Monday, October 13, 2003

Back in the 6th Grade...

Today, I visited the 6th grade... for the entire day... Shadowing ALS...

First, an email I sent off to his teachers:

Ms. D,

Could you please forward this on to ALS’s teachers. Many thanks. I appreciate your willingness to serve as an email go-between.

/s/ Peter

Parent of ALS, 6th grade (Mercury) student

******** ---------- ******** ----------******** ----------

To: Ms. H, Mr. M, Ms. P, Ms. S (Mercury Team)

Thanks so much for allowing me to shadow ALS today during his day at HMMS. It’s been a couple of years since I was in a middle school classroom; I appreciate the reminder of the achievements and challenges middle school students face on a daily basis. I was again reminded of the high energy and enthusiasm these youngsters exhibit each day; you certainly face a different set of challenges than I faced as a high school teacher or that ALS’s mother, Di, currently faces as an elementary teacher.

Di and I remain concerned about ALS’s progress at HMMS. The interim report which came home today only accentuates that concern.

Two of ALS’s greatest challenges when it comes to learning (or life, for that matter) is attentiveness and organization. I believe he continues to need coaching and direction in these areas. During classes today, I took copious notes; my notes included utterances by teachers which I took to be tasking. In thinking about how those were presented, I was somewhat surprised. While I *heard* the assignments, ALS (and I suspect other students as well) did not. Why not? Well, in part because for many of these, they were oral direction, lacking some other communication medium. I can’t remember the last time I took a class (and don’t start thinking I haven’t been a student recently) when assignments were made only orally. When I taught, nearly every assignment I made was accompanied by a handout with clear direction.

Now, I know you’re going to say ALS and his classmates need to develop certain skills, etc. I’m not suggesting that isn’t true; but, I am suggesting that the delivery of assignments only hits home to those students who learn by ear. I’m sure you’re familiar with learning styles, multiple intelligences, and other like theories which stress multiplicity in learning and teaching.

Before this evening, I hadn’t availed myself of the Info line; you can be sure I’ll be checking it daily now. You might consider other possible delivery modalities also; I’d recommend trying, perhaps, a Mercury Team blog on the internet; you can create a free blog at I’d certainly be willing to help walk y’all through the process to create one which would help you and help your students. Handouts, within the constraints of the school budget, might also be a valuable tool; perhaps the Team could publish a weekly syllabus, listing all work for the week.

When ALS and I returned home, we reviewed his day. I was surprised at his lack of use of the planner. I was going to say I was surprised at his lack of sophistication with the planner, but the assignment column was barren. As a facilitator with the Coast Guard of various time management & use of the planner seminars, I know the value of a good personal planning tool. I also know it can be useful in ways beyond a simple listing of assignments. Did the team teach how to use the planner? For instance, I was surprised that ALS sees the planner solely as a tool to capture a listing of homework. I recommended he use the planner to project work; for instance, this week in the Wednesday column for English, I’d have written “VOCAB QUIZ TODAY.” He had a difficult time seeing this simple shift in paradigm. For one thing, as his father, I don’t know Jack (or Bo or anything else for that matter). Perhaps you might have better luck, or perhaps you can make some recommendations to us as we work with ALS to create success this year.

ALS’s other challenge is attentiveness. Like most of us, when he’s bored, he tunes out. I know engaging 30 eleven & twelve year olds is challenging. But he, and his classmates, need a hook. I’m told that intelligent children are more apt to be deficient in attentiveness. I’ve certainly seen it with ALS and some of his good friends. Sometimes, and it happened today, ALS becomes frustrated and then he ends up tuning out also. Today it was while copying board work, and he didn’t know how much space in the notebook to allot. I’m not sure what the answer to this is, other than creating an atmosphere which creates an innate and internal demand for attentiveness.

I was also somewhat surprised today to see ALS taking a test on the summer reading; I thought, given the emphasis and direction provided, that the summer work would have been put to bed in week one of school. Di and I were also distressed to learn that instead of a test for the states & capitals, students were required to turn in a list. Seems ALS missed that assignment; I’m really distressed because he had a list. As a matter of fact, he made up flash cards. I’m distressed as it seems this is an assignment he didn’t catch… and this was a change to what had previously been published. I’m also distressed because ALS didn’t take responsibility to do the work once he realized everyone else was passing up papers he didn’t have. Alas, I’m just distressed all the way around.

A couple of questions about the curriculum: (1) Do you take advantage of relating the classes in an interdisciplinary manner? It would seem to me that with the block schedule and the arts & social sciences bunched on one day with the maths and sciences bunched on the other, you’d have a great learning opportunity for an interdisciplinary approach. (2) How much do you break away from “facts” and encourage students in the give-and-take of ideas, albeit some of them might be messy and unformed and uninformed. And, (3) how do you make the material relevant to their own lives and the world about them? And, yes, I realize these last two questions are somewhat unfair in that I participated in a day of much testing (which reminds me: Mr. Martin, how’d I do on that test?) and not much actual teaching. One of my notes from today asks, “How can we take learning and the mastery of knowledge beyond rote return as in multiple choice questions and make them relevant to the world?”

Di and I will return the interim report later this week. As you can imagine, we’d like a conference. Di, as a faculty member with Portsmouth Public Schools, cannot make conferences at your set times; we’d like some alternatives in terms of timing so that we can meet with you to discuss ALS’s progress and how we can ensure his success at HMMS’s magnet program.

Again, thanks for the opportunity to sit in your classrooms; I appreciate your willingness to host my visit. I enjoyed myself and learned a great deal. Thank you.

I look forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to email here at; ALS’s mother is at Also, if you have a team email address through the school and provide that address to me, I’ll be able to stop using the front office as an intermediate step with email. Thanks.


/s/ Peter

Parent of ALS, 6th grade (Mercury) student

Interesting time, to say the least. I told my neighbor (the superintendent of schools) I'd shadowed Andrew and he asked if I wanted a job. Er, no thanks.

I was struck by a couple of things. First, Andrew is in the magnet program which is racially mixed, but probably has more white students than non-whites. It appears, at least anecdotally, that the great percentage of the non-magnet students are non-white.

School, at least here in Portsmouth, is still decidedly low-tech. I'm thinking that's okay. I've seen too many learning environments get caught up in technology so that learning doesn't happen at all. Teaching and learning can happen without computers and tech toys.

I've seen two interesting articles recently about technology, particularly the use of PowerPoint, in schools. An article in Wired slams PowerPoint for school use, and MIT's Sherry Turkle quoted in September's Harvard Business Reviewdoes the same thing. Funny how I came across two articles in a day or two which attack the same thing; are we going to see more of this?

I'm really wondering how we can make the classroom an engaging place; how can we make the classroom a place of ideas and learning and intellectual stretching? How can teachers engage students who seem to have short, short attention spans? I saw bored faces & diligent faces; I saw students engrossed in reading and learning; I saw students trying to stay awake. I saw teachers expecting their students to be organized; these same teachers taught in rooms with stacks of stuff (papers, folders, books, teaching supplies, and who knows what else) surrounding the students and cluttered black boards covered with posters and papers. No do-as-I-do there.

I decided that the level of energy in a classroom as an impact on learning. A high energy teacher is more likely to engage students; high energy equals high connectedness which equals high engagement by the student which equals high learning. I also decided that a teacher is king or queen over their domain -- SOLs or no SOLs, system-wide curriculum or no system-wide curriculum. Once the door shuts, the teacher can really do whatever they want. And for the good teachers, the talented teachers, that's a good thing and all the SOL-shit and the system-wide curriculum & pacing stuff is just an albatross around the neck. And for the mediocre teachers, being king or queen over their domain is a bad thing, and they need visitors in their classrooms every day to keep them honest.

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