Category Archives: education

The Curve

the curveWhen I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.

If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.

Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:

1:  I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,

2:  I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.

At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).

I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.

And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.

Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.

But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.

That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.

They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.

When I read such opinions, I can’t help but  wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.

But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.

Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 68

cardinalLast Friday evening was a bit chaotic.

My son is attending the newest high school in the state, and Friday was the first home football game.  When I arrived early to volunteer in the concession stand, guards were already directing traffic, music was already blasting and the color red was everywhere.

The community was celebrating the area’s newest team – the Spring Mills Cardinals.

The team lost 75 – 0 anyway.

The loss wasn’t unexpected since Spring Mills has no senior class this year, but the score should have been discouraging.

Yet no one seemed particularly bothered.

The students still expressed pride and enthusiasm, and the community still showed its support. Adults and youth alike stayed late to clean up the stands and haul garbage.

And no one complained.

Recognizing that a sense of community is more important than a sports competition always makes me smile.

Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness   Day 66: Living in a Place You Love  Day 65: Gifts from the HearDay 64: The Arrival of Fall  Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird   Day 62: Green Lights Day 61:  My Canine Friends  Day 60:  Differences   Day 59:  A New Box of Crayons   Day 58: Bookworms  Day 57: Being Oblivious   Day 56: Three-day Weekends  Day 55:  A Cat Purring  Day 54: Being a Unique Individual   Day 53: Children’s Artwork  Day 52: Lefties  Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer   Day 50: Campfires  Day 49: Childhood Crushes  Day  48: The Words “Miss You”  Day 47:  Birthday Stories   Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us  Day 45:  Play-Doh   Day 44: First Day of School Pictures  Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes  Day 42: Appreciative Readers  Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote   Day 40:  Being Silly  Day 39:  Being Happy Exactly Where You Are  Day 38: Proud Grandparents  Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies   Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories  Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want  Day 34:  Accepting the Fog    Day 33: I See the Moon  Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap  Day 31: Perspective  Day 30:  Unlikely Friendships  Day 29: Good Samaritans  Day 28:  Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?    Day 27: Shadows  Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads  Day 25: When Harry Met Sally  Day 24: Hibiscus   Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck  Day 22:  The Wonderful World of Disney   Day 21: Puppy love  Day 20 Personal Theme Songs     Day 19:  Summer Clouds  Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17:  A Royal Birth    Day 16:  Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle   Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter     Day 12:  Round Bales of Hay Day 11:  Water Fountains for Dogs    Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers  Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day  7:  Finding the missing sock   Day 6:  Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment     Day 4:  Jumping in Puddles   Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill    Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

The Permanent Mark of Bad Behavior

Mena-Peopel-Suck1There are times I feel as though mean and difficult people are the masterminds behind a sinister plot to take over the world. They know they’ll eventually just wear out the rest of us with their rude comments and insensitive behavior.

But then I come to my senses and realize if they were actually smart enough to carry out such a plot, they’d have more sense than a second grader. That’s when you learn some of life’s most important lessons. For example, I learned that a poor decision or a mean word will stay on your permanent record card forever, and a blemish on that card is never going to help you succeed.

Of course, I learned that lesson the hard way. I got the first black mark on my permanent record card when I was in second grade. I’ve had countless since then, but that’s the one that taught me about consequences and guilt.

The exact details of my crime are rather fuzzy, but the guilt is forever etched in my conscience.

The problems started because I was a bus rider.

In second grade, we didn’t have cliques, but there were two distinct groups: bus riders and walkers. (In those days, only the children of teachers came to school in cars.)

I perceived the walkers as privileged. They didn’t have to wait for anyone or abide by any schedule other than the ring of the bell. They didn’t have to arrive at school until the very last minute, and they could leave as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day.

I was jealous.

Those of us who rode the bus were just stuck. Since my bus ran earlier than others, there was a group of us who arrived at school much earlier than we actually needed to be there. In order for school officials to maintain order, they required us to immediately go to the cafeteria and sit quietly until given permission to go to our classrooms.

The wait was long and boring, especially since we were always being told to “quiet down.” Even now, almost 40 years later, I find that difficult. In second grade, it seemed impossible.

I don’t remember who came up with the scheme or how we executed it, but a group of friends and I decided we were going to escape the prison in the cafeteria. We didn’t make it far and were soon discovered hiding in the bathroom. After yelling at us, a teacher escorted my fellow criminals and me to the principal’s office.

The only thing I knew about the principal’s office was that it was where the really bad kids went. I was pretty sure there was a jail cell in there, where we would be handcuffed and chained to the bars as punishment for our crime. My worries grew as we were told to sit outside Mr. Mitchell’s office and “think about what we had done.”

By the time Mr. Mitchell opened his door and told us to come in, I was shaking.

Mr. Mitchell sat behind the desk and lectured us and lectured us and lectured us. As he talked, his face got redder and redder and redder. The only words I remember were “your permanent record card.”

I gulped.

I was supposed to go to college and get a job. I had no idea how I was going to tell my parents that all their hopes and dreams for me had been erased with one stupid decision. (Yes, I really did worry about such things as a young child.)

For years, I worried about my permanent record card and that time in the principal’s office. Many nights, I would lie in bed thinking about the implications. My concerns finally began to fade when I was an adolescent and transferred to a different school district. As my records were being reviewed, no one mentioned my criminal past.

I had been granted a pardon, and I was grateful. But, now, I find myself getting tired of passing on the gift of a pardon to others.

This week I am especially tired. I wrote in another blog about the death of a young West Virginian. While most of the feedback was positive, there were also individuals who left comments that belittled the individual and his way of life. The comments were hurtful and rude and pointless.

They were also permanent. Even if they are deleted, others have already read them, including friends and family members.

The situation bothered me to the point I couldn’t sleep at night worrying whether or not I should even have written about the young man’s death.

But then I remembered another important lesson from second grade: most people are mean to others because they don’t feel good about themselves, so you should try to be nice to them anyway.

I guess I’ll keep trying. Even though the marks made by  negative behavior (by both me and by other people) may be permanent, marks for positive behaviors can be permanent too. I just have to keep reminding myself of that.

Everything I Need to Know About Valentine’s Day, I learned in First Grade

candyheartsI always liked school, but I absolutely hated first grade. That’s because I had a very, very, very mean teacher.

Even forty years later, I’m still traumatized by memories of Mrs. Gladwill.

Normally, I’d feel really guilty calling someone out by name but 1) I’m not the only who has scars inflicted by Mrs. Gladwill and, 2) She’s dead. She died in 2008 at the age of 94. I know this because my mother sent me a link to her obituary. My mother, who is a very wise woman, knew I needed closure.

There’s no need to go into all the details of why first grade was difficult. There are just too many of those details, such as:

Watching fellow students have their ears twisted;

Sitting in class in fear of having “accidents” because, instead of giving permission to use the bathroom, Mrs. Gladwill gave lectures about “not planning accordingly”;

Having my desk put in the corner of the room so others couldn’t cheat from my papers.

But my worst memory, by far, is Valentine’s Day.

Back in the early 1970’s, before there were strict dietary guidelines in schools, Valentine’s Day parties were one of the celebrated days of the school year. Preparation began well before the actual day. By the beginning of February, letters were sent home with both the names of classmates and a list of snacks, such as cookies, cupcakes and candy, that parents were asked to contribute. We used that list of names to painstakingly address a card for every single classmate – whether we liked the person or not. But we did pick out “the best” cards and candy (every card had to have candy) for our friends.

In school, we decorated mailboxes (shoeboxes covered with construction paper) in which our Valentine’s Day cards were to be delivered. The actual celebration was to be a festival of sugar and giggles.

The day before the big Valentine’s Day party, I could no longer hide the fact I couldn’t swallow. I’d begun to worry the day before at school when eating lunch was a painful challenge. At breakfast, while I was trying to somehow swallow a spoonful of Cheerios, my mother took one look at me, told me I looked like a chipmunk and declared I had the mumps.

I wasn’t just devastated. I was horrified.

Mrs. Gladwill simply did not tolerate illness. Every day, after she took attendance, she would take a piece of chalk and scrawl the names of the absent on the blackboard. In the eyes of first graders, having your name on the blackboard was equivalent to the adult version of being forced to wear a scarlet letter. Walking into the classroom and seeing  your name on the blackboard was the ultimate walk of shame.

Being diagnosed with mumps was not only a sentence to take that walk of shame, but it also meant I was going to miss the Valentine’s Day party. In the eyes of a six-year-old, life couldn’t have been much worse.

That Valentine’s Day was probably one of the longest days of my life as I spent every minute imagining all I was missing. Finally, sometime after 3:00, I heard the squeal of the school bus’ brakes as it stopped in front of my house. When my brother came into the house, he didn’t call me chipmunk or tease me for missing all the festivities. Instead, he handed me the shoebox I had so painstakingly decorated only a few days earlier. But now, it was full of Valentine’s and candy. I spent hours reading and treasuring all of the cards, even the ones I knew weren’t heartfelt.

A few days later when I returned to class, my name was one of many written in dark chalk on the blackboard. Apparently, some nameless person (me?) had come to school with the mumps and shared the virus with everyone else.

Eventually, attendance went back up and our class returned to the same, miserable status quo. But I didn’t. That Valentine’s Day taught me a lot about love:

1. Love is about the memories we treasure because, even though they sometimes grow out of difficult situations, they remind us of people and challenges we’ve overcome.

2.Love is about finding a song that will mean something to you at any age. For me, the  Rolling Stones got it exactly right. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find, you get what you need.”

3. Love is about having a family whose support will always make the worst day a little bit brighter.

4. Love is learning to treasure all the small gifts, even ones from people who may not realize that they were giving anything of importance.

5. Love is about taking care yourself, even when others will try to make you feel as though their needs should come first.

Most of all, I learned that Valentine’s Day is much more complicated than cards, or candy or having just one special person in your life. It’s about recognizing and acknowledge everything that makes you happy.

And, over the past 40 years, I’ve been immensely blessed with people, memories and circumstances that make me happy.

Which, is why, even though I may not entirely succumb to the sappiness of Valentine’s Day, I certainly embrace the sentiments, and the lessons, it’s taught me.

Paving the Way to a Better Educated America

I’m beginning to think that our country is like a complex highway system that is riddled with potholes.

Very intelligent people designed the system. It has served a great purpose, and a lot of people  are better off because of it.

Unfortunately, the potholes are getting bigger, and the damage they’re causing is far reaching.

To address the pothole problems, Americans keep patching them one at a time. It’s not effective and is generally a temporary solution.  The potholes might disappear for a while, but the patches usually break up and the potholes get even bigger.

To really address the pothole problem, whole sections of the highway need an overhaul.

But overhauls require significant changes and shifts in how we think.  That’s something a lot of people, particularly those who have easy access to planes and who don’t even experience potholes, do their best to avoid.

I’m not one of those people, and I’m tired of dealing with the potholes in politics, social services and education. Especially education.

All you have to do is look at America’s dismal statistics to realize that our education system is not helping those children who need it the most.

Nearly 1 million kids who start high school every year in the United States don’t make it to graduation.  The dropout rate of students living in low-income families is about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/dropout08/findings1.asp). The problem is cyclical: parents with limited education often had poor experiences in school and are less likely to emphasize its importance.

For years, community activists, business leaders and education experts have been discussing the problem and trying to develop solutions.  millions of dollars have gone into innovative programs.  Some communities have decided charter schools are the answer. Others have provided alternative opportunities for youth who don’t do well in the typical public school. And others have simply been too busy pointing fingers.

Even when rates improve, the problem is still extensive.

That’s because most of the solutions center around patching potholes:  pouring resources into programs for children who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to learning.

Extensive research on brain development indicates that what happens between the ages of zero and three affects our ability to learn:  (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/famsci/fs609w.htm)

Forget about being ready to learn in kindergarten.  Children from an environment with little stimulation or interaction are behind before they even enter a Pre-K classroom.

But, as a nation, we are doing very little to address true early education (birth to three.)  Right now, we are simply trying to help many kids whose brains were never wired to learn because of what happened during their first three years. If our education system shifted its resources and focus to the very young, children might actually be better prepared for academic learning.

And yes, the cost would be high. But people always think the cost of preventive programs is high until they look at the cost when there is no prevention.

According to a recent series on NPR (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/24/138653393/school-dropout-rates-adds-to-fiscal-burden) a high school drop out will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his or her lifetime, and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate.  And the cost to taxpayers? The estimate is  anywhere from 320 to 350 billion dollars as a result of  lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs.

Can you imagine the difference if our education system actually began to address the critical link between early childhood brain development and academic success? Not only would we begin cutting the costs attributed to the high school drop out rate, but we’d have a whole generation that would be better prepared to contribute to society.

Making that change would require a significant paradigm shift in how Americans think about public education and who we think should receive it. And it would mean education systems would have to partner with other sectors to work with families, since that’s where much early education is or is not occurring.

This overhaul wouldn’t solve all of our country’s education issues. Like anything else, there’s not one magic bullet.

But it’s certainly a start to paving the way for future generations.