Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dona Nobis Pacem

Let there be peace on earth...
And let it begin with me.

When I have tried to think about what to write in a peace blog, I've been bombarded with images and memories, bits of songs, snippets of conversations, flashes of photographs.

And what I end up thinking is something I read on a bumper sticker put out by the Marynoll Nuns about 30 years ago.

If you want peace, work for justice.

If you want peace, teach the children.
If you want peace, feed the hungry.
If you want peace, hold the frightened.
If you want peace, be peaceful.

Let there be peace on Earth
And let it begin with me

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Note on Comments

I love comments.  I've never had any bad comments on my posts (at least not in writing or to my face), but I wouldn't hate that either.  Well, I would, but only on a personal level and only because I want everyone to love me.

Anyone can comment.  You can comment annonymously or you can sign in on a Google account.  I prefer civilized communication, and wouldn't leave a post that contained ugly comments about someone else, but I'm pretty flexible.

If I decided to delete a comment, I'd explain why.  And that's what I'm doing now.

Some people have noticed that on a couple of posts there is a note "comment deleted."  I deleted these because they were spam.  Although most of them are simply selling stuff (and have the pictures to prove it), some have dangerous links.  I hate to even check them out.  One time someone put a comment in French that linked to a viagra ad.  A couple of links are in a language I can't get translated, and I delete them on the assumption that they are selling porn or sending secret messages to Osama bin Laden.  That's the way I am.

Please comment.  Please use a language I can understand or can have translated.  I speak three languages: English, sarcasm, and profanity, but I don't use profanity here.  (I stole that line from someone of Facebook.)  I can have French, German, Spanish, Italian, possibly Japanese and Chinese, and maybe Greek and Russian translated.  This is not to say I encourage that, because although I've had visitors from around the globe, this is an English-speaking blog and the whole point is to communicate, right?

And to sum up: go ahead and comment.  No SPAM.

And thank you for being here.  Y'all come back, y'here?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Carolina School for Inquiry: A Vision of Sustainability

I am running for the Board of Directors of Carolina School for Inquiry again.  I know, nutters.  But this is why I am running, and why I think I can make a difference.

Carolina School for Inquiry is in its 5th year.  We have made AYP for two years in a row, with test scores that exceed many of the district's best schools.  We have done this without teaching to the test, without segregating the blue birds from the red birds from the crows, without breaking the spirits of the children. 

We have done this with child-centered, inquiry-based, multi-aged education.  Innovation that has been proven to work for all children and not just for children of privilege. 

Now it is time for the board of directors to work hand-in-glove with the director to make sure that this success is sustainable, long after we are gone. 

In the development of a charter school, as with a young nation, there is a need for different kinds of leaders at different times.  Some can transition, but others will move on to new projects that better suit their style and emotional needs.

The early leaders of CSI were visionaries and charismatic leaders who were able to convince people to take a chance with their most precious resources, their children, and to pin their hopes on a new way of teaching and learning... a new way of thinking.  Like the leaders of the American Revolution, such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, & Benjamin Franklin, they were flashy, fast and opinionated. The charisma was palatable and people were drawn like moths to a flame.  And that was good.

After CSI was established, the mission remained the same, but the job at hand shifted from recruitment and rhetoric to "making it happen."  Carolina School for Inquiry was fortunate to have a director who had the diverse skill set necessary to make the "fine fine ideas" a "fine fine school."

I'm constantly amazed at the things Victoria Dixon-Mokeba has done.  The job hasn't been easy and it hasn't been glamorous.  There will be no parades or national holidays in her honor.  She has charisma, although it's not the kind that sucks the oxygen out of any room she enters.  It's not a "look at me" charisma, but the charisma that you feel when you talk to someone who is really interested in you, your child, and your ideas. She has developed her natural empathy, organizational skills, determination and dignity into a skill set that pretty much defines "great charter school leader."  I think that one of the most important skills is her humility, her ability to set aside her ego in order to listen to others and to learn new things.    She is determined and hard working and has inspired (and sometimes cajoled) those around her to work as hard and to take the responsibility that comes with freedom and flexibility.  Although I think there must be other people who could have lead Carolina School for Inquiry through the tumultuous first five years, I am not sure anyone could have brought us to this point of success.  Most of the board members over the past five years have supported Ms. Dixon-Mokeba as she lead the school through the development phase. 

And now we are here, what next?

The Carolina School for Inquiry Board of Directors needs to move CSI from "fine idea" to "fine fine school" to "fantastic model of a fine fine school." 

  • After a brief return to the cult of personality, it is time for the board to re-establish policies and procedures that serve as clear guidelines for the administrator, faculty, staff, parents and children, so that the director can operate without fear that the board will "get her" to satisfy a private grudge or to meet a private need.
  • The Board of Directors needs to establish a 10-year plan, which should include the funding and purchase of a school building so that CSI is no longer used as a pawn in the drama and personnel issues of other agencies.
  • A long-term sustainable fund-raising plan needs to be developed, and I'm not talking about wrapping paper and donuts.
  • We need to support and encourage the development of cutting-edge movements in education in order to serve the students and their families better and better.  I'm particularly excited about the plan being implemented by the special education teachers to help kids before they become paralyzed by their labels.  (I think this is going on, unless the past board shut it down.)   The board needs to encourage innovation, through its support of the director's initiatives.
  • CSI needs to serve as a resource to other schools and educators who want to develop child-centered, inquiry-based, multi-aged schools.  We need to allow the director to re-establish relationships with colleges and universities in the area.   We need to work with groups hoping to form middle or high schools on the inquiry model and with people who want to replicate the K-6 model of CSI.
Now, why me?  Because I am willing to do it.  I don't expect a plaque or even an opportunity to give a speech.  I have learned a whole lot in the past 6 years, and I want to use that knowledge to help CSI move into its next phase. 

There is a vision that I share with Victoria Dixon-Mokeba and with many other former board members and members of the CSI community:  A Vision of Sustainability.  And that will be our reward.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sure you can, but SHOULD you?

Many many years ago, I sat at a table in a college bar with a young man who informed me that he could put his fist in his mouth.

Many people would have said, "this I gotta see!" but I said, "I don't think that's a good idea."

He said, "You don't think I can do it, do you?"

I said, "If I thought you couldn't do it, I'd let you try."

The point of this story... the relevant point of this story... is that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.  And by "can" I mean physically or "have the right to" do something.  Because that's what I want to talk about.

We are often faced with the question, "I know I can, but should I?"  It usually involved eating a chocolate cake, telling a racist joke or letting your sister-in-law know what you really think of her.  And that is important.  But sometimes it involves bigger issues.

There are two situations now where I would defend to the death people's right to do something, one with more enthusiasm than the other.  But I wonder, should they do it?

Case one is cut and dried to me:  the idiot Pastor in Florida who wants to burn the Koran on September 11.  Sure he has the right to do it, as long as he bought the books and he has a burning permit. 

But should he?  Isn't it always icky to burn books?  Even if you weren't forced to read Fahrenheit 451 in high school (and if any book should be burned...), doesn't the notion of burning books and thereby symbolically burning ideas make you feel dirty?  Don't you wish the Pastor would just stick his fist in his mouth?

But no, he wants to burn books to defend his perverted notion of Christianity.

I can't accuse the Pastor of being a hypocrite, since I recognize that in his world view, it's OK to burn other ideas while insisting that your ideas be spread by any means.  I am tired of these people who call themselves Christians insisting that they are being persecuted because people disagree with them.  What do they know of persecution?  You don't hear about St. Cyndi who complained to the principal when the other girls laughed at her for praying during lunch. 

But there is persecution, and it is possible that his selfish actions will cause Americans (military and civilian) to be killed or tortured in Iraq or Afghanistan.  It is one thing to be willing to join Daniel in the lion's den.  It is another to sit in sunny Florida and send others into the lion's den.

The other event is very different, in my mind.  But in thinking about the moron Pastor, I've rethought this, too.

A group of good-hearted people want to build a Mosque near Ground Zero.  It is their hope that the center will serve to open relations among people of different faiths and to help educate Americans about Islam.  I believe them, and I think that it is a great cause.

Whether I believed them or not, I'd defend their right to build. Since I believe them, I have thought that they should build.  But now I'm not sure. 

It's not because I think they should back off from the angry, bigoted crowd.  I don't think we should be "sensitive" to bigotry.  If I offend someone by being a Muslim or a lesbian or an Episcopalian, I am not going to change so as not to offend them, or even to make myself more comfortable in their presence.  (See "martyrdom" above.)  If that were the only issue I'd say, build it bigger and better.  Who cares?

I think they should reconsider building the Mosque at ground zero because their purpose is to open hearts and minds and to educate, but that isn't going to happen because the issue has shifted to the building and the place and not the mission.  I think that the anger and vitriol shows that there is a great need for education and bridge-building.  I'm just not sure this is how to start.

The pastor is clearly wrong.  The Mosque may defeat its own purpose.  I'm going to eat the whole chocolate cake and not tell my sister-in-law what I think of her.  I will not tell racist jokes.  Civilization is saved.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Carolina School for Inquiry Makes AYP Again

Carolina School for Inquiry made AYP for the second year in a row.  This is a strong testament to the great lead teacher/director and the wonderful teachers who remain committed to child-centered, multi-age, inquiry-based education.  This is a testament to the parents and families who support the school and their children.  It is a testament to the community partners who still support the idea of excellent education in SC.  It is a testament to the children who love to learn when allowed to shine as they do at CSI.

The CSI Board of Directors (with a notable exception) seem to have missed the memo.  In the past year, they have spent their efforts trying to undermine the charter, and when that failed, trying to undermine the school, telling people that multi-age inquiry didn't work.  Mind you, some of these people have children who have been very successful at this school. 

Last Tuesday at a board meeting held the day after school started, they dug in their heels to avoid approving contracts for three new teachers.  Two teachers resigned at the last minute in a fashion which could have left the school in a lurch if there weren't so many bright professional educators who want to be a part of multi-aged education.  However, by refusing to approve the terms of the contract in a timely manner (they can have emergency meetings for every thing else, but not this), they have disrupted the beginning of school.  This is not to say that the board didn't do anything Tuesday night.  They approved the purchase of report card covers and a wand to put letters on the announcement board.  Hip-hip-freakin-hooray.

The board did approve the contracts of the teachers, albeit in a childish and cowardly way.  They sat there in front of parents and visitors pouting while two board members made the motion, seconded, and voted to approve.  They stared at the ceiling and refused to vote yes or no.  (The always heroic "present" vote.)  It was suggested by some parents there that maybe they planned to try to go back on the approval of the teachers when they weren't in the public eye... but I don't see how that would work.  If they were so craven as to try that, I'd have say a few extra rosaries.  It must really hurt to be so recalcitrant and self-centered.  What kind of person who claims to care for excellent education for all students would deprive children of stability in the opening days of school? 

Perhaps they've seen the writing on the wall.  The writing that said "Carolina School for Inquiry makes AYP."  The writing from children that shows their enthusiasm for learning that goes beyond the test.  The writing that says that Carolina School for Inquiry is a great public charter school and if they don't like it, they should take their magic wand and go home.  Or at least to some other more traditional school.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The kicked pig squeals

Last night I attended the postponed regularly scheduled meeting of the Carolina School for Inquiry Board of Directors.  This was a rare privilege because most of the CSI board meeting this year have been specially called, last minute, executive session only, and/or by teleconference.  To be able to actually see the board in action is rare.  Ironically, this is a board that speaks often of transparency and honesty, as if they have it and the boards before didn't.

Last night was not earth-shattering.  The board discussed report card covers they have ordered the Director/ Lead Teacher to buy next year.  They talked about the price of the wand-thing to put letters on the sign the Friends of CSI bought the school.  Too bad they didn't buy the wand too.  They mentioned the new lease with Richland County Recreation Commission, although they didn't seem to want to discuss the fact that although the previous board had negotiated a lease before this board took office, this group signed a different lease that costs the school at least $15,000 more a year and that the current RCRC interim director has ended the mutually beneficial partnership the two organizations have had for five years and basically declared war on the director.  Vision has been replaced with vitriol.  But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, except maybe to point out to the teachers that that is where their raises are.  Oh well.

At the end of the meeting, a board member spoke in what (if they used Robert's Rules) would probably be called a "Point of Personal Privilege."  She called on the audience to remember the mission of CSI, an atmosphere of kindness and respect among other things.  She then went on about e-mails she has received that attack her character and engage in what she called gossip.

First, I know she wasn't talking to me, because I haven't sent her any e-mail.  I did send the board chair an e-mail in which I expressed my concern about the board holding meetings on the phone, calling meetings and the last minute, and cancelling meetings.  I believe I also suggested that they were acting like a PTA rather than a board of a public charter school.  I don't think I called anyone names. 

That is because, I don't call people names or concern myself with someone's character unless I care about them, either in a good or bad way.  This woman is not one of the two board members who have harassed my son, so she is not on my radar.  Not as an individual.

The reason I am addressing this is because I think it is symptomatic of a general cry-babiness and hypocrisy in our world.  What we used to call "dishing it out, but not being able to take it."  We hear it on this board, we hear it in the whining of politicians who don't like advertisements pointing out their past documented criminal or voting records.  I'm just tired of it.

Let's see if we can clarify.  This is not a personal attack.

A personal attack is when a mob of "kind, respectful" people disrupt the operation of a meeting, calling the board members liars and screaming that the director is a witch and should be sent to Hell where she belongs.

A personal attack is when "kind, respectful" people tell others that a person is "cheating" on her husband, knowing it isn't true.

A personal attack is when these "kind, respectful" individuals use innuendo and sly backroom techniques to give the impression that people are operating in an illegal way, even when they know it isn't true.

A personal attack is when "kind, respectful" people tell colleagues and associates of a person that that person is unethical, knowing it isn't true.

A personal attack is when "kind, respectful" people refuse to engage in a civil conversation but prefer gossip and midnight phone calls.

I will not engage in personal attacks.  I will continue to express concern about poor judgement, willful ignorance, and a culture of secrecy that I believe is damaging a school that I hold dear.  To me, it has always been about the children... ALL CHILDREN. 

And to those who may feel personally attacked, I'll quote the great Henry Young: "The kicked pig squeals."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Innovation, marquees, budget cuts & gnat's knees

Last Tuesday, I attended the Carolina School for Inquiry Board of Directors meeting.  It had been a while since I'd been to a regular meeting... I guess the last one was when I was still chair. 

I was pleased to see the large attendance.  When I was on the board we couldn't pay people to attend until we had the unfortunate incident.  The people attending Tuesday were civil, unlike some of the folk in the mobs that attended the last couple of meetings in September.

I was excited to hear a presentation from the special ed department.  They are taking the lead on innovative ways to help special needs kids.  The federal regulations will be demanding more proactive intervention and the two special ed teachers, with the encouragement and blessing of the CSI lead teacher/director Victoria Dixon-Mokeba, have developed what looks like a wonderful plan.  They asked the teachers what would help them and the kids, studied the data, checked on the kids' needs.  They are planning to work with small groups of kids before they are labeled so that they can prevent problems from developing and take away some of the stigma associated with "special ed" labels. 

That's one of the strengths of a multi-age setting.  Kids can develop at different rates, get the extra help or extra push to go further without either being labeled a failure or being socially promoted without ever helping them develop the skills they need.  I'm proud of CSI for being innovative in this area as well as in other areas of curriculum.  This is what a charter school should be able to do.

The budget report is always interesting, but I was disappointed to see that the board members seemed to find it boring.  The CSI accountant couldn't do a better job of explaining the current and future budget needs and issues.  I know that he and other charter school experts have given this novice board remedial lessons in governance & finance as related to a charter school board, and so it concerns me that some of the ladies don't seem to want to listen. 

I was even more surprised to see what did interest them.  During the public comments, a grandparent spoke with great passion about the marquee in front of the school.  Why was it empty?  Why did other schools have things on their marquee but we don't? 

I was a little taken aback.  That's it?  I thought.  That's the biggest issue?  That's how you plan to fire the finest director/lead teacher in SC?

Victoria explained during her report that the marquee was empty because OSHA had determined that the ground was too uneven to use a ladder and our landlord's hadn't regraded the ground or purchased a telescoping wand.   That is when a couple of board members perked up.

"So we need to buy a wand?  How much does it cost?"

Sweet Millard Filmore on a bicycle.  This is the board of directors of a public charter school, not the PTA.  Did you miss it when Bill said we may not have enough money to pay full teachers salaries?  You want to buy a wand so we can have announcements on the sign in front of the school?

This reminded me of several stories Brian Carpenter tells about disfunctional boards.  It also reminded me of a personal story.  Early in my tenure as board chair, when I was still struggling to maintain order and harmony at the same time, someone in public comments asked why we didn't have a school bus of our own, instead of renting one when we needed it for trips.  In the meeting, a board member asked about the bus, and I said that the facilities committee should study the issue and report back.  This is when I lost control.  They started talking about busses and how they'd looked at them before.  I kept saying, yep, that's what the committee needs to look in to.  In the committee.  Not now...  I am ashamed to say that we discussed what color to paint the hypothetical school bus for two or three minutes (a long time in a meeting) before I managed to get it back on task.  And the committee never did recommend buying a's cheaper to rent. 

And so we see the state of affairs.  Carolina School for Inquiry is a fine public charter school.  The test scores are great, the students are happy to be learning, the director and most of the teachers know that we as parents and taxpayers and citizens appreciate the fact that they work ten times harder than average to help children learn.  There is no try, only do.  But then the board, elected in an avalanche of personal vindictiveness and anger, acts as if they are in the middle school glee club.  (I am flashing back to middle school, because I heard that a board member was chastised for speaking to me.  I can't really bring myself to care, but it does make me want to buy some clearisil.)

I really hope the board takes its lessons to heart and starts acting like a board and not a social club before the sign outside of the school says "Closed."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Crab Boils and Mean Girls

Have you every been to a crab boil?  You know that the crabs have to be fresh, as in.... Alive.  So the crabs are kept in a big basket until the water boils.

This is not a story about cooking and eating live animals.  It is about the nature of crabs.

In the basket, the crabs scramble around trying to get out.  Often, one will climb until it gets almost to the top, and then....

The other crabs pull it back in.

Many years ago, as I eavesdropped on a conversation between my mother and Senator Kay Patterson, I heard this story.  Senator Patterson said that black folk were like the crabs.  If one got too high, other black folk would pull him back.  White people could just sit and watch.

Mom suggested that might apply to women too.  Senator Patterson said he didn't know about women, but maybe.

It is sad that after over 30 years, women and black folk sometimes still act like the crabs.

You don't need white men to hold anyone back.  There are claws at your back. 

Even President Obama "wasn't black enough" and acted "white."  It's legion.  But as Senator Patterson didn't know much about women, I can't really talk about that, since I'm just looking from the outside.

I can talk about women.

I love women.  Some of my best friends are women.  I count on women.  But there are some women who act as if they have been raised to be cortesans or something.  They are nasty and competitive with other women, never supportive.  They are mean girls.

If a woman succeeds, they say, "She slept her way to the top." 

If a woman chooses to stay in a traditional role, they say she is lazy and stupid.

If a woman has a husband, bright children, a sharp mind, and a good heart, they do everything they can do to ruin her.

People (usually other women) will often say that they can't stand having a female boss because women are petty or flaky or random.  And there are women who make crappy bosses.  There are men who make crappy bosses. 

But some women don't want to have a woman for a boss because they are so insecure and jealous, they can't deal with women except in competition for men.  They have a brothel mentality.  They are stuck in middle school, where they whisper about loose girls, girls with ugly clothes, fat girls... These women are "mean girls" all grown up and still as pathetic and sad as ever.  All that's missing is that Clearisil smile.

I have a friend in a situation like that now.  (She is also black, so she has also been accused of "acting white" and "being uppity" by black women who were supposed to be her loyal employees.)  She is the director of a small charter school.  She has been recognized and honored statewide and nationally.  Most of the parents and almost all of the children love and respect her.  Largely due to her skills and energy, the school is a great success.  She empowers and encourages teachers and students.  She holds everyone accountable.  She is tough and she is fair.  She is the leader.

If she were a man, these women would be lying at her feet.  Instead, they are jealous and bitter.  Although they cloak themselves in a desire to "help the teachers" not have to work so hard, they act by trying to ruin her reputation.  Instead of saying that she is too tough (which men never are, incidently), they say she sleeps with men who aren't her husband.  Instead of saying that they disagree with her policies, they say she is a witch and should be sent to hell (I am not making that up.)

I know of another situation in which the old "mean girls" have made allegations of impropriety against a woman whom they know in a social club and have harassed her in her job, her church, and her home.  I'm sure you all know of similar cases.

What's with these sad pathetic women?  Men don't do this kind of thing.  They shoot each other, maybe, but then it's back to the bar for a beer.  Women nurse grudges like a new born baby.

When will we learn to support each other, or at least act in a civilized manner.  When will these chicks learn the difference between disagreement and disagreeable?  When will we ever learn?  When will we ever learn?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

REBLOG: What Inquiry Isn't

I wrote this in September 2007, and since it's tax season and since no one read this the first time, I'm running it again. OK? Thanks.

It seems that when people --- parents, teachers, community members --- ask what inquiry based education is, they often hear "I can tell you what it isn't." While I think there is an affirmative answer, like inquiry itself, it must be discovered and uncovered rather than put forth as a definition.

One of the founders of our charter school Sue does a wonderful job of showing inquiry. She leads the audience in a mini-lesson which begins with people calling out names of animals and moves through many other steps to illustrate how exploration can be used in all aspects of education. There is the sorting, which can be scientific and mathematical; then the wondering why we picked these animals, which can bring in social studies and self-discovery; then of course, reading about the animals... language arts. My description is clear as mud, I realize. Hmm, maybe we should say, "you have to see it to believe it."

One of the most common misunderstandings of inquiry are that it is dippy "let children do what they want because they are so wonderful who needs manners?" type of method. Some people who believe this actually want this for their children. Fortunately, this isn't what inquiry is. I'm all for conversing with children, listening to their unique view points and watching their little brains work as they are exposed to new ideas. There is something magical about a child carefully explaining some important point to an adult, mimicking his parents' checking strategy: "Do you hear me? What did I say?" But I'm also a big fan of civility. I don't think that a child's creativity or inquisitiveness are stifled by being expected to follow rules, listen to others, not hit other children in the privates.

In fact, inquiry demands a child have self-control (which the teacher helps to develop), independence, and ownership of his/her education process. They have to be responsible. If they are struggling, they need to ask for help. If they are "bored" (a word my children are not allowed to say), they must reach into their inner resources and make their learning experience richer, deeper, and wider. The teachers are there to help, but it is ultimately the child who will be the life-long learner. There will be a learning hum in a classroom, and good noise that means children are interacting and learning. However, respect for self, others, and the world around us are essential elements of our school. Everyone is entitled to a safe place to learn the way he/she learns best. Parents who believe that their child should not be guided to civility, while believing other people's children should bow to their little darlings' needs, are very disappointed. I have two words for them: Home School.

Another misguided view, I believe, is that inquiry is an end all and be all. A teacher of inquiry draws on children's natural curiosity and guides him/her toward discovery. However, the most important thing is that children learn well, and to do that, teachers need to draw on many methods and techniques. As an example, many people are convinced "phonics" is the way to teach reading. At some point, whole word became the darling of educators. The thing is, people learn to read using different methods and strategies. Both phonics and whole word are tools, but not the only tool. Similarly, inquiry is a philosophy, a background for teaching, but the teacher will use many tools to facilitate it. Educators should use what works, not get hung up on labels and fads. Flexibility is expected of children and should be encouraged in teachers.

The third notion of inquiry, that makes me really angry, is that inquiry is only appropriate for upper middle class children (probably white, but the critics won't say that.) All children, no matter what their background, are curious explorers. Some have it beaten (figuratively if not literally) out of them earlier than others, but all have the spark. Children can learn when they are a part of their education, are taught the way they learn, have relevant curriculum, and are respected as learners. And even when the spark has been smothered by years of factory-based education, it can be reignited by caring, patient, and respectful teachers. We have seen it happen.

Our school emphasized a child's role in his/her education. The students see themselves as writers, scientists, readers, social scientists, and citizens of the world. They have the tools to learn no matter where they go. Their strength comes from their rediscovered inner resources and not outside props. We are young and still learners ourselves. There is far to go, and mistakes have been made. But like rational, civilized people, we have learned from our mistakes and seek to improve. And like rational, healthy people, we recognize the strengths and great things that have happened and are continuing to happen.

Public education is extremely important to the health and well-being of our society. I believe it's important to have educated, rational, civilized innovators as our current and future citizens. And I believe inquiry-based education is the way to get that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Is multi-age inquiry-based education too hard on teachers?

Carolina School for Inquiry made AYP this year, its fourth year of existence.  WOO-HOO!!!

Many new schools aren't judged for AYP (adequate yearly progress) until their fourth year because it takes at least that long for the effects of the new school to overcome the old schools.  In the case of CSI, a charter school, Richland School District One chose to be cautious and use AYP to keep track even in the first three years.

Not only did CSI make AYP, it is leading the district in many areas of testing on the statewide PASS test. 

This is important not only to CSI parents, teachers, and students, but to all advocates of excellent public education for all people.

This is what we heard from detractors, mostly in Columbia, but even from some blogger in Alaska:
  • Inquiry is for white, middle-class children.  Other children don't learn because they aren't (fill-in-the-blank) culturally/genetically/mentally able to learn through inquiry.  They need tables, worksheets, and yelling teachers.  (How's that tably/worksheety/yelly thing workin' for ya?)
  • Inquiry lets children do whatever they want and so they won't learn basic skills or achieve the standards or learn the essential boring stuff.
  • Teachers aren't willing to work hard enough to properly implement inquiry.
This is what we see:

Carolina School for Inquiry has a diverse population of students.  It reflects the urban/rural, social, cultural, and ethnic makeup of Richland School District One. 

As a charter school, every child has a parent who decided to give multi-age, inquiry-based education a try, although not every parent is able to be in the school as often as they'd like (including me.)  Parents do make a difference in their child's education, but we can't blame the parent and move on.  As Victoria Dixon-Mokeba says, each child brings the best parents they have and if that's not such a great parent, that child still needs to learn.

Carolina School for Inquiry has some excellent, committed, professional teachers.  These teachers work longer and harder than many of their counterparts in traditional public or private schools.  They attend professional development courses to improve their knowledge and skills in both subject matter and in inquiry, multi-age, and differentiated education theory and practice.  They grade not with simple formulas and ABCs, but with a combination of kidwatching and written and oral evaluation. 

My son's report cards are always at least four pages long, and in them I can see that his teachers really know him as a learner.  We have been lucky to have teachers committed to multi-age inquiry since he began here in third grade.  I understand that not all teachers at the school have been willing to put this kind of time into the narrative report cards, and I feel sorry that their parents and students haven't experienced a well-honed narrative report card. 

In order for Inquiry to be done right, the teachers have to be committed.  They need to understand differentiated education and know how to implement it.  They need to have a carefully crafted plan.  Although Inquiry teachers are flexible, they can't fly by the seat of their pants.  Each child needs to have what is in effect an IEP, an individual education plan.  The teachers can't use pre-fab lesson plans, even if they have "worked" in traditional classrooms for 25 years.  At CSI, there are no children left behind.  The teachers can't say, "I've done all I can with that one, he's a lost cause."  Each child must learn to be the best learner he or she can be.  No excuses.  No "try" only "do."

A couple of teachers are complaining that multi-age, inquiry based education is too hard.  They can't say it doesn't work.  They don't say the kids don't learn.  They say that it is too hard.  They focus on multi-age, saying the class levels are too broad, but as we have said, if inquiry is done right, the developmental levels are not so important as in a traditional classroom.  We don't need "bluebirds" and "crows."

And as I've said, my son's teachers have all been committed to the best student learning, so I don't really understand what the other teachers' problems are.  But I do know that Carolina School for Inquiry is a school of choice and if it doesn't fit the need of a teacher, they should find a more traditional, easier school at which to teach.

There are thousands and thousands of committed, energetic, professional, child-loving teachers out there.  CSI only needs seven of them.

Congratulations to Victoria Dixon-Mokeba and the fine staff and faculty, to all of the students, and to all of the families and friends of CSI.  We are a success and now almost everyone knows it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A better place to be: Carolina School for Inquiry

Over five years ago, I became part of a group of people who wanted their children, and all children, to have a better place to learn. After some discussion and research, we decided to start a child-centered, inquiry-based, multi-age public charter school in Richland County school district one.

I almost didn’t become a part of CSI because I had misconceptions about what a charter school is.

I thought that a charter school was a sneaky way of having a private school paid for with public money. I thought charter schools were conservative, using old-fashioned methods that people think used to work to teach kids, but never really worked for most kids. I thought charter schools had uniforms, workbooks, and rote teaching.

Instead, I learned that a charter school is a laboratory to test innovative ideas to see if they will help improve education for all children.

A group with an innovative idea establishes a contract with the state of SC and with the school district, in our case Richland One, promising that our idea will work BETTER to educate the children of SC. The key is to find a new way of teaching. In our case, we took two tried and true methods, inquiry and multi-age, and combined them in a way that we believed would improve all children’s learning.

In addition, the charter group promises to teach ALL children better, not just the ones we might pick and choose. In the process, the charter organization takes on a great responsibility for both education and finances.

The contract between Carolina School for Inquiry and Richland One says that our innovative method that we believe will better educate children is a CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED curriculum. This is not the only way to teach, but this is what CSI has agreed to do.

When we first established the school, some parents tried to change it to what they thought a charter school was. Some wanted more homework and less talk among student, but that is not CSI. A couple of parents thought the school would allow their children to run wild and “express themselves” in ways that society deems inappropriate. That is not CSI. Currently, a couple of teachers and a handful of parents are saying that multi-age doesn’t work for them and the charter should be changed.

I have to ask them if they have checked our test scores. I have to wonder if they have looked at the students’ success. I have to wonder if they are committed to the CSI charter.

I have been lucky to have teachers committed to the learning of each child. When Mark was in third grade, the first year of CSI, he had a wonderful teacher. Although she was a first year teacher, I think she understood and was committed to inquiry in a way that some teachers entrenched in traditional learning aren’t. She was like the Good Shepherd of the parable, who knew each child’s name. She also knew what he or she liked and didn’t like to do and how to encourage a child to push beyond the “easy” to the challenge. She steered Mark toward books that he enjoyed, and helped him get past his obsession at the time --- a fine set of books that he’d really outgrown.
I use her as an example, but as I said, all of Mark’s teachers have been wonderful. And one of his best is a teacher who succeeded in traditional schools for years but has fully embraced the multi-age, inquiry-based curriculum of CSI.
One concern I have heard about multi-age classes is that it is hard to teach children with such a broad range of development and abilities. And yet, walk into any group of six year olds and you will find a broad range of development levels and abilities. In fact, one child may be all over the chart in his physical, emotional, and intellectual development. He may be great at math but struggle with language arts. She may be able to read on a 5th grade level but have the social skills of a kindergartener.

The idea of multi-age education is to teach children where they are developmentally, without stigmatizing them by “holding them back” or pushing them ahead when they are not socially ready.

With Inquiry-based education, each child should be learning in his own way in any case. Although it might not be necessary to have formalized forms such as used in special ed, each child should, in essence, have an IEP, his or her individual education plan. If each child is being taught in the way he or she can best learn, the multi-age issue is moot. It’s hard work for the teacher, but it is a great way for the children to succeed.

Being a part of a charter school is harder for parents, teachers, and administrators, but we CHOOSE to be a part because of our commitment to excellent public education. Our goal is student achievement: every child will be the best he or she can be. It doesn’t matter where his starts, how he stacks up against others, or what we want him to be. He needs to be his best.
And CSI has done this well. Look at the children. If you can, read the narrative report card, which tells you exactly what your child can and cannot do, where he is strongest and where he needs to challenge himself. Ask Ms. Dixon-Mokeba if you can see Mark’s report card. I’m as proud of the teachers who took the time and who had the knowledge of my son to write them as I am of my son. Look at our over-all test scores: look at the levels of improvement since the child-centered multi-age inquiry based curriculum has been given a chance to take hold. Look at the success in AYP.

Does looping (having a teacher go from grade to another with the child) work? Yeah, it does. There is plenty of evidence in Richland One and Two. So much so, I’d have to suggest it’s not innovative. Does that mean other schools shouldn’t use it? Of course not. Does that mean CSI, as a charter should be allowed to use it? No. It’s not innovative.

Carolina School for Inquiry is a SUCCESSFUL CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED school. Our children are excelling, and I pray they will be able to continue to grow. And to those teachers & parents who feel that child-centered, multi-age, inquiry-based education is not right for you or your child, I wish you the best and hope you find a better place for YOU to be.