9.01.2010

Dear Parents: Our Schools Can't Do It All

I work as a substitute teacher. I teach all grades except Kindergarten, and even them I see them when I teach elementary music, art, or computers. I have a unique perspective on the education system, seeing how myriads of different teachers organize their classroom, their lesson plans, their curriculae. The same is true for the schools, since no two schools set up their use of the "specials" (art, music, P.E., and at some schools computers) alike. Even recess is handled differently. And I know no teacher who would disagree with me when I say there are things that need to change.

Much is made about the "standards" that politicians, presumably with the input of "educational experts," have set for our schools. Teachers bemoan, and rightfully so, that they simply teach a test. Students are graded and judged on "benchmarks," and at some schools they've become so oriented to those benchmarks that anything else doesn't appear on their radar. As in, "I don't have to do this because it's not a benchmark." Teachers have to grade on how many benchmarks a student met. You can skip most all of your homework, but meet the benchmarks and you still pass. What is that teaching our students? How many people in the workplace can get away without doing a large chunk of their work, as long as "the important things" get done satisfactorily?

Another problem with benchmarks is that someone, somewhere, decided that by a specific point all 3rd graders should be able to do, say, their multiplication tables through 12x12. Not all kids pick up that concept that quickly! But, I'm sorry Mrs. Smith, Johnny hasn't learned his times tables by the 12th week of school, so he's behind and in danger of failing 3rd grade. Honestly, some kids need to be held back, but it shouldn't be because they didn't learn something as quickly as they "should." Those kids behind in math can probably read circles around other kids in their class, or name all the states and their capitals.

All this focus on standards has caused schools to begin cutting the "extras." Music, art, P.E. (yes, P.E.), even recess, are starting to disappear at an alarming rate. Never mind all those pesky studies that show that kids who have music and/or art do better in school overall. And who needs to listen to those teachers who complain about their kids being hyperactive in class because they don't have an opportunity to go blow off that steam at P.E. or recess? We have standards to teach! Our schools are behind the Chinese, the Japanese, the Swedish! Get those kids in the classroom and get them learning!

Add into this mix a woman I admire and respect, and whose platform I fully support: First Lady Michelle Obama. She's working on the epidemic of childhood obesity, and I see it first-hand working in an inner-city school district. It is indeed an epidemic. Just yesterday I had a first grader who probably tipped the scales around 50 or 60 pounds. Last year I had a 7th grader who was at least 300 pounds. Every school I am at, every class I am in, I see overweight kids. I know their pain; I was an overweight kid, too. I remember my parents telling me I should lose weight, but they never cracked down on what I was eating. They did enroll me in softball, which I loved.

So we have an increasing number of overweight kids and schools struggling to meet standards and cutting recess and P.E. Cue parental outrage, comments on not enough recess time, my kid isn't learning because s/he isn't meeting the standards, and calls to fire teachers or administrators. They are right about the recess time, and maybe there are some teachers and/or administrators who would be better suited in a different career. But outrage isn't the answer.

What can we do?

The first answer is fairly obvious: longer school days. The average school day is 7 hours. In Japan, the average school day is 9 hours, and many kids go to school 6 days a week and only have 3 weeks off in the summer and 2 over the holidays. Even if we only added one hour to the school day, and didn't add a single day of school, we'd still gain over 150 hours of instruction time. That would be the equivalent of adding over 21 7-hour school days, or just about 19 8-hour days. That's a full month of school days. Imagine if your child's teacher had another month! They could teach AND have recess AND P.E. AND music AND art! And wouldn't an 8 hour school day match the parental work schedule more closely, alleviating some child care issues?

The second answer is more parental involvement. It is more than parent/teacher conferences and checks to the PTA. How can you be involved? Here's a list of simple things.

- Sit down with them and review their homework. Don't do it for them! If it is something that you aren't great with, ask them to teach you how to do the problem. That is a surprising technique to help them learn.

- Turn every day events into learning opportunities. For example, making dinner can be a math lesson. "This recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups of flour. I have a 1/4 cup measure, so how many scoops am I going to need?"

- Spend a few dollars on inexpensive books of puzzles and at-home worksheets or some flash cards, all of which can be found at Walmart for $5 or less. Encourage your kids to do them. Many of them can be "sneaky" when it comes to education.

- If you can afford it, get your child into some sort of lessons or after-school activity. Piano, violin, guitar, swimming, tennis, fencing, art, dance, soccer, baseball/softball, gymnastics, the list is practically endless. If your child is hyper, pick something physical they might like. If they are more introspective, a team sports activity will encourage them to socialize. If that doesn't appeal, music, dance, or art will tap into their creativity and bolster their self esteem.

- Read more. Read to them. Read on your own, and set that important example. Libraries are wonderful things, and completely free! Not sure where to start? Ask a librarian for recommendations. If you are interested in fantasy, or mysteries, or romance, they can send you to authors or books you might like. An added bonus: libraries often have programs, especially on the weekends, for kids. If you are unemployed, use that time while they are at some fun program to utilize the free internet at the library and research and apply for jobs if you don't have access at home.

- Limit your child's TV, computer, and video game time. Encourage them to go outside and play!

- Family game times. Sit down as a family, or even just one parent and one kid, and play a board game or card game. Among the things that kids learn in playing games is how to share, how to take turns, and how to follow rules, in addition to counting, colors, shapes, etc. They may even learn how to be a graceful loser, because we can't always win!

- Model a healthy lifestyle. On the weekends or in the evenings, go for a family bike ride or walk. If you are overweight, work on taking the pounds off and set an example for your kids. If they see eating well and regular physical activity is part of your life, they'll want to emulate that as much as they want to dress like you and have a car like yours.

- Work schedules and time can be a legitimate issues. There are lots of after-school programs for kids through organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the YMCA that will target many of these things, and for those in financial straits these programs are often free.

Our schools are not perfect, but without parental support they are further hampered. Parenting includes educating your child and being involved in their lives. If you are negative about your child's school, don't express that negativity in front of your kids; they'll pick up on it and think that is how they should feel about school, which exacerbates the problem. Instead, find out how you can help your school or make up for its shortcomings. Proactivity will go a long way in creating a generation of kids ready to lead us into the future, strong and smart.

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