Tag Archives: students

Classrooms Should Be More Like Trains

19 Nov

quiet_zone-200x200

I like traveling. I enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and my favorite way to travel is to walk. Walking connects me to the natural environment and helps me feel grounded. When walking I experience for myself how cold or hot it is, how far I’m traveling, and I understand how steep a hill is in a way I can’t when I’m driving. When waking isn’t always practical I like to use public transit when I can. Trains and buses give me a feeling of freedom and independence, that I’m not reliant on cars.

I was recently riding a train into the city and noticed that the upper floors of passenger cars on commuter trains are designated Quiet Zones. Passengers riding in a Quiet Zone are expected to keep any noise “low and brief” by keeping conversations short and quiet, muting electronics and keeping headphone volume low.

Quiet areas on trains are becoming increasingly popular on trains around the world. Virgin Trains in the UK have quiet zones, as do trains in “New Jersey, in Sweden and in France” where they are called “Zen Zones”. Amtrak trains in the US have “Quiet Cars” to provide “a peaceful, quiet atmosphere for passengers who want to work or rest without distraction”. It seems that as technology and devices are increasingly intruding into every area of our lives, people are looking for a space where they can take a break. Why wouldn’t the same also apply to our schools and students?

Thanks to the writings of Susan Cain we are now more aware than ever of the different needs of the introverts in our schools. A student’s need for quiet isn’t something that’s static, but varies. A student may be introverted in one group, but not in another. Stress in one area of their life may cause them to need some quiet time for reflection, but not after the stress has passed. We have students who find the intense social interaction of school exhausting. What can we do to help those students?

We can start by establishing Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms. Schools should provide a quiet, supervised space, where any student who wishes can sit quietly and eat or read. The expectations would be well established, and students who don’t respect the needs of others for a quiet space would be returned to the regular eating area. I predict that many teachers would volunteer to supervise a quiet lunch room as part of their duty.

We can also extend Quiet Zones to classrooms. At the back of my classroom is a table designated as a “quiet work table”. This table is available for anyone to use if they need a quiet place to work. If they aren’t feeling great, or their group is just too noisy, they can choose to use it. It’s something students self monitor and don’t need to ask permission to use. Students who go to the table but don’t work quietly are asked to return to their regular seat.

A “quiet table” in a noisy classroom is rather like a smoking section in a restaurant. I understand that the noise doesn’t stop when it gets to the table (oh, for the ‘cone of silence’!!) Ideally I’d prefer a room where students could go and work quietly if needed. Putting a table in the hallway or some other quiet corner of the school is also a possibility, but obviously supervision and safety is a concern. At the very least, the “Quiet Work Table” shows students that if they need quiet, that’s acknowledged and addressed in some small way.

Not too long ago, students with learning exceptionalities had their needs ignored in ways that we never would today. We’re more enlightened and recognize that we need to modify our program and learning environment to make sure all students are successful. Don’t students who need a quiet space to recharge deserve the same consideration?

When commuter trains are more effective at meeting the need of their customers, than schools are of taking care of the learning needs of their students it should give us pause for thought. Quiet Zones in schools and classrooms are an easy way to help meet a need that all students have at one time or another. The need to be able to take a break from the noise and pressure of social interaction and recharge.

Advertisements

The Use of ADHD Drugs in Schools

11 Jul

An article in the Wall Street Journal has re-started public discussion on why so many students are taking medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s a thorny issue with implications for the kind of schools we have, the kind of schools we want and how we view students and their learning.

New research, conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research and published in June, studied how taking Ritalin, a medication commonly prescribed for ADHD, affected students in Quebec. According to the study, taking Ritalin caused “…increases in emotional problems among girls, and reductions in educational attainment among boys…”. This is disturbing news for students, parents and educators.

There has been an explosion in the use of medication to treat ADHD in children in recent years. In March, 2013 the Center for Disease Control reported “…a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise in the past decade…” in the number of US children diagnosed with ADHD. Currently nearly one in five high school boys and 11% of all school age children are diagnosed with ADHD. In the wake of these revelations some critics are suggesting that prescribing ADHD medication (and the resultant side effects) to children, without gains in learning constitutes “malpractice”.

I can’t find Canadian stats, but my own classroom experience suggests a similar pattern of use. My class last year, which was typical, had 16% of students taking ADHD medication. All of these students were boys. In fact, the majority of students diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Boys are five to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, leading some to suggest that this is evidence of a ‘war on boys’ in our schools.

The high rates of ADHD, and the resultant medication use, says a lot about the culture in schools. Students who don’t progress are pathologized, and schools only accept or allow for deviation if it’s supported by a label. There used to be an understanding that schools can’t meet every student’s needs, but no longer. We devote extensive resources to finding out why a student isn’t learning and ensuring they have every chance to be successful. This process, along with the need for labels, leads to higher rates of diagnosis.

Learning is a complex process and it’s difficult to determine whether it occurred.  Standardized tests are unreliable indicators of the many ways learning happens. Further, just because a student can sit still and pay attention doesn’t mean they have the skills to learn. Students struggle with ADHD for years causing a skills deficit and layers of coping strategies that interfere with learning. Prescribing and using medication is merely the first of several steps in helping a student with ADHD to learn.

The presence of a student with ADHD often impacts on the learning of the whole class. Students with ADHD can be disruptive, making learning more difficult for other students. Teachers devote time to managing and supporting students with ADHD, meaning less time and support is available for other students. It’s likely that the learning of the class improves when a student with ADHD is successfully treated with medication, even though their individual learning may not.

The value of ADHD medication is not exclusively in improving academic learning. Students with ADHD  struggle daily to meet basic expectations leading to lower self-esteem. Medication helps students with ADHD to improve their quality of life, with more friendships and a more positive attitude about school and life. That may, in the long run, be more important than a gain in academic learning.

I prefer using methods other than medication to support students with ADHD whenever possible. A classroom environment where students work in collaborative small groups and have the freedom to move around if needed can be helpful. A well constructed and implemented IEP (Individual Education Plan) with useful accommodations and strategies is also recommended.

The decision of whether or not to use medication to treat ADHD is a difficult one for parents. There are multiple factors to consider and every case is different. It is especially complicated for parents without the resources to provide the extensive support a child with ADHD may need. Constantly taking time off work to deal with problems at school isn’t a viable option for most parents. Sometimes it isn’t a matter of choosing the best solution, but rather finding the right option given the many constraints. And sometimes, that’s medication.

How To Make Schools Matter To Students

4 Jul

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Schools are supposed to be about learning. They are supposed to be about inspiring students and supporting them so they can develop the skills and knowledge they need to live their best life.

But the world has changed, quickly, and schools and teachers are struggling to keep up. Learning, like many aspects of our lives, is becoming democratized and decentralized. Students are increasingly finding schools irrelevant when it comes to learning and are using cheap and easy technology to take matters into their own hands.

Here’s three stories to illustrate:

  1. marthaPayne858_2249344bMartha Payne: On April 30th, 2012, Martha Payne was a nine-year old school girl in Lochgilphead, Scotland. She thought the food provided to students at her school wasn’t very good so she decided to blog about it. Her first entry on May 8th, 2012 included a picture of her pizza lunch with the comment “The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home”.  The blog quickly got local and national headlines, a comment from food advocate Jamie Oliver, and by June 15th Martha had three million hits. The story developed a few twists and turns along the way (the school board tried to shut her down) but as a result of Martha’s blog the quality and quantity of food at her school (and others) has improved, and along the way she’s raised over $150,000 to improve the quality of food at schools in Africa.
  2. o-ANN-MAKOSINSKIAnn Makosinski: Since grade 6 Ann Makosinski, of Victoria, British Columbia, has had an interest in harvesting surplus energy. She started exploring this interest in independent science projects in grade 7 and continued to refine her ideas. In 2013 (she’s now in grade 10) Makosinski produced a flashlight that can be powered by the heat from the user’s hand. Her $26 prototype uses Peltier tiles (which she bought on Ebay) to turn heat into electricity. Makosinski is one of fifteen students in the world, and the only Canadian, presenting at the 2013 Google Science Fair in California. Makinowski did this, not in class, but independently, on her own time, between her part-time job and rehearsing for the school play.
  3. Ebony Oshunrinde (aka WondaGurl): When Ebony Oshunrinde was nine years old she saw a video of rap artist Jay-Z wondagurl_2and producer Timbaland working in the studio together. She decided it looked cool and she wanted to learn how to do it, so she downloaded music software and taught herself how to use it by watching YouTube videos. Oshunrinde is now a grade 11 student in Brampton, Ontario and made a piece of music she liked. She sent it off to a producer she’d recently met for some feedback. Her ‘beat’ was so good he shared it with Jay-Z and they decided to use it on the song “Crown” which is on Jay-Z’s just released album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Oshunrinde worked on the beat after she finished her homework.

These are just three of thousands of stories of students that are increasingly taking learning into their own hands. They’re not getting what they need in school and so are using technology to ‘go around’ school.

Schools need to facilitate and support more of this kind of independent learning, to provide a space for students to follow their passions. If we don’t, formal schooling will become increasingly irrelevant to students. Instead of a place of learning and inspiration ‘school learning’ will be another chore that students HAVE to do. Another thing on the to-do list before they live their real life.

Student Input into Education

9 Sep

I sat down this morning to write something for The Globe and Mail’s School Council and when I finished I realized I’d written a blog post, so I decided to post it here.

The idea that student input and control of education is limited, is somewhat misleading. Students have the ultimate level of control and input when it comes to education. Each day they decide whether to attend or not. Students enter classrooms of their own free will (no one is shackled to their desks) and decide this is how they will spend their day. They control their learning. There are students who refuse to attend school, demand a change or attend but go through the motions without engaging. That’s the ultimate level of control and the only one that really matters.

In terms of involving students in the decision making processes of public education, I don’t agree that this is universally good. I’m sure there are useful and active student trustees, but I haven’t seen them. From my admittedly limited exposure, student trustees seem to be along for the ride and are rarely given a meaningful voice in critical decisions. It seems like a nice resume padder for some students and PR exercise for the school board.

I’d much rather see student input be given the same weight and value of any other partner in the education system. Teachers and parents have channels they can use to express their opinions. They communicate with trustees, write to the media, etc. It’s patronizing to say that students need special treatment.

Through technology, passionate and intelligent students have a much louder voice than ever. A student who has something to say about an issue in education can send out e-mails, blog, posts videos to YouTube and so on.

One of the best examples of this is the story of Martha Payne’s dinner blog. The 9 year old student in Scotland thought the school cafeteria food sucked, so she started a blog and posted pictures. She was right, other’s agreed and her blog has changed things. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-19471972

Not every person wants or needs a say in education decisions and students are no different. Let’s empower students to raise their voices and let the good ones rise to the top. It’s much better than creating some token positions where students get to sit at the ‘big table’ so long as they remember their place.