Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the role of parents as kids' media swamp guides

We were going to take the kids to the beach on Sunday, but rain and threats of thunderstorms killed that idea. Plan B emerged: movie at the Patriot* which is no longer called the Patriot by its management but is and probably forever will be the Patriot to the rest of us. Us, that day = kids who are 14, 11, 10, 8, and two 5 year olds and their parents including me whose ages are perhaps not so relevant.

So what to see? Much of the discussion centered on what might be suitable for the younger kids while still entertaining the older kids, not to mention the shall-remain-ageless adults. In case you're curious or even if you're not but nevertheless intend to finish this paragraph, please know that we ended up at Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which was maybe a little scary for some 5 year olds but these particular two 5 year olds are each third children and have already been sullied fairly thoroughly by traversing the rough path through media swamp charted by their older siblings. Two of the adults of the party had already seen the movie and signed off, so off to the Patriot we went. It was Johnny Depp-a-riffic which is all I really need to be entertained for $2.00 on an overcast Sunday afternoon.
possible manifestation of media awamp angst (image from
Back to the what-to-see dilemma: I knew there was a sensible web site out there somewhere on the internets that would guide us but could not remember it at the time. I have since, thanks in large part to The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog today, which mentions Common Sense Media's resources for parents and educators, which include a easy to understand at a glance and fairly neutral guide to movies and their suitability for children of various ages. Not that I will always follow its dicta; Common Sense Media recommends that kids ages 12 and up see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which clearly didn't happen for us.

In addition to more reviews of games, apps, tv shows, websites, books and music, the site also offers useful media education tools targeted to various ages (including adults). As my own kids start to wade more deeply into the aforementioned media swamp, I'm glad to have access to advice about ways to manage online privacy. Parents should also check out the section for educators--because of course that is what we are--which include more focused resources on digital citizenship.

I'm glad to have this resource now, because I've been thinking some but not doing a lot to figure out how to teach my own kids to use and think about media responsibly. Our main tools right now are our judgment, the clock, and the off button. My kids watch tv (rarely live, usually what's recorded on the DVR or streaming from NetFlix and somewhat parent-approved, though we do watch sports live, usually as a family, with a long-help family habit of muting the volume on the ads), see some movies with us, use the internet fairly sparingly, and play on our iPhones and their apps in various amounts (not such much most of the time and a whole lot during long car trips). I've been guided by my own judgment mostly, and we use time as the main way to control their media consumption; for example, during the week, they can watch tv and/or use the computer on their own from 6-7 or so (dog walking/head clearing/dinner making time in my world). But I don't have any illusions that I can control the media they bump up against outside or for that matter inside our house, so we need to help them make good decisions, and we need to be aware of what's out there.

I would really love to hear any responses you have about what you think of this topic, tools or guides that you use, your family policies about media use, anything related.

* $2.00 second-run theater in East Providence. Although last weekend, that Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne was playing which is weird because didn't it just come out?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hope to see you at the Save our Schools Rally and March, Washington DC, July 30

On Saturday, July 30, my son Elias and I will be in Washington DC representing the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) at the Rally and March for Education and Justice, part of the Save our Schools March and National Call to Action that's happening this week. You can visit the SOS site for details on all of the events, which are taking place both in DC and nationwide from July 28-July 31.

During the SOS Rally and March on Saturday, I'll be at a CES table on the Ellipse. I'd love to see any Rhode Islanders/Providence Schools and Beyond readers, so please stop by and say hi! I'll have lots of info about CES's upcoming Fall Forum, our annual conference that will take place November 10-12 in Providence, and will generally be hanging out and enjoying the positive energy of thousands coming together to stand up for education that focuses on the long-term needs of young people rather than the short-term demands of high-stakes standardized testing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

WSPEC info sessions and soccer tournament for Messer/West Broadway students and families

Three cheers for the work of the West Side Public Education Coalition as it rallies the community to support the students of Asa Messer and West Broadway Elementary Schools as they transition into the Bridgham Middle School building (which will be called what? Bridgham Elementary?).

With support from the Mayor's office, PPSD and other organizations, WSPEC is holding a soccer tournament and info sessions about the renovations being done to the Bridgham building this Saturday, July 23 and next Saturday, July 30 from 2:00pm to 6:00pm at Mansion Field next to the fire station at Messer and Union Streets. Read more about the events here on WSPEC's website.

This feels to me like the exact right thing to do. Transitions such as this one require not only resources but strong, clear communication about what's happening our kids as they're assigned to schools, and WSPEC is stepping up to make sure that happens.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moonlighting - thoughts on homework

This is a version of my August East Side Monthly education column, which the editors titled "Moonlighting" (way better title than I came up with originally!). It's not online yet but is out and about in the neighborhood.


There is so very much to love about summer: the beach, the sun and perhaps at the top of list for many parents, students, and teachers, the long, homework-free evenings. As I write this, school has only just let out for the year, and I am thoroughly enjoying not having to inquire about the status of homework. I expect that every one of this summer’s 65 homework-free nights to be just as delightful as these first few.

The uses and limits of homework are on my mind now because our kids are stepping into phases of their educational careers that will demand more of them. Our youngest son starts kindergarten, his third-grade brother faces the NECAP tests for the first time, and their oldest brother enters middle school.

Truth be told, in terms of the sheer volume of homework, I don’t have much about which to gripe. Last year, our elementary school kids had ten to 20 minutes a night, with a bit more demanded of our fifth grader from time to time. The work--worksheets, most of the time--provided a glimpse into what the kids were doing in class.

Rarely, however, was the homework joyful, thought provoking, or work that really needed to be done at home. That dullness tended to confirm my suspicions about homework’s futility. Research and advocacy supporting the case against homework from outspoken critics such as author Alfie Kohn (The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing) and filmmaker Vicki Abeles (“Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture”) intensified my own anxiety about homework.

As much as I am glad to be free of the homework grind for the summer, I wouldn’t want to do away with it entirely come fall. As kids do homework, parents and other adults (I’m thinking of afterschool program staff, who carry much of the homework-helping load) can observe their choices, coach them to improve, and give them a high five when they ace a question. Homework provides opportunities to see kids think and work through challenges. Of course, time spent on homework would be more valuable if the homework itself were more engaging and meaningful.

When my oldest son was in Ms. Abrames’ kindergarten class at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, he had one or two homework assignments per week, generally fun, manageable projects. He counted the number of light bulbs in our house and charted his findings or, with our help, created a family tree. These homework assignments were fun for a five-year old and easy for most families to support.

Just as we felt like we were getting the hang of what was expected, one mid-November assignment felt radically different. Ms. Abrames asked the children to keep a moon journal for a week. The task was simple: go out every night, look at the moon, and draw pictures of what you see. Parents could record kids’ verbal descriptions. After dinner every night, we put on coats and hats and went in search of the moon. Leaving the house with a little kid at that time of night was truly exciting (parents with young children in the Don’t Get Out Much Fellowship, you hear me, right?). During the school day, the kids shared their data and observations in a collaborative study of the moon and the night sky.

The moon journal homework held special significance for me because I had the same assignment in graduate school. As I worked toward a Masters of Education, I took in a course taught by Eleanor Duckworth, the author of The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. Professor Duckworth asked us to keep moon journals that were fundamentally the same as those that Ms. Abrames assigned to her kindergarteners at King. We used them similarly immediate and concrete ways, pooling our data and observations in class to arrive at collective insights about our understanding of and assumptions about the moon. Professor Duckworth employed the moon journals to help her students internalize the irreplaceable value of direct experience and evidence in the act of learning.

Useful and meaningful homework--really any school-related work done outside of class--should share the qualities of both moon journal experiences.  Ideally, homework should not always rigidly insist on the “right answer.” It should foster independent thinking and effort, and the out-of-school setting really should make a difference to its successful completion. Perhaps most of all, just as the moon journals were essential to the classroom experience, homework should be tied to the in-class learning that happens the next time teachers and students convene.

Of course, not every assignment will blow the minds of young people. There’s a role for homework that reinforces and builds on what kids have learned, and not every assignment will thrill and scintillate. But there certainly is room for improvement.

Finally, it’s worth noting that “more, faster, better” is the mantra in many schools. Expectations are high all around and continue to rise. Kids need to be prepared for this, the twenty-first century, as they traverse the achievement gap and prepare themselves for uncertain futures. School structures such as expanded school days and longer, block-scheduled classes allow time both for instruction and the kind of independent work, necessary for learning, which is often assigned as homework. Ideally, kids should have the opportunity to work on essential schoolwork in school while also having the time to create art, perform music, and run around at recess. Their learning would improve and families’ frayed nerves would be soothed. I suggest that we use the extra time and peace of mind to go out and gaze at the moon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Got Carter (meet our new dog!)

Tomorrow, I'll be back to posting about schools, schools, nothing but Providence (and beyond) schools but today I want to share why posting has been a bit light lately. Meet our newest family member!
This is Carter, our new dog who we adopted last week from Big Fluffy Dog Rescue. He's great! We are all delighted with each other. We'll be working with him and a trainer so he can learn a few city-dog skills so perhaps I'll expand into canine education coverage (just kidding).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Welcome Back to Providence, Dr. Lusi!

Welcome to Dr. Susan F. Lusi, who today steps into her new job as Providence's Interim Superintendent. I am delighted that you're here and eager to support you as you start your work leading Providence onto new strengths.

An item from the Woonsocket Call that mentions Dr. Lusi as the Woonsocket School Committee's first choice as that city's interim superintendent. We know now that Dr. Lusi chose to go with Providence. With Dr. Lusi unavailable, the Woonsocket School Committee chose Dr. Collette B. Trailor to fill its interim slot, which is slated to be filled permanently by the start of the school year. Best of luck to Dr. Trailor and whomever ends up in the permanent spot.

There are a number of other open superintendent spots in the state which I hope for our mutual benefit are filled by strong, collaborative leaders who are willing to stay the course and work together--and with the rest of us--to move all of Rhode Island's cities and towns forward.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

National view of Race to the Top spending thus far

In one of the many kinds of conversations I have with fellow education-obsessed friends and acquaintances, one person or another often asks, "So what's going on with the Race to the Top money in Rhode Island?" This post is for them.

Here's a rundown from New America Foundations' Ed Money Watch blog on the states' progress (or lack thereof) toward spending Race to the Top (RttT) funds that analyzes "Race to the Top: Reform Efforts Under Way and Information Sharing Could Be Improved," (link opens to a PDF) a recently released Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the pace of RttT spending thus far, along with descriptions of the ways the states intend to use the funds to improve education.

Twelve states have received RttT grants, Delaware and Tennessee in Phase One, which awarded funds in March 2010. Rhode Island was among a group of 10 states that received Phase Two RttT award in August 2010. Of those 10 states, only four (not Rhode Island) have spent more than 10 percent of the funds thus far, well off the pace that their plans set for dispersing funds statewide to improve schools. I should note that I am not sure when the funds were actually granted to Rhode Island; on page 20, the GAO report features a chart that shows that the U.S. Department of Education approved plans for spending Year One funds of $24,812,51 on April 8, 2011.

If you want to know RttT's national ambitions and progress thus far, the GAO report is worth a perusal. While you can also dig in and find out a bit more about what's happening in Rhode Island in particular, the real value is the national context, which is across most of the states that received first and second phase RttT funding, implementation has been slow, as has the program's capacity to make a national impact on ed reform.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TONIGHT! Public meeting on the future use of Asa Messer Elementary School building

Sorry for the last minute share: in the spirit of better late than never, here's a heads-up about a public meeting on future use of the former Asa Messer school building happening TONIGHT at the Asa Messer School Building located at 158 Messer Street, Providence from 6:00-7:30 PM.

More info here:

I have another meeting that conflicts but will try to stop by toward the end - would love a report from anyone who can make it for the whole thing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Thanks, Kathy

The ProJo is reporting that Kathy Crain is resigning from the Providence School Board effective immediately.
"I joined the school board because I believe that education is supposed to level the playing field," Crain said. "But over the past six months under Mayor Taveras's administration, I've come to think differently. Public education is not about children; it's about power and politics."
With tears in her eyes, Crain said that she hopes parents will take control of their children's education because it's clear that the politicians will not.
Big thanks to Kathy for standing up for what's right for kids during an incredibly difficult time. Kathy, I'm looking forward to working with you to make Providence's schools better for all kids in all neighborhoods.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Free Minds Free People today and tomorrow - stop by and say hi

Today and tomorrow, I'll be at Free Minds, Free People representing the Coalition of Essential Schools and generally hanging out and enjoying a concentration of positive education energy that's descended on Providence.

Free Minds, Free People is taking place at Providence Career and Technical Academy at 91 Fricker Street. You can register onsite, and if you can't make it, follow what's happening via FMFP's blog and Twitter stream (follow #FMFP2011). I'll be tweeting as @CESNational (with an occasional comment from my personal Twitter account, @dazzlingbetty).

If you're there, stop by CES's table in the gym to say hi. And while you're there, take a minute to learn about CES and Fall Forum, our fabulous, powerful annual conference which will be happening this year in Providence, November 10-12.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

no progress on 2011's schools in need of intervention

Something to keep an eye on as PPSD pushes forward toward the upcoming school year: on July 4, Go Local Prov reported that the Providence Public Schools are at an impasse with the Rhode Island Department of Education in regard to the four district schools identified as requiring intervention due to insufficient progress toward academic goals. The four schools, which RIDE identified on March 29 (PDF link to RIDE press release), are Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, Hope Information Technology School, Mount Pleasant High School and Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School.

PPSD spokesperson Christina O'Reilly's statement in the Go Local Prov story indicates concern on the district's part about the way RIDE used federal guidelines to identify the schools. The district didn't submit the schools' plans within the 45 days required by RIDE, and there's been no subsequent progress, which raises huge questions for students and teachers returning to those schools next month.

For background, here's RIDE's statement on "persistently low-achieving schools," which identifies all of the schools that it designated in need of intervention last year and this. Those that the department identified last year have received $12.5 million (PDF link to RIDE press release) in federal School Improvement Grant funds for four Providence schools and Central Falls High School.

And for national perspective, look at Atlanta's test score cheating debacle and remember that standardized test scores--which are the mechanism that RIDE uses to choose which schools it designates as persistently low-achieving--are a highly imperfect way to make decisions that have such high stakes for students and their schools.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Who remembers and why does it matter?

So, I took a week off there - sorry for not sharing that I would! Welcome back.

Last week, on the East Side Public Education Coalition's blog, Dr. Harlan Rich shared "Reflections on Change and 'Institutional Memory'" in response to ProJo coverage of the exodus (some by budget-cutting position elimination, some by retirement/moving on to new opportunities) of nearly all of PPSD's leadership team. Dr. Rich's thoughts on the largely untapped value of parents as key stakeholders and points of continuity/agents of change can and should be successfully expanded to include students, alumni, and community members as we face a down a new school year starting startlingly soon with a new acting superintendent, extremely strained relations between the Mayor's office and the school board, and--with all of the accompanying opportunities and challenges--without the aforementioned departed leadership team (COO Carleton Jones and acting chief academic officer Paula Shannon excepted).

Dr. Rich makes the point that PPSD has a substantial if inconsistent history of involving parents in decisions about school leadership and other planning. The district needs to stay the course on that and go much further, developing policies and a culture that systematically--across neighborhood, language, and other differences--involves and includes parents/family members, students, and neighborhood stakeholders.