Author Archives: Jan Kragen

About Jan Kragen

I'm a National Board Certified Teacher. I am also on the Executive Board of the Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG). I've been a teacher since 1977, in public and private schools, in third through eighth grades, in California, Colorado, New York, and Washington. In 1983 I started specializing in gifted education. I now work in North Kitsap, teaching a self-contained Highly-Capable 5th grade class. I also teach teachers. I've written science and social studies curriculum units for our district, resource books for teachers, and educational articles. I've presented at national and state science, social studies, and gifted conferences. And I've done in-service training, both within my district and as a consultant through other districts and my ESD. Many of the things I have written and many of the materials I have developed for my own classroom use are available for free off my website, kragen.net.

“Hitting the Wall”—Growth Mindset in the Highly Capable Classroom

For gifted students, “smart” can mean all kinds of interesting things:

  • “I already understand that.”
  • “I learned that last year” (or two or three or more years ago).
  • “I can do this without trying.”
  • “I don’t have to work hard.”
  • “Everything is easy.”

“Smart” can actually be crippling because when things get hard—and things get hard for everyone, eventually—then everything isn’t easy anymore. They don’t understand right away. They have to work hard and try. And they don’t know how.

I went to college with friends who had been valedictorians at their high schools. They had cruised through high school, never putting any effort in, acing all their classes.

They arrived at our college, which consistently gets rated one of the top 100 small colleges in the US. Suddenly they were struggling to make Cs. They didn’t know how to study for tests. They didn’t know how to take notes. They didn’t know how to do the work of being students.

I had it a lot easier. I had come from a very difficult high school with very high expectations.

Our college was harder for me than my high school, but I expected to work harder at college than at high school. I put in more time, doing what I had been trained to do. My GPA went down too, but only a tenth of a point. My public school district back home had prepared me for difficult work.

I tell my students that story. I tell them everybody “hits the wall” at some point—they reach the point where learning new things isn’t easy anymore.

It’s a whole lot easier to hit the wall in elementary school than in college!

In elementary school you have teachers and parents who spend all kinds of time meeting with you and helping you and supporting you. We—teachers and parents—work together to teach you and train you and coach you into learning how to tackle the difficult task of thinking hard as you learn new and challenging material.

Be grateful for the adults who are willing to help! And be gracious about accepting their help!

Then I talk to my students about perfectionism. So many of my students are tied up in knots with perfectionist issues. I tell them right up front, “You can’t be perfect in my room. I won’t let you.”

They look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“If you can consistently get 100% on your work, chances are you are not in the right placement. You need to be moved up a grade in math. Or you need to be reading more challenging books. Or I need to be holding you to a higher standard on the writing continuum.”

Sometimes a student will ask what that would look like.

“I’ve had students now and then who are so exceptional at writing that they get 4s across the board on nearly everything they write. At that point I sit them down and tell them, ‘Now I’m going to start talking with you the way I would talk with an adult writer in an adult writers group.’ They look a little startled for a minute but take a deep breath and jump right in. There’s always room for improvement.

“If you meet the bar, I will raise it.”

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about pursuing excellence. It’s about getting better. It’s about stretching our abilities. It’s about growth.

Nearly every year after conferences I end up—like last week—having lunch with a student and a parent. We talk about perfectionism and anxiety and staying awake at night not being able to sleep. Sometimes the parent realizes they have the same issues their child does! Sometimes I just need to reiterate that, yes, this is a hard class. And if the child gets confused or frustrated, they can call me at home in the evening. I would rather have them get help and be able to sleep.

So it’s not about being perfect. In fact, it’s not even about “doing your best” all the time. I have to be careful with that misconception, and I have careful conversations with parents about that at conferences. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to “do their best” in every subject at all times, especially with all the other things my students are involved in. I have students who do two or even more extracurricular events at a time—dance, drama, sports, foreign languages, singing, musical instruments, caring for animals, caring for siblings. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “Do well.”

Not necessarily, “do your best,” but definitely “do well.” The goal is improvement. What can you do to get better?

I tell my students that every student in the school has to work hard. They should too.

Me too. I tell them I should be working hard to improve right alongside them.

For a lot of gifted students, they really hit “the wall” for the first time in higher math courses. With algebra. Or geometry. Or maybe calculus.

The better I can equip my students with the ability to think hard, to work hard, to pursue excellence—to want to grow—the better they will be able to scale any wall that life throws at them.

Equity in Identifying Highly Capable Students

I spent several days this summer at the annual board retreat for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talents and Gifted). Jody Hess, OSPI’s Program Supervisor for Highly Capable Student Programs, came to talk with us about a change to the law: districts must “prioritize equitable identification of low income students.”

Universal Screening

One of the barriers to equity in HC programs is the process districts use to invite students into the identification procedure. I was stunned to learn this year how many districts still use nominations as an initial screening device.

What’s the problem with that?

There is still a great deal of confusion about the nature of the Highly Capable or gifted student. Many people—teachers and parents—nominate only those students who are responsible, high-achieving, engaged, motivated, and well-behaved. They fail to nominate students who never turn in their assignments, resist doing any class work, are distracted, and chronically misbehave, even if those less than stellar scholars meet the state criteria for identification.

Then there’s a thornier issue. It seems that people do a better job at nominating students who are similar to them—the same ethnic background, the same socio-economic background. If a majority of teachers in a district are white and middle class, it’s possible HC minority and lower socio-economic students in that district may be overlooked.

If teachers don’t nominate a student, the parents can always fill out a nomination form, right? Trouble is, relying on parents to nominate their children is always tricky. Some parents are savvier than others. Is it fair to make a child’s chance at identification rest on their parents’ ability to access and maneuver around the system?

The solution is called universal screening. ALL the students in the district are tested for the Highly Capable program. Or at least use a quick screener (it might be test or checklist such as WaKIDS) with all students initially. Then include those students who score well in a pool for more formal identification.

By the way, universal screening also means there is no impediment to the testing. For example, the testing isn’t offered only on Saturday when some families might not be able to bring their child.

At my district we test every student at the end of second grade. The tests are conducted during the school day, and they are administered in the second grade classrooms by the students’ own teachers. There is very little test anxiety in that situation. We’ve been doing our testing this way for about 15 years now. I honestly thought by now it was standard operating procedure around the state.

If you don’t see every student in your district having some screening for your HC program, you should start asking why.

Multiple Points of Data

Another question you want to ask is if your district is relying on a single criterion for identification: a CogAT score, for example.

While a CogAT is a great way to say, “Yes, this child definitely needs services through the Highly Capable Program,” too often a slightly lower score is used as an excuse to say, “No, this child definitely does not need services.”

No district should be using cut off scores—those in the 95%ile and above are eligible and get served, those below aren’t and don’t, and we’re done.

Instead districts should be looking at multiple data points. It’s fine to say that children who score at 130 and above obviously need services. Now it’s time to look more closely at the children who don’t quite make that. How do they score on achievement tests? On their SBA? On report cards?

When the Multi-disciplinary Team at my district meets to work on Highly Capable identifications, we have access to many types of data, including:

  • CogAT scores (broken down so we can see verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal scores),
  • STAR math and reading (we can access STAR scores for the year so we can track the progression of scores),
  • SBA (for grade levels that took the test),
  • parent and teacher nominations (which still get turned in even though they are not required), and
  • HOPE scale scores (from teachers).

Other information we have is ELL status of students. Our district ELL coordinator is a member of the team and keeps us up-to-date about how ELL students on our lists are progressing. We take that information into account when making decisions. We attempt to keep the identification for HC proportional with the demographics of the district.

For students going into grades 3-5, we first look for students whose scores are so high in both verbal and quantitative areas that they belong in the self-contained HC classes. We don’t limit ourselves to just the CogAT scores to determine which students require those advanced services. Then we go through the lists again. If there are students who are strong in math or verbal, we identify them in those particular areas for extra attention in their general education classrooms.

We are looking for reasons TO identify students, not reasons to deny services.

In middle school every fifth grade student’s math scores in the district are analyzed and every student is placed in math according to their abilities. There are sixth graders in middle school this year taking sixth grade math, seventh grade math, algebra, and geometry.

(When I first arrived in my district the math department at the middle schools would not allow a student to take algebra before eighth grade. “They aren’t developmentally ready.” Now we have sixth graders taking geometry!)

Students who were in the self-contained fifth grade class, students who were identified for verbal skills in elementary school, and additional students whose parents or teachers request that they get retested at the end of fifth grade can all move into the HC English/social studies classes at the middle school. We have one full class at one middle school and

two full classes at the other. Then at the high school all students have access to pre-AP and AP starting at ninth grade.

Low Income

The trouble with saying we have to “prioritize equitable identification of low-income students” is that we can’t know which of our students are low-income. Not when

we go into the Multi-disciplinary Team meetings and look at data. After all, we aren’t allowed to have individual students identified as free/reduced lunch.

(Jody Hess from OSPI is working on what indicators of low-income may be useful, without “profiling” students.)

The point it, we have to do the best we can at identifying every student who needs services. And then provide those services.

Welcome Back to School, Parents!

Every year my school has a Back to School Night for parents the evening before school starts. Children and parents move freely from room to room, greeting teachers, checking out the gym and library, signing up for the PTSA. We end the evening with some food out on the playground. And we start school the next day.

Every year I have my own Back to School Night for the parents in my room sometime in the first week of school. The children are not invited. For one thing, there isn’t enough room, and for another, they’ve already heard everything I’m going to say.

I tell the parents all the details that I’ve already told the students about rules, policies, and procedures, including how I communicate with parents during the year. I tell them about the curriculum and grading. I seek out classroom volunteers.

Then I talk about how important I consider parents to be. I have taught since 1977, and I’ve taught gifted since 1983. I have the MA plus 90 plus I’ve lost track of how many credits since then. I just keep taking classes. (I went to a great set of classes this summer!)

I have a wealth of experience and expertise in my field.

But I see students for, at most, about six hours each day. I am educating their child for a year.

Parents have their children for their whole lives.

Parents have the wealth of experience and expertise in their own children.

I tell parents I see us as partners, and, in many ways, I see myself as the junior partner as we work together.

I can help them understand the demands of the educational system, but they can help me understand the needs of their child.

Having that kind of attitude toward parents helps build collaborative relationships, as well as mutual respect.

Sometimes I need to do more. One time a parent was trying to have her child placed in the self-contained gifted class—in my classroom. The teachers who knew her came up to me and warned me about her, how pushy she was, how hard to get along with.

The day she came to my classroom to tell me her son had been accepted into my class, I threw my arms wide and said, “Welcome to my room!”

I made her cry. From that moment on I could do no wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do wrong all the time. I made mistakes and screw up with the best of them. But I have a good working relationship with my parents. So most times they come to me to talk to me about what I did.

Last year at spring conferences, at the end of the conference, one mom took a deep breath and said, “Jan, I have to tell you, you said something that really bothered me.”

“Oh, no, what did I say?”

She told me, and I responded, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” I apologized thoroughly.

(I was probably 40 years old before I figured this out: Don’t explain. Don’t defend yourself. Just apologize.)

We talked some more and on the way out I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She laughed and said, “Of course!”

Light and easy.

Having a collaborative relationship really helps with dual identified children, or with children who are gifted and have other social-emotional needs. I had so many of those last year. I was in daily contact with several parents, just to keep them abreast of how things were going in the classroom. I would hear back about how things were going at home. Between us, we tried to keep all those little ships on an even keel.

Every year I look forward to greeting my new students. But every year I also look forward to greeting my new team of adults—who will help me work with those students—the parents of my students.

Charter Schools

My sister asked me why teachers objected to charter schools. Why shouldn’t the money just follow the kids to whatever school the parents choose?

I said that back in the 1970s, when I first started teaching, my first couple of jobs were in little Christian schools. We got paid about a third of what public school teachers made. Almost no benefits. I remember being handed a ream of paper before school started—that was my supply of copy paper for my class for the year. We had no specialists and no support staff.

At that time the parents sometimes talked about how frustrating it was that they paid taxes for public schools and then paid tuition for private school. Why couldn’t they have their own tax money to pay for their tuition?

My sister said, “Exactly.”

I told her the voucher movement started with already existing private schools. Even with that small beginning, the public schools were highly suspicious. I remember a great story from New York City where the public school union reps confronted the Catholic school nuns, accusing them of wanting to take only the best and the brightest of the students and turning away the trouble makers. The nuns said, “You pick who you send to our schools. We’ll take whoever you send.” That shut up the union, as far as those schools were concerned.

The ironic thing was, most of the private religious schools that I knew about quickly turned away from the voucher movement. They decided that money from the government in any form—even in the form of vouchers—would come with government strings attached. And they wanted to preserve their autonomy.

However, the voucher movement continued. Individuals, institutions, organizations—people created charter schools specifically to take advantage of voucher programs. And some charter schools are businesses, designed to make a profit.

I told my sister, I have a hard time reconciling the idea of taking money from public schools to give to private schools that are for-profit institutions.

She said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. That would be wrong.”

On the other hand, I’d like my coworkers who damn all charters with the same brush to take a look at Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland. Breakthrough Schools are a network of charter schools in Cleveland.

  • They are NONPROFIT.
  • They target some of the city’s neediest areas.
  • And they are remarkably successful.

“Nearly all Breakthrough students are students of color, and eight of 10 are low-income.”

 “Its schools are in the top third of all schools in the city for academic performance.”

And by the way, Breakthrough Charter Schools joined 20 other high scoring charter schools in opposing President Trump’s education budget, even though the new budget proposes $168 million more for charter schools. They united to oppose the cuts to traditional public schools, saying,

“We need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools.”

Budgets are statements of priorities, and this one sends a clear message that public education is not a top priority.”

The group specifically objected to cuts in Pell grants, teacher training, and afterschool programs.

And they reiterated the value of public education as an “essential pillar of our democracy.”

Personally, I can’t reduce the charter school debate to a sound bite. I think for-profit schools should operate with no public money at all. But as far as I am concerned, if Cleveland or Ohio wants to give vouchers to families with children attending Breakthrough Schools, I’d be fine with that. Breakthrough Schools are bringing new people, new energy, and new ideas to a place that desperately needs them—not to make money, but to make a difference.

Let’s Talk About Tax

I just spent the day at Occupy Olympia. I carpooled down with three other teachers from North Kitsap, and we joined a group of teachers from around the state.

Before I left home, I read articles about Washington’s regressive tax system from newspapers in Seattle and Everett and Spokane. The key point they all make is that the top one percent of Washington wage earners pay only 2.4% of their income in taxes. In stark contrast, the poorest residents of the state pay 16.8%.

Honestly, there is a discrepancy between wealthy and poor across the nation, and it’s time to shine a spotlight on that fact nationwide. Meanwhile, though, the discrepancy in Washington is the worst. Washington has the most regressive tax system in the entire United States. (Not only is it a regressive tax system, it is also an oppressive tax system, especially to society’s most vulnerable.)

According to the Washington Department of Revenue website, Washington makes more than half its income from sales tax of one kind or another, which makes the state income especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. If the economy is tight, people don’t buy as much.

Face it, our sales taxes are high. Our gas taxes are high. Our B&O taxes are high.

No wonder whenever anyone raises the idea of any new tax—income tax, anyone?—people in Washington freak out. They panic.

I totally understand. If I had to continue paying the taxes I have to pay now AND I had to pay income taxes on top of that, my husband and I couldn’t afford to live in our three bedroom two bath house with our one car and a motorcycle and no pets. (Who can afford a dog anymore???)

It’s time to get creative.

So in Olympia I looked for people to talk to. I talked to the aide for one of my representatives. I spoke with representatives from other districts.

I said we needed more revenue in order to fully fund schools. But we couldn’t just add a new tax. In our state, that’s a non-starter.

What we need is a complete tax overhaul from the ground up.

We need the legislature to come to the taxpayers and say, “Look, you will have lower sales taxes. Lower gas taxes. Lower B&O taxes. Lower taxes in general.

“At the same time we are going to implement an income tax for the most wealthy in the state.

“We are going to make taxes more equitable.

“And we will fully fund high-quality education throughout the state.”

One representative cheered. Another waved me off with “we can’t talk about that!”

One person asked how I would ever get the legislature to agree. I said it might take putting them all in seclusion—locking the doors and taking away their electronic devices until they had reached an agreement. Preferably unanimity. I said they could model the process on the US Constitutional Convention of 1787.

I also suggested watching the movie Separate But Equal to see how a sharply divided Supreme Court gradually moved to a unanimous decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.

So what happens if the legislature does it? What if they actually come up with a restructured tax plan that not only fully funds education but is equitable too?

I said obviously they would need to sell it to the public. We should go out in teams, legislators and teachers side by side, to educate and explain to the rest of the voters why this new plan makes sense.

The Supreme Court Speaks

Not the Washington State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States of America.

On March 22, 2017—in a unanimous decision—the Supreme Court supported high standards for special education. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the law requires a student’s educational program to be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” depending on the “unique circumstances” of each child.

The case involved an autistic student. The parents sued for his rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students. I teach Highly Capable (HC) students. Why am I so excited about this Supreme Court decision?

Remember, the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) draws a clear parallel between several groups of students “with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels.” By the way, similar to this court case, ESSA says schools “have to provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 12-17).

In addition, as I’ve mentioned before, in many states, Gifted Education falls under Special Education. In those states, any staff who work with gifted students would automatically apply the wording from this new ruling to their students.

Try this on for size:

The law requires that the Highly Capable students in the state of Washington receive an educational program reasonably calculated to enable each of them to make progress appropriate in light of their circumstances—in this case, their abilities.

Of course, that requirement would apply to all 6-10% of the students identified as HC, not just the 2.314 that are currently funded under the antiquated formula now in use in our state.

The Chief Justice went on to say, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis (minimal) progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” He said, “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

Oh my gosh. I can say the same thing. Let me put it this way:

A Highly Capable student offered an educational program providing opportunities for merely minimal progress—or no real progress—from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with high abilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.

Very often HC children come into school already knowing much of the curriculum the district says they should learn that year. Every year I give the sixth grade math placement test to fifth grade students. I’ve found that students who score a 45% or above don’t belong in fifth grade math. They go into sixth. (Those who score over 65%? I give them the seventh grade placement test.)

Even high school or college students can know a majority of the class’s material before the first day of school begins. In an enlightened school, students are given the opportunity to test out of classes. They take the final exam, pass, and they have officially met the requirement for the class. They can take something else instead. Done!

So what happens if they don’t have the option to test out of boring, unnecessary coursework? Gifted students will drop out. Now imagine. If those students were pretested, put into the proper course level, and presented with exciting, challenging, jaw-dropping, brandnew stuff at school every day, how many would be compelled to stay and graduate?

Just like the rest of our students, we want our HC students to excel. We want them to become leaders and contributing members of our communities. They can’t excel without being stretched and pushed.

My students just finished their Classroom Based Assessments for social studies. With my fifth graders I use the “Causes of Conflict CBA” recommended for seventh grade, and I design the project after National History Day (HD).  One of my guys had beat his head on his desk, “I hate writing, I hate writing, I hate writing.” His CBA website is now the sample “Junior” HD Project on my website. (Go to Kragen.net. Look at the links on the right side of the home page. Scroll almost to the bottom.)

Stretch. Push.

He is SO PROUD.

There is tremendous pressure on teachers to move students up to passing scores on tests, to having students demonstrate basic competency. What pressure is there to take students who are already performing at well above grade level and move them even further?

I was in a meeting this last week. There were at least eight adults in the room. We were discussing no more than a dozen kids and brainstorming how to move each of them from “a one to a two” or “a two to a three” in reading or math. We talked for half an hour or more.

Since 1989 I have NEVER been in a similar meeting to talk with a team of adults about how to meet the needs of students who need to go from “a four to a (mythical) five.” Not. Even. Once.

I have had individual teachers ask for advice. Or parents. At middle school even the occasional student.

But we don’t have big group meetings like that, to brainstorm ways to enable our HC children make progress that is appropriate in light of their circumstances—their abilities.

In the next few days I’ll be meeting with parents for conferences. We’ll review fall goals and talk about the move toward middle school and beyond. We’ll celebrate successes and pinpoint an area or two that could still use some growth.

It’s my job, to figure out where my students are and then move them as far forward as I can.

It’s nothing new. It’s what I’ve always believed.

But it’s nice to have the Supremes at my back.

What Actually Works

According to a report on The Huffington Post, the money spent on the federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) didn’t accomplish anything. That’s $7 billion dollars spent on failed efforts. The final report from the Mathematica Policy Associates said the “SIG grants made essentially no difference in the achievement of the students in schools that received them.”

SIG grants offered low-achieving schools just four choices:

  • close the school
  • convert the school to a charter school
  • replace the principal and half the staff
  • or replace the principal, use achievement growth to evaluate teachers, use data to inform instruction, and lengthen the school day or year.

Wow, those sound like popular choices being floated right about now, don’t they? How many legislators at the state and federal level like the idea of converting public schools to charter schools? Or maybe they think replacing staff or using achievement growth to evaluate teachers or using data to inform instruction or lengthening the school day or year—or some combination of the above—is the magic bullet to cure the ills of schools in America.

But none of those solutions worked.

None of them improved student achievement.

Of course, not one of the four choices has a strong research base to support using it. There is no compelling reason, based on actual science or statistical study, to choose any one of them.

So all that money went down the drain.

(It makes my stomach hurt just to think about all that wasted money. What we could have done with $7 billion dollars!)

Now for the good news.

There are, in fact, four whole-school reform models that the Department of Education has approved as being evidenced-based:

The fourth model, by the way, is the only one that is not proprietary. Small Schools of Choice are organized around smaller units of adults and children. Three core principles provide the framework: “academic rigor, personalized relationships, and relevance to the world of work.” As I looked over the SSC plan I noticed items like thematic units, longer instructional blocks, common planning time, adults acting as advisers to 10-15 students, partnerships with the community and parents. Those are all good things that we KNOW work.

Now for the really good news!

The Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University has a brand new website called Evidence for ESSA. Their staff has reviewed every math and reading program for grades K to 12 to determine which meet the strong, moderate, or promising levels of evidence defined in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As they say, “It’s long been said that education needs its own version of Consumer Reports—authoritative, well researched, and incredibly easy to use and interpret. We hope Evidence for ESSA will be just that.”

  • A program is ranked strong if it has a significant positive effect with at least one randomized study.
  • A program is ranked moderate if it has a significant positive effect with at least one study that is classified as “quasi-experimental”—a matched study, say.
  • A program is ranked promising if it has a significant positive effect but the study was classified as “correlational.”

Notice that even for moderate and promising programs, the effects are still good—the program shows a significant positive effect. The reason those programs get a lower rating isn’t that they have poorer results. It’s because the controls of the studies were not as rigorous.

Ah, reading these standards take me back to my MA class on statistics. (Which I passed by the skin of my teeth.)

As soon as I found out about the CRRE site, I sent the information to my district administrator in charge of curriculum. He says this site will be very useful.

No kidding.

There’s not an endless amount of money to spend on education. We all know that. Let’s spend it where we know it will work.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Cursive

With the Senate proposing that all students be required to learn cursive (SB 5238), it makes sense, in the first place, to look at how writing is actually taught.

The students in my class can concoct the most amazing stories—inventive, creative, imaginative. Give them a writing prompt, though, and some of those same students can barely write a page. I don’t think it’s because a writing prompt makes their brains leak out their ears. I think they have problems writing because writing is difficult. And I’m not talking about the difficulties in generating and sustaining a story or idea. I’m talking about the physical task of writing, the moving of the pen or pencil across the page. For too many students it’s laborious, tedious, exhausting work. It defeats them. They are left unable to demonstrate their true capabilities.

Many children don’t have trouble with their handwriting because they are lazy or because they don’t care. They have trouble because they are writing with their fingers.

Gross motor skills are pretty well established in girls and boys by about age five, which is one of the reasons we start school at about age five.

Fine motor skills come later. Children who enjoy cutting with scissors, stretching and pinching modeling clay, stacking small blocks, or stringing beads may develop these skills by age five or six. Others (often boys) may have underdeveloped fine motor skills until age 12!

Obviously, you wouldn’t go to a class full of two-year-olds and try to teach them to skip. Physically, they just aren’t ready. Their muscles are not yet capable of doing the task. In the same way, you can’t go into a first grade classroom and try to teach all the students to write for any length of time (never mind neatly) by using the muscles in their hands and fingers. For many of them, their muscles are not yet ready to do the task.

Whether we use cursive, print, or all caps (the way engineers are trained to write), I’m going to suggest we ought to teach students to write by using their large muscles.

Years ago most American children were taught to write using their arm muscles instead of their fingers, using the Palmer method. My mother, born in 1930, remembers her first lessons: drawing endless circles in the air before eventually writing letters in the air and finally writing letters on paper. The teacher, facing the class and modeling the correct movements in reverse, monitored and corrected each student’s letter formation. Children across the country all learned the same method of writing, they all had handwriting that was similar—and their handwriting was legible.

A decade or more ago I used the same technique with my fifth and sixth graders. I made them use brushes and watercolors at the beginning so they wouldn’t bring their bad habits with them to this new practice. At the end of a month or so their handwriting was remarkably improved.

The Palmer method disappeared, though. By the time my generation started first grade, many schools used workbooks with photos and diagrams showing how to form letters correctly. We went right to copying the letters in our books. Inevitably we wrote by moving our fingers and our wrists.

Learning to write legibly is fine, to be sure, but content is a far more important issue. Physiology affects content, too. If children write with their small muscles, muscles which for many of them are not yet developed, those muscles will tire long before the children can write down all they want to say. Children may start strong on a piece and then simply stop, almost in mid-thought. In a test situation that calls for a mandatory rough draft and final draft, they may turn in a stronger rough draft and a truncated final draft.

I certainly saw evidence of writing fatigue on the WASL and MSP paper and pencil writing tests.

Feeling frustrated, several years ago I worked with some primary teachers at my school and the author of the Draw.Write.Now series to do an experiment. We took one third of the students from each first grade class and taught them how to write in ways that were physically less taxing, including teaching them the Palmer method. Then as their teachers gave them writing prompts and they turned in their work, we counted the number of words each child wrote. The students in the experimental group wrote more, on average, for each prompt.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as teaching physiologically sound writing techniques.

In the second place, some student process their thinking better on a computer than they do on paper. For those students, the sooner they learn to touch type, the better.

In fact, since the SBA and so many other tests are all computer-based, schools are teaching typing skills as early as second grade. Where are schools finding the time to add lessons in typing? Hmm, by deleting lessons in cursive, which used to start in second grade.

Right now I have students writing historical fiction narrative pieces. I’ve told the class the stories will be graded on content only—they don’t need to worry about conventions. (Huge sigh of relief!) The students will read their pieces aloud to the class or, if they prefer, I will read them aloud, and we will comment. We will enjoy each other’s writing.

Some students are writing on paper because that’s the way they work best. Some are on computers because that’s the way they work best. Since they are reading the stories aloud, it doesn’t matter if they do their writing on paper or on computers.

And isn’t that part of what we are supposed to do? To differentiate instruction to meet the needs of the individual students in our classes? One way to differentiate is through process. My students are all happy they can choose the process that suits them best.

To me cursive is not nearly as important as allowing students to find their best means of written communication.

I know there are people who think teaching cursive is important. Frankly, my dear, I’m not one of them.

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

Funding Gifted Education

I am one of three teachers in my school who teach in a self-contained Highly Capable (HC) classroom. We have a common math period, and when math class starts it’s a moment or two of scramble. Some of my students go to Mrs. Taylor’s. Some of Mrs. Taylor’s and Mrs. Fairchild’s come to me. Some of mine go to computers in the hall to work independently.

The three of us share one hour of paraeducator time that we use during math wherever we deem we most need the help. This year our paraeducator is working with the younger students.

A couple weeks ago I met with our program director and mentioned that next year our paraeducator would have at least six students in seventh grade math. No worries—she has worked with a small group of advanced students in seventh grade math before, and she actually prefers that assignment.

My administrator told me not to count on having any paraeducator time next year.

Now I’ve taught in the HC program in our district since 1989. We’ve always had help for math. After all, we have three teachers working with students on levels from grade three to grade seven or eight. Having one extra adult makes the groups manageable.

But next year there might not be enough money to make that possible. For the first time ever.

Trust me, I’m concerned about state funding for Highly Capable programs.

Eight years ago only 49% of the districts in the state of Washington had any programs at all for their gifted students, their Highly Capable programs. In those districts that actually had programs, most provided services just for students in grades three to five. Why those grades? Most districts didn’t do the testing to identify students until the end of second grade, so schools didn’t start services until third grade. And most districts (or the secondary schools in the districts) felt they offered enough variety at the secondary level that they didn’t need HC services past fifth grade.

During the 2008-2009 school year the legislature passed the Basic Education Act, and everything changed for HC education in Washington. HB 2261 stated that “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education”—and it said “the program for highly capable students … shall be categorical funding” (HB 2261, page 63, lines 21-23, and page 64, lines 2-4).

The legislature decreed that having an appropriate HC education was Basic Education for HC students! And the funding for HC students was to be treated the same way as the funding for ELL and LAP students. Hallelujah! All roads were now smooth!

Of course, we all know what an unfunded mandate is. Welcome to the world of gifted education.

Running the programs for half the districts in the state, and just a handful of grade levels at that, cost $43,471,005 in 2008-2009. The state allocation that year—before Highly Capable was required—was   $8,367,000. That means the state paid 19.2% of the cost of HC education that year.

By last year, 2015-16, the state allocated $10,001,000. The funds for HC have gone up about 19.5% since 2000-2009. But, remember, the number of grades served has more than quadrupled. And the number of districts receiving funds has doubled. The state increase in HC funds is laughably low.

Districts have started solving the lack of state funding by identifying fewer HC students. What’s wrong with identifying fewer students? The insidious problem is, the students who are less likely to get identified are students from low income groups, minorities, ELL students, dual-identified or twice-exceptional students (gifted and another identification—think HC with a 504 or IEP). Narrowing the focus, limiting the pool, becomes an equity issue, an issue addressed last week at the Equity Summit on Gifted Equity at the Robinson Center at the University of Washington. And we are back to making HC education look like an elitist program.

Sigh.

Every proposal, from the governor, the House, and the Senate, offers some improvement in HC allocation. The question is, do any of the proposals actually fully fund the costs of HC in the st
ate?

Trust me, my students desperately need the help they get. Not just in math. They deserve materials appropriate for their level in every subject, just like any other special needs group. They require teachers who are trained to meet not only their academic but their unique social and emotional needs. And their number one need must be met on a regular basis—quality time with their intellectual peers.

The state requires districts to treat HC students like they matter. Now the state has to provide the money for their education.