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BELLTONES: What About the Kids?

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted May 1, 2014
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I spend a fair amount of time worrying about people I don’t even know. A couple of years ago I became concerned about schoolteachers and librarians coping with hard times resulting from budget cuts. I ended up writing and presenting on the topic. Lately, in view of standardized testing and mandates for scripted lessons, I have been worrying about the children.

I follow several online groups that are opposed to the climate of high-stakes testing and issues related to implementation of the Common Core. For many teachers and students, school is an increasingly stressful environment. My reading about politicians and “reformers” who are pushing the tests and also lockstep lessons does not turn up accounts of their concern about how these changes affect boys and girls. Thus, I worry about these children. Too many kids are unhappy at school right now.

In an effort to explore this concern, I posed a query to educators via several list servs and also Facebook, and Twitter friends. Here it is:

How can educators help kids who are stressed and unhappy at school? My mother taught first and second grade for many years and I know what she would do. She had a piano in her room. She would shut her classroom door and gather those kids on the floor around her and they would sing. But what about today? Since I teach and write about technology I do wonder if there are things people are doing to boost kids’ morale that involve tech. But tech or not, I wonder if you folks can share any ideas. Saying “ain’t it awful” is one thing … really helping children is an immediate need in far too many schools these days.

Often when I post a question through my usual channels, I get numerous prompt responses. Members are very generous and eager to share ideas and information. This time, my messages were few and slow to ap pear. I believe this is because many educators out there are struggling with the same questions. Fortunately, I did get several thought ful responses and also have formulated some suggestions of my own gleaned from research and personal experience. Here are some ideas that capitalize on the technology we can and should be using to enhance learning and also engender positive feelings with kids:

  • Take advantage of Web 2.0 resources. There are lots of ways to get across content using online resources that are likely to be more fun and engaging than traditional classroom “drill and kill.”
  • Try to involve students in unique online experiences. The first one that comes to mind is Hour of Code (code.org), supported by President Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, among others. The promotion was during Computer Science Education Week, the second week in December of 2013, but the tutorials are still accessible. These high-interest coding lessons for kids are offered to all age groups and cause youngsters to use many of the skills that the tests are purported to measure, but are offered in an exciting context.
  • Use any devices at your disposal. You can play fun learning games with kids using interactive whiteboards, iPads, etc. Years ago, my dissertation research found that students, especially boys, showed increased positive opinions about content when they got to use interactive whiteboards in class. The big disclaimer here is that the teacher should not be the one at the board; rather, it should be the students. Far too often teachers are using these powerful tools as glorified overhead projectors or traditional chalk/whiteboards rather than letting the students be the ones running the show. Also, a Texas librarian who shared her thoughts for improving student morale credited iPads as great tools to get students excited about learning and even for reviewing information.
  • Give online badges a try. This was the topic of a column I wrote for the May/ June 2013 issue of Internet@Schools, and I still believe that badging is a great motivational tool for learners of all ages. Too often students get the message that all learning must be what can be measured by standardized tests and thus reduced to numbers and charts. If I were in a K–12 school, I would give badges for creativity, hard work, helpful actions, good collaboration, and other behaviors I wanted to promote and reward but that are never recognized by standardized tests.
  • Try programming events that use technology and raise spirits. When I refer to programming events, I reveal my librarian background rather than computer use. Way back in the dark ages when I was studying library science, I learned to associate programming with school-wide events that promote library use and particularly reading. Your school librarian should be a great resource, or if you are in that position, you should have ideas. An entire article could be devoted to such ideas, and I can think of ways to update “old” activities to incorporate technology. One that comes to mind immediately is to design, or have students create, meme posters that foster self-esteem and defuse testing tensions. My Belltones column about memes in the March/April 2013 issue mentions Web 2.0 tools and ideas for this activity. Displaying meme posters around a classroom or in hallways could lighten spirits with humor and positive thoughts.
  • Use social networking tools to spread good will. One example is this idea that highlights the power of Twitter. One Ohio high school junior, Jeremiah Anthony at Iowa City West High School, used it to change things at his school by posting tweets complimenting fellow students and even teachers (today.com/news/teen-uses-tweets-compliment-his-classmates-1B7882246). His efforts went viral and he ended up on a morning TV show describing his efforts. He did this because he was tired of cyberbullying and wanted to use the same tactics for good instead of bad behavior. Fostering similar efforts is certainly worth a try!

There are, of course, many powerful ways to help children at school that do not involve technology.

  • Both teachers and librarians mentioned having a safe and positive classroom environment as an essential attribute for students’ well-being. School librarians know that often the library is a safe haven for students.
  • One librarian shared, “This isn’t ‘tech’ or even addressed at high-stakes testing, but ... we laugh an awful lot in the library, kids and adults. This morning I called my before-school library time the Library Comedy Club because the kids were cracking original goofy jokes and I was drumming on the circ desk giving them rimshots. I don’t know if it helps them when facing a standardized test, but it helps at the moment.”
  • Sadly, this might be frowned upon in some test-driven schools, but one respondent described a fellow elementary teacher who played the guitar and would have sing-alongs to defuse stress. She concluded by saying, “I think most great teachers have ‘shut the door’ moments when they do what they do because they do it and not because of tests or common core. Maybe someday we’ll learn great teaching is an art and not a science and study great teachers like we would Picasso, not like we would lab rats. Maybe. In the meantime, if I can be half the teacher my friend is, that’s a good day.”
  • Here is a beautiful response I received from an elementary teacher: “I want to tell you what I do for my second graders. When I pick them up to come to my room I look each of them in the eye and make some sort of physical contact. I rub their heads, or touch their shoulders, or give them a quick hug. When they are with me, we laugh and play and have a good time. I tell them they are smart, and if they do something great, I make sure they know it. I buy them Halloween pencils and bendy skeletons and copy how to draw worksheets for them. When it’s time to go, I hug them again. And if I see them in the hallway, they get a high five or a fist bump or I squeeze their hand. I want them to feel that I truly care for them. Can’t do much else. And, it makes me feel good, too!”
  • One more elementary teacher shared this at the BAT Facebook page: “I would always stop my class anytime frustrations were reached. I would try and turn that time into fun teachable moments (in case I was caught off target lol). We would practice yoga moves, act out verbs, make art projects (inner city school where children were not offered art), sing songs.” As a former junior high teacher, I can attest to the fun older kids can have with similar activities.

In order to help students in hard times, educators need to take care of themselves. When teachers are discouraged and stressed, it is bound to affect students. How to alleviate our own feelings is a huge issue and not the main thrust of this piece. Nevertheless, here are a few thoughts, some involving technology and some not, that bear mentioning:

  • As noted previously, laughter is therapeutic and contagious. Find ways to inject more humor in your communications and demeanor. This is in no way suggesting people ignore the negative effects of today’s climate but rather to use humor as a coping mechanism. I have a Pinterest Board called Ma Bell’s Medicine Show For Raising Morale (pinterest.com/drmaryannbell/ma-bell-s-medicine-show-for-raising-morale). I try to share things that make me laugh or simply cause me to feel good. For one example, now and then I go watch the “Ultimate Dog Tease.” It never fails to make me laugh. It’s one of my first pins on my board, but I will save you time and share the URL (youtube.com/watch?v=nGeKSiCQkPw).
  • With some difficulty I have avoided injecting my politics into this article, but let me say plainly that I actively communicate my views elsewhere that standardized testing is out of control and that many aspects of Common Core are wrongheaded. I think it is our obligation as citizens to keep chipping away at the facades that prop up these issues. People can and should inform the public and communicate with elected representatives about turning back these mandates. We should also express views via the ballot box by voting for representatives who espouse our views about education.
  • There are online groups that may help you. Two growing in popularity are Badass Teachers, also known as BATS (facebook.com/groups/BadAssTeachers/), and the various opt-out of testing groups for parents, which are easily located by a simple online search. In both instances, people simultaneously vent frustrations and share encouragement. In fact, following these groups was what led me to write this column. Because of the negativity expressed, these groups are not for everyone. I feel that giving people the chance to vent is a good thing, and sharing with like-minded colleagues online is a great outlet. All such groups share heartwarming stories and victories large and small along with the less-positive contributions.
  • If you can, do speak out. To many uninitiated folks who are not attuned to what’s happening in schools, the testing and standards sound like good things. Those of us who oppose the over-the-top emphasis need to get the word out about excesses and their effects on kids.

Helping youngsters feel better at school and about themselves is not optional. It is im perative. We must find ways to offer encour agement and support, especially in the many schools where emphasis on testing and script ed teaching are playing out in the worst possible ways. I read recently that the excesses are mounting up and will soon collapse un der their own weight like a house of cards. I hope that is true, but the kids are being affected right now. Their needs are immediate. I confess that while this column was something I believe needed to be written, I found it unusually difficult to complete. That’s because there are no quick fixes and few people seem to have ideas to share. My wish is for a wide conversation that puts kids front and center as opposed to practices and statistics.

Contact Mary Ann at lis_mah@shsu.edu.


 
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