Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Be Nice. Work Hard. Go to College"

The current City Journal has a fascinating review of Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America, about an apparently very successful charter school movement known as KIPP. The reviewer, Charles Upton Sahm, describes this approach to education as a "revolutionary new education model." It strikes me — a thirty-five year veteran of the public schools — as a rediscovery of the obvious. But there are a great many educators — including many of those who educate the educators — who have been ignoring the obvious for a long time. Many of the things in this new/old approach should be done in every classroom, whether or not in a charter school. I've highlighted some of the "ought to be obvious" in the excerpt below.
From one Houston teacher, Harriet Ball, they learned the importance of classroom management—the need to maintain order while keeping the classroom vibrant, enjoyable, and full of energy. From Rafe Esquith, an award-winning instructor in Los Angeles, they discovered the merits of extended class time and a rigorous, content-rich curriculum that holds low-income and minority students to high academic standards. Levin and Feinberg immediately appropriated one of Ball’s secrets: the use of mnemonic chants that, as Mathews puts it, “firmly attach essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of nine-year-olds.” They used the chants to great effect, getting kids to commit important facts to memory in the same way they memorize lyrics from the latest hip-hop song. (Education-school professors frown on such devices as “rote memorization.” But today, all KIPP fifth-graders can recite their multiplication tables by heart—a skill that eludes 80 percent of their peers nationwide, according to a recent study.)

Levin and Feinberg did add a few twists of their own. They implemented a broken-windows-style discipline policy, believing that leaving any misbehavior unaddressed would increase the likelihood of further misbehavior and distract from lessons. They stayed after school to work with struggling pupils, assigned mountains of homework, and encouraged students to call them at home if they needed help with their assignments. Perhaps their most important step, however, was reaching out to parents. .... [more]

I had to learn most of these by trial and error. It wasn't until I got bounced down to middle school for several semesters that I learned kids that age actually enjoy knowing facts. I became convinced that the primary reason memorization isn't used much for that age group [and perhaps for those younger] is not because it doesn't work, but because teachers themselves find it boring.

Why KIPP Schools Work by Charles Upton Sahm, City Journal 13 March 2009

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