Friday, March 22, 2013

Being a hoop jumper or hoop builder

There is a ton to be discussed when it comes to education these days. Trying to get kids to compete with kids in far off lands whom they will probably never meet, deciding that first year teachers are better than teachers with experience, and a charter school enterprise trying to rob localities of money while only providing an education no better than the public schools they claim to be saving the kids from are some of the political battles that are being waged.

There is one area that I have noticed over the years that is distressing to me however that is not really viewed as a problem, and I don't see it as a problem, I just have some philosophical differences with. That is the importance placed on Advanced Placement class. While I am an elementary PE teacher, over the past nine years I have also coached high school tennis teams. Over those nine years I have coached girls and boys and at multiple schools. I have had many players over those years get accepted to highly selective college. One got into five Ivy League schools and Stanford. Others have gone to the University of Virginia, William and Mary, University of Mississippi, Washington and Lee to name a few.

From many of those conversations I have had with them one thing they all talked about was their AP class load. Many of them started taking them in tenth grade and took a healthy dose of them their junior and senior years. They took them all, AP Chemistry, AP English, AP Government, AP Psychology. If there was an AP class available, they took it.

Many told of stressed out nights of long homework for those classes, test prep, and reading an exorbitant amount of text in a short period of time. Many took three or four AP's in a semester at one time or another during their high school years.

My question to them was always, "Why are you taking so many AP's?"
I knew the real answer but I just wanted hear what they thought. In nine years I have yet to hear one person answer that question with anything other than, "It looks good on a college resume."

"Do you enjoy the class?" I would ask.
Answers would range from "Not really" to "Uggh, I hate that class." I have yet to get "I enjoy learning about...."

I know college is competitive and everyone wants to do what they can to get an edge. What I notice through all of this is not necessarily what they gain by taking these classes but by what they miss out on by not taking other classes. While they are taking class after class in which they are not interested in they lose out on understanding that learning is a journey rather than a means to an end. Education becomes about hoop jumping.

I cannot say that one way is better than the other and I understand the factors that play into wanting to get into a name brand college or university. What I am saying, is that while they are taking AP after AP, they miss out on classes that might be enriching and enjoyable to them. Maybe I am wrong about this and students and parents do not agree with me that a horticulture, woodworking, small engine repair, or photography class can have as much personal value as AP Western Civilization, but I do know that hands on work most definitely requires a tremendous amount of problem solving skills which will serve the student long after their school days are over.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Come on Daddy...... Mommy could do it"

This is my favorite commercial currently airing on television:


 I love its message. A parent who is showing her son she has "skills." It is obvious she is a bit awkward but she is showing her son how much fun playing is.

 Let's get past the obvious retort of saying that its weird that we live in a society where the parent has to convince their child that playing is fun. Playing is great for physical, emotional and social development. Interaction with people is great for children. Play helps make connections and develop relationships based on commonalities. When children play with other children they begin to learn.

However, while children are learning as they are play, playing with adults brings in a whole different element that is way to often overlooked: adults know how to play and can be a valuable teacher to their child. Not only that but adults spending time playing with kids creates a natural order in the world. It allows for kids to understand where they stand and reinforces that the adult teach their child so that they may fill their parents' spot one day.


 When it comes to play parents bring a childhood worth of experiences to the table. They bring experience with risk taking. They bring an ability of how to model decision making. Parents who play with their children occasionally, do them just as much good than any play date can.

Bill Cosby demonstrates, in a humorous manner, how beneficial playing with his son is. This is not new, its just been lost and needs to be found again.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Don't know what to think

There are no words for the tragedy. It's unimaginable. Every adjective in the English language over the past few days has been used to describe this horror, so I will not add to the list.

I do not presume to have the answers like many on TV or Facebook have. Every social matter in this country is so intertwined with a million other issues we will never gain a consensus on what is good and decent. Everything is polarized. If you need to raise taxes to help others, one group goes nuts and if you take away funding for anything, another group goes nuts.

Since no one can be apeaised we go into blame mode. In this case the blame has run the obvious gamut: guns, parents, schools, society, mental illness, media, etc. What becomes noticeable is if you listen to the pundits, message boards or other social media is that there are always a few "blame-ables" that seem to repeat themselves. If I were a classroom teacher I might even draw a venn diagram to see what shared opinions are voiced after each tragedy.

If the answers are so obvious why are they not addressed? I'm not talking about knee jerk reactions that are short term solutions i.e. maximum security schools or for everyone to live in fear of their neighbors. What is the reasoning to not addressing societies ill's?

Many leaders will tout Christian values but enact policies that hurt many people and benefit a select few. I can't understand why we have to have winners and losers. And before anyone calls me a socialist, I am not against someone with initiative making a lot of money, but rather in favor of policies that don't create an unequal playing field.  If we looked after everyone and not a lucky few I wonder what our society would look like.

This clip is what I believe our society could be. Many winners few losers.

This is one area where teachers thrive. This is why I believe the teachers who perished are heroes. During their careers, they juggled all the factors that would bring each student down and managed to address them so that they might become a viable member of the classroom community. They understood, just like every other teacher in the world, that when everyone in the class succeeds individually, the classroom community thrives as well. Just like when a factory employs the entire town, everyone wins. Low unemployment, dedicated workers for the factory, many winners.

 There is little doubt that once the mourning period is over, everyone will go back to life as usual and nothing will be addressed to prevent the next tragedy and it will be second verse, same as the first.

Two questions that frequently cross my mind when it comes to our society.

1. Why does it take the death of a teacher, EMT, police officer or firefighter for people to take a step back and realize how valuable they really are to advancing our society?

 2. Why do we feel the exact opposite about many of our country's political and corporate leaders yet, as a population we give them so much influence?

As a member of this American society who feels as though I have very little say, I guess I am looking to be inspired by our society. I am not sitting around waiting for something to happen. Being a parent, teacher and coach I play a role in our community but I don't feel our leaders care to know what affects our communities (good or bad).

I think this song really sums up my thoughts, questions, and hopes for the future.

RIP to the heroes. Those who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others
RIP to the children who undoubtedly were able to light up their parents hearts just by smiling.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everything I learned about education reform I learned from college football

They say sports is a microcosm of society. Sports are big business. Big businesses have their own brand: Apple, Microsoft, Ford, Google, Walmart, Coke, Nike, to name a few.

The NFL, NBA, MLB all are big corporations that have their brands that they will worship like the sacred cow and will go to war with anyone who will try to mettle with it.

In the NBA, if a player or coach criticise a referee a huge fine is levied to the offender. Does anyone see this as an authoritative way of silencing free speech?

The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell has been second guessed this season by he handling of a bounty scandal. He was the judge and jury and felt his brand of justice was enough.

Professional sports show how society plays out social life and how corporate behaviors shape our ways of thinking.

I feel the same is true about one of the biggest corporate reforms going on in this country being played out in the public eye, but not where you might think: the college football field.

With standardized tests, Race to the Top, winner take all policies in education, schools will look like college football and that's not a compliment.

In college football there is no playoff. To make it to the national championship (or a very lucrative BCS bowl) you have to be undefeated or a conference champion of one of the "Big 6" conferences. Immediately, right off the bat, exclusionary. If you are not a part of the "Big 6" ( ACC, Big East, SEC, Pac 12, Big 12, Big Ten) you are not given a fair opportunity to get in the money bowls. We have seen two teams in the past, Boise St and TCU get their opportunities but they are the exception, not the rule.

One loss or two loss teams are not considered. A team that goes 10-0 and loses its last game of the season might get left out of an opportunity to play for the money. A 10-1 season should be celebrated but is now seen as a less than stellar.

Improvement is not always taken into consideration.  Look at pro sports and how they are different from college. The NY Giants won Superbowl's with a regular season record that allowed them to BARELY sneak into the playoffs both times. The St. Louis Cardinals MLB team hold the record for fewest regular season wins by a World Series Champion.

In college, in many cases, unless you are Alabama, LSU, or Ohio State, one loss means you are out of the opportunity to win money, two losses for sure, and really, isn't that why major colleges field football teams; to get the money, grow the university, make it visible on a global scale. In short, grow the brand?

When you think of Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, USC, Florida St, one might recognize the school only because of the money spend on branding it.

Research has shown that a college football team that plays for a national championship will see an incredible jump in enrollment applications by students. An increase in applications means greater demand and higher tuition prices. The for profit corporations that are America's colleges and universities use their brand (in many cases their football teams) as the vehicle for attracting students. Remember, we have been seeing college grads who cannot get jobs yet the insistence for a college education is stronger than ever (corporate schooling mantra should be "pay the fee, get a B and that's all you'll see from me.")

The cash grab of college football brings in a whole other world. The world of cheating. Cheating in recruiting, cheating in athletes grades, cheating of the law. The price of failure in college football is so high, coaches and athletes sometimes resort to doing things they otherwise would view as unethical or immoral. A running back who had a rough upbringing knows college football is an avenue to the pros and the pot at the end of the rainbow. Getting a tutor to take a test for them might not be what they would ever do, but they might see that as the way to stay in school and keep the cash grab dream alive.

A coach wouldn't want to have to break recruiting rules, but in order to keep the multimillion dollar contract they have to win and win every year. In many cases donors have way too much control over a coaches fate. In too many cases the donors who influence coaching positions have no knowledge of football and should never have a say over football operations... but they overwhelmingly do.

The worst of our fears this cash grab was realized last year at Penn State. The unlawful abuse of young boys was covered up so as not to hinder the school's ability to get their hands on the money. This showed us that the want of money by colleges and universities was so strong that not just the legal compass was compromised but so too was the moral compass.


If you have been following education  you are then aware of No Child Left Behind. A policy enacted to punish schools that do not have their students pass tests. If children do not pass their tests, the schools are punished with sanctions. If enough years go by without meeting the level of standards the powers that be decide to set, your school can be closed down. By 2014, if your school does not have 100% of students passing your school will be closed down. Knowing that this is an impossible mandate set by people with very little knowledge of education, cheating became the way to save your job or school. Scandals of cheating from some of the largest school districts in the country came to the surface: Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.

To alleviate the impossible constrains of NCLB, schools could apply for a waiver to remove them from that policy. Instead they have to conform to the new reforms of Race to the Top (RTTT),  corporate based approach to student achievement. Under the program RTTT you get merit pay (see: bonuses for wins), tying teacher effectiveness to students test results (see: contract extensions), and closing schools in favor of charter schools that rob localities of public monies (see: corruption).

For teachers to keep their jobs, the teachers must win at all costs, always live in fear that their students won't perform well on "test day", no amount of improvement over the course of the year will matter, and all of these reforms have been decided by people who should never have a say in how education is run. Congrats to all the teachers out there, you now live the life of a college football coach. Or more accurately college coaches live the life of a public school teacher.

You don't have to follow the education reform game to understand its absurdities and impossibilities. If you are an avid college football fan, you already know.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Law of Above Average

I have two daughters. They are one and three years old. Life is like Lake Wobegon around our home; the women are strong, the men are all good looking (me of course) and all the children are above average.

But all it took was a trip to the pediatrician for the first well baby check up to hear that our child was in the twenty-fifth percentile for height for their age to be made aware that already, there is something in their short existence they will never be above average in!

Not only that but when the doctor was telling us the percentile result he did it with a softening blow in his voice as though we would not be able to handle the reality our kids are short, that they are not even in the fiftieth percentile.

I was puzzled when he told us this not because I was shocked our kids would probably never see 5'5", but that he felt we might be distraught and blame ourselves based on the graph he showed us. My wife and I just sort of chuckled (we both passed the genetics unit of Biology in school to know that our kids would not be the tallest. In fact, if they did become giants I think some uncomfortable questions would have to be asked!).

We left laughing about our short children not thinking much about it.

Then one day we were visiting with another family with a small child. The conversation turned to check ups and wellness, etc. Then one of the parents said with GREAT PRIDE that their child is in the 90th percentile, as though it was something dealing with their parenting skills that made their kid tall.

So naturally, I left over analyzing that and then started to think about average, mean, mode and all those other tools of measurement use to grade, classify or judge.

-The average person is above average-

When I first started teaching PE, I would see some poorly behaved kindergarten and first grade students and think "Man, what is going to come of our community when these kids get older". But then they became second and third graders or even older and they "figured it out." It was then that I began to see that we all get to where we're going, we just get there at different speeds and sometimes different avenues.

So is the kid who doesn't know their multiplication tables in third grade but learns it in fourth grade below average? Is the kid who reads on a fifth grade level while in first grade really above average?

What does average mean? I compare rating students average with the way we rate adults middle class. The only reason we try to identify a middle is so we can establish an upper and thus ranking everyone for classification. Who gets to be labeled the top? Why are they labeled that way? Why do we give it such high importance? I joke with my wife sometimes when someone starts to list their young child's achievements such as how much they can read or how high they can count. I want to say, "I can do that, does that make me brilliant!" Doesn't make sense

Remember the old story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his varsity high school team. Someone thought that the NBA's best player ever (I know, I know, when LeBron retires I will amend that last statement!) was a below average player as a 10th grader.

On the subject of professional athletes, how many times has a professional athlete in general been labeled an "average" pro? Really? An athlete who is in a job that less than three percent of those who pursue that career even make it is considered average? It takes an exceptionally above average athlete to even have a chance at being an average pro. If that's the case, then the word average loses all its meaning doesn't it?

What makes an average teacher? What makes an average banker? What makes an average construction worker?

Average doesn't make sense to me? I was a below average student in high school. When it came time my senior year for Model General Assembly ( I think they do Model UN now) I was selected as Speaker of the House (a high honor in the county amongst the other participants). Many above average honor students were not happy I got the spot. None of them knew Parliamentary Procedure. I did. This below average student had a special skill set that the not one honors student had. Did that make me above average now? (Because I was still a crappy Latin student).

To me average is a man made tool used for social grouping. We should do what we do because we are who we are. I am sure many people can attest that being above average in school does not always translate as being above average in all aspects of life.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Necessity is the mother of .....Reinvention?

Quick story:
I was in our school's office this afternoon walking back to check my mailbox before I left for the day. As I am walking past the principal office, I glance in and notice that our superintendent is sitting in there with the principal and another newly hired employee who will be working with the teachers in our school. 
As I pass by and realize who is there I backtrack to poke my head in to say "hi". Immediately I am invited in to chat and our superintendent -Pam Moran- introduces me to Isabelle McLean our new instructional coach who is assigned to work with us at our school for this year. As we were exchanging pleasantries,  Pam began to tell Isabelle about some of my minor achievements over the past year year in the classroom and elsewhere in the school system. I was very impressed that our superintendent knew so much about me. But as I left the "party in the principal's office" I felt as successful as I had ever felt and it had nothing to do with my job. The reason: it proved to me that I have successfully reinvented myself.

As a kid I was “a golfer” That’s all everyone knew about me. I had success as a teen on the golf course and so that’s who I unwillingly became. I wasn’t Andrew, a kid who plays golf, I was a golfer named Andrew! (what gets lost amongst family and old friends is the fact I had a 33-5 career high school tennis singles record and played for the 1998 state championship)

College comes and goes and since I’m not going pro as a golfer the question is “now what?" How am I supposed to know what to do after parents and relatives have benignly pigeonholed me into this identity?

Fast forward to today and Pam is complimenting me on my acquired skills of teaching Physical Education, teaching dance, photography, and coaching tennis. Not a single mention of golf.  Proof positive of a complete reinvention. Why so happy? I have successfully carved out a different path that I never saw for myself. Rather than continue down a paved, unfulfilling road, I took a risk on a career choice that for me had no trail blazed yet.

I came upon the commencement speech for the Dartmouth class of 2011. The speaker for the occasion was Conan O’Brien. While his speech was very humorous, he spoke about how many of us as kids know exactly what we want to do with our lives. How we have our life scripted out and we just need to get on with it. But dreams and identities change over time and its OK. Our dreams at twenty-two will undoubtedly be different than at thirty-two or forty- two and quite possibly that change of career path might be the most rewarding thing we ever do. 

In my opinion the satisfaction comes not from the success of change but knowing that change is a risk; especially when one is leaving something that most likely was their “dream from such a young age” How do you tell yourself that your dream was wrong for you? The courage to admit this and  reinvent yourself is a tremendous feat. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Shame on me

Ever since the Penn State trial ended, I tried to wrap my head around how this could happen. I kept a keen ear out for the news and read every article pertaining to the scandal in hopes of understanding what Sandusky was thinking, what the coaches and administrators motives for not reporting, and why the cover up. While I believe I have enough info to answer those questions, (based solely on news that was reported. I am sure much more info has been kept under wraps) I still feel uneasy and can't seem to allow today's punishment handed down by the NCAA to provide me with closure for those feelings. What I have concluded about myself is that in some small way, I, along with millions of others, are slightly responsible for this scandal.

Let me explain.

I love sports. I have loved it since the very first time when I was five years old and picked up a baseball bat. From the first time I shot an airball. From the first time I played backyard football. I was over competitive, played as hard as I could and took it way to hard if I lost. Sports was a referendum of who I was as a person. It was much more than just a game in my mind.

It is easy to assume that any sports team I followed, I had the same insane and unhealthy vigor for. I love college athletics. I worshipped them since as early as I can remember. I can remember the best ever Duke-UNC basketball games in the 80's or just about any ACC game or player from the 80's for that matter. My two favorite football teams as a kid were Virginia Tech (still fav) and University of Florida. I can still remember the Steve Spurrier era of the "Fun and Gun" offense. My sole purpose in life as a kid was Saturday afternoon, especially when it came to these two teams. My whole week revolved around Saturday. Any game of significance commanded my full concentration. Naturally as a kid I would engage anyone in an argument as to who was the best team and all that other nonsense that as I look back on now, had no bearing on anything. All it did was make us look like a bunch of jackasses to our teachers who knew we had no clue as to how irrelevant we sounded.

I never owned jerseys or much apparel of my teams. Maybe a hat or a t shirt. But my loyalty to my teams was so deep, I would have run through hell with them if need be. When I see the PSU students guard the statue or defend Paterno, I don't judge them, because I know they know not what they are doing. I will bet in ten years those students who defended him will have a different take. I am sure when they are in their 30's with children they will regret what they did, hopefully understand why they did it, and swear to never hold anyone in such high regards again.

I look back now and feel ashamed that while I bear no responsibility for any of the actions of Penn State I share responsibility along with millions of others for feeding into the frenzy of college athletics over the past twenty years. I share responsibility by allowing wins and loses of teams for which I have no control over to define who I was. Because of this irrational assessment of self worth I can see why others would have done their best to deny themselves the reality that their schools, coaches, and administration can let them down. A winning program will stay that way to keep the money coming in. A fan of a winning program will stay that way to keep his self image in tact.

Shame on me. Thank goodness time has provided me with perspective but now I realize that not only does Penn State have to rebuild, so do I.