From the archives…

Back-to-Rule

We must address behavior and not technology

© 2001 Gary S. Stager
Published in the November 2001 issue of District Administrator Magazine

Parent: Are you going to wear your new hat today?
Child: No because fifth graders are not allowed to wear hats to school
Parent: Why can’t fifth graders wear hats?
School administrator: Because sixth graders can’t wear hats
Parent: OK, now I understand better. May I ask, “why can’t sixth graders wear hats?”
School administrator: Gangs!
Parent: Do we have gang problems?
School administrator: No, because we don’t let sixth graders wear hats.

The preceding dialogue (experienced by my own family) typifies the wacky rule making increasingly found in American schools. Back-to-school time often coincides with the arbitrary banning of toys, apparel and assorted nick-knacks from our classrooms and playgrounds. It seems as if instinct takes over whenever administrators encounter something kids care about. The reflexive impulse is to forbid these objects from the educational environment.

There are several reasons for taking a deep breath and exercising caution before enforcing the next pog embargo.

We risk alienating children from school and missing potential curriculum connections.

As the world becomes more complex, violent and distinct from the life of the school, educators should look for opportunities to establish closer relationships with their students. Arbitrarily banning objects embraced by children needlessly erects barriers between teachers and students, school and the real-world. Baseball cards may be used to explore powerful ideas in probability, statistics, graphing, sorting and geography. Pogs, and Pokemon cards are excellent manipulatives for sorting, pattern recognition. Virtual pets could be used to explore life cycles, emotions and causal relationships. Hotwheels cars may be used in physics experiments. Even the social equity issues often used to justify prohibition may be explored when children feel that their teachers respect their world. Positive relationships with caring adults will outlast the latest fad.

It’s not good to be a hypocrite

Do unto others as we would have done onto us. If as Seymour Papert asserts, “laptops are today’s prime instrument for intellectual work,” then we should not forbid kids from access to non-violent tools so important to our own work. One school that requires every student to own a laptop banned tamagotchis (handheld programmable virtual pets) from school by enforcing their policy prohibiting electronic devices on campus.

You just can’t keep up

As media spin-offs, high-tech devices and toys proliferate, it will be impossible for school leaders to keep up with all of them in order to enforce subsequent bans. High-tech devices allowed today may integrate prohibited technologies in the future. Convergence will bring increasing power to kids and headaches for administrators. What happens when the book bag contains a laptop, the laptop contains a cell phone or sneakers contain a laptop and a cell phone?

New learning technologies will emerge

Laptops, programmable toys and handheld devices are becoming more affordable, powerful and therefore ubiquitous. Disallowing such devices at school will impoverish the learning environment. While Mr. Dette’s fondness for nostalgia would earn us extra credit for using a slide rule in his physical science class, he never punished us for using a calculator.

This year schools from coast-to-coast are banning Palm and similar handheld computers. An article in Wired News quotes Alan Warhaftig, a coordinator of the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World (an organization critical of digital technology in education).

“I know when I’m in a faculty meeting that is boring me to tears, I will read The New York Times on AvantGo and look like I’m (concentrating) on the meeting,” said Warhaftig. I say, “duh?” Imagine if kids could vote with their feet. Would classrooms begin to be more reflective of their needs?

Mr. Warhaftig goes on to reveal his belief in the supremacy of the school over the learner when he went on to say, “The magic in the classroom is getting kids to concentrate.”[i]

Surely the availability of powerful personal computation and communications devices offer benefits that outweigh concerns of distracted students.

American educators don’t hold the patent on stupidity. While on a recent working tour of Australia I read a newspaper article announcing that the Western Australia (state) Principals Association was urging a ban on Harry Potter trading cards BEFORE THEY ARE RELEASED. Why even wait to see if kids like the things, let’s ban them just in case!

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

[i] Batista, Elisa. “Debating Merits of Palms in Class.” Wired News. Aug. 23, 2001. http://www.wired.com/news/wireless/0,1382,45863-2,00.html

This time of year, the “news” is full of heartwarming back-to-school tales of good citizens buying school supplies for needy classrooms. Pop-music footnotes, Katy Perry and Pharrell the Plagiarist have both engaged in selfless acts of corporate shilling philanthropy shameless publicity to help students get school supplies. Donors Choose has created a social media platform where teachers can beg crowdfund for crayons and Kleenex. (Read my article about Donors Choose)

Ain’t it swell that school supply supplying is bigger and better than ever?

HELL NO!

I will not help teachers commit suicide by supporting these feel good attempts to turn basic public school funding into an act of charity. Each time educators normalize deprivation and substitute charity as social justice withheld, they will find themselves with fewer classroom resources. Such actions also spurn greater public school privatization and devaluing of teachers.

Q:      You know who should pay for school supplies?

A:      Tax payers!

Perhaps corporations and pop stars could begin paying their fair share of taxes so that Katy Perry isn’t forced to enrich Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney’s Staples.

But, but, but, but, but… teachers spend a fortune on classroom supplies that their students need. Right, I get it. I do too. I spent $1,000 the first month I taught 4th grade. That’s not the point.

First of all, teachers should be able to deduct those costs off their income taxes. Second, public schools should be adequately funded. Third, teachers should stop contributing to consumerism and ask what their kids really need.

Yes, I’m going there. Every time a teacher requires 4 of these, 3 of those… a specific brand of pen, or an official notebook they contribute to needless family strife and exacerbate inequality.

When you require a Trapper Keeper (the Volvo of notebooks) or ban the Trapper Keeper (the three-hole punched incubus), you do not “teach organizational skills” as much as you teach compliance, reinforce prehistoric educational practices, and place a needless financial strain on your students’ families. It’s a freakin’ notebook for God’s sake. If a teacher is concerned with enforcing whether a student writes on one of both sides of a paper, or cares about the brand or color of their notebook, they should seek professional help.

Parents should stop worrying about this nonsense and expect public schools to be adequately funded and stocked with necessary supples – as is required by law and practice.

We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford a cello and laptop for every child. It is a sin to beg for pencils.

So, let’s review. I salute the folks who wish to contribute to public education. Volunteering, contributing to organizations like Access Books, bring a performance to school, or pay for things kids might love are a much better idea. Every time a school wastes a second fundraising for basic supplies, a billionaire replaces a teacher with a YouTube video

In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.

Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”

Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.

Gary Stager on One-sided Parent Contracts
Here’s a list of promises I think schools should keep
By: Gary Stager
District Administration, Sep 2004

DA Archive

The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.

This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.

This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?

If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
  • Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
  • Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
  • Children will be encouraged to play
  • Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
  • Students will not be treated as numbers
  • Teachers will discuss current events with their students
  • Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
  • School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
  • The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
  • Class sizes will be 20 or lower
  • Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
  • Teachers will not talk down to children
  • Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
  • The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
  • Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
  • Classroom rules will be developed democratically
  • There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
  • The principal will be accessible to students and parents
  • Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
  • Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
  • Cooperation will be valued over competition
  • The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
  • Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
  • Authentic forms of assessment will be used
  • A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
  • Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
  • The school will take teacher input seriously
  • Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
  • Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
  • Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
The Coalition of Essential Schools offers 10 common principles for schools concerned with excellence–www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/about/phil/10cps/10cps.html

Welcome to Uzupis!

I enjoyed a lovely lunch today in the Republic of Užupis. In between bites of pizza, I couldn’t help but think of how many teachers are busily assembling the class rule and penalty documents for distribution on the first day of school.With each passing year, these reams of paper begin to resemble the US tax code in size, scope, severity and arbitrariness.

Welcome back kids! Here’s the list of ways we expect you to screw-up and be punished over the next 180 days. If you do not bring this document back to school tomorrow, signed by a parent, the cycle of punishment will begin with all due haste!

Don’t strain your back hanging the laminated set of class rules used for decades. Why not consider adopting the Constitution of Užupis for class governance?

Constitution of The Republic of Užupis

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
  2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
  6. Everyone has the right to love.
  7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
  9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
  11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
  13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
  14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
  15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
  16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
  17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
  19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
  22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
  23. Everyone has the right to understand.
  24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
  26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
  27. Everyone shall remember their name.
  28. Everyone may share what they possess.
  29. No one can share what they do not possess.
  30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Everyone may be independent.
  32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
  33. Everyone has the right to cry.
  34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
  36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
  37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
  38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat
  40. Do not fight back
  41. Do not surrender

The motto of Užupis, “Don’t Fight! Don’t Win! Don’t Surrender!” would be swell for your school as well. This web site has a terrific tour of Užupis I recommend reading it.

As you begin another school year, my best advice comes from the great American philosopher Gerald Norman Springer, “Take care of yourselves and each other!”

“Word-of-the-day,” a simple idea with  multiple meanings

A literate citizen has command of a large and expressive vocabulary. Schools “do vocabulary” presumably in the hopes of creating thoughtful thinkers and articulate communicators.

Vocabulary is developed by immersion in a social culture rich in stories, songs and other people to converse with. Despite the intuitive and scientific evidence of this truth, schools still insist on drilling new words into kids.

BACK TO SCHOOL
I’m always amazed by the emphasis placed on vocabulary at Back-to-School Night. My kids’ teachers tell us how many words the kids need to memorize each week and how many points they will “earn” for this lower-order thinking skill. I once asked a middle school language arts teacher if the vocabulary words assigned came from the context of what the kids are reading or studying. She looked quizzically at me and replied, “No. No context.” I then asked about the origin of these mysterious word lists and she said, “another teacher gives them to me.”

While I was alarmed by the lack of consideration given to context and meaning, two pillars of vocabulary development, my experience at the high school was even more horrific. The 10th grade English teacher explained the school had just instituted a new “Word of the Day” program.

“Each day the school puts a word in our mailbox or announces it over the P.A. system and every teacher is expected to use it during their lesson. For example, today’s word was buoyancy, so I wrote the following sentence on the blackboard. French is not a very buoyant language.”

What the heck does that mean? Could it be true? If buoyancy could be applied to languages, wouldn’t French be among the most likely to float off the tongue?

It occurred to me that if the innovative “Word of the Day” program had a 100 percent success rate, kids would learn 180 new words annually. I believe that gerbils are capable of learning more words per year. By the age of six kids have a vocabulary of about 10,000 words. Their vocabulary then experiences a median growth rate of approximately 3,500 words per year for the next 10 years. Vocabulary remains easy to teach and difficult to learn by being taught.

A DISTURBING PLAY ON WORDS
Vocabulary may be used to illuminate, enhance, describe or even obfuscate. Last week, my daughter mentioned that her eighth grade social studies teacher is now the advisor of the “Word of the Day Club.” Apparently, the franchise is taking off! I visualized kids staying after school to memorize new words and fundraising for field trips to the local library, but I was mistaken.

The “(Good) Word of the Day Club” is a bible study club held on the grounds of the public school. When I expressed outrage that the school was endorsing such patently unconstitutional activities, my daughter explained that her teacher was an “unofficial” advisor. What an imaginative play-on-words. The school must have thought that this subterfuge (an excellent vocabulary word) would go unnoticed by parents who actually value the separation of church and state.

I then shared some new vocabulary words with my daughter including: coercion, exploitation, duplicity, unethical, proselytizing and evangelism. She naively assured me that this was a voluntary club. An abuse of power by such an authority will compel some children to participate in an inappropriate activity.

I certainly remember joining community service clubs supervised by my math teacher because my geometry grade needed a little “lift.” Educators are entrusted with a great deal of power and responsibility. They must not abuse that power.

What exactly is a voluntary club with an unofficial advisor? Would the school provide my child with classroom space and teacher supervision to read the Koran? Can she start an unofficial marching band or a competitor to the school newspaper? How about a club for Satan worshippers? They could call it “Hot Shots.”

If the school is not breaking the letter of the law, the propriety of their actions must surely be questioned. Perhaps we should get back to basics. If the Constitution was read and debated in the “unofficial” preacher’s social studies class, fewer kids might fall for the treachery of a good word.

Originally published in the April 2002 issue of District Administration Magazine

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night


Originally published in the January 2004 issue of


Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day–or during another school year–with few expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes.

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and uses half the toner on the planet.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?

Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

Everyone should read Edward Tufte’s very short book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.

© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine