In This Issue:
Quotes of the Week
“The club that pushes negativity always has room for one more member.”
Todd Whitaker, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Katherine Whitaker (see item #4)
“Knowledge of our biases gives us the power to reduce their impact.”
Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman (see item #3)
“If students don’t have someone they can talk to about existential, identity-focused issues during the time they’re developing and changing the most, how can you expect them to learn geometry? How can you expect them to write a five-paragraph essay if all they can think of is, I’m gay and I can’t tell my mom? It’s hard to learn any of those skills if you don’t feel you’re put together as a person. Counselors are people whose specific job it is to help you learn how to be a person.”
Lauren Alexander, quoted in “Outnumbered” by Julia Hanna in Ed. Magazine, Fall
2019 (#164, pp. 20-27), https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/19/08/outnumbered
“The young child is simply not sufficiently rational and is too emotionally driven to live by the moral code of sharing.”
Joan Goodman and Maya Rabinowitz (see item #1)
“Be present and pleasant.”
Justin Baeder advising principals on the best affect during classroom visits, in a
September 13, 2019 e-mail to his Principal Center members
1. How “Nice” Can Preschool Children Be Expected to Be?
In this article in Phi Delta Kappan, Joan Goodman (University of Pennsylvania) and Maya Rabinowitz (Princeton University) share a hard truth: many preschool children don’t want to share and take turns. Stated more academically: “When children encounter a conflict between enhancing their own interests and sharing with others, the former is likely to win out unless adults intervene… When confronting scarce resources, children’s sense of fairness blurs with their selfishness, with selfishness dominating: ‘I want it so I should have it.’” Young children are capable of generosity and caring, but their empathy is self-centered (I feel bad because someone got hurt), and they frequently display greed and indifference.
So what should parents and preschool educators do? The usual approach is urging children to share, consider the feelings of others, and be nice. An extension of this is to make a moral argument for empathy – “You made him cry by taking his toy” – and follow it up with a penalty, making the child feel bad for being bad. But strictness and consequences are unlikely to be effective, say Goodman and Rabinowitz: “Children may comply without acquiring conviction. They do what they are told from fear, not from a rational understanding of others’ rights.” Punishments may also produce hostility and fear, with regression to earlier behavior when the adult is not there.
In short, say the authors, “The young child is simply not sufficiently rational and is too emotionally driven to live by the moral code of sharing.” Psychologists report that it’s not until children are around eight that cognitive development catches up with raw emotions and they’re able to feel empathy and grasp the ideas of reciprocity, justice, and benevolence. “Fairness,” say Goodman and Rabinowitz, “requires holding onto the perspective of the other when confronted with strong egotistical desires… Preschool children, in short, are unable to fully absorb the interests of another (If I were the other person, what would I want?) or to assume a disinterested viewpoint (I want what’s best for all). Rather, the prevailing mindset is, ‘Although it may be unfair for youto keep the swing when I want it, it’s perfectly fair for meto keep it when you want it.’”
These insights were confirmed when Goodman and Rabinowitz made multiple visits to a private Quaker school that emphasized sharing nicely, taking turns, and including others. When interviewed, preschool and kindergarten children mostly voiced the party line, but in free play, they reverted to selfish behavior. “We conclude,” say the authors, “that the tendency of preschoolers to act on personal interest when emotionally aroused is resistant to even the most thorough instruction; they became heedless of others’ feelings and put aside what they have learned. Indeed, in all observed interactions, we never saw a single clash between children resolved by voluntary sharing… Those who have ‘learned’ the morality of fairness from assiduous preschool teachers still seem unable, even in the most advantageous settings, to live by these standards. They simply care more about satisfying themselves than others.”
Given the developmental realities, Goodman and Rabinowitz have these suggestions for parents and preschool educators:
• Have modest expectations for sharing. Explain it, preach it, and model it, but don’t expect regular follow-through without adult supervision.
• Stress behavior rather than moral wrongness. For example, “When you play, you must take turns. Everyone gets to have 10 blocks and five crayons. You get more only after everyone else has that many.” With this approach there will be disputes, but they’re more likely to center on breaches of the rules rather than fairness.
• Don’t shame or punish a child who behaves unfairly. Accept that this is natural, developmentally normal behavior for the age.
• Spark empathy. “Act out powerful scenes, read stories, or review real experiences in which one child is treated unfairly by having less than or the worst of something,” say Goodman and Rabinowitz. “Then talk about the concrete situation.”
• Attend to the victim rather than the perpetrator. For example: “Niva isn’t willing to share with you; what else can you do? What friends might join you?”
• Let it go when possible. “Preschoolers have short attention spans,” say Goodman and Rabinowitz. “Sometimes, the initial ‘I need the red block’ seemed mostly an assertion of power that dissipated when another child resisted.”
• Get involved to determine fairness if the dispute doesn’t get resolved of its own accord – but without disapproval.
The bottom line, conclude Goodman and Rabinowitz: “It’s fine to establish rules for play, remind and exhort children to follow them, and praise them when they do, but when young children slip into me-first attitudes, it should not be perceived as moral failure.”
“It’s Not Fair, I Don’t Want to Share: When Child Development and Teacher Expectations Clash” by Joan Goodman and Maya Rabinowitz in Phi Delta Kappan, September 2019 (Vol. 101, #1, pp. 6-11), https://bit.ly/2lTBANg; the authors can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Making Mathematics Tactile and Visual
In this article in The Atlantic, Jo Boaler and Lang Chen (Stanford University) say that children counting out math problems with their fingers, which is frequently discouraged in classrooms, is “far from being babyish.” They cite a branch of neuroscience that has mapped a specific area of the brain that connects to our fingers to support cognitive understanding. “Remarkably,” say Boaler and Chen, “brain researchers know that we ‘see’ a representation of our fingers in our brains, even when we do not use fingers in a calculation.” Brain imaging showed this area “lighting up” when 8-13-year-olds were given complex subtraction problems and didn’t use their fingers.
Other researchers have found that the more purposefully students used their fingers in first grade, the better they did at comparing numbers and estimation in second grade. In fact, six-year-olds’ facility with finger representation was a better predictor of future math test performance than their scores on tests of cognitive processing. One researcher went so far as to say that if students aren’t learning about numbers by thinking about their fingers, numbers “will never have a normal representation in the brain.” This is a strong argument for teaching children “finger perception” – that is, telling one finger from another by touch – something that isn’t included in standard math curriculum programs that the authors reviewed.
In short, say Boaler and Chen, “Teachers should celebrate and encourage finger use among younger learners and enable learners of any age to strengthen this brain capacity through finger counting and use.” Some possible school and home activities:
– Giving children colored dots on their fingers and asking them to touch the corresponding piano key.
– Giving children colored dots on their fingers and asking them to follow the lines on increasingly difficult mazes.
– Using number lines to teach math concepts
“Number-line representation of number quantity has been shown to be particularly important for the development of numerical knowledge,” they say, “and students’ learning of number lines is believed to be a precursor of children’s academic success.”
“To engage students in productive visual thinking,” conclude Boaler and Chen, “they should be asked, at regular intervals, how they see mathematical ideas, and to draw what they see.” With this approach, math can be “an open and beautiful subject, rather than a fixed, closed, and impenetrable subject.” They believe schools should beef up this kind of instruction to prepare students for the new high-tech workplace, which increasingly draws upon visualization in business, technology, art, and science.
“Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class” by Jo Boaler and Lang Chen in The Atlantic, April 13, 2016, https://bit.ly/2vULNZQ; Boaler is at JOBOALER@stanford.edu.
3. Tackling Unconscious Bias in Schools
(Originally titled “The Anti-Racist Educator”)
“Knowledge of our biases gives us the power to reduce their impact,” say Tracey Benson (University of North Carolina/Charlotte) and Sarah Fiarman (EL Education) in this Educational Leadership article. They start with an illustrative story. When Benson was a principal, he visited an algebra class and noticed that no African-American students raised their hands or were called on, while white students volunteered or were called on 30 times. Was this an issue of confidence, engagement, preparation?
Looking more closely, Benson saw that all the black students were seated in two rows along the left wall while white students occupied the other four rows. The teacher stood angled toward the white students, leaving the black students in her periphery. Benson shared this observation with the teacher afterward, and she was surprised and chagrined, asking for his advice and then inviting him to visit the next day. This time, she faced the whole class and black students raised their hands and participated.
“How many of us are unintentionally doing something similar?” ask Benson and Fiarman. “The fact is, considering the universality of unconscious racial bias, most of us at times probably send subtle but persistent messages that white students are more worthy of our attention and more favored in intellectual discourse. Through verbal and nonverbal communication, students receive messages about their value and worth on a minute-by-minute basis throughout the school day. And biased messages, delivered frequently over time, have a profound effect on students.” Some teachers of color have these tendencies as well.
The way Benson handled the debrief was significant. He didn’t brand this new teacher as a racist but assumed positive intent and presented some objective facts that quickly revealed the problem. The teacher saw what was going on, was chastened but not defensive, and followed up. “Such conversations are crucial in schools – but rare,” say Benson and Fiarman. That’s because most Americans aren’t schooled on the influence of unconscious racial bias, believing that racism is a character trait: if you favor white students, even unconsciously, you’re a racist.
Fiarman recalls having this binary mindset when she was a teacher. A student once called her a racist after she asked him to revise his work and write full sentences. She pushed back, believing it was an unfair accusation stemming from his frustration adjusting to the high standards in her classroom. Later, an African-American colleague suggested that the boy’s comment might have come from something entirely different that was outside her awareness; better to ask the boy after class what led him to such a harsh conclusion. Sarah got defensive, saying that she cared about her students and treated every one of them fairly; besides, parents of all races praised her. She was a good white person, committed to equality. Over time, she came to understand that her biases were unconscious, which was painful and discouraging – but also empowering, and a bridge to a growth mindset about bias. “Understanding that good intentions don’t protect us from acting in biased ways opens up space to examine biases without an emotional, defensive stance,” say Benson and Fiarman. “It opens up space for growth.”
Learning to see and prevent racial bias is a process, they continue: “It’s built through deliberate, repeated effort over time. With this mindset, discovering we’re biased is not a character indictment. In fact, educators with a growth mindset seek out feedback about potential biases, knowing it will lead to improved practice – and ultimately more positive outcomes for learners… Key leadership moves include confronting the myth of colorblindness, building trust, and not prioritizing white people’s comfort in conversations about race and racial bias… The goal is to create a community determined to answer questions like, What is our impact on students of color? How will we know? What can we change in our practice to get better results?” This needs to happen in well-planned, thoughtfully facilitated PD in which there’s openness, humility, and an awareness that the playing field is not level.
“The Anti-Racist Educator” by Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman in Educational Leadership, September 2019 (Vol. 77, #1, pp. 60-65), available for purchase at https://bit.ly/2kNaKGs; the authors can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org; their new book is Unconscious Racial Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism(Harvard Education Press, 2019).
4. Getting New Teachers Off to a Strong Start
(Originally titled “How Principals Can Support New Teachers”)
In this article in Educational Leadership, Todd Whitaker and Madeline Whitaker Good (University of Missouri) and Katherine Whitaker (a Kansas City, Missouri high-school teacher) say new teachers can bring energy and ideas to schools, but that depends on getting good support from their principals. Whitaker, Good, and Whitaker have these suggestions:
•Be in classrooms. Many school leaders believe it’s wise to leave new teachers alone for 4-6 weeks. “In actuality,” say the authors, “new teachers say they want principals in their room immediately.” Frequent informal visits starting on the first day of school are the best way to provide reassurance, build trust, and give the quick tips that will help rookies succeed. Regular visits are also the key to preventing bad habits from forming; those will take much more time to undo later in the year.
•Assign the right mentors. Convenience is often the default criterion, with mentors assigned by seniority or with location on campus, grade level, and schedule in mind. Instead, say Whitaker, Good, and Whitaker, principals should make choices much more intentionally, based on the implicit message being given to the new teacher: This is who we want you to be like. “The right mentor,” they say, “can be a blessing and serve as a guide and role model.”
•Reduce isolation. “This is important,” say the authors, “because the club that pushes negativity always has room for one more member.” Positive staff members should be encouraged to reach out to newbies and stay in touch as the year progresses.
•Help with classroom management. Administrative presence in classrooms is important, but the key is new teachers having the toolkit they need to manage students when no other adults are around. Simple things like greeting students at the door and moving around the classroom can prevent many problems, but when a class goes off the rails, new teachers need to learn how to do a “reset,” dramatically reminding students of expectations and putting new systems in place.
•Give permission to say no. New teachers should be told that they don’t have to be at every school event, volunteer for every committee, and get involved in the PTA or fall social. Their full energy should be focused on their classroom and curriculum. “We need to give them the time, support, and space to find success within their classroom walls,” say Whitaker, Good, and Whitaker, “before we expect them to complete less crucial tasks.”
“How Principals Can Support New Teachers” by Todd Whitaker, Madeline Whitaker Good, and Katherine Whitaker in Educational Leadership, September 2019 (Vol. 77, #1, pp. 50-54),
https://bit.ly/2kouIqW; Todd Whitaker can be reached at email@example.com.
5. Is Faster Smarter?
In this interview with Lory Hough in Ed. Magazine, Parisa Rouhani (Populace) says her dissertation study of ninth graders revealed that finishing classroom assignments quickly did not correlate with ability. “Describing someone as a ‘fast learner’ or ‘quick to get it’ is intended to suggest that the person is smart,” says Rouhani, “because we have bought into this idea that speed tells us something about ability. What my study reveals is that the assumptions that we perpetuate in our language, and have built into our standardized educational systems, are not actually true. By leaving these assumptions in place, we are artificially constraining students. We are creating barriers to learning, and perpetuating the belief that not all students are capable.”
If speed is not an accurate indicator of ability, what is? Rouhani believes it’s mastery. When students have enough time to truly understand what’s taught, they perform well. But some students take longer to attain mastery than others – a function of the tremendous variability in any group of humans. Working more slowly doesn’t reflect lower intelligence or a learning disability, which is suggested by schools’ insistence that students get a disability dispensation to be given additional time on high-stakes tests.
Rouhani closes with two suggestions: provide more flexible time limits on schoolwork and exams, and let go of the long-standing belief that fast means smart.
“No Need for Speed” by Lory Hough and Parisa Rouhani in Ed. Magazine, Fall 2019 (#164, pp. 6-7), https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/19/08/no-need-speed; Hough can be reached at
6. The Gentrification of a New York City School
In this article in Urban Education, Alexandra Freidus (New York University) describes how a group of newly arrived young professional parents in a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York took a strong interest in their neighborhood school, which at the time had 98 percent children of color. In 2003, the new families, mostly white and ideologically committed to diverse public schools for their children, created a listserv to share information about the school and the neighborhood. When their children reached school age, many enrolled, and the parents became active in the school, advocating for improvements, raising funds, and getting involved in the selection of a new principal. The newcomers were heavily invested in the school and believed their push to make it a “great” school would benefit all children. Within ten years, the percent of white students in the school had increased to 16 percent, most of them in the lower grades.
Members of the existing parent group, predominantly families of color, were not active in the listserv and often did not agree with the newcomers’ ideas on how to change the school. There was some tension between the “old timers” (as Freidus calls them) and the new parents around a variety of issues. “By focusing on the school’s ‘diversity,’” she says, “rather than naming race and class differences in the school’s population, advantaged parents effectively silenced dialogue regarding conflicts between neighborhood old-timers and newcomers and refused to acknowledge the structural racism underlying the community’s history. Their online interactions effectively cast poor families and families of color in the roles of beneficiaries of advantaged parents’ hard work or as valued sources of diversity, rather than equal stakeholders in the school and community. The exclusion of less-advantaged families from the conversation, which reflects the larger processes of gentrification, may have been unintentional but it had a clear cost: the marginalization of low-income families and families of color.”
What did the “old-timers” think about the changes in the school? Because they rarely participated in the listserv, which was Freidus’s source of data, it’s not clear. Follow-up interviews would reveal their opinions.
This case study captures a key dilemma in urban school districts. The New York City schools are among the most racially and economically segregated in the nation, and increasing the number of middle-class families in neighborhood schools is clearly desirable – not only for increasing diversity but also because of their social and economic capital. Freidus concludes: “How can school leaders and policymakers take advantage of the energy, commitment, and resources that advantaged families bring to schools without marginalizing low-income students and communities? Which changes in school culture and climate are inevitable, which are desirable, and which can and should be avoided? What role can district choice policies play in mitigating, rather than exacerbating, the negative consequences of school gentrification?”
“‘A Great School Benefits Us All’: Advantaged Parents and the Gentrification of an Urban Public School” by Alexandra Freidus in Urban Education, October 2019 (Vol. 54, #8, pp. 1121-1148), available for purchase at https://bit.ly/2kjYM73; Freidus can be reached at
7. Banned Books Week Is Coming Up
In this School Library Journalarticle, Marva Hinton highlights Banned Books Week, which is September 22-28. The American Library Association promotes this week (which started in the 1980s) to draw attention to books that are banned or challenged. Showcasing the week tends to be more common in high schools than elementary, but the issues are common at all levels as some parents and community members object to certain titles.
Books that have been challenged or banned include The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Captain Underpants, and The Hate U Give. Books with LGBTQ and transgender themes are the most common challenges in recent years, including This Day in June, an award-winning picture book about a pride parade, and George, a middle-grade novel about a transgender girl who’s frustrated that everyone sees her as a boy.
Many librarians, especially at the elementary level, are leery of controversy. One Virginia elementary school librarian doesn’t draw attention to Banned Books Week and shies away from ordering controversial titles. “When it comes down to making choices,” she says, “it’s easier to buy safe books that you know kids will read and really love versus ones that might go home and somebody might question. So I think fear does hold us back, and fear still holds me back. I don’t put up a display that says, ‘Hey, LGBTQ books here.’ I don’t booktalk them. I don’t promote them specifically.”
By contrast, a high-school librarian in a small town in South Carolina has an annual writing contest; this year it’s “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark: Keep the Light On!” Students answer daily trivia questions about censorship and do a gallery walk in the library with eight stations on book bans, challenges, and the history of censorship. Contest winners get to pick a frequently challenged young adult novel as their prize. Students often have “strong reactions,” says this librarian. “They get pretty indignant about the idea that there are some places that would restrict what you can check out as a student.”
“I think we always have to bring the idea back to our constitutional rights,” says Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians. “What’s important about this isn’t the sensationalism of a banned book; the importance is our freedom in a democratic society to listen to and read and think the ideas we want to think. The concept is essential to democratic discourse.” Keeling suggests that librarians work with social studies teachers during Banned Books Week to get students thinking about the First Amendment and draw distinctions between books that are outright banned by a school board or administrator and books that have been challenged for a variety of reasons.
“Rise to the Challenge” by Marva Hinton in School Library Journal, September 2019 (Vol. 65, #8, pp. 46-48), no e-link available
8. Middle- and High-School Books About People with Disabilities
The publishing industry has been slow to offer books about people with disabilities, says Ragan O’Malley in this article in School Library Journal, but things are changing. She recommends these titles:
– El Deafo by Cece Bell – hearing impairment
– Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly – hearing impairment
– A Storm of Strawberries by Jo Cotterill – Down syndrome
– Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly – hearing impairment
– This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (NOT Disability) by Aaron Philip – cerebral palsy
– Born Just Right by Jordan and Jen Lee Reeves – being proud of the body you have
– The Sound of Silence: Growing Up Hearing with Deaf Parents by Myron Uhlberg
– Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaughn – a girl who doesn’t like itchy clothes and soap and has trouble controlling her anger
– The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown – cerebral palsy
– Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse by Shane Burcaw – spinal muscular atrophy
– (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health, Kelly Jensen, editor– eating disorders, anxiety, addictive behaviors, post-traumatic stress disorder, and body dysmorphia
– A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer – cerebral palsy (fiction)
– Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens by Marieke Nijkamp – physical and neurodivergent differences
– When My Heart Joins the Thousand by A.J. Steiger – a teen girl who doesn’t like to be touched, lives alone under the watchful eye of her social worker, and wants to become an emancipated minor
– Wild and Crooked by Leah Thomas – a teen with cerebral palsy and a father in prison for murder (fiction)
“Readability” by Ragan O’Malley in School Library Journal, September 2019 (Vol. 65, #8, pp. 49-51), no e-link available; O’Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. Updated Media Bias Chart for Social Studies and Civics Classes
This graphic by Vanessa Otero of Ad Fontes Media displays a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets https://www.adfontesmedia.com, sorting them horizontally by left-right political orientation (with unbiased in the center) and vertically from original fact reporting at the top to propaganda and inaccurate/fabricated information at the bottom. Otero has added some colored outlines framing media outlets that are: most reliable for news; reliable for news, but high on analysis and opinion content; some reliability issues and/or extremism; serious reliability issues and/or extremism. There are also new features that allow viewers to zoom in on congested areas of the graphic. Otero recommends using Chrome as the platform until Safari and others work out compatibility, and advises clicking on full screen in the control bar at the bottom to improve viewing.
10. National Polling Data on K-12 Schools
The 51st annual PDK Poll is out in Phi Delta Kappan, https://pdkpoll.org, with data from educators and the public on teacher value, school quality, religion, civics, workforce preparation, school funding, discipline, rank-ordering problems, and grading schools.
“Frustration in the Schools: Teachers Speak on Pay, Funding, and Feeling Valued,” the PDK Poll in Phi Delta Kappan, September 2019
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