Using nature to nurture

The classroom is outdoors at The Alaska Forest School, reports Erin Kirkland in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Lia Keller asked preschoolers if they could “find the tunnel from last time” and they led the way to a downed cottonwood, where they could play “foxes and bears” in a pit under the root ball.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake.

Leif Stanbury, 3, catches a snowflake. Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

“I am passionate about getting children outside,” said Keller, who founded the school. “Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places.

She also believes “children need more unstructured time” to learn from their play.

Keller offers parents three sessions a week.

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take "appropriate risks." Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

Elliott and Harriet Levine, aged 4 and 8, climb under the eyes of mother Maria Levine. The school encourages kids to take “appropriate risks.” Photo: Loren Holmes, ADN

The forest school idea started in Europe, but has spread around the world. It seems like a perfect fit for Alaska, says Beka Land, whose daughters are five and three. “The natural consequences of exploring the outdoors and talking through choices is so valuable,” Land said. “As a family, we like the idea of an outdoors-centered program that lets kids pick their own path.”

After 30 minutes of “hollering, discovering and exploring,” the preschoolers were full of questions, writes Kirkland.

Why does snow look like crystals under the frame of a magnifying glass? What happens when you try to climb a tree much taller than your mom and way higher than any recess monitor would ever allow? How can five small kids figure out how to tie up a blue tarp without adult assistance?

Keller answered many questions with: “What do you think we should do?”

I saw the link on OneTree Alaska, a Facebook site set up by Jan Dawe, a University of Alaska botanist who was my best friend in elementary school. We were co-editors-in-chief of The Wednesday Report, which we published twice a month for four years.

College prep, job training — or both?

While most high school graduates go on to college, “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree,” comments John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour. Should more teens train for the workforce instead of prepping for college?

Marissa Galloway, Norton learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

Marissa Galloway learned cabinet making at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School. Photo: Mike George

“It’s the shame of our nation, when you look at, a student comes out of high school, not knowing what they want to do, goes to college, drops out,” says David Wheeler, principal of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, south of Boston. “Now they’re in debt, without a job, and not knowing what they want to do.”

In addition to academic subjects, students at Massachusetts’ regional vo-tech schools learn skilled trades.

They do as well academically as students in traditional high schools. (Wheeler’s students outscored the state average.)

They don’t have to “skip college,” as Tulenko puts it. Statewide, 60 percent of regional vo-tech students enroll in college, while others go directly to the workforce.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed expanding the state’s vo-tech schools.

Study: Louisiana voucher students do worse

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Voucher students couldn’t stem declining enrollment at Our Lady of Grace School, which was closed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans last year. Photo: Brett Duke, Times-Picayune

Voucher students who left a low-performing Louisiana school for a private school did worse academically — especially in math — than classmates who stayed, concludes a new working paper on the first year of the Lousiana Scholarship Program.

Younger children did the worst, according to the team of Berkeley, Duke and MIT researchers.

Catholic schools serving black students — most with declining enrollment — signed up most of the voucher students. “Struggling private schools may opt in to the voucher program to combat stagnating enrollment,” the researchers noted.

One third of voucher students attend low-performing private schools that “have been barred from taking new voucher students,” reported the Times-Picayune last year.

It could be a short-term effect, but “the size of the negative math impact is pretty large,” Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas education professor told the Times-Picayune. Wolf’s two-year study of the voucher program will be published soon. “The results are different in interesting ways,” he said.

Louisiana’s voucher program, which is the fifth-largest in the country, provides about 6,700 students with about $5,300 per student. Only students from families with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty line – meaning $60,625 for a family of four, for example – and those whose public school has been labeled by the state as low-performing qualify for the voucher.

“A broader set of evidence” shows positive effects for vouchers, said Wolf. He cited a 2012 evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program which found higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

States drop exams, give retroactive diplomas

States are dropping exit exams and giving retroactive high school diplomas to former students who never passed the exam, reports Catherine Gewertz in Education Week.

Georgia, Texas and South Carolina have issued thousands of diplomas to people who passed high school courses but failed the exit exam.In California, 35,000 or more people could qualify for diplomas. Arizona and Alaska also will issue retroactive diplomas.

Misty Hatcher is working toward a degree as a networking specialist at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. --Melissa Golden for Education Week

Misty Hatcher, who received a retroactive diploma, is working toward a networking degree at Lanier Technical College in Oakwood, Ga. Photo: Melissa Golden, Education Week

“States are eliminating comprehensive tests in math and English/language arts in favor of end-of-course tests or other measures of high school achievement,” reports Gewertz. Many argue exit exams are “useless because they’re often pegged to 8th- or 9th-grade-level skills.”

That is, the exit exams were too easy.

California dropped its exam because it wasn’t aligned to Common Core State Standards. That is, it was too easy.

So people who couldn’t pass a test of eighth- and ninth-grade skills will receive high school diplomas.

Only 13 states still require students to pass an exit exam to earn a diploma, down from 25 in 2012, according to Jennifer Zinth of Education Commission of the States. Some states are now dropping end-of-course exams too.

They’re too hard.

Hanna Frank, Education Post’s social media manager, threw away her high school diploma, knowing she hadn’t earned it. She took remedial courses at her local community college, using up most of her financial aid, and managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in five years.

Opt-out leaders reject NY test changes

An anti-testing rally at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in March. Photo: Justin Weiner

New York students will take untimed tests this spring, said Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia.

“Thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments,” reports Chalkbeat NY.

Elia also promised to give teachers more say in reviewing test questions and to shorten the length of tests.

Opt-out leaders weren’t impressed, saying parents won’t be appeased by minor changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky wrote on Facebook. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” Carl Korn, a state teachers’ union spokesman, responded in a statement.

In defense of knowledge

The Knowledge Matters campaign is lobbying for schools to teach a broad curriculum including history, science, geography, art and music — especially to “those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”
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You’d think there’d be no need to ask schools to teach knowledge,  but it’s being pushed aside by drill in reading skills and by the belief that kids don’t need to know anything because they can just look everything up.

“Fifty years of solid research demonstrates that broad knowledge is vital to language comprehension and deep knowledge is vital to critical analysis,” argues the Knowledge Matters campaign. “Through broad and deep knowledge, students become the informed, thoughtful citizens our nation—and world—needs.”

Taking the ‘self’ out of self-empowerment

We’ve Had 100 Years Of Progressive Education And The World’s Getting Worse, writes Jordan Shapiro, a fellow at Sesame Street Workshop’s Joan Ganz Clooney Center, in Forbes.  “A century of well-intentioned progressive trends in education may have cultivated a generation of entitled I-me-mine individualist ‘winners’,” he suggests.

Each wealthy kid who is taught to follow his/her passion, discover his/her true vocation, or find his/her authentic self, is also inadvertently learning that personal success is a kind of implicit manifest destiny.

Parenting norms differ by social class, writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids. “Well-educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent, self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline and obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.”

Reformers “try to spread the message of self-actualization more equitably,” writes Shapiro. They forget that “self-confidence and individual empowerment” aren’t neutral or equitable. “Winners necessarily require losers.”

Shapiro dreams of “new classroom rules, new district wide administrative systems, new school designs and new educational customs that will break the cycle of winners and losers, haves and have nots.”

We need to teach our children that the goal is not self-empowerment for the sake of the individual, but rather for the collective. They must learn not only how to identify and discover their unique gifts, but also how to offer them up in service to the rest of us.

Do winners require losers? If Johnny learns to read well, is that bad for Susie?

And teaching kids to serve the collective is . . . kind of creepy, right?

Raising a creative child — not a gifted sheep

To raise a creative child, parents need to back off, writes Adam Grant in the New York Times. A professor of management and psychology at Penn’s Wharton School, he’s the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

“Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new,” writes Grant. Tiger Moms and Lombardi Dads raise their prodigies to become “excellent sheep” who crave the approval of their parents and teachers.

“The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights.”

“Only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” writes psychologist Ellen Winner.

Parents of highly creative children set few rules, instead stressing moral values, one study found.

When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. . . . They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists aren’t single-minded, Grant writes. Compared to other scientists, they’re “22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

All comedy is critical

Political correctness has run amok, says John Cleese on Big Think. The British comedian of Monty Python fame has been warned to avoid “most university campuses” lest he criticize someone. “All humor is critical,” he says. “If you start to say we mustn’t, we mustn’t criticize or offend them then humor is gone. With humor goes a sense of proportion. And then as far as I’m concerned you’re living in 1984.”

The schools they chose

Included in the school choice stories on Education Post is Dashaun Robinson’s story how he failed in neighborhood schools, until he “found a small charter school in Providence, Rhode Island, and became a 10th grader, again, at the age of 18.” He’s now a sophomore at Rhode Island College.

Blackstone Valley Prep, a charter school in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, created a very small, supportive class to serve their son and other disabled students, write Kevin Sims and Krystal Vasquez. Despite his epilepsy, anxiety and adjustment disorder, he “loves learning” and performs at grade level.

Kim Wilborn

Kim Wilborn plans to earn a college degree.

Kim Wilborn, an eighth-grader, credits Perspectives Charter School in Chicago for  turning her into a straight-A student who’s forgiven her drug-addicted mother and taken her first steps on “a path to a brighter future.”

In elementary school, she “ran with a bad crowd,” she writes. There was  no homework. When she started Perspectives in sixth grade, she “didn’t know multiplication or division,” only how to punch numbers in a calculator. She got extra help to catch up in math.

In an ethics class called A Disciplined Life, she learning about taking responsibility — and forgiveness.

Even though he was in prison for 27 years, Nelson Mandela forgave the people who put him in there. He had dinner with one of his prison guards. He had lunch with the man who wanted him to get the death penalty. He was not bitter.

I didn’t want to be, either.

She’s learned how to push herself to overcome challenges.  Almost 200 pounds in sixth grade, she was encouraged to join the track team. “You have to keep going,” the coach told her. “When your legs get tired, you have to start running with your heart.”

I’ve lost a lot of weight since then. I have the willpower to keep going no matter how hard it gets.

. . . I get lots of homework now but it’s like when I started track: the more I’m used to it, the more I can do.

Gabby Dixon, a Perspectives high school student, likes the “small size and personal relationships.”

Her AP Literature is reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Sometimes I really have to sit down with my teacher to understand it — there’s so much going on in the text. What’s great is he told us it’s OK not to understand something right away. It’s OK to wrestle with a text. It’s OK to be vulnerable and open. That’s the best way you get to learn.

She’s also a big fan of A Disciplined Life.