5 Tips for Getting Students Excited About Learning

pexels-photo-203237Many teachers enter the field of education with great ideas about transforming the student body, with thoughtful curriculums and detailed lesson plans on which they’ve worked very hard, only to find that some of their pupils don’t respond. Engagement and a desire to learn is key to teaching anything, but morale is not always there. Here are a few tips for bringing your classroom to life, at any grade-level, that will encourage your students to be involved in the process, rather than just listening to lectures.

  1. Make It Relevant
    You may have seen stories in the news like the school in London which banned the use of slang in the classroom. While I think teachers have the right to decide what can and cannot be said in the classroom, I also believe there is a way to use what students like to make a point of your own. Children want to know how what they’re learning is important to their daily lives, and they also want to know you understand where they’re coming from. It builds a relationship of trust and comfort rather than distance. Certainly there is a time and place for everything, so your students should still be wary of the differences between the streets and the classroom, but not everything that’s “hip” is bad, albeit different.
  2. Set Goals
    Additionally, give students something to work toward. At the beginning of each lesson, set clear objectives for what you want to teach them, and steps for how you plan to get there. Post these steps somewhere that it can be seen by everyone in the room, and track progress accordingly, so the kids can visualize their progress as something tangible and attainable.
  3. Reward Success
    If you want to take that concept to the next level, set up a reward system to further encourage students to reach those milestones. This doesn’t have to be extravagant or costly each time; you can save the pizza parties or special outings for major events, to make the distinction. Yet the rewards can be as simple as bonus test points or some other method of recognition to get the kids in the habit of associating achievement with good things.
  4. Share Some Autonomy
    Make teaching a little democratic. You can be in charge and still create opportunities for your students to choose which book to read, or the type of test they prefer, etc. It’s no secret that people are more likely to engage in something of their own choosing. Besides, it puts them in the mindset of making decisions for themselves, a great transferrable skill to have and develop.
  5. Encourage Friendly Competition
    Science is clear, humans are competitive by nature. Use that to you advantage in the classroom. Create teams (be sure to mix it up based on ability, so that one team does not have an advantage over the other, and to encourage team building) and allow students to compete with certain projects or progress for lessons. This may be better for higher grade levels; use your judgment before implementing this with younger children.

A Call To Uplift Students, Not Tear Them Down

pexels-photo-191100Last month I discussed a few newsworthy changes in the city of Baltimore, where certain schools have started implementing meditation in lieu of detention. This approach is is inspiring and certainly something from which we (those charged with caring for and educating students) can learn. Yet apparently such inspiration has not made its way around the entire city.

This past week a video surfaced of a teacher at a Baltimore Middle School, Harlem Park, berating children, who had apparently not heeded her instruction and were unresponsive to her directives about doing work. The video begins with the woman, who has now been let go by the school, removing a disruptive student from the classroom. By the end of the short clip, the teacher is calling all of the children stupid and telling them they’re the N-words bound to get shot. The teacher was white.

But her race alone is not the most alarming part. Her tone and the way she chose to address these students is most upsetting. To be clear, having worked in education, I understand that students can get rowdy, that some days are not as great as others, and that on those days, some students just won’t listen. That is not ideal but it comes with the territory, and educators should be prepared for dealing with it, especially if their goal is teach in a school or district where the population is historically underserved and impoverished.

Those children, as disrespectful as they are and as nerve racking as they can be, are just that, children. Many are disaffected by the education system because they deal with a world of hell outside of the school’s walls, which may include gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, incarcerated parents, bullying, and yes, racism. As I’ve discussed previously, these experiences can be traumatic, making learning (as well as teaching) difficult.

In turn, these children need the opposite. They need attention and teachers who care, who are willing to give the hard love that may turn them around, and who are able discipline without using profanity and demeaning language. Perhaps meditation is not a possibility for every school or classroom, but compassionate teachers should be.

And maybe this is an example of teachers needing to meditate themselves, or find some other way to care for themselves, to destress and decompress, and this should be encouraged by the schools. The job of being an educator is not easy in anyway, and being responsible for young adult lives, even when it seems like you’re the only one, is draining. Yet many of us have entered the profession, knowing the risks and still rising to the challenge with the hope of changing at least one life. If not that, then what is the purpose?

Why Schools In Baltimore Are Meditating

Leo Pollard's picture of meditation

Young lady meditating

Located just an hour outside of the nation’s capital, Baltimore, Maryland is one of the poorest cities in the United States. However, the entire city isn’t living in squalor; there is, in fact, very noticeable wealth throughout. Yet, as one of the most segregated cities in the country as well, inequality persists in black neighborhoods located in the inner city and western suburbs.

 

Within this cycle of poverty are children for whom issues at home spill over into the school environment, resulting in heightened disciplinary actions and no-tolerance policies from educators and administrators alike. Such actions lead to more aggression from students as well as a sense of apathy regarding the purpose of school, since it so often fails at addressing the needs of those who need more than punishment. Hence, a few schools in Baltimore are trying something new.

 

One such school is the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. A recent article from Upworthy highlighted the school’s abrogation of detention in exchange for mindful meditation. The benefits of mindfulness include focus, longer attention spans, stress reduction and, probably most helpful, the ability to truly think about one’s actions–it encourages reflection and inspires peace.

 

Mindfulness isn’t new, of course. The practice has been been around for thousands of years. However this particular application is novel in many respects. The inspiration (and partnership) to create a room dedicated to mindfulness, where misbehaving kids are sent instead of the principal’s office, came from the Holistic Life Foundation, which has been offering after school mindfulness and yoga programs for kids, from pre-k to 5th grade.

 

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has had zero suspensions for the last two years. The school credits the program and its holistic approach with its success. While there has been no formal study on this correlation, we can look at the results from other schools in Baltimore and those developing around the country to see that such policies are impactful.

 

The nature of this work is remarkable and resourceful, especially as Baltimore continues to lose students and millions of dollars in funding, the latter of which creates even worse environments for students with behavioral issues. I’m not sure whether this can be applied elsewhere as easily, without the proper resources and training. But it is something worth researching further to find out how to really make a difference.

Why We Can’t Ignore the Fight for Affordable College

library-1400312_960_720At the end of the 19th century, America shifted its focus from preparing its citizens for skilled labor to equipping them with knowledge for continued education and a more flexible future. High School was normalized as a natural progression in the system of education, and was made publicly available to all children, required by law until a certain age in many states. As a result, America became a world leader in education and set a precedent for other countries.

 

Much has changed since then. Growth in high school enrollment has declined and America ranked as low as 36 in education among other developed countries, per a global assessment in 2014. Improving the quality of secondary education is something educators and legislators alike are constantly working toward, even before this most recent statistic. A positive result of such is that high school dropout rates have been steadily declining within the last few years. Still, another education problem is at America’s front door, and it requires immediate attention: college affordability.

 

In the last twenty years (from 1995 to 2015), the price of college has increased by over 170 percent. Subsequently, the amount of student debt from college loans has tripled in the last decade, to $1.23 billion dollars in 2016. At this point, college is becoming out of reach for many low and middle income families, pushing them further behind not only nationally, but globally in our ever-expanding international economy.

 

leo pollard's image of a college building The problem is bigger than money. Like obtaining a high school diploma in the 20th century, a 4-year degree is now required for most jobs and careers available to people in the modern era. Without it, individuals make nearly $20,000 less than those with a degree. Thus, college affordability becomes an issue of inequity: a process which stifles people unable to pay for a higher education, forcing them to remain in a cycle of poverty and a growing wealth gap, right here in the world’s richest country. It is simply unfair.

 

Famously, former Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, made this issue a staple in his progressive platform, in a race for the White House. Since losing the nomination and conceding in June, his case has been taken up by his opponent, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to eliminate in-state college tuition at public universities, for families earning less than $125,000 a year. This plan covers about 80 percent of Americans, and provides hope for so many who fear they lack any future beyond what they see.

 

leo pollard libraryWhile it’s too soon to celebrate this becoming a reality, it is great to see that politicians on the national stage are taking up the struggle for many Americans, and making efforts to reform a system that desperately needs a change. If we are to truly encourage our kids to believe in the American dream, we must remove the things which keep them from ever realizing it; that starts with ensuring equal opportunities for education.

How Racism and Violence Around The World Is Hurting Our Kids

[photographer unknown]

[photographer unknown]

Just this year, 551 people in the United States have been killed by police (that number may grow by the time this is published). Most of them remain unknown in the public consciousness while others have made headlines as a result of growing distrust between people in black communities and law enforcement, lead by the Black Lives Matter movement. The latter have sparked protests around the country and strong opinions on social media, with people calling for change to a system which disproportionately affects black and brown people, though people of all races have been subject to fatal force in the face of the law–not just this year, but for decades.

As tensions have bubbled over, some have taken it into their own hands to rectify the situation, and just a month ago, we witnessed an attack on police in Dallas, where a black army veteran took down 5 cops and injured 7 others in the midst of a peaceful protest. The rebuke was swift from the public and our government, with President Obama and the protesters themselves (one of which was injured during the shooting) condemning the actions which many felt would only lead to more violence, mistrust and animosity; because, in the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In the end, the perpetrator was killed after failing to negotiate with police, and justice was served.

Yet, just this week, a year old case from Baltimore reawakened feelings of bias and injustice, when charges were dropped against all of the remaining officers involved in an incident that left a young man (then 25 years old) dead after being arrested for making eye contact with police then running. Once again, people are angry. This anger is a natural response to the trauma and fear felt by people who’ve endured centuries of mistreatment and violence. It can be debilitating as much as it is infuriating, and while we look to empathize with those in the streets, shutting down highways, and in the political arena, we often forget the effect these actions and our own reactions have on our children.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma affects learning in children from preschool age to high school. The organization defines traumatic event as: “a sudden and unexpected occurrence that causes intense fear and may involve a threat of physical harm or actual physical harm.” Though responses vary, symptoms from depression to physical illness occur, and therefore impede the normal process of education and school learning.

This trauma is not limited to the children directly affected by these events, such as Tamir Rice’s sister who saw her brother shot dead in the park while playing, or the children who lamented the death of Philando Castile who worked at a school in Minnesota, after he was shot. Those children obviously have a more personal connection to these issues that we have to assuage, but there are others, bystanders, watching the news or seeing videos of a young girl body slammed in a classroom, or a child pinned to the ground following an argument at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. These children live in a world where children and barely grown figures like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are household names. Their feelings about this and their mental wellbeing cannot be overlooked.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg threatening to completely shatter their safety and peace of mind. Terrorist attacks from Paris to Istanbul, from Brussels to Orlando, have all made headlines. People are in mourning everywhere as we try hard to deal with personal concerns and matters in our backyard. While we work toward bettering our world as much as we possibly can, let’s take a moment to ensure that our children understand what’s happening, that they’re ok, that we’re assisting them with the resources necessary to deal with the issues they may be feeling. Our future depends on it.

5 Ways For Parents Of Young Students To Prevent “Summer Slide” & Prepare For Success

Leo Pollard's image of a water slideSummer slide is a term used by researchers to discuss the decline in knowledge from the previous school year, and the subsequent lack of readiness for the upcoming year, due to relative academic inactivity during summer vacation months. This issue has been known for some time, but a recent article published in The Conversation, written by the parent-academic duo, Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown, approached the issue from a very unique and equally important angle: discussing the impact of race (and income) on the summer slide, and the unrecognized burden of black parents to combat it.

 

Inspired by that article, I chose to provide some tips for parents to combat this issue. Understandably, this goes against the traditional view of summer in which children and parents receive a break from the responsibilities of the school year. Breaks are important, of course. By no means am I saying that your children should not be allowed to sleep a little longer, be involved with camping activities nor enjoy the pleasantries of a true vacation. However, balance is just as important. And due to the realities of a widening achievement gap for our students, we should seize every opportunity to prevent falling behind, or advancing even, where possible.

1. Fill In The Gaps: 

Having kept up with your child’s progress throughout the year, you should have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. If not, speak with their teacher to see if there are areas your child struggled with while in class. Struggling doesn’t necessarily mean something your child is failing, rather it applies anything that your child hasn’t fully grasped or still finds challenging. Use the summer as opportunity to further explain, with more careful attention and possibly less distractions than a classroom setting provides. Some children benefit from a little more time on certain subjects. Pick a few hours during the day to work on these skills, preferably in the morning while they’re alert and energetic enough to process learning. After that, they can commence their summer plans.

2.  Create A Reading List

This is something that should take place whether or not your child is struggling with literacy. Reading builds vocabulary, increases comprehension and critical thought, and is a great way to keep your child’s imagination active. With your child, select age appropriate books in which they find interest, and create a schedule/plan for them to complete the list by summer’s end. This can be accomplished by deciding a set number of pages to be read each day. If your child goes over that number, it’s fine, but it’s always good to have a goal in mind.

3. Start Journaling
To strengthen writing skills and use of the language learned in reading, encourage your child to journal. One such way is to have them journal about what they learned in a given day or during the week, as a personal record and benchmark for what you’ve accomplished. Another idea is to encourage free, creative writing and/or poetry as a way of building expression. In fact, there’s no reason why both can’t exist together.

4. Educational Games
If you play games as a family, choose ones with an element of education, or be sure to highlight the lesson in such games. For young children, games like Uno or Goldfish can strengthen matching and color skills. For older children, games like Monopoly are great for exercising simple math, and the 24 Challenge card game is great for multiplication. There are a number of others available in stores and online, with a little bit of research. What’s great about this, however, is that you can make learning fun, as it should be.

5. Family Field Trips
Last but not least. Consider family field trips to farms, the zoo, new cities, and museums. The amount of opportunities to learn and experience new things at these locations are plentiful. Take the time to create a list of takeaways you believe would be helpful for your child’s development, and encourage them to approach these trips from a vantage point of curiosity and analysis.

This will require a little more time and planning than usual, but our little ones are worth it. As teachers, we will do all we can to get children back into the groove following vacation. Yet, if we together as a team (parents, children and teachers), we can ensure our children are prepared for all situations and ready to take the bright future ahead of them.

Louisiana Senate Bill 432: Saving Face, Not Saving Schools

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The City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

August 2005 changed the city of New Orleans forever. In the wake of the infamous and deadly Hurricane Katrina, one of America’s most beloved cities was devastated by the natural disaster, and further ravaged by a lack of response from both the federal and local governments, and inadequate levee system, which critics heralded as one of the greatest engineering disasters in nearly 20 years. The result, in addition to nearly 1,500 deaths, was mass displacement and lasting devastation, which has yet to be fully rectified, more than a decade later. Yet, though officials were slow to assist those need at the time of the event, what followed was unwanted oversight and control of the city’s most vulnerable population, under the guise of education reform.

pencil-918449_960_720Following the storm, the city of New Orleans adopted a public charter school system over the traditional public school system, and the change was in no way subtle. Instead, some 77 charter schools exist in the city today, compared to just 6 public schools. Hence, more than 90 percent of the students attend the former. The problem: these schools, though open to the public, with the word contained in their title, are independently run, resulting in a dramatic and wholly undemocratic shift in the schooling process.

Speaking on the changes in a post New Orleans Katrina, National Geographic described the system as “the single-most transformed institution in the city.” Nowhere else in the country has such a transformation taken place, even in cities like the nation’s capital, which has had its own history of troubles, questionable leadership, and considered one of the worst systems in the country, based on factors as such as dropout rate and college preparedness. To be clear, since the shift, New Orleans has increased graduation and proficiency in certain subjects for many of the students. However, even after more 10 years, the system lacks perfect results, and contains a spate of issues persist over which locals and stakeholders with the most to lose, students and their parents, have no say.

senior-middle-school-993886_960_720So, earlier this month, when the Washington Post released news that the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, might sign a bill that would return school oversight and power to the locals–a democratically elected school board–many saw the move as a victory, a sign of restitution. Yet, upon further inspection, there’s a caveat. The board would still be left out of decisions regarding hiring, curriculum and instruction, and as I previously discussed, unions. Hence, the move is really just placation, a cover to quell the voiced anger of the constituency, which, it should be noted, is majority black, impoverished and historically underserved.

The danger in such is the precedent this system sets for the rest of the country, where the voices of communities are increasingly silenced. It is a threat to our democracy, and more, it is experimenting with something of vast importance, which will have lasting consequences, that will be near impossible to undo. To me and the people who are rightfully rallying against these proposals, this is about power and control than about truly seeking to help or better the community. And that is simply unacceptable.

The Case for Unionization in Charter Schools

Teachers_meeting_2048x1536Teaching is, perhaps, the most integral role and existing profession in a functioning society. Without education and the efforts of educators who work tirelessly to lay foundations in math and science for our doctors, challenge our lawyers with critical thought, language and social studies, as well as inspire and groom our artists, there is no hope; we do not become greater, stronger, and more powerful as a whole. That is why teachers are highly regarded in local communities around the world, and why, even today, there are a number of campaigns within and programs within the United States, dedicated to attracting individuals which will lead the way for the future.

However, despite acknowledgement of their vast importance, educators around the country face challenges which threaten to further weaken the fabric of our education system. I’ve spoken previously about the effects of charter schools on students in the most vulnerable parts of our society. How, due to strict no tolerance policies and bias, children of color are treated more harshly and those with disabilities are altogether excluded from schools which promise to be the answer for an academic infrastructure in decline. However, the problems don’t begin with the treatment of students; the problem is a result of the idea that school is a business rather than an institution created to develop and educate children.

Charter schools around the country are run by for-profit management companies. Often times, their approach to public education is rooted in a office-594132_960_720desire to attract investments rather than investing in children. As a result, these organizations compete for educators and students to create storybook schools which focus on standardized testing as a measure of success. Subsequently, it is not uncommon for teachers to be expected to work demanding hours for the sake of meeting these requirements. Moreover, many do so without comparable pay, receiving considerably smaller salaries than teachers in traditional public schools. This environment has been created by the anti-collective bargaining stance perpetuated by most charters, which are also subject fewer government rules and regulations.

startup-photos-largeThis lack of and overall fight against unionization undermines the value of educators. Furthermore, it is creates a system of absolute power without adequate legal representation for teachers treated unfairly. Some have argued that unions, in fact, give teachers too much power and are a threat to carrying out education reform in failing schools. However, I would argue, that is not the fault of nor the impetus behind unions. Failing schools exist for a number of reasons, namely: lack of adequate leadership, disproportionate resources, lackluster curriculums, and failure by greater powers to address systemic problems of the communities in which the school exists. Teachers, with proper skills and passion for teaching, remain on the frontlines of those fighting to not only fix these issues, but to ensure that students receive the education they deserve. In doing so, they have the right to be heard, appreciated, and compensated for the invaluable work they carry out daily, yearly and, often, for a lifetime.

Charting The Wrong Path

orphan-1139042_960_720School should be a place of promise and hope, where children come to learn, imagine, and be endowed with skills which will enable them to not only exist but excel in their desired career paths and future livelihood. For many black students across the country, that idea of school is wholly unfamiliar and seemingly nonexistent. Black children are more likely to be expelled from schools and disciplined more harshly for behaviors exhibited by other students, even as early as preschool. Multiple studies have revealed this bias, which correlates with a lack of educators and administrators of color, and since, some efforts have been made to correct these disparities, including programs from the federal government, like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

Likewise, charter schools are a development that has grown in popularity in recent years, and touted as a true alternative to the spate of problems faced by public schools. Charters maintain freedom from many laws governing traditional public schools and are run independently, though public charters are, by law, open to all children and don’t enforce special requirements for entrance.

black woman teaching

Photo Credit: cybrarian77 on Flickr

Within the last 20 or so years, charters have rapidly expanded throughout the United States and generated support from public and private parties alike, which espouse its high test scores and noticeably different organizational culture. In comparison to traditional public schools, charters have been deemed as more valuable and better suited to address the needs of America’s declining education system.

children's swingsThis has resulted in the shuttering of public schools across the country, most remarkably in areas that are also marred by socioeconomic inequality like, Philadelphia, Detroit, and my city, New Orleans, where nearly all schools in the city are charter schools, as a result of reform following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The problems resulting from this shift become more acute when the philosophies of charters are studied with a more critical eye. Recent research from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies revealed that the argument of the exceptional charter school is built on harsh disciplinary practices which target black children, and discrimination against children with disabilities. A quarter of all students at more than 300 charter schools were suspended during the academic year, a large number of them black. And for students with disabilities, the rate of suspension is an incredible 10 times higher than those without.

a pile of pencilsPerhaps this issue could be overlooked if it was isolated, but with over 1,000 schools in the study carrying out these same practices, it appears to be intrinsic to the operations and philosophy of this alleged alternative. What we have is hundreds of kids being excluded from the opportunities promised to them as not just students, but the future of our country and increasingly global society. Instead of preparing children in the most vulnerable parts of our communities with tools for success, we’re removing them entirely and exacerbating the issues of our lopsided system. It is not only unfair, it is dangerous, and we all must work to find real solutions to rectify this growing epidemic of an ill-prepared and unnurtured populace.