience.

I don't know if Sylvia made her TV show with an audience in mind, I tend to think not, but when they came she stood back with the rest of us to see what would happen.

After we sat staring for a what seemed like several minutes, Sylvia said, "I didn't make a remote."


The kids incorporated our every day cars into their box-play, the older boys using the cardboard and tubes to explore gravity and the physics of wheeled vehicles.

Sadie, however, had other ideas about how to play with cars. Hers made friends, made plans, then drove off into "the garage" where they would live together "until Sunday." When the basket of every day dolls is all the way across the room, one apparently makes do.


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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

We played with the boxes first, for a whole week, well before we tore them open to see what was inside.

I'm all in for recycling, but one of the things we lose when we rush too quickly to toss them in the bin is all that value to be wrung from them before sending them to be remanufactured. "Reduce, reuse, recycle" is the mantra, to which I add, "in that order," to emphasize it refers to a process, not an either-or proposition.

I used to ask the Woodland Park families to save all their packaging and bring it into the school for the New Year. My idea was to make a huge mound of the stuff, to play with of course, but also to illustrate the mountains of waste we each create, but no one ever brought anything. Most only remembered after they'd already disposed of it.

So this is my own refuse collection. I like how children play with the boxes and bows, and they always do unless they're given something with a screen on it, or that puts them in front of a screen, then they just park it on a sofa with eyes still aglow, but as a flickering reflection instead of a light that comes from within. Nothing convinces me more of the narcotizing effects of screens than to see holiday packaging heaped in idle piles as glassy-eyed children "play" with their thumbs. It's just not natural.

If you call it "messy," I'm sorry, you're a humbug, at least for the next few days. This is the real wonderland of the holidays. 

It's good to have a grandpa around. He'll tell you that messes come and messes go, but in the big scheme of things most of us will be able to count on one hand the times in our lives we got to play like this, and even then we had to hurry because of the grown-ups who circled like vultures, starving to tidy it up.

There's is magic in the aftermath, probably because there are no instructions to read or rules to follow, except the ones we always observe out of respect for our fellow humans. And until they give in to their fetish for order, the grown-ups tend to enjoy watching their children play according to their own designs and passions.

It's not too late to pull it out of the recycling bin and toss it back on the floor. There's still a lot of magic left in it.

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