Unplug and Read!Posted by Lou Moore on 12/5/2018
If you are concerned that passive screen time is taking up too much space in the lives of young people, you are not alone. A recent study found that the average American 18-year-old spent over nine hours per day connected to some form of media, including over four-hours per day on smart phones.
Managing screen time is important, both for our intellectual growth and mental health. Besides, as author Anne Lamott reminds us, “almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
One of the best alternatives to passive screen time and aimless browsing is reading. Sustained and purposeful reading requires active engagement--both emotionally and intellectually. Walt Whitman observed that “reading is not a half sleep, but in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle”.
As teachers and parents, we know that strengthening reading skills and encouraging students to be avid readers are essential. But whether or not high schools systematically attend to it is another question. In my own teaching, I practiced the “osmosis” method and assumed that students would develop the ability to comprehend complex text on their own. After all, I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. I am older and wiser now (at least I like to think I am). It’s clear to me that the osmosis model must be abandoned in favor of shared strategies that explicitly build up the reading capacity of students in all subjects. This is certainly a priority at Red Bank Regional. Our revised curriculums and related assessments stress reading and writing across all disciplines. A new reading specialist position to support students and teachers has been established. All first year students are screened to identify potential deficiencies in reading.
At home, families can support reading by setting time limits on phone and screen time. We can make it a point to ask students about what they are reading in their courses and outside of school. More important, parents and guardians can put time aside for reading to set a good example. (Education Week published these tips to in a “Spotlight” to make reading a bigger part of all our lives.)
As a parent of teens, I know that the steps suggested above are not easy. But the benefits are worth the effort. Actively mentoring students to become confident and capable readers enriches teaching, learning, and ultimately delivers lifelong benefits. Keep an eye out for updates from the RBR Media Center on activities to encourage reading!
Pulling Things Together: The Promise of a Connected CurriculumPosted by Lou Moore on 8/20/2018
A number of years ago, I asked a group of students what made high school different from elementary and middle school. Many commented on increased workloads, greater independence, and the excitement of meeting new people. I enjoyed hearing from the students but one insight really stood out. “We see our learning as a whole,” one student declared. “High school separates it.”
This was not what I hoped to hear but when you think about it the observation makes a lot of sense. Despite many changes, the basic organization of most public high schools has endured. Curriculum is separated by discipline with an emphasis on discrete content. Teachers usually do most of their work isolated in departments with little time for collaboration with educators in their own disciplines let alone across subjects.
Since I started teaching in 1990, secondary education in the United States has been buffeted by many changes. Academic rigor has increased, teacher evaluations are more demanding, and schools have implemented high-stakes standardized tests in almost every grade. But pursuing strategies to integrate and connect learning across subjects has not been a priority. This is a shame because pulling things together would deliver substantial benefits.
Most importantly, greater integration promises to boost learning and understanding for all students. An emphasis on content and skills that connect disciplines would challenge students to transfer knowledge to new problems. Furthermore by seeing themes emerge across the curriculum, students would be more likely to see the value of what they are studying.
RBR is already way ahead of the game on the coherence front and we take up the challenge from a position of strength. Our academies promote links across subjects and establish real world connections. Moreover, RBR is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated staff who collaborate effectively and encourage students to link and transfer knowledge across subjects. As we revise and develop curriculum, teachers are infusing vital literacy skills across multiple subjects. This will be readily apparent in the revised sophomore core curriculum that will be implemented in 2018-19. These courses of study reflect an important shift in emphasis away from fixed content and toward the development of the skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that are rooted in the subjects we teach. In addition, we are building in more time in our district calendar for collaboration among our teachers to develop learning experiences that stress an interdisciplinary approach to subjects. Moving forward we will continue to review and revise curriculum with these goals in mind and we will look for other ways to increase program coherence.
Connecting learning between subjects will require sustained effort, time, and some rethinking about the high school experience. But the potential benefits are great for both teachers as well as students with the ultimate aim of making high school academics more rigorous and rewarding for everyone.
Schools Will Not Be Secure Until We Address Access to Lethal WeaponsPosted by Lou Moore on 3/13/2018
Since the tragedy at Columbine High School almost 20 years ago, school districts have implemented measures to protect students and staff from the threat of a mass shooting. Entrances have been hardened with “mantraps” and bullet resistant glass. “Active shooter” drills are now regularly conducted along with fire drills. New security staff have been hired and all staff are trained on best security practices.
Yet the brutal massacre in Parkland, Florida demonstrates that schools remain vulnerable and the threat is ongoing. In addition to Parkland, there have already been 13 shootings at schools and and colleges this year. Some argue that an appropriate response is to boost the number of security personnel allowed to carry guns. It has even been suggested that arming qualified teachers is the best way to protect against the next assault.
But before we start an arms race in our schools, it’s time to pause and start to consider actions that will actually help to improve things. Let’s start by acknowledging that regardless of how carefully we secure our schools, we will never be doing all we can until our society puts responsible limits on access to deadly firearms. Common sense precautions that New Jersey and other states have established should become nationalized. These include instituting permits for handgun purchases, setting strict limits on magazines, and requiring licenses to own certain types of weapons. At minimum it must be mandated that all gun buyers be subject to appropriate background checks. Current estimates are that 30 percent of gun sales take place--including gun show purchases--without this essential precaution.
Yet all this is only a start. If we are truly serious about school safety, we need to demand that whole classes of firearms be taken off the marketplace. AR-15s and other assault rifles are the most notorious symbols of our country’s permissive attitude toward firearms access. But handguns with high capacity magazines exact an even greater toll on the innocent. A child is shot or killed by a gun every 30 minutes in the United States; over the past five decades a staggering 160,000 children have been lost to gun violence. In 2016, the American Journal of Medicine reported that that among two dozen of the world’s wealthiest nations, this country accounted for 91 percent of firearms deaths among children 14 and under.
Emotional claims that the right to possess lethal weapons is sacrosanct discredits the wisdom of the Constitution’s framers and ignores our own legal history. Despite outcries from extremists that access to guns is threatened, the United States remains a society awash in firearms. Americans make up about five percent of the Earth’s population but they own nearly 50 percent of the world’s gun supply. Until quite recently, the Supreme Court continually upheld the right of Congress and state legislatures to place substantial restrictions on access to firearms while respecting the Second Amendment. In practice this meant that Congress took sweeping action to ban weapons such as machine guns, assault weapons, and sawed-off shotguns while protecting the rights of responsible gun owners.
Young people from Parkland, Florida and other communities throughout the nation are forcing all of us to come to terms with this issue. This time we owe them more than platitudes, non-solutions, and nonsense. Ongoing improvements to school security are certainly necessary and we will continue to do our part. But if Americans really want to avoid another tragedy, we must deal with the root cause: the irresponsible and permissive access we allow to guns in our society.
Protecting Discourse and the Exchange of Ideas in SchoolsPosted by Lou Moore on 6/22/2017Public schools cannot be the unregulated “marketplace of ideas” that John Stuart Mill envisioned for the larger society. Nor should they be. Children need to be guarded from the hate speech and nonsense protected by the First Amendment in the public square.Nevertheless, schools should aspire to encourage an open and responsible exchange of ideas around vital topics, including controversial ones.The current political atmosphere makes this especially challenging. Recently in Wall Township, school officials were criticized after pro-Trump slogans were airbrushed from a student’s t-shirt in his yearbook photo. Ultimately new yearbooks, with the original photo in place, were made available.The remedy addressed the immediate issue and protected self-expression but the underlying issue remains. Many of the aggrieved parties in Wall and elsewhere are on the political right, but the real victims are the students. Left unanswered, toxic partisanship and the ranting of extremists will undermine civil discourse and distort how teachers handle critical topics in their classes.A recent study conducted by Penn State and the National Center for Science Education on the teaching of climate change in the United States illuminated the issue in stark terms. The report concluded that the “median teacher devoted only one to two hours to the topic” and “at least one in three teachers bring climate change denial into the classroom, claiming that many scientists believe climate change is not caused by humans."While the study did not examine the cause of the confusion, it’s reasonable to assume that many teachers are choosing to tread lightly, fearful of offending those who perpetuate the myth that climate change is a hoax. Students across the nation, meanwhile, remain victimized by our politics, under-informed about the most important economic and environmental issue of our time.Schools did not create the current divisions in American politics. However, they can play a central role in making things better.Last fall I met with students after the outcome of the presidential election and proposed that we form a Public Policy Forum at RBR to discuss the vital issues facing our country, such as reducing college costs, expanding economic opportunity, and protecting our environment. I suggested that we do this in a non-partisan way that puts aside the rancor that emerged in the campaign.At our first forum in March, Joseph Amditis, the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, discussed the rise of “fake news” and the importance of digital literacy. Students and teachers asked questions from various perspectives and respected each other’s viewpoints. Moving forward, we hope to host future sessions on climate change and healthcare. The students and their teachers set a superb example that illustrated the importance of civil discourse and objective discussion in school.The issue goes beyond yearbook photos and political self-expression. Schools cannot abandon their responsibility to inform, spark responsible debate, and prepare young people for engagement and citizenship even if our politics appear to be broken. At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the delegates had formed. "A republic, if you can keep it," Franklin replied, reminding everyone of the indispensable role that informed, educated, and active citizens play.
The Vital Issue of Student EngagementPosted by Dr. Louis Moore on 5/26/2017
The Gallup organization released a poll recently that measured student engagement among nearly 1 million U.S. students from over 3,000 public schools in grades 5-12. Students were questioned to determine their level of interest in what they were studying, whether they found school-work to be relevant, and if they felt valued at school.
The findings should concern everyone who cares about education. On average, only 50 percent of American students felt engaged in school. Unfortunately that’s the good news. The bad news is that engagement peaks early, with fifth graders reporting the highest level at 75 percent. After this, the level of engagement continues a steady downward trend until it bottoms out in grade 11, where only 32 percent of students surveyed reported they were engaged. There is a slight uptick in senior year but the trend is clear: As students progress through the grades, they are engaged less and less in what they are doing in school.
Should we be surprised? Education reforms over the past three decades have focused on standards and standardized assessments. Promoting rigor and measuring student progress are commendable goals, but by themselves do little to spark curiosity and engender a passion for learning.
It would be wrong, however, to blame the education standards movement as the main culprit. Taking on the engagement crisis will require a reconsideration of many long-standing assumptions about education and the business of school. A good place to start might be to consider this paradox. On the one hand, it is abundantly clear that the people who teach, counsel, and advise our children are incredibly humane and care deeply about their students.
On the other hand, it’s not always clear that the institutional side of education—the intense competition and narrow emphasis on grades, the relentless ranking and sorting of kids—promotes happiness, fulfillment, or engagement. Of course we in public education are not running utopian experiments and some degree of standardization is inevitable, even desirable. Yet I wonder if institutionally our schools are as humane as the people who work in them.
Addressing the crisis of engagement will require fresh thinking and a shift in priorities. Schools should strive to administer programs—as we do at RBR—that empower young people and connect students to the world. Teachers should be supported in designing experiences that emphasize individual growth and understanding. Families can assist by reminding children that the purpose of education is not “to get into college” but to develop their capacities as creative and critical thinkers, empowered to improve the world.
A shift in education that prioritizes engagement is not idealistic fluff. Virtually every national study examining success after high school places a high priority on the curiosity, engagement, and attitude of the student. These attributes are ranked far above other more customary predictors of success, such as standardized test scores or GPAs. Making progress in these areas will only be possible if students truly care what their learning about. In the end, education is deeply personal, requiring both intellectual and emotional commitment that is not possible without engagement.