All posts by Dana Huff

English Department Chair/English teacher, doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, reader, writer, bread baker, sometime soapmaker, amateur foodie. Wife and mom of three.

Good Morning Boys and Girls

I absolutely love Tolerance.org. I think it is wonderful that they supply teachers with materials for free — and good materials, too. If you haven’t checked them out, you should.

Because I’ve order materials in the past, I’ve been subscribed to their bi-annual magazine, Teaching Tolerance. I have found some good lesson plans in the past. The current issue had an interesting opinion piece entitled “Good Morning Boys and Girls” The subtitle? “Simple greetings can promote discrimination in young children.” I was intrigued so I read on.

The contention of author Rebecca S. Bigler is that we highlight differences between boys and girls more by using gender as a means of organiziation (alternate boy/girl seating) and in lessons (alternating boys and girls in turn-taking). She notes, for example, that we would never use race or ethnicity as a label in this way: “Good morning, whites and blacks,” or “Latinos, get your backpacks now.”

Does she have a point? Well, there are David and Goliath’s tee-shirts for girls. As a girl child, I probably would have considered them funny. As a mother of a son (as well as two daughters)… not so much.

While I think some of her arguments are valid, I wondered if this isn’t a mountain created from a molehill. I grew up in an era which was marked by less gender equality than my students seem to feel. I remember feeling pressured to pretend I wasn’t smart. That isn’t to say I succumbed to that pressure, but then, I was also considered a nerd, too. There were plenty of smart girls who played dumb. I also remember going through a period in elementary school during which boys were extremely yucky, and my peers and I spent plenty of time highlighting our differences. I grew out of it, and it seemed most of our peers did, too.

The more I think about it, however, the more unsure I feel. What exactly are we saying to children in our classrooms? What sorts of messages are they receiving? Does all this matter?

The Classroom of the Future

This past week, our technology coordinator invited me to a demonstration of some new technological equipment he is considering for purchase. I have seen Smart Boards in action — one of my colleagues uses one in his classroom. I haven’t played with it, but it looks really cool, and as much as I like to use web-based information and Power Point demonstrations, I think I could use it. The technology demonstration mostly centered around a wireless slate that can be used with a computer in order to access software applications — you’re not tied to the computer. I didn’t try the slate, but I was told it was sensitive and would take some getting used to. I still think I want one. There were some very interesting software programs incorporated into the Smart technology that could be useful in the classroom. The wireless slate will also work with a Smart Board. Right now, there are several of us who frequently use the laptop and projector, and this technology would make it much easier to access software or web sites for classroom display. We wouldn’t need to have the Smart Board in order to use the slate, but it looks like I’d get more out of the slate if I had the Smart Board, too.

I had a Smart Board on my wish list… here’s hoping!

In addition to Smart technology, I would also like a permanent TV with a VCR and DVD. I can usually get a TV when I need one, but it would be nice if I had one to myself so I didn’t have to worry about it.

What would you like in your classroom? What technology do you already use? Bud uses podcasting quite a bit. What do you think of that? Of what value is that to your classroom?

Cursive Handwriting

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a decline in the number of my students who use cursive handwriting. In fact, I’ve seen a decline in the number of students who can even comprehend cursive handwriting. It would seem this is a pervasive trend: the Hartford Courant reports that with the advent of instant messaging, keyboarding, text messaging, and the like, students have abandoned cursive in favor of printing when they must handwrite something. I’ve also noticed a dramatic uptick on the number of complaints when students need to take notes. I can recall taking pages of notes as a student without complaint. I wonder if there is a correlation. Writing cursive is so much faster and involves much less movement with the hand. I imagine that students really do begin to feel pain after printing for long periods of time. My own handwriting is legible compared to most, but my students often report they can’t read it. I honestly don’t think it is so much that it’s illegible as they don’t know how.

Is it even important to know how to use cursive, in this age of computers? I would argue that it is still a useful skill, especially in note-taking, but I don’t see the point in making it part of the high school curriculum, as one of my former colleagues did — she required her students to write in cursive. On the other hand, this complete inability to use cursive concerns me. It shuts off a whole realm of communication to students (even if it is, as has been argued, an archaic means of communication). For example, census images I’ve read while researching my family history were all taken down in cursive, and very few are available as transcriptions. I also experienced the recent joy of reading a diary my great-great-grandmother kept in 1893-1894 — in cursive. Had I not been able to read cursive, these documents would have been “lost” to me. In a way, it is a form of illiteracy. Recently, one of my students told me that he is having difficulty in Hebrew because his Hebrew teacher writes in cursive Hebrew — and he doesn’t know the letters in cursive.

I just can’t imagine not being able to read cursive. But then, when I was in high school, I wrote my friends seven-page notes instead of IM’s.

School Choice

In the controversy over my school’s future building site and Fulton County Schools, the divide over public versus private schools was outlined starkly in the AJC’s reader blog over Weber’s brush with eminent domain. Very early on in the discussion, posters began to veer away from the topic at hand and debate very nastily over whether public schools or private schools are better and why. I think the blog is an interesting microscope of many issues we’ve all discussed in the education blogosphere.

I teach at a private school, but my background in education is mostly in the public schools — 6 years in total. For the last two, I’ve been teaching in a private school. I think private schools can be like any other schools — there are good ones and not so good ones. The school where I work happens to be a good one. At the same time, the public schools in my area have very good reputations.

However…

If I could afford to send my daughter to a private school like the one where I work, I probably would. I happen to make too much money for us to qualify for scholarships, but too little to afford private school tuition.

I have no broad condemnation of public schools. I can’t even bring myself to vote for Libertarian candidates because of the Libertarian platform on education.

So why do I feel this way?

I think that’s a question worth examining.

  1. Smaller class sizes at my private school mean students receive more individual attention.
  2. A marked difference in the number of discipline issues.
  3. I can’t say if this is always true, but my experience so far has been that private school teachers are more satisfied with their work environments. Any teachers reading this blog probably realize morale is very important in making good schools.
  4. Private schools are not inundated with testing. No CRCT. No ITBS. No state graduation tests. No “gateway” tests. With all that testing out, I’m able to have more hours in the classroom to really teach, and not to teach to some standardized test.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that private school teachers are less likely to be certified. In fact, some of my own colleagues are not. However, they are also brilliant, gifted teachers. While my salary is competitve, I have heard that some private school teachers do not earn the same as their peers in public schools.

With NCLB, school choice is once again a hot topic. Indeed, parents are allowed the option of transferring their children out of schools which fail to make AYP. I have to say that I am very conscious that I am delivering a product that parents pay a lot of money for. I think I was as good a teacher in public school (or tried to be — I didn’t always have the necessary support from parents or administration) as I am in private school. However, I am very conscious that parents do not have to send their child to my school. They have chosen to do so. I can’t say I feel more obligation necessarily so much as a different obligation. After having said that, maybe I do feel more obligation to my students and their parents, if I am to be completely honest with myself.

Do I believe in school vouchers? I just can’t go that far. I don’t think students are entitled to a private school education. And it isn’t just the wealthy upper class who send their children to private schools. Middle class families, poorer families send their children, too. I was surprised to discover how many private schools had financial assistance for families when I began researching possible schools for my daughter over the summer. I believe all Americans are entitled to a free, public education, and they receive that under our current education system. I am starting to wonder, however, what sort of changes will be wrought in public education if parents were allowed to send their children to the public school of their choice, and not just because the school failed to make AYP. What would our public schools look like? Where would the line between public and private be?

Eminent Domain

I have good news! According to Fox 5 News Atlanta, Fulton County Schools has decided not to exercise its right of eminent domain in order to seize the property purchased for our new school.

I will let you know if anything changes. I am upset that Fulton County’s new line is that they were under the impression we wanted to sell that land. If that is so, why threaten eminent domain? We never gave the impression to anyone that we wanted to sell the property, and I think it was a weak attempt by the school district to wipe the egg off their faces.

You can read the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about the controversy.

Update: The AJC has a new article about this story, detailing Fulton County’s “withdrawn threat.” Fulton County maintains that they thought we were in negotiations with a willing seller. This is not true. No indication was ever given that we were looking to sell the land. I find it odd that Fulton threatened eminent domain if they felt so sure we were willing to part with the site.

Groundbreaking

My school will finally have a permanent residence… that is, if Fulton County Schools don’t get their way. The Weber School has been housed in temporary buildings (modular units or trailers) next to Zaban Park (the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta). After spending years looking for the perfect site — “the geographic center of Atlanta’s Jewish population” as our board president put it — a former property of Lucent Technologies was purchased. Our groundbreaking ceremony is set for this Sunday.

But there’s a glitch. Fulton County Schools approached our board with a proposal to buy the land to build an elementary school. Our board refused. Fulton County is now threatening to exercise their right of eminent domain — which means condemning private property and seizing it for the “public good.” Fulton County Schools explained that their elementary schools in Sandy Springs are bursting at the seams, and they need to build a school.

I don’t understand why a new school has to be located on our property, which would effectively snatch away everything our community has worked for over the last seven years. I hope that our community (and you, if you are so inclined) will rally against this move. It would break many hearts if this spurious method of attaining property were allowed to be successful. I sincerely hope that Fulton County will find a better solution to this problem.

You’re Never Too Old to Learn

NEW YORK — Kimani Ng’ang’a waited more than eight decades for his first day of school. The Kenyan villager wants to make sure nobody else must wait that long.The 85-year-old Kimani, billed as the world’s oldest elementary-school pupil, toured Manhattan to promote a global campaign urging assistance for an estimated 100 million children denied an education because of poverty. The Kenyan only started his formal education in January 2004.

Read the rest of the story here. Kimani said that he would like to be a veterinarian when he finishes his schooling. In Kimani’s words, “You are never too old to learn. At no time ever say, ‘It’s too late to learn,’ not until the day you die.”

I think that story is probably one of the neatest stories I’ve read in a long time. Good luck, Kimani!

Trends in Education Blogging

I have noticed two interesting trends in educational blogging. First, most of the teacher bloggers I’ve come across are new teachers with less than three years experience. Second, educator blogs tend to be complain fests in the manner that my old teachers’ lounge was. Before you get upset with me, let me explain that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either trend, necessarily. I just think educational blogging could be more.

It may be a cliché, but in my experience, that doesn’t make it less true: new teachers tend to have the most enthusiasm and the desire to try the newest thing. Therefore, it makes sense that many of our veteran teachers have not started blogging. I don’t mean to generalize, but most of the long-term veteran teachers I’ve worked with are not crazy about integrating technology and use it as little as possible. Many of them balked at Georgia’s requirement to be proficient in technology in order to re-certify. Computer gradebooks and e-mail were high on the complaint list, too. What’s the point of Power Point? I suppose I might feel the same way if I had been teaching very well, thank you very much, for 25 years without Power Point. I would indeed be very suprised to find that many of these types of teachers even know what a blog is, much less are open to the possibilities of blogging for students and teachers.

I have worked in several schools in which discussion in the teachers’ lounge dengerated quickly and often into the realm of complaining about our students’ discipline and the lack of support by administration. This sort of discussion has now become fodder for many teacher blogs on the Internet. In these blogs, teachers tend to take on an air of the soldier in the trenches — the commanding officers are clueless; we’re on our own, and it’s survival of the fittest. Frankly, it is depressing. I know, I know it is the reality in a lot of schools. I have taught in those schools. I know what it is like to drive to work and cry the whole way because I didn’t want to be there. I know what it is like to want to scrap teaching altogether. I understand the need for support from other teachers. That’s why we need to vent. When I read your blogs, I empathize. Last year, I climbed over the fence. I never thought I’d teach in private schools. I had been told by a non-authority who didn’t know much about it that the pay was awful. I took a job in a private school because I couldn’t find one in a public school. My pay and benefits did not decrease. The happiness I feel each day when I’m going to work cannot compete with my experiences in public school. I am excited to be teaching again. I am rejuvenated. I don’t have discipline issues. I have taught for two years at my school and not given a single detention. I am not advocating jumping ship. You all don’t have to make the same decision I did. But frankly, there are opportunities out there. You can teach somewhere that doesn’t make you miserable every day you go to work.

After having written this, I can’t help but feel I’ve just made the lot of you angry with me. So be it. My bit on technology expressed my concern over integration of new teaching methods. I would love to hear about the ideas of veteran teachers. Can you imagine how much younger teachers can learn about methods, ideas that worked, approaches to material? My bit about complaint fests expressed my concern over your happiness. May you find a place to be happy, because we need you. We don’t want to lose you as an educator.