Monday, April 29, 2013

Amplify the Love

During one of our conversations last week, my son Economic Sphere applied an idea he had learned some years ago in a basic marketing class. For any product, you have lovers, haters, and swingers. You don’t need to spend resources marketing to the lovers, because they’re already buying. You don’t need to spend resources marketing to the haters, because they’re still not going to buy. So you spend your resources marketing to the swingers, who can be persuaded to buy. But there’s a right way and a wrong way.
The wrong way is to defend yourself against the reasons the haters use for hating your product. Identify why the lovers love your product—and then amplify those reasons.
This principle could be applied to “marketing” the ideas of conservatism (the northern hemisphere of the Spherical Model). This is going to be one of those times when, later I’ll think, “Why didn’t I think to say this at the right moment?” There will be better sales lines than I come up with, but I thought I’d do a little exercise, identifying the reasons for loving civilization, freedom, and prosperity, or at least finding simple, direct ways of stating the principles. 

Political Freedom

·        The choice isn’t between the tyranny of chaos and the tyranny of despotism; the real choice is between tyranny and freedom. I reject tyranny and choose limited representative government, where we the people are free to govern ourselves.

·        I don’t want some faraway bureaucrat deciding that educational fairness means equal outcomes. That’s just holding my child (and most children) back to the level of the slowest learner. Real educational equality should be providing the best opportunity for each child to reach his potential. I don’t know how to reach that goal for every child, but I know it’s my responsibility to make that happen for my child. I just need government to get out of the way so I can do my job.

·        Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., how we live our lives, make a living, make life choices) are the basic God-given rights. We don’t need government to grant them; we just need to be vigilant to keep government from usurping more power than we the people have granted.

·        The federal government has a few basic purposes (spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution). Anything else, and the people are going to be better at doing it than government—always. Just look at the evidence; you know that’s true.

·        Government isn’t capable of caring; government is only power. If government is claiming to care, it is lying in order to claim more power than you granted. Beware.

Economic Freedom
·        I’m a better expert at what is the best way to spend my money than some faraway bureaucratic “expert,” because I know what I need and want.

·        We’re born naked, impoverished, and inexperienced. It is by growth, hard work, and gaining in expertise that we try to overcome this condition throughout our life. We are born with the right to life, the right to live free (not enslaved), and the right to pursue our own path to overcome the naked, impoverished state. If someone’s telling you they have a “right” to something that is purchasable, they’re telling you they believe you should be enslaved to provide it for them. Do the translation so you won’t be enslaved.

·        Wealth doesn’t come from government; wealth is the accumulated results of work. We earn it, and it represents our lives. You take our money, and that is putting us in servitude.

·        Austerity is when people have opportunities and income taken from them; it isn’t government cutting back on programs it has no business involving itself in in the first place. In fact, government “austerity” leaves more resources in the private sector, so people can use them in abundance. That’s a good thing.

·        You want the most prosperous country in the history of the world—perpetually? Follow the Constitution. It works every time it’s tried. 

·        Art, literature, and technological innovation thrive in the civilized world; these all degrade in a savage world where licentiousness replaces God-given freedom and willing obedience to God’s law.

·        Which is better: a world where you follow God’s law to respect the life, liberty, and property of others, or the savage world where the biggest and strongest take from those who are weaker? It’s amazing how much better off all of us are when we willingly govern ourselves with moral principles.

·        Families, with married mother and father raising their own children in a loving, protecting home, is the key to civilization. Those of us who have experienced good families know it. Those who haven’t experienced it know there’s a hole we have to struggle to fill. There’s no substitute for loving moms and dads. And government is a particularly poor substitute.

·        Civilized people will give freely from their surplus wealth and time to help shore up people going through hard times. We believe in caring for the less fortunate. But care has to be something given freely from a loving people; there’s no caring in coercion. Charitable giving is best done through churches and local charities, as close to the needy as possible, to meet the root needs.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lesson from Economic Sphere

With Economic Sphere visiting this week, we’ve covered a few economic topics. And mostly I’m reassured that I’ve been on the right track.

Lesson 1: Thou Shalt Not Covet
One conversation the other day was about income redistribution. He asked me, of two job situations, which would I prefer? In the first one, I’m offered $50,000 a year, and my boss makes $55,000, 10% more. In the second I’m offered $100,000, and my boss makes $200,000, 100% more.
I answered sensibly: I’d prefer making $100,000. First, because I’m making twice as much money as I would have in the other job, and second, because the amount my boss makes shows a lot more growth potential for a career.
Surprisingly, when this question was asked in a study, an alarming number of people preferred making less money, as long as their boss made only a little more than they did. They thought it was immoral to have the boss make so much more than the employee.
We agreed that the morality is skewed. And the problem lies in that least of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Not Covet. Why should it matter to me what a boss makes as long as I’m being fairly compensated for my work? The amount the boss makes is irrelevant. His job is different. He takes different risks, and has different expectations placed on him. His job probably includes some advanced education and experience in strategic planning.
The Ten Commandments, if they'd been written in English
image found here
I agree that some executives are overpaid. That’s a concern to the company, its board and stockholders, and to the extent that affects the company, also to the employees. But if the highest paid employee makes 20-fold what the entry-level employee makes, who cares, as long as he’s worth it to the company? Difference in income is simply irrelevant.
When you ask someone with that alternative moral belief, “What is immoral about someone making more than someone else?” and you get kind of a sputter answer. They think it’s self-evident; it’s unfair. But they can’t explain why different outcomes for different inputs equates to unfairness. They just have this internal sense that it does. What they don’t recognize is that refraining from jealousy over another’s fortune is a higher morality. Forcefully taking from a producer to give to a non-producer is simply theft, whether the state does it or a thug.
That’s why you see the argument for leveling the outcome for everyone in the southern hemisphere of the Spherical Model, where you also find tyranny and savagery. What you see in the northern hemisphere is actually more fair. And, because that is where you also find a more moral people, you also find them willingly giving aid to those truly in need—which means a two-way exchange of love as well. The giver gives to the poor because he loves and cares about him and wants to relieve his suffering. The receiver humbly receives, recognizing the gift was voluntary, and he is both grateful and determined to become productive and giving if he can. Love and gratitude are eliminated between people in the southern hemisphere, with the state placing itself in a godlike benefactor role, requiring gratitude and allegiance for its theft.

Lesson 2: No Central Planner Can Know Enough
This conversation was about the Superman comic strip nemesis Brainiac, which I was not familiar with. So I’m summarizing here without expertise. In the Superman, the Animated Series version, Brainiac was a “character” on the planet Krypton, where Superman was born. The people had developed a sort of central computer repository of knowledge, that became sentient—Brainiac. The idea was that everyone who learned anything would upload their information into this central brain, and then it would have all the knowledge necessary to make the wisest decisions for all.
This went well until a certain point in the history of the planet. Using only nonspecific technical jargon (which is what the series does), we learn that something has gone awry with the core of the planet, and it is going to blow up. This was the first time that Brainiac, the know-all computer, had a discrepancy between his purposes and those of the people he served. If he let the people know of the danger, they would expect him, even directly order him, to help them find a way to get everyone safely off the planet. He would thus be destroyed, but the people he served would survive. Or, he could use his processing power to upload himself onto something that he would get off planet—thus the people’s history and culture would survive, because he held it all within his brain, but the people themselves would die. He decided that was the better option; in order to accomplish it, he lied to the people, claiming the disturbance in the core was simply some seismic activity, nothing to worry about.
From Brainiac Attacks
image found here
Superman’s dad, Jor-El, as we know, knew about the danger to the planet. He tried spreading the word, but when people asked brainiac, Jor-El was contradicted. So he put his efforts into getting his son safely off planet before the explosion. So, there were two pods leaving Krypton in time, Superman’s and Brainiac’s.
The comparison here is that a central knowledge source is not simply a servant of the people who built it; it sees itself as its own entity of value—surpassing in value the individual people.
That led to further conversation about central planning, and how, no matter how all-knowing, no central planner can make decisions as consistently appropriate as individuals. The reason is that the central planner can never know the one most important thing necessary for making a decision about how I will spend my money: my preferences. I may not know them up until the time I find a pair of jeans in a store and try them on. I might prefer the feel of one pair over another. Or the way one pair fits my exact shape better than another—not measurement-wise, just in where things pull or tug. Or maybe there’s a subtle difference, like the topstitch color or the buttons that are the deciding factor for me. And I don’t know those things to feed the information into a central decision maker until I actually make the decision. How much worse is it if I am not allowed to make my decision, but must depend on the computer, using whatever amalgam of data it has up to this point, spits out as my decision?
The point is, no central planner, no matter how all knowing, has enough information to make better decisions for individuals than the independent individuals do. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom has this as a major theme. Economist Thomas Sowell explains it from time to time (here is one piece). 
Things that have been common sense to the common man (AKA: We the People) for centuries continue to be true.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dinner Table Conversation

We have had visitors this week. Economic Sphere and his wife are here, on leave from the military, his first time back home in over a year. So I’m catching up on my economic education, as seems to naturally happen in his presence.
In addition, Monday night we had a visit from a friend from Uganda. Farida had Thanksgiving dinner with us, year before last, while she was in town for training. She works for the same worldwide company as Mr. Spherical Model. We have kept in touch on Facebook since then. She’s in town again for two more weeks of training.
Our Ugandan friend, Farida
Her home is Uganda, but since February she’s got an 18-month assignment in Venezuela, which has been an adventure. [Note to my kids: yes, I still refer to adventure as a euphemism for hardship.] We were asking her how things were going, aware that right now there’s a fair amount of angst in Venezuela, following the death of Hugo Chavez. These are political questions, and she hasn’t spent all that much time with us, so she hesitated and looked down as she said this: “I just think socialism is really bad.”
Economic Sphere told me the next day, “She just didn’t realize she was sitting here with someone who could mathematically prove that statement to be true.” Yes, socialism is really bad.
The way that’s playing out for her is mostly cultural, because she’s getting paid by an international company, so it’s less about income. She admitted that Uganda has some corruption problems, but they’re mostly manageable by the people there. But their capitalist economy means, if you work hard, you can succeed. In Venezuela, it doesn’t matter whether you work hard or not. The government makes it nice for people who are poor; they build these nice projects for them. But they can’t ever get anywhere beyond that. For the regular person, it doesn’t matter whether you work hard or not; the result will be the same.
That is an excellent summary of socialism, pretty much textbook. It was validating to hear it just around the dinner table.
She’s had a housing problem as well—somewhat related to culture. Farida is Muslim, from a country with many Muslims, but with what must be a less constraining tradition. She dresses very American. The two times we’ve had her to dinner, she wore a skirt, which was dressier than we were in our jeans and khakis, but no head scarf or other indicator of religion. She is a very pretty young woman as well—so in many ways she must be a rarity in the world of oil drilling engineers.
Anyway, coming up with housing in Venezuela was a bit of a challenge, so the company people there (the same company Mr. Spherical Model works with, who would never make this suggestion in the US) were going to room her with a married man whose family was back home. She said no, that wasn’t acceptable. They pressed her; didn’t she like the man? It was difficult for her to explain. It had nothing to do with how nice he was; it simply wasn’t acceptable for a Muslim woman to room with a man she wasn’t married to.
I was somewhat aghast; I am totally on her side. She shouldn’t have been asked. There should have been no such expectation. It’s disrespectful toward her, whatever religion she is—in my world. But in that world there has been a fair amount of social capital depletion during recent decades.
She has female coworker friends there, and they say they are learning from her. It hadn’t occurred to them it was OK to say no, either to a man, or to any authority figure. Saying no about the housing appeared huge to them. But she also says no to a great deal of male attention. One of her coworkers is bothered by constant phonecalls from a man she’s not interested in. Farida says to her, “But you gave him your number.” Yes, the man had asked for her number, and she seriously never considered that it was her right not to give it to him. Farida appears almost alien to them as she explains that they can say no, and they can stand up for themselves.
Farida was eventually given a nice little house to live in. But getting things for the home, including food and cooking tools, has been challenging. She needs a phone, put in the order for one in February when she got there. They told her it would get there in about three months. No one blinks an eye at the delay; that is what they’re used to. (She is renting a cell phone for the weeks she’s here—instantaneous need satisfaction in this free economy.)
Corruption is rampant there. When they are pulled aside and asked for ID, they’d better have it—and/or a chunk of extra cash. The real reason for being stopped is that the cops expect to be paid bribe money. Another story—people she knew had their apartment broken into and things taken, including phones and other electronic devices. The burglars went house-to-house down the street doing the same. Eventually they were caught, and the stolen items were easily recoverable—but the police kept the items, with a sense of entitlement. The people were powerless.
The government provides the basic foods it decides people should have: usually chicken and some kind of white bread. Farida is mostly vegetarian, and tries to be gluten free. She’s used to fresh fruits and vegetables, which are expensive and hard to come by in Venezuela, despite the climate.
There was a cultural oddity I hadn’t expected in Venezuela, which at one time was one of the more Europeanized nations of South America. Foreigners are rare, and they stand out—so much so that people turn and stare at Farida everywhere she goes. She’s beginning to learn Spanish, but in the meantime, communication is a huge struggle. In a dictatorship, it was to the benefit of the tyrant leader to isolate the people. Keeping them speaking only Spanish was one way to do that. Farida says the people seem unaware of the world beyond their country. They’re astonished that she doesn’t speak Spanish, because they thought everyone spoke Spanish. The fact that she looks different from them also draws stares.
She isn’t safe going to a grocery store alone. And she’s more vulnerable if people hear English and no Spanish, because they assume she has dollars to spare. She could drive there, but because there is almost universal disregard for traffic signals, people have advised her that it’s better not to drive.
She has been many places around the world. She loves her home of Uganda best (and makes it sound so beautiful, we would like to visit). But Venezuela is the first place she has really experienced culture shock. She is gritting her teeth and bearing it until the 18 months are up, and she hopes it will be worth it in terms of opportunities afterward. She did try not to be overly dramatic when she said it was a bit like serving out a prison sentence.
So, yes, socialism is really bad.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part IV

I’ve spent the last three posts reviewing a particular innovative classroom from about twenty years ago: Part I, Part II, and Part III. I’d like to do some followup, now with hindsight.

The Followup
At the time I wrote, it was during my son’s second year in the class. We wondered what to do for the following year. He had been recommended, since kindergarten, for the gifted program at a magnet school across town. I was hesitating, because sending him far away seemed uncomfortable if it wasn’t necessary. During the two years in the multi-age class with an extraordinary teacher, I think he got much of what he would have gotten in a gifted class.
But for third grade we needed to make a decision. The school was trying to expand the multi-age classroom concept. It was going to be tried with a third-fourth class. The teacher wasn’t as experienced or as flexible as Mrs. Crane, but I thought it was worth a try.
In retrospect, we missed a good year we could have had at the gifted school. This next multi-age classroom was just one teacher handling two groups of kids: one assigned third-grade level work, and the other assigned fourth-grade level work. A kid could choose harder work if he wanted, but there wasn’t anything really self-paced or individualized.
Now we had the standard rows of desks, with students sitting unnaturally quiet, and doing the same work others were doing. It was boring. And while our very smart son didn’t get behind, he didn’t really thrive either. So for fourth grade we sent him to the gifted school. By then, it turned out all his neighborhood friends were being sent there as well, so socially it was a good choice. And the gifted classes were innovative in many of the same ways as Mrs. Crane’s class.
Meanwhile, Economic Sphere, our second son, had gotten through kindergarten. His older brother’s kindergarten teacher had moved up to teach a first-second grade multi-age classroom, with some additional innovations. She began the year team-teaching with yet another teacher and classroom. So really there were two classrooms full of students (about 52 total), half assigned to each teacher, but all receiving some attention from both. And the kids ranged from Down’s Syndrome first graders to gifted second graders—a wide range. (Special Ed students also had an aide assigned to them.)
Mrs. Helmsley had been an excellent kindergarten teacher, and her philosophy about how to run a multi-age classroom coincided with Mrs. Crane’s. In fact, eventually they worked together to train other teachers in the district in methods that worked. Part way through the year, it became apparent that the chaos of having 52 kids in a room was too much, so the divider between classrooms was replaced, and the two multi-age classrooms worked separately. But the other innovations continued.
I used to volunteer as a writing helper in the classroom, during what they called Writing Workshop. Kids wrote their own “books,” with whatever help they needed. They illustrated as well. And when they were finished (which often took a number of Writing Workshop sessions), they would “publish,” which meant getting the pages bound. And then they would share, reading aloud to others who had recently published. It was a very satisfying experience to have that sense of completion and recognition. I still have some of Economic Sphere’s first books tucked away somewhere. (His very first published “writing” was a wordless picture book, which was unorthodox even in that setting.)
They adjusted for individual children, which we needed. Economic Sphere came home from school in September of his first grade year, about two weeks into the school year, and said, “I’m the best speller in my class.” He’d only been reading aloud since June, but he was reading the Encyclopedia at that point. I wasn’t aware of the spelling skill yet, so I said, “You mean you’re the best first grade speller in your class.”
“No,” he said, with certainty; “I’m the best speller.” Within days I got a call from Mrs. Helmsley recruiting my help. They had no spelling lists that would do. He needed to come up with his own spelling lists, going through the dictionary to find words he didn’t know yet. Among those early lists were Tyrannosaurus Rex, dolphin, constellation, and reindeer. By year’s end, he had moved on to archaeopteryx. What I appreciated was how delighted his teacher was by his special abilities, and how willing she was to accommodate, rather than say, “Since he’s doing fine, we just won’t worry about him.”
When he got through those two years, we sent him directly on to the gifted school for third grade. The gifted school also did themes, lasting a semester or even longer. They put on plays and musicals. They did murals. The teachers used a portfolio approach to progress reports as well. I looked for just a couple of things at parent-teacher conferences: Was my child progressing well? And did his teacher appreciate him and like him—see in him the delightful things I saw.
I knew these several extraordinary teachers spent their lives thinking up new and different ways to share learning with the kids. These brave souls allowed a kid to bring in the heart of a deer (during hunting season) and led the kids in the dissection. We had a class that used small wading pools to contain habitats for spiders and their webs. We provided a large, green, striped garden spider that was known for beautiful webs.
There were hamsters, rabbits, and chicks in various classrooms. One Saturday we ran over to the school when we got word the chicks were hatching—phonecalls going out to every child’s parents so the kids wouldn’t miss out just because it was a weekend.
It has been a couple of decades, and we left the area fifteen years ago, so I have no way to follow up and find out whether the multi-age classroom concept is still thriving there. It might have been dependent on those few extraordinary teachers. I believe the gifted program is still there; the gifted program we got when we moved here was nothing like that, and the culture shock of disappointment is what led us to homeschool.
Again, these great classrooms I’ve described were all in public schools. But what worked was everything standardization prevents:
·         Personal decision making by the teacher, in concert with the parents, about a particular child and his/her learning style and needs.
·         Curriculum and learning materials chosen by the teacher for her classroom, sometimes for a particular child.
·         Enrichment brought in when it was available, adjusting other things so the special opportunity wouldn’t be lost.
·         Bringing in parents to help in the classroom, so parents were part of the learning taking place.
·         Plenty of individualized education—each child at his own pace, with plenty of opportunity to follow his own interests.
·         Accepting differences in pace and style without shame, stigma, or labeling; this included the “learn, then teach” method, where students helped tutor someone in a subject they already understood.
All of these things are natural within a family homeschool. It would be difficult to approach homeschooling some other way. Schooling within the home is the natural, normal method that has been used, at least for elementary education, through most millennia. The factory-institution style schools we see so often now are a recent anomaly. Functional illiteracy grows as responsibility and choice are taken over by government, usurping the parental role.
The only way for public schools—or private schools—to successfully educate a leadership class is to use the methods that work in the home. Make the school less like a factory and more like a natural learning environment, where differences are cherished.
Next time you come up against Common Core, or CSCOPE, or any other top-down decision, speak up and say, “That’s not acceptable for my child.” And if you can’t get the schools to give you what they can and should, get your child out of there.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part III

This piece is one I wrote two decades ago, about the innovative classroom my oldest child was in. I’m including the entire piece, in three parts (with name and places changed—and I didn’t start referring to my son as Political Sphere until I began this blog; he has a normal name), with some commentary about how this can be useful today. Part I introduced what the classroom looked like; part II covered some of the research being implemented. Today’s part III looks at how the innovations were affecting children in the class.

As a writer involved in education, and a parent of school children, I’ve been particularly interested in Mrs. Crane’s classroom. My own child, Political Sphere, is in his second year with Mrs. Crane. I would describe Political Sphere as bright and creative, a little on the quiet side, but very sociable. My concern, after a delightful kindergarten year, was that he continue to have the kind of freedom and creative opportunity that would keep him interested. He has thrived in Mrs. Crane’s class. And I’m quietly pleased that Mrs. Crane even appreciates his sense of humor.
I wondered whether Political Sphere’s success was just that the multi-age classroom worked for him, or whether it was as successful with other students. My curiosity led to this article. There are other multi-age classrooms in the Tripletown area. There are even others at Blue Sky Elementary. However, I’m leaving an exhaustive study to experts. Mine is, rather, a case study.
I talked with parents of nearly half the students. Most parents were not just pleased, but enthusiastic.
Sherry Beaumont, whose son Drew is a first grader, said, “Drew is not a child who likes to sit still.” The individual learning style, the experiential, tactile approach, works for him. She compared that to his older sister’s first grade experience, which was “very structured. It didn’t provide for difference.”
Jessica Williams, mother of Monica, a first grader, said she was skeptical at first, but Monica has done so well, “her reading and writing are tremendous—even punctuation and capitals.” Jessica, a parent volunteer in the class, observed, “Working there, you see children work well together. It seems odd and unorganized at first until you see what Mrs. Crane is doing.”
A couple of mothers told me the class has made a significant difference in their children. One girl, in her second year in the class, started first grade in a different class. It was with a teacher her older brothers had had and enjoyed. And after a very good kindergarten experience, mother and daughter started the year with high hopes. Jenna is a very quiet girl. Her kindergarten teacher felt it was a great accomplishment if she came out of her shell enough to talk and giggle with friends. But at the beginning of the first grade year, notes came home saying Jenna needed to be disciplined because of too much talking and giggling. Jenna began having stomach aches, even started having bed-wetting problems. She was aware that she was behind her class in reading ability and dreaded being called on in class. And she said her teacher didn’t like her.
Jenna pleaded with her mother to let her stay home. The situation was emotionally tense enough that her mother considered home schooling to avoid the distress. But Mrs. Turner, Blue Sky’s principal, said there was one more opening in the pilot multi-age class and suggested they try it.
Jenna’s attitude toward school changed dramatically right away. She enjoyed going to school, and the stress-induced illness disappeared. Her mother says it has taken until now, well into the second year, for Jenna to regain her self-confidence. Her reading isn’t perhaps as good as many second graders, but she is learning and enjoys school.
Another mother described her first-grade daughter as a “right-brain thinker—very creative.” Unfortunately, she spent her kindergarten year in a very structured environment. It didn’t work for Tanya. Comments from the kindergarten teacher were discouraging to both student and parents. The teacher described her as dull, spaced-out. She stared out into space and didn’t even answer when the teacher talks to her. Tanya’s mother said she was nothing like that at home. She was lively and excited about everything. The teacher suggested counseling, which the mother now regrets. Tanya didn’t have a problem; that class was just wrong for her.
For Tanya’s first grade year, her mother went to the principal and insisted on something better—a teacher that would nurture and understand. This year, in Mrs. Crane’s class, Tanya’s reading and math have improved tremendously, and Mrs. Crane describes her as a happy girl.
A couple of parents had neutral, rather than positive, comments about the class. They thought students would be better off separating into grades. They thought this was just one more theoretical fad, and one parent said, “We’ve been through them all.” But even these parents said their children were doing well in the class.
My unofficial poll showed this: Unanimously, parents praise Mrs. Crane. They describe her as nurturing, loving, caring, and responsive to parents. Everyone thinks Mrs. Crane would be a wonderful teacher in any classroom.
All parents I talked with say their child is doing well in reading and math skills. All parents say their child likes Mrs. Crane and enjoys being in the class. Most parents like the flexible, experiential approach Mrs. Crane uses; it works for their child.
About half the parents like the multi-age classroom. Several say Mrs. Crane’s style of teaching would work just as well in a single grade classroom. Most disagree with Mrs. Crane and Mrs. Turner that the multi-age class should expand to include third graders. (Personally, if I could keep my child in the class a third year, I would.)
All second grade students had Mrs. Crane both years. All first grade students plan to stay with Mrs. Crane next year.
I also talked with a couple of parents whose children were second graders the pilot year of Mrs. Crane’s multi-age class. They say their children were very well prepared for third grade. Their basic reading and math skills were well above average for their grade level. But they miss Mrs. Crane’s approach. The more structured classroom just doesn’t work as well for their children.
I have yet to find a young child who prefers structure and regimentation to freedom and experimentation. But, then, I didn’t poll for that. So, to be fair, let’s just say, in an age when education reform in many places is an attempt to get guns and gangs out of the classrooms, it’s nice for a change, to see a class where parents and students have nothing but good to say.
That finishes the original piece. After two more decades I can’t say that multi-age classrooms are seen as a solution. But there are several things I think we can learn from this one classroom that worked. I’ll cover those conclusions in a part IV followup.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part II

I’m reprinting, in three parts, with a little added commentary, a piece I wrote 20 years ago on a classroom that was working well by imitating the natural learning that happens in a home. Part I described what the multi-age classroom looked like. Today’s part II covers some of the research, which was newer at the time, and possibly less adulterated by “experts.”

The Research
Howard Gardner’s “theory of multiple intelligences”[i] for instance, has had an effect on how information is offered to students. Gardner has identified seven intelligences—distinct ways that we come to know our world. These are verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; visual/spatial; body/kinesthetic; musical/rhythmic; interpersonal; and intrapersonal. Schools, as well as standardized tests, have concerned themselves mostly with only the first two. Students who could be geniuses in several other intelligences but weak in those two could be labeled dull and slow. Children who are otherwise bright fail school—or, more precisely, school fails them.
Child development experts base much of their work on the theories of Jean Piaget.[ii] Piaget was more concerned with how a child learned than with what the child learned, and how ways of learning differ according to development. Further studies have led to a teaching approach referred to as “developmentally appropriate practices.”
Developmentally appropriate practices emphasize allowing a child to develop at his or her own rate. No two first graders are expected to be at the same level in their gradual development of reading, for example. Recognition of beginning sounds comes before recognition of beginning and ending sounds, which in turn precedes phonetically sounding out entire words and full sentence comprehension. Reaching a new stage of development is an accomplishment for each child, regardless of whether his peers have already reached that stage. Developmentally appropriate practices are flexible enough to allow development at a personalized rate, much the way a gardener allows roses to bloom according to their own timing. (Please note the real meaning of kindergarten—a garden of children.)
Multi-age classrooms, or non-graded classrooms, are a logical step in allowing the flexibility of developmentally appropriate practices. While developmentally appropriate practices are recent improvements, multi-age classrooms were around long before grade separated schools. What we call a traditional school is actually only a century old. Grade separation was an attempt to efficiently handle as many students at a time as possible. This was done at a time when schools were assigned the task of taking children of low income families off city streets and educating them. Ironically, the students the education system targeted to save are the very ones most likely to fail, be retained, and eventually drop out of school.
There is no research showing that students learn better with same age peers. There is a growing body of research showing the opposite.
In a multi-age school environment, students are not expected to be the same age. Nor are they expected to know the same things or be at the same developmental level as the rest of the class. In this classroom it is all right to know less than someone else. It is expected. Just as in the real world, there will always be someone who knows more about something than you. And there will also be someone who can benefit from something you know.
Some of the most difficult problems facing current school systems disappear in a multi-age classroom. The question about when to retain students, a difficult, life-affecting decision, is simply irrelevant. No one is held back for developing at a slightly different rate from others born in the same year. No one is labeled slow learner; everyone is labeled learner at his or her own comfortable pace. Theoretically, even mainstreaming special education students becomes easier in this environment.
What about incentive, if there is no threat of retention to force a student to learn? Real learning, the ability to think, comes because it is natural and interesting. Threat of failure is, at best, a negative incentive.
Mrs. Crane is constantly finding incentives and encouragements for students to do more than required. She does it without requiring homework. Fifteen minutes of reading at home is all that’s expected. Students keep track of their reading minutes, and most read far more than the assigned quarter hour. They also may do their own math, science, or writing projects at home. Students do it because it is their choice, because learning is a joyful part of life rather than a tedious duty.
How is progress measured? Progress is measured continuously. Portfolios, personalized goal charts, examples of student work are used in addition to formal evaluations. Mrs. Crane can sit down with a parent at any time and show exactly how the child is developing. A mini-grant for a video camera is added this year, giving parents a visual record of their child’s progress. The portfolio approach can be more satisfying to parents than report cards and comparison with classmates. It can also be healthier for the child’s self-esteem.
There is added stability in the multi-age classroom of having the same teacher for two or more consecutive years. Teacher and students already know each other at the beginning of the school year, reducing the slow start-up time inherent in the current system.
One thing I’ve found is that research is often interpreted differently by different people. It’s possible the term “developmentally appropriate practices” could be interpreted to fit square peg students into round holes, to insist that students fit standard expectations, rather than as intended to adjust methods to a particular child’s development. So knowing the right buzz words is no guarantee of a curriculum’s effectiveness. Seeing the way something is put into practice is a better indicator.
As for the portfolio approach of grading, I thought it made very good sense. The portfolio approach was also used in the gifted magnet school my children later attended. What I needed to see, as a parent, was the progress my child was making—comparing where he was to where he’d been. The “data mining” that is being pressed on schools through Common Core provides an overwhelming amount of data, but coldly, without anything like teacher and parent getting together to share delight over a child’s specific growth.
I clearly liked what was happening with my child in this classroom. In Part III I’ll share the views of some of the other parents.

[i] Howard Gardener’s original book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, was published in 1983. He has since added a couple of additional possible intelligences. He answers frequently asked questions here.
[ii] Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development is summarized here, along with a 4-minute video.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Homestyle Education, Part I

Back some twenty years ago, I wrote a piece on the kind of classroom my son Political Sphere was in (and later son Economic Sphere). It says something about the particular teacher, but also the things that worked in that classroom. This was years before I considered homeschooling, but looking back at it, what I find is that, the closer to a family situation, the better the learning. I thought it might be instructive, during the current push to standardize the whole country into limited mediocrity, to look at this case study of what worked in a particular classroom.
The piece wasn’t published, except among teachers in the district; the local paper was only interested in pieces about whatever version of reform was being talked about in education articles—this was a decade before the No Child Left Behind Act, and I'm guessing the phrase du jour was "outcome-based education." It wasn't something I was focused on as a parent.
The piece is long, about 2500 words. So at this point I’m debating how to break it up, or to choose which parts are most useful to look at from our current perspective. But I’m sharing this because so much still applies, and still shows cross purposes with government “experts.”
So today's Part I is an introductory look at the special classroom and teacher in our case study. I’m leaving the piece basically as written, except for changing names of people and places.
Case Study of a Multi-Age Classroom
Mrs. Crane’s classroom at Blue Sky Elementary in Tripletown does not look like an ordinary classroom. It isn’t. You won’t see students sitting quietly at assigned desks. In fact, there are no desks, just tables and chairs in small groups around the room, and plenty of open floor space. Walls are covered, ceiling to floor, with finished student work, work in progress, and pictures that may inspire future work. One wall has a life-size drawing of a student, traced around him, covered with positive comments from his classmates.
The room includes computers in one corner. Just inside the door you’ll find a classroom store where children can buy goods with motivational money they earn by doing more than is expected. Several shelves are filed with books for children to choose and read on their own—which they read while lying on a rug, sitting at a table, or wherever is comfortable.
On afternoon visits during reading time, you’ll find the place silent, except for a few quiet voices reading to each other. But the room is anything but quiet during most of the morning. An hour of each morning is activity time. Several parent volunteers come to help out with reading, writing, and math projects. Math sometimes includes cooking during this hour. Students move from station to station, deciding what they want to accomplish, getting personal adult attention while they do it. There’s a lot of talking going on. If you visit now, unprepared, you may see what looks like chaos.
Adding to the apparent chaos is the inherent difference in student ability. This is a multi-age classroom, with first and second graders mixed together. There is no first grade group or second grade group. There is no group of struggling readers or successful readers. There are twenty-seven different students at different developmental stages in math, reading, and social skills. Difference is not only welcome here; difference is expected.
Managing all the difference is a teacher with a plan. Barbara Crane is an energetic and exciting personality. She often responds to student accomplishments with hugs and cheers. At times it’s difficult to identify her in the classroom. Her small size and her place among, rather than in front of, students help her blend in. Several years ago Crane completed her master’s degree in elementary education. Always ready to find a better way, she is now putting the latest in elementary education research to work.
Mrs. Crane’s plan is designed to help students discover how to learn, and to enjoy doing it. Students don’t all learn the same way. That doesn’t matter. Her classroom provides so many different approaches—hands-on experience, pictures, graphs, reading, writing, explaining to one another, experimenting, singing—something has to work for every child.
During the morning Mrs. Crane gathers students for circle time. This is as close as she gets to a class lecture. They talk together as a group about the current theme, which was recently inventions. The purpose is not to learn all there is about inventions; the purpose is to experience many ways of learning about something---such as inventions. The emphasis is on the process, rather than the product, of learning.
Together teacher and students examine unknown inventions brought in for them to examine. They make predictions. They try some experiments. They make charts and graphs about the various inventions they examine. They make up stories about how the inventions could be used.
Themes, such as inventions, are chosen specifically for their ability to supply multi-layered learning experiences. In exploring the theme, students use their growing math, verbal, and social skills. Learning about a theme is not meant to replace basic math and English; it is meant to make them relevant so they can more easily be learned.
This thematic, or holistic, approach to learning is one of several current trends in education. A body of research has become available in the past couple of decades about how children learn, which is slowly making its way into classrooms.
So part I has given us a taste of what this particular classroom looks like. Part II will look at the research behind the approach and how well it addresses education challenges. I expect there will be a part III, looking at the outcomes for the students in our case study. And either mixed in or following, we’ll compare with what we know twenty years down the road.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher
photo from Wikipedia
On Monday, April 8, we lost a great champion of freedom, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She was 87. I thought I’d take a moment to remember her and her heroic contributions.

The Economist starts its piece on her this week with this truth: “Only a handful of peacetime politicians can claim to have changed the world. Margaret Thatcher was one.”
When she was voted into Britain’s most powerful position in 1979, that country’s top tax rate was 98%, which had put the brakes on job creation. She drastically cut income and corporate taxes, while simultaneously cutting government spending—from 44.6 per cent of GDP in 1979 to 39.4 per cent of GDP in 1991. (Our economy works best when government spending is held well below 20%; Obama likes it at 25%. So you can see Britain was in bad straits.) She led Britain from a declining country, with ever lower standard of living compared to the rest of Europe, to an economy growing at 3% per year throughout her decade-plus. In fact, for two decades (good decades for the US), Britain’s standard of living rise exceeded the US, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy.
She came at a time when the country was in the throes of union-induced misery. The unions had a stranglehold on politics, politicians, and private enterprise. It took an iron will to stand up against them. She did it with good grace and humor—very much like her US counterpart of history, Ronald Reagan.
Like Reagan, she was highly quotable. One of the famous ones is, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”
I love this two-minute clip of her standing up against socialism in parliament:


Here are a few more favorite quotes:
To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.” [at Conservative Party Conference 1980] 

[on whether to have UK join Europe in a common currency]: No, no, no.

Ronnie [Ronald Reagan] and I got to know each other at a time when we were both in Opposition, and when a good many people intended to keep us there. They failed, and the conservative 1980s were the result. But in a certain sense, we remained an opposition, we were never the establishment. As Ron once put it: the nine most dangerous words in the English language are “I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.” As usual, he was right.
Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult,
is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.

Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be
nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.

Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy. 

There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women,
and there are families.

I just owe almost everything to my father and it's passionately interesting for me that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election.  

You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.

A good source for pages more of her gems is BrainyQuote.

For a larger taste, I suggest a speech she gave here in the US, at Hillsdale College in November 1994, on “The Moral Foundations of Society.” I think I would like to make her an honorary member of the Spherical Model think tank. She
Statue of Margaret Thatcher at Hillsdale College
Photo from Hillsdale email newsletter 4-8-2013
understood the basic truths.
Here’s an observation that concerns me as I reflect this week. Decades of southern hemisphere practices (on the Spherical Model) build up problems, piling them into mountains. A leader who understands freedom, free enterprise, and civilization comes along every once in a generation, and turns things in the right direction. Evidence accumulates to prove that the principles our Constitution writers recognized are true, that they lead to thriving in every sphere. Nevertheless, as soon as the heroic leader no longer holds the world on his/her shoulders, the enemy slides back into their previous positions, as though trying to erase the good times, denying they happened. And problems mount again.
How do we get a critical mass of heroes to overcome the ubiquitous tyrannists? We need more Margaret Thatchers. We need more Ronald Reagans. We need them in leadership positions. But we also need many more smaller heroes, regular people whose voices may not carry as far, but who recognize truth and stand up for it—we need those heroes to prevent us from sinking ever downward.
I have answers about what the necessary principles are; many of us do. I don’t have answers about how to get the word out on what the principles are. I just try to be one of the quieter but needed voices.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

We Need Heroes

Yesterday an everyday kind of hero saved lives at a community college near us. The CyFair* campus of Lone Star Community College is the one closest to us (15 minutes in good traffic), and all three of my children took classes there. At last count, 14 people were injured in a mass stabbing. Four of them were life-flighted to a hospital with a trauma center; two of these were in critical condition (at this writing no one has died). Another eight or so were taken by ambulances or cars to nearby hospitals for treatment of lacerations. A couple more were checked at the scene and declined the need for additional medical help. So far I haven’t heard the names of any victims; that info might get around in the next day or so. But I think I would have heard if anyone I knew, or their children, was hurt. It may be that there won’t be many degrees of separation, however. This was too close to home.
Life Flight at Lonestar CyFair College
photo from ABC13 News
One of my favorite people, Elaine, teaches there, and I knew her schedule included Tuesdays. So when I first heard the news of mass stabbings at Lone Star CyFair, I texted her while at stoplights, needing to know that she was safe—and her husband who also teaches and works at the college.
By the time I got home, five minutes later, I still hadn’t heard from her, so I tried Facebook, to see if she’d get the message sooner; I was starting to worry, even though five minutes isn’t a very long wait time for a text message return. Within another minute she had texted that she was safe. We followed up shortly, and I learned from her that the incident happened right outside her classroom. She arrived right after the attacker fled, so she wasn’t in danger, but, as she said, the scene she came upon
was sobering. One of my students was holding paper towels to a girl's throat. It was in the Health Science center, and a lot of people seemed to know how to administer first aid while waiting for the paramedics. In retrospect, I'm rather impressed.
The perpetrator had apparently started slashing people randomly in the building and outside, as students were moving between classes. One of Elaine’s students saw him start to run and figured out what was going on, and immediately took off after the guy and tackled him. Others joined in and helped apprehend him until police arrived, preventing any further injuries.
It takes a special person to act that way on instinct. He could have backed away. He could have gone toward the injured to help them (others did). He could have called 911 (others already were doing that). All of those would be considered natural and positive behaviors. But he ran toward the danger, because he saw that was the most urgent need at the moment. And seeing the need, he had to act. We are fortunate to have heroes like him among us.
This is Elaine’s post Tuesday evening:
I'd just like to take this opportunity to say that I am SO PROUD of my students, especially the ones who aided the victims and helped tackle the assailant. For every act of horror there are countless acts of love. Be part of the love.
Everyone was put on lockdown almost immediately afterward (including nearby public schools), until there was certainty there was only one perpetrator, the one who had been apprehended. And then the campus was evacuated for the day. I’m thinking the next time Elaine’s class meets, they all deserve to be honored with some sort of medal.
I don’t know if we’ll learn a motive. Reports I’m hearing are that the assailant was odd; people knew him as the guy who carried a monkey sock puppet around with him and talked to it. That seems to indicate mental illness was involved. He admitted to police that he’d had fantasies of stabbing people to death for much of his life, and had been planning this assault for some time.
I don’t know how we identify the dangerously mentally ill before they act out, but that does seem to be the common factor among all the recent such incidents.
For now, we are grateful there were no deaths, and we pray for a full and speedy recovery for all the victims. And we pray that a sense of safety and peace can return to those who were traumatized. Special thanks, after the quick action of students, to the campus police, and to paramedics and other emergency personnel who did their job quickly and thoroughly.
I had intended to post about a different hero today. On Monday we lost a great lady in Britain’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. But I’ll save honoring her for another post.
I'm adding this information one week later: April 16, 2013 (the day after the Boston Marathon bombin). I wanted to correct a piece of information that was initially incorrect. The assailant at CyFair was not the person who carries around a monkey sock puppet; apparently such a person does exist (and probably is looked at even more cautiously now), but he was not involved and there is no reason to believe he intends violence. The actual perpetrator, as far as we know so far, did not show outward signs of his mental illness, although he admits to violent fantasies from an early age. So the question of how to identify such potential criminals is still without answers.

One more addendum: My friend Elaine honored her heroic class with a batch of brownies as they debriefed during their next class time.
* CyFair is a shortened name for Cypress-Fairbanks, the name of this northwest section of the greater Houston area.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Good Intention Despotism

Back when daughter, Social Sphere, was young, she was in a girls’ organization, and I helped out with it. She was invited to the group by a girl who was her favorite friend from first grade through elementary school years, whose mother was the leader. We met weekly, and did crafts, learning experiences, and learning adventures and camps. Most moms stayed and helped, rather than drop their daughters off. We moms took on assignments to help with part of the program, and help the kids do crafts. We made some good memories and good friends during those first few years.
Then there was a rift, with many (most) of the moms objecting to the leader. There were some valid issues that had been building up. One was that the leader enforced a no sugar policy for her own household and insisted that should be the policy for all troop activities. No cupcakes or cookies at snack time.
The time this became most frustrating was at a campout. The girls were in a cabin, so not hard-core camping. They had made their own menu and shopping list, with the guidance of the moms. This included trail mix for the hike. The leader forbade the girls from putting M&Ms in with the peanuts, sunflower seeds, and raisins. The moms who had overseen the menu planning hadn’t seen a problem with a little sweetness among other healthful foods. It was bad enough that no meals could have desserts, and breakfast disallowed syrup on the pancakes.
The event took an entertaining turn when the regional leaders dropped by the cabin to offer a presentation on some topic—and they used M&Ms as part of their object lesson, a little packet for each of the girls. The leader happened to be in another room napping at this hour; she’d been up late and gotten up early as the main leader, but there was plenty of backup during the afternoon. So, anyway, the girls and grownups all looked at one another, and there was a silent conspiracy (including the leader’s daughter and husband) to allow this and just not say anything to Ms. Leader. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
There were other issues. Ms. Leader spent a chunk of money on a piece of equipment that would rarely be used and could have been borrowed—against the approval of the other moms. Also, moms were asked to volunteer for various assignments, and then they were overruled or ignored, amid complaints from Ms. Leader that she was doing all the work and no one could be counted on.
The aggregate of complaints led to the decision to separate. We held a meeting, with a regional leader as a mediator. My purpose there was to try to find a resolution, because I wanted to avoid having the girls separated. Ms. Leader didn’t come; she sent her husband (who was also a registered leader), so there was no way to actually air grievances and come to an agreement about change. The regional leader said any parent is free to start a new troop and recruit girls, and there was no reason to step in and prevent that from happening.
That seemed to be the simple answer for everyone—except us. It was a dilemma. There was loyalty, particularly to the friend who had first befriended my daughter, and the desire to continue to be with her. But there were a dozen other friends we would lose contact with if we didn’t go with them. Under this pressure, I stayed with the original troop for a trial, along with Ms. Leader’s daughter and one other girl recently recruited. We tried to go on as if all was as before. I took on more assignments, since there were fewer moms to divide the work.
The last straw for me was after I’d spent a number of hours on an assignment, a craft with purpose that met some badge requirement. I’d bought the materials, prepared the kits, and showed up prepared at the meeting—which was what could always be expected of me, good old reliable. Ms. Leader went through the program, and then, without notice ahead of time to me, substituted another activity for the one I’d prepared. We didn’t even do mine. She didn’t so much as acknowledge that I had had an assignment and had put time and effort into it. She had what she thought was a better idea and went with it, always her preference because she knew best, and this way she had control of the outcome.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, but I had been ever forgiving. Now the mass of slights and what suddenly felt like oppression—combined with the separation from so many friends—came hitting me in the face. My daughter was sorry about the separation from her friend, but they could still meet for play dates. And she was happy to join the other dozen girls and their moms in a fuller troop that did more fun things. So we adjusted and moved forward. (The new leader was indeed better leader material.)
The friendship between us adults was strained, not because she had offended me (which she had), but because I had broken loyalty. We got back to congeniality eventually, but never to easy conversations or dinners together as couples. And there were fewer play dates as time passed.
I’m guessing this is something very similar to just about everyone’s experience with some leader in some organization. I tell this story as a micro example of some principles that apply at macro levels:
·         Parents want to be in control of decisions about the care and upbringing of their children. No one else has the right to step in and make policy because they know better and just have the child’s best interest in mind.
·         People are willing to do their part, but they expect respect in return. They are not willing to simply follow orders of their “superiors” and have their efforts ignored and unappreciated, or their opinions overruled.
·         People are not willing to put in time, money and effort and then have their expenditures go to things they disapprove of as unnecessary.
·         “When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…evinces a Design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security,”[*] or whatever purpose they have for the organization. Despots, whether of little “fiefdoms” or larger “kingdoms,” deserve to be removed from any position of authority.
Here’s one more thing I learned: sometimes a petty despots suffer from the prideful misapprehension that they know better and have the good of their subordinates in mind; they thinking they are serving by controlling.
We can see this in the fascist efforts of Michael Bloomberg controlling the size of sugary drinks in New York. We see it in public education at the national level, where it simply doesn’t belong, and often at state and district levels. A few days ago MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry voiced what we’d suspected was the despotic belief, but we were shocked to hear it anyway:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we have this private notion of children. “Your kid is yours, and totally your responsibility.” We haven't had a very collective notion of “these are our children.” So part of it is to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.
Once it's everybody's responsibility, and not just the household's, then we start making better investments.

Really? How dare I believe I am entitled to make decisions on the care and upbringing of my own children, just because I happened to give birth to them and provide for them? A better question is, how does anyone come to believe a fit parent isn’t the responsible party for decisions about the child? My belief is rational. Hers is outrageous. It fits the pattern of way too many youth novels about post-apocalyptic tyrannical societies: the Matched trilogy, Agenda 21, and Among the Hidden, for example.
This morning I came across a piece by socialist Cass Sunstein, defending paternalistic government—because people make mistakes and need the right choices forced upon them. Seriously. He thinks the discussion should be about which approach to take, not whether to be paternalistic, because:
What seems to unify paternalistic approaches, however diverse, is that government does not believe that people’s choices will promote their welfare, and it is taking steps to influence or alter people’s choices for their own good.
He says it calmly, with an attitude of, “of course reasonable people will agree with me”—and I disagree with every example he offers of government making things better. In his case I do not give him the benefit of the doubt about intent: it is not about caring for the stupid people; it is about controlling all the people. The point of his article is to find a way to control the people without letting them know their freedom of choice is being controlled. But concern about that abstract notion of freedom is only important until tyranny takes sufficient hold.
The “long Train of Abuses and Usurpations” is growing. These are in opposition to the Constitutional law that protects us from them. The question, then, is not how to separate and form a new government less oppressive; it is how to throw off the extra-Constitutional usurpations while we still have a Constitution to return to.

[*] The Declaration of Independence