February 6, 2013
I may not be an education expert, but I do spend time in the schools as the education reporter, have a sibling still attending high school in The Dalles and wasn't in high school very long ago myself. Here are four more ideas (see part one) for simple, free ways teachers can improve education.
5) Don’t sacrifice the smart kids for the struggling ones. School comes naturally for some students and is a real challenge for others, but even the bright kids don’t know it all. In a world of overcrowded classrooms and judging schools based on the number of students who passed the standardized tests, teachers have to prioritize and the result is the A and B students end up getting ignored. In school I got the impression no one cared whether I passed the state tests by three points or 30 as long as I passed, and it wasn’t a very motivating feeling. There are students in every classroom who want to learn but are often denied that opportunity because the class for the day is focused completely on the students with the most trouble learning the material. The occasional Talented and Gifted field trip helps, but individual teachers also need to be more aware of the needs of their students who might need an extra challenge in order to learn something from the class. The benefits to helping those students learn may not be as immediately tangible as adding to the number of students passing a state test, but everyone will be grateful down the road when that A student becomes their doctor or lawyer.
6) Relate the subject to their world. I always put more effort into writing papers or doing projects when it was a subject that interested me or had direct relevance to my life. Too many essay prompts and reading assignments were boring, generic or old-fashioned when they didn't have to be. The high school is making a great step in the right direction with Project Endeavor, which teaches science and math by having students use the concepts being taught to solve real problems instead of just meaningless equations. But it needs to be expanded to other subjects. Instead of asking students to write an essay comparing political parties during the Civil War, ask students to compare the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln’s time to the GOP of today and analyze how well Lincoln might have done in the 2012 election. Ask students to analyze how the Shakespeare play they are reading might have turned out differently in the age of Facebook and texting, or have them compare a character's reaction to an event to the way they responded to something in their own life.
7) Use class time wisely. I watched too many movies in school. A few of them were helpful, like watching the docudrama Thirteen Days to understand how the Cuban missile crisis unfolded. But many were a poor substitute for an hour and a half of real learning, and a five minute clip of the movie would have worked just as well to demonstrate the culture I was supposed to be gaining insight into. I also spent far too much time talking with my friends, reading a novel or doodling after the teacher gave us most of the class period to “work on homework” when half the class was done and the other half had no intention of ever doing the homework.
8) Show kids you care. It may sound cliché, but it’s an important one. The teachers who inspired me to put in my best effort for them were the ones I made a genuine connection with. They were the teachers who said hi to me in the hall, who chatted with the class before the bell rang instead of immersing themselves in a book or computer screen. Even though I could have put in less work and still gotten an A in their class, I felt like that would be letting them down and I didn't want to disappoint them when I knew they knew I was capable of more. On the other hand, if a teacher went through class on autopilot I felt a license to do the same, and if they treated me like a bother when I came up to their desk to ask a question I usually stopped asking.