Storming the Castle

Imagine a castle with very high ramparts. Ramparts that grow higher every day. In the castle are suburban homes, good schools, doctors for sick children, 401K plans to protect the elderly. On the vast fields surrounding the castle are McDonalds jobs, over priced health clinics, crumbling schools with exhausted and poorly trained teachers.

There’s a siege. Commanders, with good intensions and few resources, are sending their soldiers against the walls. Some march to their doom. Others are flung on catapults or try to scale the walls with ladders. A few make it over the walls, but the majority lay dead on the field.

Right now, the best chance that most kids have to achieve that American Dream is to finish college and earn a BA. The statistics are clear. People with a college degree have greater lifetime earnings and more opportunities for good jobs than those who don’t have that degree. Workers without a college degree have been displaced by technology and global markets.

By now, all know that. So, education leaders and activists have told students that they must attend college. Students have been given sermons and lectures that they can do it. They’ve been empowered and enlightened. But they haven’t been given the weapons and tools to make it through the battle. The dropout rate is huge, particular for low income, poor students.

Because to get through college degree requires years of training. Students need hard skills — math facts, essay composition, knowledge of science and history — but most can’t pass basic standardized tests for math or reading. They need soft skills – how to organize tasks, study independently, plan for the future. They need to understand the complicated bureaucratic structures of colleges and other college hacks — where do you go when you financial aid check doesn’t come in, how do you create a balanced course schedule, what’s a bursor’s office.

Meanwhile, it’s much harder to finish college these days. Standards are higher, particularly for the STEM classes. A student with a simple college prep high school class in biology will sit in a lecture hall next to a student who took honors biology in his Freshman year of high school, took AP biology in his senior year, studied with a tutor for the Biology SATs, and may have attended a STEM camp at the local community college. They will be given the same final exam, and the kid with all that experience will set the curve. The regular student has no chance.

And students are further away from adults – adults with full time positions – than ever before. They are hurded into massive state colleges with tens of thousands of students. They attend lectures with hundreds of students, where the only person who can answer questions is a temporary worker who has no incentive to answer emails and is struggling financially herself.

The bureaucracies at these schools are Kafkaesque, unable to handle glitches in the system. The glitches are kids, who fail out of that biology class, who have trouble paying a bill, who can’t find those majors that shelter the less educated students.

The bodycounts are high. 84 percent of low income kids drop out of college. They stagger away from the schools, depressed and battered. They blame themselves, their families, and their communities for not preparing them. They are saddled with debt and no degree. They come back home and tell others to stay away. We have to wonder whether it was fair to send them to the battle with so little preparation. We have to assume some of the guilt for the wreckage.

And we have to work to change the system. K-12 schools need to prepare al kids for college in all ways from the hard skills to knowledge of the job markets to the basic college hacks. But without a major infusion of cash, that isn’t going to happen. In some states, there is 1 guidance counselor for every 700 kids. [edited] Test scores haven’t budged in decades.

Some say that the solution is for kids to bypass high schools and start sending kids to the local community college for high school classes (a growing trend). Others say that we need to boost community colleges and technical schools that can prepare kids for real jobs that don’t require a BA. Some high school charter schools are now following students into college to support them.

The conversation is starting to go beyond “free college” and “abolish student loans,” because it’s becoming clear that money, or the lack thereof, is only one small problem in this system. Political leaders haven’t caught up yet. It’s the job of writers and thought leaders to get them up to speed and to do something about the walking wounded, the students who have been chewed up by the system.

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Work and Life In Chi-Town

Last Tuesday at around 4:30, I was sitting at my desk studying google maps trying to figure out how to get from O’Hare airport to a hotel in the Loop in the cheapest way possible. I won a scholarship from a journalism group to attend a writers conference in Chicago, which paid for the hotel, airfare, and the conference, but ground transportation was my own responsibility. A cab ride wasn’t going to break our budget, but I like my side of the Quicken budget to be in the black, not the red, so I studied the subways lines.

I happened to look over at Steve’s desk behind me in time to see Ian sloop out of his chair and hit the floor. His eyes were open, but his body was stiff for about five seconds. When he came back to consciousness, he asked why he was on the floor and said that he had image flash through his head before he passed out. He said he thought he was at a New Year’s Eve party. He said that this image had flashed through his head a few times in the past month.

I’ve seen seizures before. When I was a special ed teacher in the Bronx many years ago, I had a student, Shawnee, who would have grand Mal seizures every day in the class. She would shake and tremble for about ten minutes. Ian’s episode wasn’t anything like that, but it still did scream “seizure” to me, so I texted his reading tutor not to come and immediately called his pediatrician and neurologist.

Afterwards he was fine. Went back to his video games and his homework like nothing happened. I was a wreck. I scheduled doctor’s appointments for the following day. I told Steve. I arranged with my sister to help out with one the appointments, because I had my own appointment to get my usual pre-conference haircut and blowout. The cab was going to pick me up to take me to Newark airport on Thursday at 5:30am. If my hair was good, I could just wake up and go. Dinner plans were scrapped, so Steve got a pizza on the way home from the train station.

At the second appointment at the neurologist at 5:00, she said that she didn’t think that Ian should be left alone until we figured out what was going on. So, I arranged coverage of Ian between the end of school, before Steve got home. Again, my sister was enlisted to help. Steve left work early, but couldn’t skip out of work entirely.

The conference itself was good. The topic was the transition from high school to college. Various experts, who hoped to be sources for news articles, gave presentations for two days. We crammed into a stuffy little room at Northwestern and asked questions that were general enough to not show our hands to other journalists in the room.

As I walked through a deserted Newark airport at midnight on Friday, I relaxed for a minute. The adrenaline that had kept me going through those few days was ebbing. My overnight bag dug into my shoulder, because I always overpack when I’m nervous. Next time, I’ll pack less, I promised myself.

But will there be a next time? I’m already long in the tooth for this career. My most recent plan was to do something completely different for a couple of months, and write some long form essays and book proposals that have been percolating for months. I even filled out a job application before Ian’s slump. My sister texted me to say there was a message on the answering machine from a manager of a bookstore.

Plans to work outside the home were shelved, because I need to be available for more doctor’s appointments. I can’t take advantage of family to mind the kid, while I work a minimum wage job for kicks. Hopefully, we can figure out what happened quickly, and then I’ll try again after the holidays.

Over the weekend, I just processed information and recovered from the days of stress. I cancelled plans with friends and nested with family. Jonah came home for the day. I cooked. I boiled down some chicken bones from the freezer and other scraps to make a witch’s brew of soup broth.

I did a couple of chores in the morning yesterday, and then left to pick up Ian at 2:00 for an EEG test. The technician measured Ian’s head and marked up his forehead with a red marker. We assured Ian that those marks were for the suction cups sensors, and there were no plans for brain removal. We sat in a dark room for an hour, as the technician looked for misfires in his brain. We’ll get results today. If the test is inconclusive, he’ll have to wear an electrode cap for two days for better results.

Hopefully, the tests will show that he was just tired or dehydrated. Maybe it was a weird kind of migraine headache. But 30 percent of people with an autistic spectrum disorder also get epilepsy, so we do have to seriously prepare ourselves for a worse case scenario. The worse case scenario isn’t terrible — medication is great these days — but it will be just one more burden on the kid, who already has his share of burdens.

With fingers crossed for a good phone call from the neurologist at 9, I’m making adjustments in work plans. I’ve been writing an essay in my head for the past day, using the scraps and bones of information from the conference, previous articles, and recent experiences. Like my chicken broth, it’s going to take some time for all this to cook and for the flavors to marry. Hopefully, in the next few weeks, Ian will have a clean bill of health and I’ll have an essay or two sealed up in tidy little jars that can be sent to editors.

In Chicago

Hi all — I’m in Chicago attending an education writers conference. Good stuff here. I’ll fill you all in on Monday.

I’m only here, because of the support of Steve and extended family. Ian had a seizure on Tuesday night. Until we figure out what’s going on and (possibly) medicate him, he can’t be left alone. So, my support system rushed in to cover the after school hours, and to help me as I adjust to the new normal.

We’ve circled the wagons and are giving our boy extra hugs and kisses.

Until I get back home, please continue chatting (and fighting) in the comment section. I’m reading all your comments on my cellphone here. Curious what you guys think about the impeachment hearings. Tell me.

SLS 676

This essay by Deirdre McCloskey as she reflects on the last 20 years of life after she transitioned in early 50’s, is so beautiful and sad. How could her children walk away from her? Best thing I read today.

I just downloaded Robert Pondiscio’s How the Other Half Learns. I’ll read it on Thursday during the flight to Chicago for my education conference.

Get ready to hear more and more about trade school. Why? Because a whole lotta students aren’t making it in college.

Post Malone is all over my running Spotify play list at the moment.

The Indignities of Age

Yesterday, I migrated my digital photos from one organizer to another, when Adobe upgraded their Lightroom program to a subscription model. Instead of paying one price for a system that would last for four or five years, Adobe wanted me to pay $120 a year to use their system. Nah. So, I moved everything to iPhotos, which is free with my Mac computer.

As I pushed folders around, the images of the last ten years flew across my screen. There were Easter pictures with the boys, who were still boys, on the front porch of our old home. Selfies of myself in outfits before I went out to teach at the college. Steve shoveling out the driveway after a heavy snowstorm. It was sweet and painful to see my life fly past me. Like those flashbacks before death.

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It was funny to see pictures of Steve before he went on his massive diet two years ago and the boys before puberty hit and rearranged their facial features. And there was the slow decay of my own body. It hurt, a lot, to see how much I’ve changed.

Menopause, and all its little steps before and after, take a huge toll on women. Perimenopause, those few years as fertility sputters out, was rough on me. It’s this terrible time in a woman’s life, as her body frantically looks for estrogen in all the wrong places and, in the process, freaks out the whole system.

I went from being one of those people who sleeps like the dead to one who would sleep in two hour chunks. I developed that habit of reading bad novels at 4am on iPad next to my bed.

I gained weight. For the first time in life, I suddenly had to think about calories. My beloved glass of wine in the evening became something to fear. No more chicken wings and beer on a Friday night.

While my body has now come to terms with the changes and is letting me sleep again, I am still struggling to remain strong and healthy. Meal times require more thought — rice for Ian tonight and quinoa for me. I don’t dare miss my 9:30 spin class this morning. I’ve swapped my glass of wine for a Corona Light. I am typing this blog post right now using my new standing desk, because the chiropractor said that sitting at a desk for too long was wrecking my spine.

I know that there’s no turning the clock back. I’m never going to fit into those size 3/4 pants again. The lines on my neck are permanent. I’m reading articles about the correlation between Alzheimer’s Disease and menopause with fear and trepidation.

But I’m also a lot smarter than the stranger in those pictures on my computer. I am a lot less stressed out about managing family and work. I’m more comfortable with myself. I’m making more manageable goals for myself for work and life. I’ve (mostly) accepted both the good and the bad things that have happened in my life, rather than being pissed off at the world.

I decided to get a job in retail for a few months, while I figure out my next steps. I need to make some changes, readjust the types of things that I write, set some new goals. I want to try something new, while I figure things out. So, yesterday I filled out an application for the big box book chain. Today, I’ll apply to more places.

Girlie Friday

I’m chugging through a long list of work and personal chores today. All good stuff, but super busy. So, let me just throw up some links to things that have caught my eye lately.

I bopped into IKEA to pick up some pre-holiday entertaining supplies. We spent some time checking out their new SONOS speakers. Ian might get one for Christmas.

We no longer watch television one show per week. We watch them in massive chunks at one time, thanks to the magic of streaming video. In the past couple of months, we’ve watched several seasons of Working Moms and Derry Girls. We finished the Deuce. Now, we’re somewhere in the third season of Schitt’s Creek. All four shows are way better than any crappy sitcom from the past.

If you’re a fan of UK TV, Derry Girls are going to do an episode of the Great British Bake Off.

I’ve got a conference in Chicago next week. Here’s one outfit — blouse, jacket, shoes, pants.

I got this book, as part of a lot that I won in an auction for $1. I almost put it in the garbage, because it’s in rough shape, but then I checked out the title page. It’s a Hebrew bible that was printed in Berlin in 1908. I would love to find out how it ended up in a doctor’s condo in Hackensack, NJ.

Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.