Friday, March 26, 2010

Multiplication Rocks

I was good at math in grade school. Adding and multiplying came easily, and I especially loved long division – estimating, subtracting, estimating again, the longer the better. I still take pleasure doing math by hand, in adding the figures on the deposit slip or calculating the tip.

But as with so many skills I take for granted, I have no idea how I learned this. I remember vividly the moment in the park when my father pushed me on my black two-wheeler, newly freed from training wheels, and I kept going. Math memories are far murkier – blurry images of worksheets and practice quizzes. I have lots of little tricks for playing with numbers in my head, but I can't say where they came from.

Working with Parker has been no help, as math seems to have changed since I learned it. Shades of déjà vu! I grew up hearing people fuss about "new math," and now it's new again!

According to Parker's second grade teacher, the way I learned to add and subtract is called "the algorithm," and the U.S. stood alone in learning this clunky, error-prone method. She showed me some of her teaching aids, which suggest that after students have mastered the new, improved methods, a teacher might wish to introduce this "algorithm," with its outdated concepts of "carrying" and "borrowing" (students now "share" and "regroup") as a kind of historical artifact, a quaint relic of the past that their parents might find familiar, but which they would never want to use.

I tried my best to understand how my son was getting to his answers, but it never quite made sense. I now remark to friends that I always knew a time would come when I couldn't help Parker with his math, but I never expected it to be in second grade.

Still the "old" – or perhaps I should say the "old new" – ways still have their uses. Third grade remains the year of multiplying, at least in North Carolina. As Parker's class launched into the task, he brought home several ways to make those old, familiar tables stick in his mind (3 x 5, thankfully, does still equal 15). He punched and kicked his way through them, arranged objects, listened to a rap-style CD. But none of it quite seemed to work.

Then I had one of those rare moments of parental inspiration. Schoolhouse Rock! I spent my third grade Saturdays in front of the TV (another tradition carried away on the winds of technology), when cartoon action was punctuated with three-minute educational "moments" offering useful facts: "Three Is a Magic Number," "Figure Eight Is Double Four," "A Noun Is a Person, Place or Thing. "

So we headed to youtube, where all those old clips now reside. Parker loved them. And as we watched, I began to recognize the strategies I use when I multiply. Maybe, I began to think, I didn't learn math in school at all. Maybe it was all TV! In gratitude, I sprang for the CD.

Parker had a fever yesterday, and stayed home from school. His teacher had sent home a multiplication practice sheet . He worked on it in bed, steadily filling in the answers, singing snatches of the different songs as he worked. He only got one wrong. I feel my confidence rising. Division, here we come!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Although I should know better, I have the bad habit of reading the online comments about Charlotte Observer articles. Some of them are fun, but they can get ugly fast.

Last night, I was fuming at reactions to an article about a speech by Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. Canada's thoughts about helping low-income parents raise their children more effectively brought forth a torrent of stomach-turning stereotypes.

When Parker asked me why I was so angry, I had him look at a comment. In part, it read:

You mentioned "parents" . . . I don't think that's the case for the majority of blacks in the US. The females seem to have children as a recreation rather than a responsibility. The children have no role model other than someone who can bounce a ball, or some drug salesman in the neighborhood. Their friends are thugs . . . One parent; a bad attitude; wrong friends; drugs; slovenly appearance; that education is a "white thang" are not positives that will lead these people to the economic promised land.

The comment made him mad too, and he wanted to respond. I told him to go ahead.

With school writing assignments, producing sentences can feel like pulling teeth. Not this time. " I'm just going to go right out and say it you haven't been around black people enough to say that," he quickly typed. "So next time you go to CVS ask the clerk about his life."

At first I was puzzled. Where did CVS fit into all of this?

Then it hit me. My nine-year-old son, who has spent the past four years at a high-poverty, high-minority school, does not know what a drug dealer is. When he thinks of African Americans and drugs, he thinks about the people who staff the registers at drugstores like the CVS chain.

And he is right on the mark. I'm sure that far more African Americans take home honestly earned paychecks from drugstores than stand on street corners peddling illicit substances. I'm delighted that Parker sees things this way. I think we may be doing something right.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

School Board Night

Last night, as happens every month, the CMS school board entertained what their agenda calls "Requests from the Public." On these days, anyone willing to follow a few simple rules – no profanity, no attacking anyone by name – has three minutes to address the board.

If you want to speak, you phone the board office, or show up at the meeting early, to get on the speaker list. When your name is called you have three minutes. A bell rings when your time is up. Board members do not respond. You speak, the bell rings, and you make way for the next anxious citizen.

Sometimes the room fills with people and the parade of speakers stretches for an hour or more. More often, only a few people make their way to the podium. A handful of these – myself among them – speak regularly, four or five times a year.

Three minutes is not much time. You can get in about 400 words, or just over a double-spaced page of type. It's hard to resist the temptation to pack in an extra thought or two, but that usually means you have to edit while you talk, especially as the clock ticks down. Some folks just talk until the bell rings and then stop, but it looks better if you finish on time.

A packed house displays political clout. The "butts in seats" are voters, and a board meeting can be a rallying point for a dissatisfied community. This works best with communities whose residents believe that they have power – that their presence and their statements can make a difference. Those who speak for low-income schools – as several of us did last night – can rarely muster this kind of imposing backup. We have only the power of words.

It's hard to know what comes of these brief moments. Sometimes board members watch and listen. Sometimes they seem more interested in the papers on their desks. They have heard most of the arguments before. In many ways, speaking before them is a formality, a ritual expression in which everyone plays a prescribed role.

The board meetings are televised, so speaking does get you on
TV. A surprising number of people see you there. Our family's hairdresser, who has no children, once told my husband that he had seen me speak, and that I needed to come in for a haircut. Why he was watching, I have no idea.

And there is a kind of power in speaking things out loud, in crafting words to make a point, however briefly. So last night, I spoke yet again about class size. I tried to be restrained, but I'm still mad about the bad consultant data, and that showed at the end. Parker and Peter came, along with a handful of friends. Parker brought a book.

I was the twelfth person to speak, and finished just before the bell. The superintendent kept his eyes glued to his papers, but most of the board members seemed to be watching. As I walked back to my seat, my friends – along with a couple of strangers – smiled and gave thumbs up. Several folks said they liked the angry part the best. "Sometimes we're just too polite," one woman noted.

I don't know who heard me, but it felt like the right thing to do.

Talk to CMS Board of Education, Pam Grundy
9 March 2010

Three years ago, as my son Parker was finishing up his kindergarten year at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, our school was bleeding teachers. I remember how the word dribbled out – rumors followed by confirmations – that someone was leaving for this school over here; someone else for that school over there.

Shamrock was struggling at that point. The school had just failed to meet NCLB requirements for the 5th straight year. Just 49 percent of our students had scored at or above grade level in math – 16 points below the district average of 65 percent.

In the years since then, our school has made great strides on many fronts. It's hard to compare reading scores, because the state recently changed the test. But between 2007 and 2009, our math scores jumped 30 points, from 49.3 to 79.6 percent, which is essentially the CMS average. We have met all our NCLB goals for two straight years, and are sanction-free. We have done this even as our poverty level has stayed relatively consistent, at around 90 percent.

This shift is not a miracle. It is the result of hard work by many people on many fronts. It is also rooted in classes that are a manageable size, and have thus made it possible for our teachers to succeed.

Especially important, small classes mean that although our teachers are working hard, they are not burning out. The exodus of teachers to other schools has slowed. Two years ago no one chose to leave Shamrock for another CMS school. Last year only one did, and that was to go to KIPP. We didn't have a single novice teacher last year, and we don't have any this year. We have the kind of experience and stability that our children need.

Poor and working-class children simply need more from their teachers than middle-class children do. Working-class families cannot supplement their children's education or their schools the way that middle-class families can.

But given a stable, effective school, their kids can do extremely well. And I will repeat: small classes help teachers be effective with kids who need additional help, and this effectiveness makes those teachers want to stay.

There's a lot of loose talk these days about money being spent on high-poverty schools not producing results. I say come to Shamrock and see for yourselves.

It has been tremendously satisfying to spend the past four years working with a school that has moved forward. I do not want to spend the next two years watching those gains drain away because CMS abandoned a proven policy to chase after the latest foundation-supported fad, based on reports by consultants who can't even get their numbers right. We need to build on strategies that work, not swap them out for something else.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hats for Haiti

February was not just Black History Month at Shamrock. It was also the month of our Hats for Haiti fundraiser.

Each Friday during February, students paid $1 each for the right to dress up. The first Friday was Hat Day, the second Denim Day, the third Sports Day and the last Tacky Day (this day also offered a learning opportunity, since a lot of our students didn't know what the word "tacky" meant).

Students made posters for the halls, and dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies flowed in. At the end of the month, we sent $918.88 to the Red Cross to help people in Haiti. Pretty good for a school with 350 students.

Although our families don't have much, they always give. Last year, we raised more than $1,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The woman who came to Shamrock to receive the check noted that the Society always does well at high-poverty schools. Our kids have big hearts.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Black History Month

Black History Month is a big deal at Shamrock Gardens.

Each February, hand-drawn and hand-colored portraits of African Americans appear in the hallways, figures such as Benjamin Banneker, Frederic Douglass, Rosa Parks, Maulana Karenga and Oprah Winfrey. Students apply themselves to the events that mark the month: writing reports, memorizing lines from plays, rehearsing stirring songs.

This year, Black History Month made itself known when Parker's reading homework began to alternate between passages about the moon (this month's science theme), the Underground Railroad, and historical figures that included Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom, and Matthew Henson, a key member of the first group of explorers to reach the North Pole.

This is not my third grade history. In February of 1971, when I was in third grade, Negro History Week (begun in 1926) had not yet officially become Black History Month. We lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and as best I can recall, the grade school I attended was lily-white. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been dead less than three years. Although my memories of those years are blurred and vague, I feel quite sure that I did not know who he was.

The only fragments of black history I can pull out of those early recollections involve a story about Harriet Tubman and a drawing of George Washington Carver. Rendered in the pastel-tinged realism of 1950s-style textbooks, Carver wore a white lab coat and was surrounded by drawings of peanuts. The main thing I remember from the Harriet Tubman story is that because of a head injury, she had to worry that she would suddenly fall asleep at the wrong moment. That seemed strange and scary. I don't know what I thought about slavery.

Parker, in contrast, has been appalled by slavery, and by segregation, for years. The year he was in kindergarten, while we were playing a trivia game, my father asked him which President freed the slaves. "Abraham Lincoln," he promptly replied. In second grade, he portrayed Harlem Renaissance writer James Lesene Wells in his class's living black history museum.

In third grade, one of his most heartfelt essays dealt with the wrongs of segregation.

How much of this knowledge – and outrage – comes from changes in curriculum, how much from living in the South, how much from going to a school where more than 90 percent of the students are kids of color, I don't know.

When I asked teachers about Black History Month, they said that their students especially liked learning about people they could identify with, and whose stories they didn't already know (I sensed a degree of fatigue with the standard characters and stories the day that Parker came home performing a sidesplittingly comic rendition of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech – courtesy, he said, of one of his black classmates).

When I asked Parker what his classmates thought of Black History Month, he didn't have much to say. Some of his them were interested in black history, he said, some weren't. Then, however, he decided to elaborate. No one in the class liked white people, he announced. Asian, Hispanic, African-American, they all agreed on that one.

I was skeptical. What about his teachers, I asked. They didn't count, he said (Neither did I, he generously added). What about pale Lianna, his classmate and good friend? Lianna was a quarter Japanese, he reminded me, thanks to her grandmother on her father's side.

What about blond, blue-eyed Susan, in the class across the hall? Susan, he stated, was "mixed" as well. Mixed-race is a common category at Shamrock – last year the school was 6 percent white, and about 7 percent mixed, as well as 57 percent African American, 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. But I know Susan's family, and she is not among them. When I asked Parker what she was "mixed" with, he couldn't say.

Still, his claim took me back to an afternoon about a year ago, when two friends from Shamrock came over to play At some point, one of them got mad and called Parker "an ugly white boy." I found this amusing, and pointed out that my half-Chinese son was not white. Then, to underscore the point, I dramatically announced that the only white person present was me.

The girls' reaction was immediate and identical. "You don't look white," they chorused. For someone who is pretty much as WASPy as they come – hazel eyes, freckled skin, straight, stringy, light brown hair – this came as something of a shock. But when I pressed them, they refused to budge. I looked Hispanic, they said. Definitely not white.

In such cases, it seems, "white" is an abstract idea, unrelated to anyone they might actually know – except when it becomes useful as an insult. And I can see why Black History Month might lend itself to seeing whiteness in this way.

Shamrock's teachers, most of whom are white themselves, do not go around packing students' heads with anti-white propaganda. But in the stories that fill Black History Month, overcoming the obstacles of a society built by white people for white people is a major theme.

For most of this nation's history, successful African Americans have achieved in spite of slavery, prejudice and segregation – the obstacles that bring drama to their stories and add stature to their accomplishments. Escaping slaves were hunted down; scientists and explorers had to fight for recognition; civil rights activists were beaten, spat upon and sometimes murdered. What's to like?

And despite the advances the civil rights movement has brought us, Shamrock itself remains largely segregated, separate from the well-off, predominantly white neighborhoods that surround it, most of whose children leave the area each morning to go to other schools. As best as I can tell, most of the kids at Shamrock have limited contact with whites, beyond those mysterious (and much-beloved) adults who are their teachers.

I don't know if this kind of segregation affects the way that Shamrock's students see white people. But I do know that it affects me. Our neighborhood is now full of young white couples, and of light-skinned children perched in strollers, riding bikes, dashing wildly down the streets. As I ride my own bike, or labor in my garden, I see them through the lens of segregation. All I know – or really care to know – about them is that they will never pass the threshold of our school.

So perhaps the girls were not so wrong after all. Perhaps pale skin and hazel eyes and light brown hair mean less than I have always assumed they did.