Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Schools Failing Boys

Too many boys are failing in school, and a new report suggests that the fault may lie with the schools.

According to a report by the Center for Education Policy, boys now lag firmly behind girls when it comes to reading. And while boys used to have a lead in math, girls have now closed the gap.

"Something is going on in our schools that is holding boys back,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy. Education researcher Susan B. Neuman said the study "suggests that schools are not meeting the needs of young boys because of a curriculum that does not reflect their interests and classroom management that does not tolerate their learning styles."

Neuman also said that the strong push toward testing and academics in the early years has created an environment that leaves "less time for choice and more demand for conformity." Young girls, she said, may thrive in an environment that focuses on early reading skills, letters and sounds, but boys, in general do not.

Let's hope the educational establishment gets the message. Our sons deserve better.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Disney Wants Your Sons

In the headlines today: Disney's move to rename its next animated movie, "Rapunzel." The new name? "Tangled."

Disney execs figure the new name will appeal to boys and have added what they describe as a swashbuckling male lead. Young boys, they think, have shied away from recent Disney films, scared off by a plethora of princesses and titles such as, "Princess and the Frog."

According to today's LA Times, princess marketing might be to blame for Disney's poor recent showings at the box office:

Princesses and other female protagonists helped lead the 1980s and '90s revival of the animation unit with "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Mulan." The difference between those releases and "Princess and the Frog" is that those earlier films weren't marketed as princess movies.

Uh, I beg to differ. The difference between those movies and "Princess and the Frog" is that the older movies were good.

Pay attention, Disney: I have four boys, four manly (boy-ly?) boys. These boys spend their days wrestling and swinging sticks. But while they shy away from the pink princess aisle at Wal-Mart, they're more than happy to watch The Little Mermaid or Cindrella. In fact, this boy-heavy family owns both of those titles. So stop worrying about the demographics and start concentrating on the story. Boys -- and girls -- love a good story.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Homeschooling and Evolution

The headline was enough to make me cringe: "Top home-school texts dismiss Darwin, evolution."

The accompanying graphic, a line graph showing the growth of homeschooling over the last 20 years, is enough to incite yet another wave of anti-homeschooling sentiment -- because really, who wouldn't be against homeschooling if homeschooling means that over 1.5 million kids are being spoon-fed questionable science?

That, of course, is exactly what the article implies, thanks largely to an extremely short-sighted, ill-advised comment from Ian Slatter, a spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). "The majority of home-schoolers self-identify as evangelical Christians," said Slatter. "Most home-schoolers will definitely have a sort of creationist component to their home-school program."

Oh. Good. Gravy. For a group that claims to support homeschooling, such a comment -- which will clearly turn off at least half of the general public -- is pure idiocy. Are they trying to convince the American public that homeschoolers are nuts?

Note: I am not anti-evangelical Christian. I support parents' rights to teach and instill religious values. But this Slatter guy has gone way too far.

What he doesn't tell you is that a lot of parents homeschool because they want their children to have a broader world view. I don't homeschool because I want to protect my children from evolution; I homeschool because I want them to question everything. I want to expose them to things they might not learn for years yet, if they were confined to a certain grade level in a certain school. I want them to have the freedom to think deeply, to make connections, to ask questions. I want to teach them how to analyze information, how to consider the source and how to come to a conclusion based on established facts. I don't want them to believe in evolution because someone tells them it's so, and I don't want them to believe in creationism because someone tells them it's true. I want them to understand the arguments and "facts" on both sides, and I want them to reach their own, reasoned conclusions. Because whether you believe in evolution or not -- whether you believe in creationism or not -- you darn well better understand the issues on both sides, because none of us lives in a world with one, accepted world view.

Except maybe the Home School Legal Defense Assocation, which has a long history of promoting evangelical Christian concerns at the expense of the broader homeschooling community.

I will tell you this: The HSLDA does not speak for me. And while the article would have you believe that homeschool parents are stymied, stuck in a system in which the only available textbooks are anti-evolution rants, the article overlooks the simple fact that many (most!) homeschoolers are extremely resourceful people. We haunt the library, checking out scientific books (even -- gasp!-- The Origin of the Species) and movies. We visit science museums and consult with friends, neighbors and associates who work in scientific fields. We read newspapers -- and let our children read along. We surf the 'Net. We watch the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. We attend scientific lectures and sign our children up for hands-on, experimental science classes. We experiment and play. We arrange mentorships for our older children and enroll them in community college when they want a more formal educational experience. We are NOT restricted to a couple of questionable texts, just because they're the top-selling homeschool texts.

Call us the silent majority. We focus on our families while the Associated Press and HSLDA incite homeschooling hysteria.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Great Teachers, Part II

In my other life, I'm a professional writer. And lately, we writers have noticed that a lot of people take good writing for granted. Anyone, the thinking goes, can write -- so why pay someone big bucks to craft an article for you when anyone can hammer out some words on a keyboard?

As writers, we know that good writing doesn't just happen. Good writers are also good researchers. Good writers are connected. Good writers conduct interviews with top experts -- and ask the tough questions. Good writers understand the difference between heresay and fact, and good writers know how to present opposing opinions in a balanced manner. Good writers make reading fun. We know how to structure a paragraph, a sentence, an article to attract your eye and amuse your intellect.

Good writers -- ones who have honed their skills for years -- are also typically peeved when someone with no experience is hired to write an article on, say, anything, because all too often that article ends up looking like this.

What does this have to do with teaching? Good question.

As a homeschooler, I've often argued that teaching degrees and certifications are unnecessary. Then I interviewed a woman who is National Board Certified teacher.

The amount of time and dedication she's put into her profession is amazing. (See Great Teacher.) And for the first time, I could see how, to someone like her, homeschool parents look like a bunch of uneducated hicks.


Being a classroom teacher is entirely different than homeschooling your children. To teach in a classroom, you need a broad understanding of child development, learning styles and curriculum. You need a teacher tool box, full of ideas for reaching every single student that crosses into your classroom.

Homeschooling parents don't need all that. To homeschool effectively, a parent needs to love and understand his or her child. I don't need to know all about auditory learners to reach my very active kinesthetic learner. I don't need to know how to handle an autistic child in the classroom because, frankly, none of my kids are autistic. I do, however, need to know how to handle a highly-spirited, gifted child.

And here's the kicker: Because I love my children, because I know them and want the very best for them, I, like most homeschool parents, will walk to the ends of the earth (or search the Internet all night, whichever comes first) until I find something that works for my child. Have you ever seen a homeschooler's house? It's filled with books, learning activities, games and curriculum catalogs. The bookshelves are likely jammed -- with everything from simple storybooks to college textbooks and books about learning theory, brain development and homeschooling. Most homeschool parents, like most dedicated teachers, spend years expanding their skills. Like teachers, we attend conferences. We share ideas. And we learn.

As a writer, I'm appalled when someone with no experience is hired to write an article. But I never -- never -- tell someone who wants to write that they can't do it. Because once upon a time, I was a Registered Nurse.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Great Teacher

I've blogged about good teachers before. But now, based on a comment from Ron Doyle, a former educator and current blogger, I'd like to talk about great teachers.

Ron said:
I believe a great teacher is someone who inspires learners to take their curiosities, transform them into objectives, and take actions that will benefit themselves and humanity.

Which makes me wonder if great teachers vary, depending on the student. Is it possible the some teachers simply click with some students? Maybe "greatness" depends more upon the relationship and personalities of the teacher and the students than anything else. On the other hand, I think we all recognize that some teachers are truly transformational leaders. Ever seen Stand and Deliver?

At the very least, greatness begins with dedication. A truly great teacher is dedicated to his or her students, putting their needs above state objectives and curriculum requirements. A great teacher finds a way to teach the material while making it relevant to his students' lives. Great teachers don't start their day at 8 am and end at 3 pm; great teachers are constantly, even subconsicously, thinking of ways to help their students. Great teachers -- like Mr. Todd Kruger at Mayville High School -- go above and beyond. (If you check out the link, go to pg. 4. Great teachers also rarely toot their own horns, preferring to work behind the scenes for their students' success.)

Todd Kruger is the vocal music instructor at Mayville High School. He also leads a multitude of extracurricular musical groups, including Capella Choir, junior and senior high show choirs, Vocal Jazz and much, much more. His musical groups have performed throughout the country and won multiple awards; his students have gone on to careers in show business all over the world.

Yes, he teaches them music. More than that, though, he teaches them about life. Mr. Kruger spends hours with his students, both before, during and after school. He spends weekends traveling to competitions with "his kids" and often -- often -- works for no extra pay. The kids, meanwhile, learn confidence and dedication and teamwork.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Kruger was my teacher. Today, he directs Boy #1 in show choir and I couldn't be more pleased.

More on great teachers tomorrow. Meanwhile, tell me about a great teacher in your life.