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.

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School Buildings Matter

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I spent nearly two months, off and on, researching the state of our schools for an article that The 74 published last week. When I dove into stories in local newspapers, I was shocked at what I found.

There were stories about students and teachers suffering in overheated classroom, mold on the walls, administrators begging local taxpayers to pass local bonds, boilers on their last legs. Everyone that I spoke to on the phone used words like “crisis” and “desperate” and “unthinkable.”

Local newspapers were full of these stories. It’s probably one of the biggest concerns of local school districts, along with costs of special education and healthcare costs for teachers. But there has been very little written in the national press on this topic. I think that Warren is the only candidate who addresses this problem with a proposal for additional federal spending on schools.

It’s a tragedy that isn’t getting nearly enough attention by the national press or by politicians. Students are missing school and having their instruction interrupted, because the buildings are already falling down. In another five years, the situation will be worse. And people who know about schools know this.

Why don’t people care? Well, maybe because the teachers unions haven’t taken a strong enough stand on it. They want money to go to the teachers first, which isn’t totally crazy. Maybe it’s because the public thinks that this is an urban-only problem and won’t affect them, which is wrong. A. Suburban schools are falling down, too. And B. Ugh.

But the fact that schools are all falling down at the same time does offer some opportunities. Opportunities to rebuild and create new learning centers that reflect modern educational needs.

One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it. What does that mean?

When Steve got his first job at a big named Wall Street firm, I remember stepping out of the elevation with the kids in the stroller to meet him for lunch one day. As someone who had spent most of my life in university classrooms, I was shocked.

His office building which took up nearly one whole block of Manhattan was a big open space. A football field with long desks and computers. Something like this.

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Modern schools should look like this, at least at the high school level.

Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space. They then would go into small conference rooms in the interior of the building where they work with teachers and other students in small groups to work collaboratively on projects or to get mini-lectures on Descartes or Napoleon or The Civil War. Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.

The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace. Some students could plug through Algebra 2 in six months; others might need two years.

There is a strong movement to ditch the old system of year-long classes and instead work towards mastery of particular topics. Oh, look I wrote about this movement a couple of years ago for Edutopia.

I talked about this concept with my brother-in-law, who is the director a major architecture company. He said that their firm does a lot with higher education, because colleges have all the money, but not with K-12 schools. He said he would hollow out existing buildings and then rebuild the floor plans to look like this.

If rebuilding schools happened simultaneously, using common plans, with well-vetted construction companies, with federal dollars, it could happen. It might even bring costs down, if buildings were constructed using green technology and modern methods of insulation.

Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.

The Oldest Thing in My House #2 – Books

Probably the oldest stuff in the house are my books. Steve has some old crap in the basement, like a 100-year old tiger skin from China, but we’ll get to that later. Let me show you some of my oldest books.

About twenty five years ago, I was visiting a friend who lived in a small town outside of Boston. One day, we roamed through an antique shop, and I rummaged through a basket of old books under a table. I picked up this old copy of Little Women, which is one of my favorite books, and bought it for 25 cents. I promptly put it away in a box and forgot about it.

I found it last year and put it on my Etsy shop. After doing a little research, I found out that it was a I believe it was a second edition from 1870. I sold it in couple of months for $700.

I’ve got a Robert’s Rule of Order from 1876.

I’ve got “The Red Cross” by Clara Barton from 1899, but I haven’t listed it yet.

I love this illustrated history of the Civil War from 1895. I honestly don’t want to part with this one. (Click on the link for all the beautiful and horrifically racist images inside.)

I lost today to parenting chores. Ian was home from school for the Jewish holidays, and he needed a lot of help with an engineering project. For the rest of the week, I’m continuing my break from real writing and will the time listing a huge allotment of vintage textbooks that I bought a couple of months ago for $3. Engineering textbooks from the 1930s are surprisingly collectable.

The Oldest Thing in My House #1

Picking up a comment thread in the last post, I thought I would find the oldest things in my house. (I’m waiting around for edits on a draft and don’t feel like starting anything new until next week. It’s the Gig Worker’s prerogative.) We’ll do our own Antique Roadshow here at Apt. 11D for a couple of days.

A couple of weeks ago, I unpacked my grandmother’s old sewing machine from its box in the basement and decided to display it somewhere in the house. It’s kinda cool. Check out the beautiful scroll work.

I actually had no idea how old it was until a few minutes ago. It’s from the 1940s, which means it’s probably not the oldest thing in my house, but it’s still cool.

My grandmother used it, until she died about fifteen years ago. In fact, I used it ten years ago for some project or another. It still works great.

More to come.

Work Decor: Plans For the Office

We live in a pretty standard suburban home. It’s a tri-level — a close cousin of the bi-level, the ranch, the raised ranch, and other forgettable late 50s-70s designed homes. I read somewhere that a tri-level was designed, based on the 50s notion of the family — kids were upstairs, wife was in the middle with the kitchen and the living room, and the husband had the lower level and the garage. I guess nobody wanted to hangout together in the 1950s.

Most people don’t like their square footage divided up that way anymore, so houses like ours fetch a lower price than other designed home. If we had more of a choice when we were shopping for home, we probably wouldn’t have picked this house. But we were buying a slice of the community, and not the house, when we went house hunting.

We’ve had to put some money into the home over the years, because it was built in 1959 and the previous owners stopped renovating it back in the 1980s. We’ve gotten a new roof, new boiler, new kitchen. There’s a new driveway going in right now. At this point, I’m not that interesting in dumping money into the house, when there are college payments to make, but basic maintenance has to happen.

One of the mandatory, but boring expenses on our horizon, is new siding. The previous siding is original to the house. It’s old. There are bees boring into the cedar shingles. It’s not energy efficient. It’s time for a change.

When one redoes the exterior of a house, it’s the perfect time to make other changes. We might swap out the original bay window in the living room with a modern casement window, put in a new front door, and enlarge the windows over the garage; they look like squinty eyes. We’re also thinking about fixing the office.

My office/guest room is a bonus room off the ground floor family room. It’s very brown and dark. We haven’t touched it, since we moved in about eight years ago. But this red-headed stepchild of a room is where I spend most of time. I need a change. (Including a new standing desk, but more later on that.)

If we’re putting in new windows elsewhere, maybe we’ll do it here, too. It needs more than a good coat of paint. It needs help.

Here are some pictures of Office Pit.

I have to get a contractor over here to find out how much it will cost to gut the room and start over. It would be nice to put in some French doors to the side yard and get more natural light in the room. We need some overhead lights and a coat of paint on everything brown, at the very least.

When I’m in the thick of a writing project, my body and brain aren’t really here. For example, my brain in a school in Arizona at the moment. But my back is demanding better treatment. I have to be more present in my surroundings, while I’m working. So, a better room to work is moving from the wish-list expense column to a mandatory expense column.

Geographic Inequality

Steve’s folks called with good news over the weekend. His mom’s brother and wife are going to retire just 20 minutes away from them in North Carolina. Steve’s folks retired to the area from Cleveland about ten years ago, and we’ve always been worried about their distance from extended family. Now, they have people to spend holidays with, when they can’t make the trip up to us.

They sent me a link on Zillow to their new house, so I spent a little time checking out the other homes in the area. Those homes — perfectly nice places with a couple of bathrooms and three bedrooms — are a quarter of the price of homes in my neck of the woods. This is why people are leaving the metropolitan regions, like Chicago and New York.

Not really a big deal, I suppose. If North Carolina can offer people a better quality of life than the older cities, then good for them. Families, like mine, that need alternative schooling options for disabled children and have work tied to the big cities can never go there, but there are many families who are more flexible. So, good for them, right?

However, if some areas of the country are homes of the rich and others are homes of the middle class, working class, and retirees, then it does open up some political problems.

Imagine if the representatives from some states become advocates not for the interests of the particular local industries, ie Iowa farmers, West Virginia coal miners, but for entire economic classes, ie New York Rich People and North Carolina Retirees. Then political debates would be less about opposing commercial interests and directly about class. I suppose it is that way now, but those economic tensions could be more obvious and competitive than they are already.

Any discussion about changing the electoral college or representation in Senate would also become strongly charged with these economic tension.

Sidenote — If we limit the voice of small population states in the electoral college and the Senate, it might make affairs more democratic, but it would also mean a massive disinvestment in the entire center of the country. There would be no federal projects for highway construction in Nebraska, say or farm subsidies in Iowa. There might be really cheap homes out there, but there would be no way to drive to those houses.

The growing affluence of big cities is going to have long term political implications.

Before, During, and After Home Renovations

So, we’ve been doing home renovations for two months, while trying very hard to keep up life as normal. Work, school, family. It all had to continue, while pretending that we weren’t living in a dust bowl. It was constant static, an aching tooth, background noise. I can’t imagine ever doing something like this again.

Just a reminder here’s what the kitchen looked like before. (More pictures here.) Dark. Orange. 80s.

 

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Then we demo-ed place. Took down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Took down the ceiling in the family room. Took out the old doorway between the kitchen and the family room (formerly a screened in porch.)

 

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Here’s the now…

 

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PS. I know that we need new furniture, but we spent all the moneys. Next year. And I know that the mirror in the dining room should be centered over the sideboard (a dumpster dive find, so that’s why it looks like shit) and not centered in the center of the room, but we haven’t had a chance to fix it yet.

PPS. And we need one knob on a cabinet and one more stool from Pottery Barn.