The Bulletin Board Paradox

Simple cork
Image via Wikipedia

Some teachers look at a blank bulletin board and imagine a dazzling educational display. They revel in cutting, pasting, crimping and primping; glory in getting everything placed-just-so, and otherwise happily go about making eye-catching, colorful, creative and highly attractive displays.

I am not one of them.

I, the oldest of four children of a writer and an artist, seem to have gotten just the former’s set of talent genes, and not many of them at that.

I’m so non-artistic that when I was a student teacher in a second grade classroom, my host teacher forbade me using scissors lest some child copy my technique.

I can’t draw a straight line even with a ruler.

I have done exactly one good bulletin board in my five-plus years of teaching. It occurred in my third year for what was then and remains my best extended bit of teaching: The Pizza Project. Even then my students actually hung most of the display.

When it comes to creating bulletin boards I am a conscientious objector.

But no matter how conscientious I am about objecting I am still expected to produce them, a situation that leads to one of the most ridiculous teaching practices I know of: creating assignments solely for the purpose of having something to hang on a bulletin board.

I am teaching my students to use a Ning; to create Wordles, to podcast and to develop stunning multi-media presentations by exercising those vaunted 21st Century skills using 21st Century tools.

Its good for them and it is far easier for me to demonstrate those sorts of things than it is for me to hang papers neatly.

But hang I must.

The school hallways are lined with bulletin boards and they cannot be left empty. After all, they provide the evidence that students are doing something besides enduring rolling waves of diagnostic, predictive, practice and other versions of standardized exams.

It is a frustrating paradox.

Everyone wants students to learn new skills but, because my and many other schools are not set-up for demonstrating and displaying learning using those skills, we continue to have students practice the same kinds of skills used to produce billboards in the 18th Century

I know I teach history, but…

Meanwhile, the billionaire Mayor who runs our schools seems to have given up on my students and others like them.

There’s no money to buy bookcases so I can display the books in my sole-purpose reading classroom, but there is money to lobby for and open new charter schools.

For the past three months there’s been a brand new exterior display sign leaning upside-down against the wall outside our main entrance. There was money to buy that, but none to put it up.

Some schools get document cameras, GPS units, video editing programs and the cameras to feed them material, but I have to buy my own backing paper for those damned bulletin boards.

My students are capable of creating documentaries but I might as well assign dioramas.

A couple of decades ago the United Negro College Fund ran ads with the message that “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

It still is.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Words, words, words, words


“Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression
“it’s a sorry state” I say to myself”
– from “Words”, Missing Persons: Spring Session M (1995)

It seems a lot of people are wondering about words. Words are for communicating, right? I mean, what else would you do with them?

Well you could play with them. Puns, anagrams, double entendres are all ways of playing with words. But even these word games depend on the same thing that clear communication requires, that words have weight. Some words are moonbeams and others sumo wrestlers.

Those metaphors only work because we have knowledge in common; the same force that gives words meaning.

Logicians will tell you that words don’t have inherent meaning, that they aren’t the things they describe. Cow doesn’t give milk, its just a name for the particular mammal whose milk most people drink. Say or write ‘cow’ and everyone has the same general idea. Our common agreement about words appends meaning to them.

I bring this up because of a little debate about what particular words mean is going on at Kate Says, my friend Kate Olson’s blog. The debate started with an item from the Traverse City Register I posted on Twitter:

I am different, not disabled,” is written by a young woman named Kim Kelderhouse who tells about how transferring to a school that used different words changed her attitude about herself and her education.

This article affected Kate enough that she blogged about it. That blog post generated some comments, like this one by Marcy Webb,

“To me, a learning difference = how one learns. A learning disability = a biological event which interrupts or disables learning.

I want to be part of the solution, too, but I think we need to call things what they are, and not sanitize them. There’s already too much of that.”

And one by Karen Jankowski that started this way,

“I use the terms interchangeably and do not believe it is sanitizing. Students are not labels; adults use the labels to help the students receive the specialized instruction they need to make effective progress, but the kids are not their labels. And often times, it is the curriculum that causes the ‘disability.’”

There were a few other comments, most along the lines of Karen’s.

Here’s what I had to say,

Differences and disabilities are not the same thing at all.

One of the things that everyone, but especially teachers, should understand is that the things we call disabilities are all context-dependent and school is the most debilitating context of all. Only in school do we expect a student to excel in all areas. The part of life that does not occur in school is much more forgiving.

Everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. Reading, for example, is very important and I have a pronounced inability to read. I can decode, but I lack fluency and comprehension. Despite that I am a successful writer in several genres, a teacher and a broadcaster.

I do have a serious, almost complete reading disability, but the disability is limited to reading music and is not much of a problem unless I sit down at a piano. Context is everything.

Most teachers consider ADHD undesirable in students but, again, disability is context-dependent. I have worked in small businesses for much of my life, a business manger hired by individuals who have a common entrepreneurial trait: ADHD. They are full of energy and ideas, but they need someone stable and focused to make their businesses work;

So you see, most of what we call learning disabilities is really ability exercised in the wrong context. We teachers have the responsibility of manipulating the context of our classrooms to allow students to develop and express their different abilities.

Bookmark and Share

A Special Day


I got honored today in an ususual and delightful way: a series of novels was dedicated to me and my students.

The novels are the latest series by Elise Leonard and published by Nox Press. Elise is a former teacher who took what she learned in the classroom about the shortage of serious literature for high school students with poor reading skills and did something about it. She has crafted two series of novels that are sophisticated enough to engage HS students who don’t notice that the books are written at the first or second grade reading level.

Ever since I started teaching in a middle school three years ago, I’ve been looking for books written at the first grade level but not written for first grade students. Middle school students do not want to read about furry little bunnies or bright yellow duckies. They want books that talk to them at their reading level AND their age level. Elise Leonard delivers the goods.

When I happened to land on the Nox Press website , I purchased one copy of each of the ten Junkyard Dan books. Each book is a nearly 100-page novel with character development, plot, conflict and resolution. The books are distinct but interconnected, the idea being to start with the first and to read the others in succession, the reading level being a bit higher in each book as you progress. Student reading levels rise as they realize that reading can be engaging and fun.

Today Nox Press’ latest series, A Leeg of His Own, was dedicated to me and my students, particularly one student named James. James was in my sixth grade class two years ago. At that time we worked on sight words and basic phonemes. When James read the first Junkyard Dan book, The Start of a New Dan earlier this year, it was the first novel he ever completed. It took him three weeks to read the 91 pages of the book, coming to my classroom before school started each day to read a bit more. He finished the second novel in just under two weeks. Now he’s reading the third in the series.

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

Left to right: me, James, Elise Leonard

James is very hard working, but also very shy and he was simultaneously aghast and proud that he was being singled out for recognition. In her presentation after the ceremony Elise said that she hoped the recognition that we were getting today would inspire more struggling readers to try again and to keep trying until they succeeded.

Something clicked. After the ceremony I was interviewed and photographed by a local reporter. When I finally got upstairs to my classroom I had a small line outside of students, mostly boys, who wanted to start reading those books. I had to chase Elise down and order more copies. I had to pay for my first set. My principal paid for the ones I bought today. Recognition has its rewards, I guess.

Bookmark and Share