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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Sleepy Summer

Here on the east coast, summer is still in swing. We’re at the point, where we can see and smell Labor Day — that end post for fun — but we’re trying to squeeze out a couple more weeks of relaxation and ignore the guilt about work.

Vespa in Washington Heights Mews

Summers used to stress me out enormously, when I tried to work while juggling an insane camp commute for Ian. There aren’t many camps for kids with high functioning autism, and when I found a good one, it was inevitably very far away. But now, I’ve rethought my summer work schedule. I’m working on personal essays, rather than reported articles. And Ian’s found his place at computer camp, so there’s less driving and less stress.

But I have tons of sympathy for parents who don’t have my flexible work life. Schools should be 12 months long.

Suprema Restaurant in West Village, NYC

Jonah just finished off his second summer class. (Taking summer classes is a growing trend among college students.) It was a super hard science class, so he studied about six days per week and commuted back and forth to his state college. He came home yesterday afternoon with a two-week beard. He’s going to sleep until noon.

I had Ian in some camp or another all summer — some boring (but free) stuff at the high school, 3 weeks of expensive (all day!) computer camp, and a half day class at the community college. The last two weeks of August are full day marching band camp. He likes being super busy, so I even squeezed in some tutoring hours around all that.

People watching the people watchers in Wash Square Park, NYC.

But this week is free. He played Minecraft, and we walked around the neighborhood capturing Pokemon. I took him and a couple of boys to the video game arcade. Then this afternoon, we’ll grab the bus into New York City to go to the museum and meet Steve for dinner. Hopefully, Jonah will wake up and join us.

At this point in the summer, we’re always like “holy crap, the summer is almost over, and we haven’t sucked out all the fun out of life yet. Better get to it!” So, we’re squeezing in a camping trip in upstate New York next weekend. We’ll have to build a fire in the backyard sometime. And get another day at the beach. And eat a hot dog in Central Park.

Beer and Deep Fried Oreos at Jenkinson’s Boardway, Point Pleasant, NJ.

I do have a couple of deadlines at the end of the month — easy ones, but still deadlines. And there’s the perennial guilt that I should be doing more. But I’m ignoring all that today. Off to appreciate life.

What To Do With Kids With High Functioning Autism?

I first wrote this blog post back in October 2013. Due to the mysterious magic of google searches, it is my most popular blog post. I thought I would update it this morning, five years later. 

Ian at age 2, when he first started speech therapy.
Ian at age 2, when he first started speech therapy.

My son has high functioning autism or Level 1 autism or whatever they’re calling it these days. Because researchers now think that there are many different kinds of autism, my kid’s variety is characterized by speech and social deficits, average to superior IQ, hyperlexia, some anxiety and sensory issues, no obsessions, no stimming.

He’s only a sophomore in small public high school right now. His story isn’t over yet. He still has two more years before graduation, and we face major decisions about his future. Sill, in those five years, he has made so much progress. He’s now completely out of special ed for math, and he participates in after school activities with the typical kids. Even in the past year, he has made stunning changes. We’re now considering future plans for him that were inconceivable when I first wrote this blog post.

Because this blog post brings in so many random parents desperate for answers, I thought I would spend the next thirty minutes writing up what worked for us. Now, I’m not a hundred percent sure that our methods for dealing with my kid’s autism are responsible for these changes. Maybe simple brain maturity would have gotten us to the same point. Maybe these methods only work for my particular kid. I can’t be certain, but just the same, I’ll share. 

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