Career prep starts in middle school


High school student Andrew Castillo, left, and architect Marco Marraccini, met when Andrew was a seventh-grade intern. Photo: Emile Wamsteker, Education Week

Career prep programs are starting in middle school, reports Education Week.

“Although young people physically drop out in high school, they mentally disengage in middle school. That’s where we lose them,” said Ayeloa Fortune, who directs United Way’s Middle Grade Success Challenge in Alexandria, Virginia.

In Pittsburgh, United Way funded a program that connects sixth graders with adults who introduce them to career options.

Middle schools are increasingly looking for ways to expose students to careers so they understand the relevance of what they are learning and stay on track. The hope is that with a goal in mind, they will be inspired to take rigorous classes, be engaged in learning, and increase the likelihood that they will be prepared for college.

In seventh grade, a nonprofit called Spark paired Andrew X. Castillo with an architect at a Los Angeles firm. A rising senior, the 16-year-old is applying to selective colleges to study architecture. He hopes to be the first in his family to complete college.

“[My mentor] helped me focus more on the future and what my next step should be,” says Castillo.

Career-focused charter schools could “alternative pathways for getting most kids not only through high school, but also through to some form of postsecondary credential with value in the labor market,” writes Robert Schwartz, a Harvard professor emeritus. He calls for designing schools that combine the strengths of career academies and early college high schools.

Two-thirds of young people will not earn a bachelor’s degree, writes Schwartz. The college graduation rate is much lower for students from low-income families.

From Mario Kart to the classroom

Video Games Like Mario Kart and World of Warcraft Could Be Making Their Way Into Classrooms, writes Georgia Perry in The Atlantic.

Some top game designers are high school or college dropouts, writes Perry. They were bored in school. They’re experts at engaging players. 

GlassLab, a joint effort by Electronic Arts and the Educational Testing Service (the SAT people) pairs commercial and educational game designers to create games kids will want to play. Use Your Brainz is based on the popular Plants vs. Zombies. It adds a tracker to assess players’ problem-solving skills.

Games are great at assessment, says Richard Culatta, the director of the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

They assess their players constantly—that’s how they determine when a player is ready to move to the next level. Similarly, feedback is provided instantly in games; unlike having to wait a week for a grade on an assignment, students playing a game can, say, look at the top of the screen and see a bunch of cartoon hearts letting them know how many lives they have left.

Another major challenge facing American education, according to Culatta, involves “[holding] students—almost like a surfboard—right on the wave of their ability.” In other words, schools often struggle to give them tasks that they are capable of doing but for which they also need to work and stay vigilant.

Games do this expertly.

The DOE, the National Science Foundation and foundations such as Gates and MacArthur are spending “upwards of $100 million to promote educational gaming,” writes Greg Toppo in The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers use digital games as a teaching tool, according to a 2014 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.

How does a teacher figure out which education apps are worth trying? asks Kaycie Gillette-Mallard on EdCentral. Putting the Education in “Educational” Apps has advice on how to evaluate apps.

Games students play

The Game Believes in You, writes USA Today ed writer Greg Toppo, who believes in digital learning’s power to “make our kids smarter.”

The key to gaming’s power is that players get quick feedback and the chance to try again, learning from their mistakes, writes Toppo. Players can take risks because the cost of failure is low.

“Students today need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, how well they’re doing it and what it all means,” he writes. “They need to learn how to experiment with ideas.”

Some of the most intriguing games use few words. Players figure out what they can do.

Toppo visits schools that are using games to teach math, reading, U.S. history, world affairs and more. He looks at games that help players learn to work in teams, solve problems and improve their concentration and memory.

“What looks like a twenty-first-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is in fact a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore, and understand the world,” Toppo argues.

Done right, gaming can transform education, Toppo tells Ed Week.

In San Jose, Calif., he sat with a 4th grader matter-of-factly tackling complex math problems with the help of an animated penguin. In New York City, he watched a group of 8th graders during their final exam: playing Triple Turbo Ball, a game they had invented that blurred the lines between football, basketball, and soccer. In San Francisco, he played an early version of Throw Trucks With Your Mind!, a game being developed in the hopes of presenting a non-pharmaceutical treatment for ADHD, that rewards players with super powers when they are able to sustain calm and focus (measured through an EEG headset.)

Nearly three-quarters of K-8 teachers use learning games, according to a survey.

In an after-school program at Virginia Tech, a group of teenage boys created and performed an opera, Surface: A World Above, set within the virtual world of Minecraft. Mozart provided the music.

Can good teaching prevent disruption?

Worried about high suspension rates for black students, San Francisco public schools no longer suspend students for “willful defiance.”

Mission High School is trying to avoid trips to the principal’s office, writes Dani McClain on Slate. The school, which is devoted to “equity, inclusion, and Anti-Racist Teaching,” hopes to improve student behavior by changing teacher behavior.

When one of Henry Arguedas’ students got upset and slammed a book on the floor last year, the teacher followed what has become standard protocol in schools across the country: He sent the teenager out of class to an administrator who would decide his fate.

. . . A veteran teacher and a dean followed up and gently encouraged Arguedas to think carefully about why he had sent the student, who is black, to the office for glaring and slamming the book. As Arguedas reflected with his colleagues, he realized to his dismay that he had misinterpreted the teenager’s emotional problems and inability to express himself for aggressive anger—possibly because the student was black and male.

In October, a fourth-year teacher named David Gardner asked Mission High’s “instructional reform facilitator,” Pirette McKamey, to observe one of his ninth-grade geometry classes.

. . .  the lesson focused on logic and structuring proofs. Some students worked in groups to configure blocks of various colors and shapes into hexagons or triangles and puzzled over how best to describe what they’d done. Later, McKamey estimated that only about a quarter of the class was on task at any given time. Others took slow, meandering trips to the pencil sharpener or acted out in subtle ways. Two students, for instance, disobeyed school rules and kept their cellphones out while another listened to earphones. One boy stood his skateboard on end and spun it round and round. Two others playfully jousted with rulers.

. . . a black boy named John (not his real name) . . . popped between tables during group work, sang loudly as Gardner gave the class instructions, and at one point left the room without permission. But John’s hand was also the first one up when Gardner asked what the groups had accomplished with their proofs, and his answer was precise and on target.

When McKamey met with Gardner a few days later to debrief, she told him “the pacing was off.” If Gardner improved his instruction and kept more of the students engaged, McKamey assured him most discipline problems would disappear.

McKamey also suggested that Gardner might, unknowingly, be telepathing a dislike for John, which triggered the student’s unhappiness and frustration. “Think of him as someone you like and who you’re going to take care of,” she said. When John causes a disruption that demands a response, McKamey suggested using humor rather than a punitive tone to defuse the situation publicly, and then talking to John in greater depth about the incident privately.

Improving instruction is always good, but . . . really?

Teachers need to be trained in “warm demandingness,” advises Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University.

As one example, he described watching a teacher coax a student who had his head on his desk to sit up. She kept urging him to lift his head higher and higher, but when he was finally upright, the teacher showed empathy. Specifically, she walked by him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Get some more sleep tonight’’ in a friendly, supportive way, Skiba recalled. “It’s possible to show kids that you are not going to let up on them until they reach your expectation, but within that to be establishing a friendship.”

High school teachers usually have 30+ students in a class. Is it possible to teach an academic subject while providing individual coaxing, private talks and demanding friendship for each student? It sounds time consuming.

Larry Ferlazzo’s readers offer their advice for good classroom management.

Free high schoolers to choose their education

By high school, attendance in class should be optional, argues Blake Boles, author of The Art of Self-Directed Learning. High school students should have the freedom — and responsibility — of college students, he writes.

Don’t want to show up to class? Think you can learn it on your own? Fine. Problem sets are due each Friday, the midterm is in six weeks, the final exam is in 12 weeks, and here’s a list of what each exam will test. Good luck.

Sitting in class but not participating? Fiddling around on your computer? Not taking notes? . . . Your loss.

Bored? Getting nothing out of this class? Then why are you here? Drop it and find something you love.

What would happen if students could vote with their feet and learn by consent? Boles asks.

Attendance would drop in the worst classes, he predicts. Demand would rise for electives. “Learning and engagement would “skyrocket.”

The school would adapt to offer extensive new training and support in the realm of meta-learning (i.e., learning how to learn): independent study skills, work habits, personal organization, research, and self-reflection on which courses to choose.

What if students only wanted to take “fun” classes, and not the “hard” or “important” ones? We’d have to create more engaging classes and scale down our vision of a required curriculum.

To engage the students who don’t want to study anything, schools would have to “develop new courses and programs that engage young people of vastly differing learning styles, backgrounds, and inclinations.”

Student-centered math aids problem solving

When excellent math teachers use a “student-centered” approach, students are more engaged and do better on problem-solving tests, concludes a new AIR study.

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

“A traditional teacher might simply explain, for example, how to graph a line, step-by-step, using y-intercept and slope . . . .and give students a tool box of procedures to tackle any problem,” writes Jill Barshay on the Hechinger Report.

“A student-centered teacher might turn the classroom floor into a giant graph-paper grid and ask the students to become data points and walk to where they should be plotted.”

Researchers found 22 highly regarded high school math teachers in New York and New England. Half were traditional teachers and half used many student-centered approaches. “The more a teacher used student-centered approaches, the more his or her students learned, and the better they did on an exam of complex problem-solving that resembles the PISA international test for 15-year-olds,” reports Barshay.

Traditional math problem from AIR report

Traditional math problem from AIR report

However, student-centered teaching may not work well for all teachers or all students, said AIR researcher Kirk Walters.

“Student-centered approaches may hold promise,” he said. However, the study looked at excellent teachers with largely middle-class, high-performing students.

I’d guess that effective student-centered teaching requires more teaching skill.

Gallup: Most teachers aren’t ‘engaged’

Only 31 percent of teachers are “engaged” in their work,  according to a new Gallup report, State of America’s Schools.

“Engaged” teachers are “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work . . . know the scope of their jobs and constantly look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes.”

Just over half (56%) are “not engaged” — meaning they may be satisfied with their jobs, but they are not emotionally connected to their workplaces and are unlikely to devote much discretionary effort to their work.

About one in eight (13%) are “actively disengaged” — meaning they are dissatisfied with their workplaces and likely to be spreading negativity to their coworkers.

Looking at the average U.S. worker, 30 percent are engaged, Gallup estimates.

Compared to other workers, teachers are more likely to say they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day at work.

However, “teachers are dead last among the occupational groups Gallup surveyed in terms of their likelihood to say their opinions seem to count at work.” Teachers also ranked last in believing their supervisor creates an “open and trusting environment.”

Fifty-five percent of students say they’re engaged and only 17 percent are “actively disengaged,” Gallup found. However, students become less engaged as they get older. 

In a 2009 Gallup study, “a one-percentage-point increase in a school’s student engagement GrandMean was associated with a six-point increase in reading achievement and an eight-point increase in math achievement scores.”

Bored in class? Deal with it

Nancy Flanagan writes about bored students and boring teachers at Teacher in a Strange Land.

Boredom isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, she starts.

If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.

Boredom isn’t a sign the curriculum or teaching has been “dumbed-down,” Flanagan adds. “Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times.”

Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however.  Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.

Boredom is not a sign of giftedness, Flanagan writes.

Students who “own their boredom” can find ways to deal with it, she advises.

I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education.

Poor kids, good teachers

Teachers can make a difference for low-income students, writes Eric Jensen in Ed Week.

Jensen, the author of Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, just finished a study of 12 high-poverty schools. Half scored in the top quartile in their state; the other half were in the lowest quartile. The demographics were the same for the high and low performers. The values were similar.

When I offered statements such as, “I believe in my kids,” both school staffs said, “I strongly agree.” So, what was different?

It’s not poverty that makes the difference; it was the teachers. The difference was that the high-performing teachers actually “walked the walk.” First, the classroom and school climate was MUCH better at the high-performers. Secondly, the teachers at the high-performing schools didn’t complain about kids not “being smart” or being unmotivated. They made it a priority and built engagement, learning, thinking and memory skills every day. In short, they didn’t make excuses; they just rolled up their sleeves and built better student brains.

His list of “what we have learned (so far) to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools” includes:

High expectations are not enough. Help students set crazy high goals, and then actively point out to them how their daily actions connect to their long-term goals.

The most important cognitive skills to build are: 1) reasoning, 2) working memory, and 3) vocabulary usage.

Increase feedback on the learning and zero it in on the specifics of effort used, strategies applied or attitude engaged.

A positive attitude is “priceless,” if it leads to action, Jensen adds. If it doesn’t, it’s “useless.”

How to succeed at community college

Community colleges are finding ways to engage students and raise their odds of success, a new study finds. One college warns students they must show up for class or be kicked out.

In Tennessee, volunteer “success coaches” help first-generation students fill out college forms, apply for financial aid and navigate the system.