Libraries are Underrated

burton barr
Burton Barr Reading Room

Burton Barr, the downtown Phoenix library, recently suffered extensive damage after a monsoon storm broke through the roof, drenching books and equipment. It has now been closed for over a week.

Upon hearing the news, I’m sure most people got sentimental. Poor library. Too bad. The news probably served as a reminder, for many, that libraries still exist.

With the world at our fingertips, who needs a physically-housed information center? These archaic institutions where people talk in whispered conversations.

But what more sacred a space exists today than a library, where people of all ages and backgrounds voluntarily show up to work and learn and socialize?

There are 225 public libraries in Arizona.

There’s even a library in Wickenburg. The Wickenburg Public Library has a livelier atmosphere — people talking on the phone, setting up job interviews, pouring over bills on the table. People clicking and tapping on desktop computers. There’s a youth section, where over the summer I saw one room of teenagers playing video games, another room of younger kids quietly studying books.

The Phoenix library system has coding classes, summer reading programs, discussion groups, and genealogy classes to help adults trace their family histories.   

Each library holds local characteristics. Burton Barr houses unique documents of Arizona’s history. I browsed the Flagstaff Public Library earlier this summer and saw several collections of Native American history specific to Northern Arizona.

Benjamin Franklin invented the community library in America. He was always wanting for books, and it was an occasion to stumble upon a new collection. In his autobiography he describes meeting people who were “lovers of books.” He would make conversation with these folks, hoping to glean something new from the books they had read. In Philadelphia, he had made acquaintances with fellow lovers of books, each holding a small collection. Franklin thought it in their best interest to rent a room to store the books, allowing individuals to borrow from others as desired.

To expand the concept, he created a subscription library, collecting money to purchase more books. Eventually, the American library system expanded, turned into a public service, where now anyone can get a library subscription for free, with access to computers and the internet, daily newspapers, magazines on any subject, the ability to check out and take home movies, music, TV shows, and, of course, books.

When we think of “public education” we almost always think about “public schooling,” yet as education writer Heather McDonald points out, these two terms are not interchangeable. She argues that we mistakenly invest too much energy into public schooling, to the detriment of public education.

Community libraries serve a vital role for an educated public. Let’s not take them for granted.

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Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

“Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.”

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

The Teacher Certification Debate

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Teacher protests at the Arizona State Capitol.

Arizona just passed a law reducing the requirements to become a classroom teacher. Before the new law, teachers needed formal training to become state certified. Now, as long as you have relevant experience in the subject, you can lead a classroom. The school districts and principals decide who is qualified.

Public education stalwarts are freaking out. How can you lower standards for teachers?

It even got national coverage. An article in the Washington Post said the new law “plays into a misconception that anyone can teach if they know a particular subject and that it is not really necessary to first learn about curriculum, classroom management, and instruction.”

Let’s examine whether this is a misconception or not.

Granted — not everyone who knows a subject will be a good teacher of the subject. Teaching is an inter-personal art form. An experimental scientist does not automatically make a good 8th grade science teacher.

However — Bill Nye the Science Guy would probably make an excellent 8th grade teacher. Why prevent a subject expert from teaching a class if the principal of the school, an education expert, thinks this person would be an effective teacher? A teaching candidate goes through an interview process, and usually teaches a sample lesson, before getting hired. We can trust a principal to hire someone who displays teaching competency.

During debate about the lax regulation, an Arizona congressman asked, “are there alternative pathways to become a surgeon, dentist, or lawyer?”

No.

But shouldn’t there be an alternative pathway for a former surgeon to teach high school biology? We’re really going to make a lawyer take classes on “curriculum” before teaching government?

Let’s be real. Teaching is not brain surgery. If you are organized, have the desire and some interpersonal skills, you can figure it out. In a well-functioning school, a new teacher will have guidance and support to figure it out.

I’ve taught seven different subjects over five years at the high school level. Because I’ve worked in private and charter schools, I am not certified in Arizona. Under the old laws, I would have to go back to school, pay a bunch of money for courses in curriculum and classroom management before teaching in a public district.

My first year was a struggle, but I adapted, read about strategies, learned from other teachers, and figured out a teaching style that worked for me and my students.

And here’s the thing. Everyone struggles their first year, regardless of their training or level of certification. The first year is notoriously challenging for everyone. All veteran teachers say you have to figure it out with experience.

Teacher education programs are like getting ready for a basketball season by making players watch powerpoint presentations on dribbling and shooting. You wrote an essay last month about defensive footwork, remember? Why can’t you stop these guys?!

In fairness, I’ve never gone through a certification program. Maybe it’s a blast. My perception is that it teaches you cryptic teacher lingo so you can understand what’s going on in faculty meetings.

Lots of factors are causing a teacher shortage in Arizona. If teaching paid more, more people would be willing to teach. If working conditions changed, reducing stress and improving work-life balance, more people would be willing to teach.

I see the certification debate as tangential to the main factors causing the shortage. It won’t solve the problem, nor will it lower the quality of education. It’s more of a morality and common sense thing. If someone can teach, don’t force them to jump through hoops to do it.

Mindfulness in School

meditateWhen it comes to learning and succeeding in school, emotional stability matters. Nobody concentrates well when they feel angry, scared, or depressed. You don’t care about your stupid teacher’s verb conjugations if you’ve grown to resent authority figures.

In a previous post, I wrote about two misguided priorities in education: force feeding a monolithic approach to math and underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence.

Good news. There are some developments in the emotional intelligence department.

Earlier this week, NPR ran a story about a school in South Phoenix that implemented mindfulness practices into the curriculum. The segment described “an increasingly trendy program,” but mindfulness is an ancient practice. Rooted in Eastern spirituality, mindfulness has been revisited by modern research psychology and is now standard fare in therapy.

Mindfulness basically means slowing down and paying attention. Notice your thoughts. Focus on the immediate thing you are doing. Notice your breathing. All emotions have physiological correlates in the body. Being attuned to these allows a person to reduce “automatic” behavioral responses and to act in more purposeful, effective ways. So instead of lashing out, a student might take a deep breath, notice the feelings heating up, recognize their meaning, and decide to respond constructively. A student needs to recognize what an impulse feels like before learning to delay the impulse (to throw a paper ball across the room) for the greater reward (of mastering verb conjugations).

Students in the Phoenix school practice mindfulness for thirty minutes a week. In the first year of the program, the school saw a 37% decrease in school suspensions. The practice is also used during disciplinary moments. Teachers can remind students to take a “mindful minute” to reflect their behaviors.

How much credit the mindfulness program deserves for reducing suspensions is impossible to determine. They did not run a controlled experiment, so other factors might have caused the change.

But an experiment does exist which shows positive effects of therapeutic interventions for students. A study out of the University of Chicago called the Becoming a Man program randomly assigned at-risk male students to take cognitive behavior therapy, oriented around mindfulness, during the school day. For the nearly 5,000 high school students who received the therapy, violent crime arrests went down almost 50% compared to the control group who did not receive the therapy. Graduation rate increased 20%.

The intervention is also cost-effective, estimating the reduced tax burden from the criminal justice system and the increased earnings potential for the students.

According to motivation psychologist Abraham Maslow, there are psychological prerequisites to reaching your potential as a human being. Higher goals of “self-actualization” can only be reached when lower needs of safety and belonging are secure. As illustrated by his famous hierarchy:

maslow-pyramid

For many students in struggling schools, those lower needs are not met on a consistent basis, causing major challenges in the classroom. Pouring money and technology into inner-city schools will not close any “achievement gaps” without addressing the psychological underpinnings of learning.

Breathing exercises are not a magic bullet for improved education. One shortcoming of the Chicago study was that the improvements did not endure after the therapy sessions ended.

These innovations, however, are steps in the right direction. Students are not cogs in a standardized testing machine. Students are dynamic human beings. The more mindful we are of that, the more they will thrive.

An Educator’s Take on the Civics Test

can_you_pass_an_8th_grade_civics_testArizona passed a law last year called the American Civics Act. It sounds real noble: All students must demonstrate knowledge of civics– facts about history and government– in order to graduate from high school.

Arizona is a trendsetter. A pioneer in the wilderness of American education. Already, the push is on for other states to enact similar laws.

The logic went like this. People should be more knowledgeable about history and government. New citizens must take a “naturalization” test demonstrating some basic knowledge about America. Shouldn’t our high school students demonstrate the same basic knowledge?

Duh.

Who knew? All of this time, the failures in our education system, the problem of uninformed citizens, low voter turnout…

All we needed was a 100 question multiple choice test.

Because it includes all the essentials of civics, like: “What year was the constitution written?” and “What is one of the longest rivers in the U.S?

Other questions are mind-numbing: “Who was the first president?” Or insultingly simplistic: “What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?”

And thank God they included this question: “What is the deadline for filing federal income tax forms?” I mean, how have Americans been paying taxes all these years without having been held accountable by this test?

We don’t want to create a barrier to high school graduation, though. So you pass if you score 60%. You can re-take the test as many times as you need. No problem.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, an advocate of the law, was thrilled when a 16-year old developed a study app for the test. Real innovation, and an important tool to help students graduate from high school.

Except that the test itself is online. The first link when you google “Arizona Civics Test” is a link to the actual test and the answers.

The reality on the ground here in schools is that the civics test is a complete joke. It serves the dual purpose of wasting instruction time from the very subjects you pretend to care about, and forcing underpaid, overworked educators to print, proctor, grade, and document the scores for all students.

Here’s a more serious 60% figure for you. Beginning last school year, 60% of Arizona public schools reported unfilled teaching spots. There is a shortage of teachers in this state.

The main reasons people don’t go into teaching, or leave teaching after a short stint:

  1. Low pay, high stress
  2. Lack of respect, lack of support
  3. Forcing us to do meager tasks that don’t improve learning

I work at an Arizona public charter high school. By law I am qualified to teach government and American history. Students are required to pass both classes to graduate. There are already state standards on what should be taught.

Based on professional experience, I believe the civics test will have approximately zero impact on student learning. I would wage decent money that, measured at any time after graduation day, the class of 2016, who didn’t take the test, would demonstrate the same understanding of civics as the class of 2017, who will.

Even if the measure of “understanding” was the same crappy 100 question multiple choice test.

To Educate with Purpose

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Persecution of Socrates

Two education stories I came across last week will tie together my last couple posts, and offer correctives to the problem of school and rudeness. The first story is a new approach to an old requirement in school. The second story is about empathy.

On Tuesday, NPR ran a story about math. Why do we learn advanced math? To think better, I guess. Logic. So we all have to learn math, up past algebra, in order to graduate from high school.

But the approach to numbers can be different. No one ever taught me this in school.

In America we use the accounting method, where 4 + 5 = 9. It always does, and we drill this until we get it. According to the Harvard professor on NPR, this approach was developed in Italy in the 1500s to teach the children of shopkeepers and merchants.

But there’s a more philosophical approach. What is 9, really? Well,  it could be 4 + 5. Or it could be 11-2. It could be an infinite combination of other things. Nineness is a quality, more than anything. Something to explore.

There’s also applied math. When measuring a table, 4 feet plus 5 inches certainty doesn’t equal 9. It’s got meaning, now. Nine is also a three-possession game in basketball: defend the three-point line and don’t foul. If you’re up by three with ten seconds left in the game, you might think about fouling, depending on your likelihood of securing a defensive rebound on a free throw vs. their likelihood of making a three-pointer.

We have this religious belief surrounding math, that, like many other aspects of school, are revealed as superstition (or worse) if you separate your thinking from the dogma (or kool-aid.)

Should we teach numbers and math to children? Yes. Should we provide and encourage advanced mathematics for those students so inclined? Yes.

Should we force feed a monolithic approach to math on everyone from kindergarten through high school? I think we would be just fine changing gears.

***

“In Denmark, they learn empathy the way they learn math.”

An article in the Philadelphia Citizen describes the educational system of the “happiest place on Earth.” They implement a rigorous social skills curriculum starting in kindergarten.

When do we, in America, learn about human emotions– how to recognize them in ourselves and others?  Or how best to respond to emotions? When do we learn how to communicate effectively with another person?

To graduate, we force our young people to derive square roots and solve algebraic expressions. The psychological skills–we assume–just happen. Or can’t be taught. Denmark knows better.

It turns out that social and emotional skills are not tangential to success, even academic success. Researchers are discovering that skills like communication and perseverance and “growth mindset” are as important as GPA and test scores in predicting academic performance in college.

A more human-centered curriculum would not only improve our relationships and communities, but would boost academic performance.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me.