Wednesday, September 21, 2011


The View from Fifth Grade

“I have a locker!”

You forget what’s important when you’re ten.

TW and I went to the parents’ open house at The Boy’s school. Now that he’s in fifth grade, he’s in a new building that unites the kids from the various elementary schools in the district. And yes, he gets a locker.

The principal greeted the parents, if you want to call his mumble a greeting. Honestly, one of the first principles of public speaking is “try to at least pretend to care.” His entire affect conveyed that he’d rather be almost anywhere else. This did not inspire confidence. The only time he seemed to engage was when he mentioned where parents should park.

The library made me sad. TB later reported that his class took a trip there, and he was disappointed in its selection. Luckily we have a good public library in town, and I’ve lent TB my kindle before. At the rate he blasts through books, electronic delivery may be our only hope of keeping up.

(I recently got him a subscription to Science Illustrated. If you have a smart/nerdy kid in the 9-12 range, it’s worth checking out. Great photos are the hook, but the stories hold his interest. He informed us the other day that our in-house wifi may be the reason that some of our plants look droopy. Who knew?)

If you really want to get depressed sometime -- say, you have some excess joie de vivre that you need to drain before some sort of somber occasion -- listen to a school nurse address parents. You will be amazed at some of the things that apparently need to be said.

But then we got to the classroom, and my faith was restored.

His class is smallish -- about twenty students -- and it has a teacher, a teacher’s aide, and a few drop-in specialists. It lacks air conditioning, so the only comfort was a rotating fan the PTO bought for it a few years ago. (The parents -- 16 women and 4 men, by my count -- struggled valiantly to be comfortable on the ridiculous furniture.) But the room is decent, the size is good, the teacher is clearly engaged, and the curriculum is ambitious.

Even there, though, parental involvement is key. TB brought home a math worksheet a few days ago on which he had a slew of red x’s. He had misunderstood “borrowing.” But the red x’s didn’t help him understand it; they just indicated that he had done something wrong. I had him work through a couple of problems in front of me, narrating each step as he did it; the error became obvious quickly, and we were able to fix it. It would have been wonderful if his teacher had been able to do that, but she couldn’t. There was too much to get through.

His teacher repeatedly mentioned the statewide standardized test to which she has to teach. It’s our state’s manifestation of No Child Left Behind, and it leaves relatively little time to linger over misunderstandings. Let me make one change, and this would be it. (Air conditioning would be a close second.) As an old professor of mine used to say, there’s a choice to be made in teaching: you can cover, or you can uncover. Uncovering takes time, and requires patience, but it can lead to actual understanding. Getting through the topics on the exam requires covering. Do too much of that, though, and the kids get bored and tune out.

It looks like the burden to fill in the gaps will fall largely on the parents. We’ll do what we can with TB -- luckily for us, he’s a smart kid -- but I worry about the kids whose parents aren’t as focused on education. If school is all they get, and school is designed around a multiple-choice test, they really aren’t getting much at all.

The social scene is evolving. Kids aren’t pairing off yet, but TB informs me that boys and girls are “checking each other out for junior high.” Apparently at this point it’s mostly about who sits with whom on the bus, though I’m sure it will quickly become more complicated. TB has a couple of favorites, but he doesn’t seem too worked up about it. That seems about right to me. Take your time, kid...

And we got notice that it’s time to pick instruments for the school band. Someday I want someone to explain to me why the options offered are so anachronistic. You can choose trombone, but not guitar; clarinet, but not piano. If we were even halfway serious about the benefits of music...

And don’t even get me started on why we wait until language acquisition is more difficult before starting to teach Spanish. If we really meant it, we’d start in kindergarten.

This is a pretty good public district in a state known for relatively strong public schools. It’s fifth grade, and I’m already seeing holes. We’ll do our darndest with TB, but suddenly the whole “so many students need remediation” thing is starting to make sense. In the meantime, TB is enjoying his locker.

I've never taught at a school that had air conditioning for students (or teachers). Admin offices and computer rooms got it, but for actual classrooms, no.

When the temperature in my classroom reached 110° I asked to take the class outside so we would be cooler. Admin said I had to remain in the classroom.
The music selection is probably a combination of cost and availability. Although when I was in middle school, we could pick any instrument we wanted. I got my dad's hand me down trumpet. I'd already been playing the piano. Any musical education is better than none, so count your blessings. They could just be handing out recorders.
There is a fundamental conflict between your statement that "the teacher is clearly engaged" and "But the red x’s didn’t help him understand it; they just indicated that he had done something wrong."

There are ONLY 20 students and there is a teacher's aide to deal with what the teacher could not. There is not "too much to get through". I would be extremely concerned that you know more basic math, and more about teaching basic math, than the teacher does. That goes double when the skill involved is below 5th grade level, particularly for someone interested in "science".

I fear you don't fully appreciate the math background considered acceptable for K-8 certification. Can you imagine an English comp teacher who did not give a single corrective comment when encountering multiple errors of the same type?
At this level, band means "concert band" and just a bit later "marching band". There are no pianos or guitars in marching band.

It's a bit different in places with orchestras, but still no guitars.

If you are thinking ahead, and the kid might want to play in an orchestra later (assuming your school doesn't have one) or play jazz, pick an appropriate instrument for those future possibilities. That means no saxophones for classical music-lover and no french horns for the jazz-lover (though both are fantastic instruments for concert band).
I hear you on the instrument choice thing, but also understand why it is the way it is - in school settings, concert band, marching band, and maybe orchestra are the standards, so you need to have kids play instruments that go in those ensembles. There is only one (maybe 2, but probably one) piano in an orchestra, whereas there's room for as many violinists, or trumpets, as you have kids who play those things.

I do know some schools that have more "folk" oriented ensembles: contra dance bands and such, which have guitars, fiddle music, piano, etc...those are usually waldorf schools or some other sort of arts focused curriculum.

I actually started out playing piano and got frustrated early on because it wasn't a "portable" band instrument, and the pianists got stuck playing percussion in the marching/concert band. Much more fun to pick a standard band instrument for the school years, but it's a tradeoff: much harder to keep playing it after you graduate.

Best solution I can think of is to learn more than one instrument! :-)
I am so thankful that I have the option for French Immersion starting in kindergarden. My son just started and loves it.
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Only 20 students is really a blessing! In my neck of the woods, 32 is standard for middle school, although I've heard horror stories from other schools where they have seat limits at 39. I teach music, so I have more students, but that's just how it goes. In band, the more, the merrier (well, and the LOUDER, but I wear earplugs, haha!)

Yeah, about those band instruments, it's a similar issue to the math thing. Guitar and piano require more one-on-one instruction and are typically part of smaller ensembles or used as solo instruments. Also, the way music ed works at the university level is that students have "tech" or "methods" classes for all the band and orchestra instruments, so that they can teach all of those things, but not necessarily methods classes in guitar. Basically, you can teach more kids more music with one person in a band, orchestra, or choir setting than you can in a solo piano/guitar or "rock band" type setting. But hey, that's what the afternoon is for! Jamming with your buddies on the "forbidden" instruments in the garage. I played trumpet by day and drumset by afternoon, haha, it was the best of both worlds!
I would be extremely concerned that you know more basic math, and more about teaching basic math, than the teacher does.

Don't be - I took the CBEST at one point and one of the math problems on the test was to measure a paperclip (picture was placed above ruler - answers were multiple choice). The math portion is considered the hard part of the exam (!).
"If school is all they get, and school is designed around a multiple-choice test, they really aren’t getting much at all."

And now the Republican motivation for NCLB becomes clear. It's always about denying education to anyone without means...
Up here in the great state of Michigan they are redefining how many questions you may get wrong and still be considered "Proficient".

The old world order said that a student only had to get 39% of the questions right to be considered "Proficient". In other words, clearly failing students were still considered not-left-behind.

Starting this Fall, students will be expected to get 65% of the questions right. Definitely not "C" students, but not failing horribly.

Now for the ugly part. There are schools where only a little more than half of the students are considered "Proficient" ... and that is under the more lenient 39% passing rules.

It is going to get ugly next April when the numbers come out which measure passing against 65% correct.

By the way ... when my children took the MEAP in the days before NCLB, the threshold for passing was 68%. I get the ugly feeling that passing for the tests was dumbed down (39% pass) so that entire school districts would not get sanctioned under NCLB.
As far as math and fifth graders go, that was the initial impetus for Kitchen Table Math, which is no longer focused on just elementary-level math, but still very worthwhile.
As far as instruments go, this is partly about funding and partly about what's reasonable for a school to offer. For example, offering piano would most likely mean having the space to have a room full of keyboards or pianos (plus the money to afford a room like that, separate from the usual music room in all likelihood, plus the money to afford to buy the keyboards or pianos). It would also mean having a music teacher capable of being able to play and teach all of the band instruments, plus piano and guitar and possibly the strings as well, which is no mean feat. Or it means actually paying multiple music teachers so that one can teach piano and other instruments while another teaches say, guitar and strings. It would be great to have a budget for that, but it's not realistic (nor, shall I point out as a piano major and musicology PhD, is it realistic to expect that a music teacher somehow has the ability to play all instruments by virtue of being a musician. That's a bit like assuming a French teacher can also teach Spanish, Italian and Latin because they're all romance languages, and also teach Russian and Chinese because someone might want to take those.)

I think music classes in school operate much like gym classes do in terms of sports. A gym class teaches the basics of physical fitness, healthy eating, and the rules to some basic sports out there. Most focus on the most common sports (basketball, flag football, soccer, etc) and parents who want their child to play another sport (rugby?, karate?) will sign them up in an after-school sports program. In fact, most parents assume that if they want their kid to play soccer, they should sign them up (and pay for) that outside of school. The same is true for music. If someone wants to study guitar, great! There are guitar teachers ready and waiting, just like their are sports leagues all over the place for children who want to do more than is offered in gym class.
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