Will Raising Teacher Pay Make a Difference?

I heard it yet again yesterday, and not in the school building: teachers don’t get paid enough, that’s why the job is not “done properly.”  I always feel uncomfortable when I hear this.  Certainly I am not against getting paid more, nor do I really believe that raising teacher pay  would hurt the economy.  And yet … I don’t actually feel this is the issue. Coming from the classical viewpoint, for one thing, teaching and learning is supposed to be a joy and, left to itself, the job of teaching should be very rewarding. Time was, before NCLB etc, teaching used to be lower stress than other professions as well.  This was as it should be, because stress slows down the learning process.

But the bucolic days of happy learning seem to have disappeared. Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message.”  Now  for the average educrat in America, “testing is the message.”  And following the “all by the numbers” thinking, salaries are the determinant of how good a job is and how well it is done.

I suppose if we raised salaries we might get teachers with higher GRE scores, but then, would that necessarily translate into higher scores on students’ tests? I know a couple of teachers with high GRE’s — besides myself — and they are as perplexed by the difficulty of playing the test score game as everyone else is.

“A man is good because he is good,” said Garrison Keillor.  What if we said the same about children? What if we offered them an education designed holistically to make them better people, to allow them to experience life more fully?  And what if, instead of paying more, in person and in print we thanked teachers for doing this critical job?  Then, I believe, there would be greater well being everywhere.  And probably better test scores as well, if we were to create a truly “whole-child,” humanistic education model …

No, I conclude, I don’t believe that teacher salaries have much to do with “the problem.” The problem is a spiritual one, the problem of trying to change education into a scientific, quantifiable commodity. And that is simply wrong.  A child is not a number, and neither is a teacher.  “Numerification” of education is the problem, turning that which is supposed to be humanistic to anti-humanism.

Video: Little Kids Speaking Latin

This promo video was created for my husband’s school (yes, that’s him, the teacher, speaking the narration) about his living language-based method for teaching Latin.   His point, that “you can’t really read a language you can’t speak” is emphasized to us public school teachers when we are instructed to increase academic speaking opportunities for English Language Learners and students with low vocabulary.  Meanwhile the idea that “students need to develop language using creative play” is music to the ears of primary teachers (k-2) everywhere!

Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild Part 2

Thinking about London’s concept that domestic animals are drawn back to the wild when they get the chance, I am reminded of the nonfiction book Shy Boy, by Monty Roberts, in which a wild mustang is captured, trained, ridden, fed grain and hay, and then released again to run with a wild band of mustangs. In the end, the horse comes back to camp. I am also reminded of the heavily researched biography of Daniel Boone by John Mack Faragher I read a few years back, in which the quintessential woodsman was portrayed as a noble, honest man after years in the woods, not as someone who began to hark back to an early, lawless state …

But back to Call of the Wild.  One evening last week I read up to the dramatic place where the dog hero of the story, Buck, is hitched to a 1000 pound sled and has to first break it free of the ice and then pull it 1000 feet to win a bet for his beloved master. I handed my son the book. “Read it yourself,” I said and listened as the narrative animated my son’s reading and he plowed on ahead through the difficult text, anxious to find out who won. I was thankful in the moment to London, for creating a drama so intense that the struggling student would forget the difficulty of reading for a few moments in his desire to follow the episode to its conclusion.

But as I witnessed this, there was another discussion going on inside my head, the question from childhood, about London and his unfinished Wolf House, and it tied in with what I saw as philosophical errors in this book. The wilderness, I maintain – and this is also my training from childhood – ennobles, it does not barbarize. So the thesis of the book, that the wild calls man and dog back to savagery, does not completely sit well with me, no matter how much it thrills the adventure-center of the brain …

The conclusion I made is that London enshrined and revered animal instinct and his own visceral impulses, and that is why he has Buck responding to the call of the wild. Real life in Alaska may have weakened the sled dog’s attachment to men inasmuch as the food supply was scanty, but for almost every domestic beast, the trade of freedom for food has been made.

Re-reading an interview with biographer Daniel Dyer this morning, I see that Dyer categorizes London as a “minor writer.” From a classical perspective, London seems to be more than that – Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” in my mind makes Call of the Wild a canonical children’s book. Yet his fame is less than Hemingway, less than Tolstoy. When I remember Tolstoy I think I have the answer – both writers wrote exhaustively of their own experience and created multiple stories throughout years – but Tolstoy, whose characters spring from some profound well of understanding of human beings and their motivations, creates a greater bond of understanding with adult readers because he understands more of what we are thinking and feeling. With London, it is more understanding what London thinks and feels, and for me that’s less interesting.

I sense, however, that I was not a fair judge. From the beginning I was worried by the yawning mouth of the empty basements of the Wolf House, I saw too early the ultimate conclusion of London’s adventuring. Perhaps it would be fairer to turn to the classroom. When taking a book-interest inventory of my fourth graders last year, I noted that stories about dogs had tremendous appeal, beating all other subjects. Second place went to death-defying stories about adventure, especially popular with boys. Call of the Wild combines these two themes more successfully than any other book I can remember except, perhaps, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. For this, combining a “pulp fiction” type story line with deep thematic elements about the meaning of life and the natural human love of animals, London deserves his proper measure of respect. I place him firmly, then, in the canon of great children’s literature.

Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild

Call of the WildThis week my son, who is in 6th grade at the local classical school, finished reading Call of the Wild by Jack London. Because I was raised by an outdoorsman father, the image of the man of the wilderness has always loomed large in my mind. At the same time, there has been a malaise about London from the very beginning.

When I was a child my father took me to Jack London Park in California, and showed me the empty foundations of London’s Wolf House. This was a mansion that London had built with the proceeds from his writing life, which burned down as it was nearing completion and, because of financial problems, never was rebuilt.

At the time, I looked at the moss growing on the rough cut stone surrounding the pit that was to have been the basement, and wondered. The mystery that surrounded this disastrous event stayed with me and I shied away from London until I was assigned, in college, to read his socialist novel, The Iron Heel.

I was impressed by London’s writing and troubled by his cynicism, but I didn’t read Call of the Wild yet, even when my oldest daughter, in junior high school, read it again and again and loved it. Later, I found a biography of London (Jack London, by Daniel Dyer) at the used book store, and, moved by my curiosity about the Wolf House, and the fact that he was my paisan, as a fellow Californian, I bought it and read it. Here I found a vision of London as an earlier Hemingway—adventurer, writer, unfulfilled husband, alcoholic—and he became for me symbolic of a certain type of Californian, the one who, despite his gifts and privileges, ultimately becomes unhappy and, in personal terms, fails to achieve the vision that was generated in his mind during the optimism of youth.

When I finally read “Call” with my son this month, it was my assignment to help him work through what was for him a challenging read. I had him read aloud and when he got tired I read it to him. The question we were working on was a simple one, relatively speaking: what was the Call of the Wild? Does the wild really make animals stronger in the book? And what is the “law of club and fang?”

Tomorrow: Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild Part 2


How can I help my child succeed at school?

This week was parent conferences.  I do parent conferences as needed all year, for matters such as discipline or academic problems, but this was the time for those parents whose children are basically doing all right to come in.

I was caught off guard, perhaps, by one mother’s earnest response when I told her that her daughter was a good citizen, exhibited a strong interest in the material, but wasn’t at the top of the class … yet.  “How can I help her do better?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “the child in first grade knows only a few things.  Our job is to attach more things to those they already know.  They write “I like turkey,” we ask, “why?” They count to 100, we ask them what if you take 10 away from 100. They read a book, and we ask them to think of another possible ending. It’s all about expanding their world one step at a time.”

It occurred to me afterwards that this response, though true as far as it went, was rather vague and perhaps too interpretive for some parents.  So I decided to come up with a numbered list of steps to improve your child’s success in school:

  1. Ask how it is going every day.  “What did you learn?” Ask them to explain.
  2. Talk to your child whenever possible — driving in the car, cooking food, walking across town — the more words the child hears, the more intelligent they will become.  Research proven!
  3. Have regular chores for the child and expect that they be done.  This will allow your child to develop self responsibility and know that they can do things for themselves and for others.  Part of this should be a set time for homework each week day.
  4. Severely limit TV, cell phone games and screens of all types, certainly no more than one hour a day, at the end of the day when all work is done.
  5. Read to your child and have them read to you.  Talk about what you read.  Reading at home is a huge advantage for your child.
  6. Whenever possible ask them to think and do things for themselves.  Don’t solve their problems for them until they ask you to.
  7. Provide consistent discipline.  Children need to know their limits and they need to have a consequence of some kind when these limits are broken.  It’s more important that there be consistency than what kind of discipline is used.  Some families put the rules and the consequences on the refrigerator.
  8. Most important you must try to show you love your child every day. Children who are sure they are loved have a huge advantage for life and school  And though I have met a large number of parents, some of whom were struggling in various ways, I have never met a parent who didn’t, underneath it all, love their child and want the child to succeed.  If you are reading this blog post it is obvious you love your child.  Let him or her know this  and tell them it’s because you love them that you want them to do well, in school and in everything.


More on this topic:  Study of parents of successful students in the Phillipines suggests best practices

From KidSource:  How Parents and Family Can Help Children Do Better in School

Using Nursery Rhymes for Primary Grades

I’ve begun using nursery rhymes for my first graders due to recent monthly reading tests showing their need for vocabulary.   Having heard before that songs and rhymes are a potent way to build vocabulary,  I decided to try a classical technique here — memorized recitation of high quality, “classical” texts.

The method is simple.  I chose four rhymes and each day I begin our circle time by reading them to the students. I chose Old Mother Goose, Hey Diddle Diddle, The House that Jack Built, and This Old Man.  I wondered:  would they get confused?  Be bored?  Nothing of the sort.  Right away the word music got their attention.  Soon they were decoding the meanings (“Wait!  A cow cannot jump over the moon!”) and after that they began to apply their minds to memorizing the words.  The routine went quickly, taking only 5 or 6 minutes a day.

Now, about two weeks later, the better part of the class is reciting large portions of the rhymes with me.  We do the rhymes in the afternoon before the math lesson, which can be a hard time for students to get focused.  But now the students immediately calm down and focus when they hear “our” familiar rhymes.

As for the vocabulary progress — we will have to see.  On the first of December, we will take another monthly reading assessment, and I will report back.

The Classical Method vs. Modern Education Theory

Trivium Grammar Logic Rhetoric
The Trivium consists of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric — Image credit: Book of Threes Blog http://bookofthrees.com

In public education, there is always a new theory on how to educate.  New theories, their proponents, and their materials, very expensive materials, dominate public teacher training and affect public teacher’s evaluations.  However, I had the opportunity to observe two other teacher’s high-functioning public first grade classrooms this week.  I noticed right away that the other teachers were using what I would call classical methods to get the students engaged and interested.  They used charts of letter sounds and words and pointed to the chart so the students could recite, which is a basic memorization technique of the grammar component of the trivium.  Then they used a whiteboard (child of the black board) to write phonemes on the board and teach blending. (For more on the trivium and quadrivium, as well as commentary on their origin see the Book of Threes blog).

Meanwhile, our current district curriculum emphasizes every child reading their own book at their own level, and allows teachers to hit phonics and blending for ten minutes in the middle of the day.  Of course children should learn to read their own books!  But many in my class have not learned enough phonics to read independently — and will they ever if I allow them to sit starting at the pictures in a book they can’t read?  Expecting them to learn to read their own books with minimal scaffolding in phonics and blending isn’t realistic. The classical method (not to mention the old classic book Why Johnny Can’t Read) has the answer.

This is a related problem to the constant demand for what is called “Higher Order” questioning in public school classrooms.  (For a brief discussion of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the leveling of questions see the Methods of Curriculum blog). The “higher order,” interpretive and evaluative questions are the ones principals think students need.  But teachers complain that you can not ask interpretive questions until students have basic knowledge of the facts. In the end it becomes a tug of war.  Really the students need both.

In the modern education mentality there seems little attention above the level of the classroom faculty devoted to the fact that it is a problem if the basics of the subject, say phonics and blending in first grade, are not taught to mastery to all students.

Yet I notice that whenever I find highly effective teaching going on, there are components of that teaching which we can consider classical.  I wonder if school boards are considering that, while they are buying expensive new curriculums, the bedrock of the school curriculum, the fundamentals — phonics, writing, speaking well, numeracy, courtesy — remain unchanged for hundreds of years.  If we just accepted these basic methods and used them year after year, professional development could focus on adding “bells and whistles” that make each year different and exciting, without having to reinvent the wheel and exhausting people with new and largely untried methods. I wonder if many have considered that if the students mastered these basics they might  begin to build up to the higher order thinking more effectively, that “before you run you have to walk.”  That is what I have observed happening in classical schools.  School boards should take note!

Phonics Full Class Intervention

The core of my classical instruction methods has always been the phonics program I learned when I taught my son to read in 4th grade.  The Orton-Gillingham phonics program works on the basis that in English there are specific letters and pairs or groups of letters that make just about all the English spelling patterns.  If the student masters these, they will be able to decode text.

When I got my first grade class into the classroom this year, I assumed that they would know at least the “first 26” phonograms — that would be the letters of the alphabet and their sounds.  But many did not know these, and some were struggling with the phonetic principle itself.  The modern educational theory for correction of this problem would be teaching the letters one letter, one day at a time, or even one letter, one week at a time.  That’s just not going to fix the problem soon enough!  Teach all 26 phonograms daily right away and in about 2 weeks some of your students will begin reading, and by the end of 2 months some will have gone close to a year in reading ability.

To perform this whole class intervention, years ago I created a powerpoint with each phonogram presented in sequence.   The class sits on the carpet, the teacher shows the PowerPoint on the smart board or projector, tells the students to look at the letter in green, and speaks the sounds the letter makes, indicated on the left column below the letter.   The class then repeats the sounds.  Words which are examples of the sound are presented in the right column.  This drill is performed perhaps two or three times, for about 5 minutes, every day.

You can download the first 26 letter powerpoint for free on my teachers pay teachers store here.  (Note:  I just removed the direct download link from the original post below and put in the link to Teachers Pay Teachers today, 12-30-16) Since I started the drill two weeks ago I have noted several students beginning to read on their own spontaneously.  I expect to see the rest of the class move into the group of “readers” as the weeks go one, some more quickly than others — but with the right instruction, every child in the regular education classroom can and should read in first grade.


Top Websites for Classical Educators

This will have to be a work in progress — the fact is that if you put “classical education” into the google search box you will get a variety of sites.  These were some that seemed particularly helpful and well-produced:

The Well-Trained Mind offers a book, web forums, advice on how to get started on the most basic level, and a long and interesting discussion on the work of Charlotte Mason.  Also: the Well Trained Mind Academy, an online instruction project.

The Circe Institute site provides a fine introduction to classical education, sells the teaching materials The Lost Tools of Writing, and hosts an annual conference for teachers in classical schools, as well as offering a blog and a newsletter.

Classical Christian Homeschooling  contains an introduction to classical homeschooling with a Christian perspective, and includes a description of the trivium and quadrivium along with a discussion of classical learning theory.  It is linked with the organization’s new site which includes slightly different content on the same theme.

Classical Conversations is building a network of homeschooling families using a pre-designed classical curriculum … good discussion of what a classical education is for young students can be found here …

American Classical League is the professional organization for Latin and other classics teachers in the U.S.  They have extensive classical teaching materials available for sale as well as information on the national Latin exam and discussion forums on Latin teaching practice.

If you know of a blog you believe should be added to this list, feel free to comment below.




Review: The Harp and the Laurel Wreath by Laura M. Berquist

The Harp and the Laurel Wreath by Laura M. BerquistThis book, designed mostly for home schoolers, could be of interest to classroom teachers as well. It lists poetry and dictation examples for use in memorization, recitation and dictation by age of students.  The selections the author chooses are organized in order of age, from preschool (The Early Years) to primary (the Grammatical Stage) to middle school (Dialectical Stage) to high school (Rhetorical Stage).  The poetry selections for primary are quite appealing, and include Robert Lewis Stevenson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among other writers who are perfectly appropriate for a public school classroom but who have been neglected in favor of more “current” but far lower quality work.

I found most interesting the introduction to the book, titled “The Importance of Poetry.” Berquist states quickly and outright that “the appreciation of fine arts is formative for the soul,” a basic tenet of classical education. She then goes on to speak about the impact of the Platonic Triad — the true, the good, and the beautiful — and how “if children are disposed to love the beautiful they will be disposed to love the truth … ”

This has had me thinking all weekend — I thought I taught my kids to appreciate fine arts and beauty, but they still have trouble with moral theology.  Perhaps this will be a source of a future post.

Be that as it may, Berquist has created a useful reference with many poems that are appropriate for all elementary students, and I’m definitely going to bring this one to the classroom this year.