Is Our School System Better Than Sliced Bread?

I’ve taught high school English since the year 2000.  During that time, we’ve seen the advent of smartphones, automated cars, even artificially intelligent grocery stores.  Our technology has grown exponentially in just eighteen years, and I don’t see that trend slowing down.

Consider the following advancements that happened within the last 100 years: the Internet, space travel, computers, video game consoles, compact discs, printers, cassette tapes, television, microwave ovens, bagless vacuum cleaners, and even sliced bread.

Yes, sliced bread did not exist in an automated, widespread manner until 1928.

Now I’d like to share with you the year most agree our modern system of schooling arrived: 1837.  There are those who will argue against that particular year, but most will agree children have been sitting in desks for regimented amounts of time listening to teachers for well over one hundred years — the way we still do it to this very day.

Please allow me to point out that I am in no way, shape, or form trying to destroy our school system.  I enjoy my profession and it’s provided a wonderful life for my family and me.  I played school well as a student, and I continue to do so as a teacher.  Obviously, I like school.

However, when I look at the world around me, and then when I look at the way our modern school system functions … the two don’t match up very well with one another.  That’s just my observation.

I don’t need to remind you how school works because it’s pretty much the same as when you were a kid.

And it’s pretty much the same as when your parents were kids.

And it’s pretty much the same as when their parents were kids.

Obviously, schools are not keeping up with the times.

But here’s the thing: I don’t have the answer.  I barely have any suggestions.  I have no idea how we would even go about changing our school system.  It’s so ingrained in our society that I think it’s hard for us to consider an alternate method.

I realize a popular argument against what I’m saying is that students need to learn how to sit and listen.  They need to get used to people telling them what to do.  They need to know how to follow instructions.  Well, yes, okay, those are skills we all need to have at our disposal, but do they really need thirteen years of it, day after day, week after week, year after year?  Let me tell you, they have it mastered by sixth grade, and then they start to realize they’ve got six more years of the same, and most of them decide they’re in store for a miserable existence until graduation.  Some react to this realization by acting out, checking out, faking us out, or just plain getting out.

Let me tell you, we have GREAT teachers. I guarantee you we are trying our hardest to create engaging lessons.  The truth is, though, that I’m not sure we’re all wired to sit and do one thing for fifty straight minutes any more.

And before you say it, let me stop you.  When I say “do one thing,” I mean that from a student’s perspective.  I try to vary the activities as much as I can within fifty minutes, but to the student, an English class is an English class no matter what the various activities are within that block of time.

I’m told that people who work in business are often allowed to get up when they want, use the bathroom when they want, chat with coworkers when they want, and chip away at the project of the moment little by little as they see fit as long as they meet their deadline.  This is a generalization, of course, but from my conversations, it seems to be the gist of how things go.

Why shouldn’t our schools reflect this same environment?

Ah, again, I can guess the counterargument.  High school students can’t be allowed to wander around!  They can’t be trusted to independently do their work!  They can’t be allowed to just talk whenever they feel like it!

Under our current system, that’s true.  In the modern era, just like the last one hundred years, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the taskmaster, the issuer of grades, and the the ultimate assessor.  As a result, many students must enter a subservient relationship with the teacher.  Some teachers inflate this relationship more than others, but it’s there nonetheless by merit of the system.

I’m not sure our model is the best way to engage high school students in this day and age.  During the last several years, my students seem to thrive when they are allowed a lot of freedom, the chance to choose certain aspects of a lesson, and the opportunity to actually do something.  Trust me, kids still like to work with their hands, they enjoy making things, and they find happiness in creating a product.

Don’t we all?

Keep in mind, I’m in no way suggesting that we do away with school.  I don’t want a future where students all sit at home on a screen learning through modules or virtual reality.  There are many benefits to school beyond academic achievement.  The skills they learn through social interaction are vital to their success as an adult.  Kids need to be around other kids.

Again, I don’t have the answer to this issue.  It would take an absolute restructuring of our model at every level.  But I’m invested in trying.  I want to create a system more suited to our modern society.

I know we can be better than sliced bread.

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

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Today, Something Embarrassing Happened To Me In Front Of My Entire Class

Statistically speaking, when you stand in front of people for eight hours a day, five days a week, during a career that could span as long as thirty-four years, something embarrassing is bound to occur every once in a while, right?

Well, my friends … read on.

Today I met my seniors in high school for the first time.  During 5th period, which is around eleven a.m., I stood before a group of students as they listened attentively.  While I ran through the syllabus with them, I suddenly felt a tickle in my nose–the right nostril, to be precise.

I ignored it and kept talking in the hopes that it would subside.

But then I felt something jar loose.

I realize now that the smart thing to do at that point would to simply excuse myself for a moment, blow my nose with my back to the class or out in the hall, and then return to addressing them as a group.

That would have been the smart thing.

Instead, I pressed on.

I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but some trace of flawed logic believed that an item breaking free from my nasal passage would not necessarily result in a total surrender to gravity.  I guess I thought–hoped–that whatever had emancipated itself would remain in place.

Before I knew it, I felt a string of cold, wet … gunk … hanging from my nostril.

Not dropping from my nostril–HANGING FROM MY NOSTRIL.

Fight or flight kicked in.

I could run out of the room, or I could take action.

I chose action.

Did I have time to grab a tissue?  That would mean that the detritus would remain in place as I traversed the span of the room.  No, that would not do.  The debris must be dealt with immediately.  I could not risk providing a picture opportunity.  This moment would not live on in social media infamy.

With a whip of the hand, a strategic swipe of the forefinger, the goo got wiped away.

It did not dissipate, nor did it fling to the floor.  No, it clung to my finger, still easily discernible to the observant eye.

Operating on pure instinct, I moved to the tissue box, yanked out a tissue, and swiped the miserable muck off my person before jettisoning it into the garbage.

And then … I faced the class.

Once again … fight or flight time.

Within a span of five seconds, I said the following …

“Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry!”

“Well, that was gross.”

“It just fell out, out of nowhere!”

“Yuck, it was gray.  Probably gray matter.  My brains are falling out!”

“If I’m not here tomorrow, you’ll know why.”

“At least you’ve all got a story to tell now.”

“Let’s just move on and pretend this never happened.”

So, there you have it.  Is that the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me in front of an entire class?  So far, probably.  Hey, I made it sixteen years teaching before something abruptly and uncontrollably left my body.  That’s a pretty good run, right?

Man.

I hope that’s as bad at it gets.

 

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

The Edutainer

There’s a term that has come into vogue lately that I find a little troubling–“The Edutainer.”

If you’re unfamiliar with this word, it’s combining “educator” with “entertainer.”  The idea is that a teacher performs daily for their classes in such a way that the students are entertained.

Not just engaged, but actually entertained as though they were watching a show.

Yes, on the surface that sounds wonderful, but I think most of us realize that there are very few people from any walk of life who can perform daily for eight hours a day in such a way that children/teenagers are both learning and laughing nonstop.

Furthermore, I think it’s very unfair to make teachers feel as though they are somehow less effective if they are not constantly entertaining their students.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that certain “buzzwords” come and go.  Usually these buzzwords are developed by a person or company looking to make a buck.  I’ve heard of professional development, workshops, and even college courses pushing “edutainment.”

Now, if we’re being honest, I’ve been told that I’m an “edutainer.”  I’ve never quite figured out if that’s meant as a compliment or an accusation, by the way.  However, I know myself well enough to realize that my “edutainment” is just part of my personality.  When I’m in front of a group of kids, I get silly.  I can’t help it.  I like to keep things light.  I like to joke around.  I like to make people smile.

This is fine for me, but I would never dream of forcing other people to adopt this methodology if it’s not part of their personality.  At the end of the day, teachers must teach in a manner that makes them comfortable.  Obviously, no matter what, lessons must be engaging, but to ask a teacher to put on a “show” is not really fair, especially if that’s not a component of their persona.  I’ve personally had some really funny teachers in my life, but I’ve also had very serious teachers as well.  I learned a great deal from both because–most importantly–they were effective teachers.  Let’s not lose sight of what were really trying to achieve.  First and foremost, our students should be learning.

It is worth noting, however, that teachers can still incorporate “edutainment” in their classroom even if they are not specifically the “edutainer.”  There are plenty of educational websites and learning programs that deliver fun, entertaining content to supplement a teacher’s lessons.  I would encourage teachers to look into those things because I also believe the days of asking students to listen to lecture while taking notes is over.  Our students are accustomed to bouncing from one thing to the next, and I would venture that the teachers operate like that in their personal lives as well.  There’s an old saying that teachers should switch up their activities during a lesson every fifteen minutes.  “Edutainment” programs would be one helpful way to achieve this.

At the end of the day, I would encourage teachers to accept who they are as people.  If a teacher is not an “edutainer,” that’s totally okay.  No teacher should ever feel less effective if they are not comfortable with a style that contradicts their persona.  As long as students are treated respectfully, with kindness, and provided consistently engaging lessons, I think the kids will be just fine.

Clown, Crazy, Happy, Funny, Cartoon

(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

How To Get Your Child To Read This Last Half Of Summer

We’re already over half-way through the summer, and a return to school is probably beginning to loom on both students’ and parents’ minds.  (Maybe even some teachers, too.  I’m just sayin.’)

If you’re a parent, maybe you’re feeling a little guilty because your child hasn’t done much summer reading so far.

No worries.  Better late than never, right?

You can start your student on a reading program this week!  Studies show that 20 minutes a day really is enough to keep them sharp.  Your local library undoubtedly has programs of some sort.  Most have probably been going on for a while at this point, but it could be a little extra incentive for your child.  In case the local programs have ended, you could always even find your own way to incentivize them!  Maybe if they read 20 minutes a day for seven straight days, you can take them to a movie.  You know, that kind of thing.  We all love prizes, don’t we?

Now, feel free to email me if you’d like to really dive deeply into the benefits of reading, but for the purpose of this article, I’m going to keep it pretty simple and commonsense.

First and foremost, though, let me say this: there is NO downside to summer reading.  Again: there is NO downside to summer reading.  It’s ALL positive.

Whew!  Glad to have that out of the way.

Okay, so, it’s a fact that summer loss can occur if a student does not continue to engage their brain with reading and math.  It makes sense, right?  The brain is like a muscle–if it doesn’t get exercise, it gets weak, flabby, and kind of useless.  Some studies have shown that those students who don’t read over the summer can spend the first few months of school trying to catch up to where they were at the end of the previous year!  Yikes!  So, if nothing else, reading in the summer keeps that brain in shape.

Furthermore, just like with exercise, the more a student reads, the stronger a reader they become.  Their vocabulary will continue to increase; their comprehension will grow; their creativity will progress; even their writing skills will improve.  After all, it was Stephen King who said–and I paraphrase–the best writers are always voracious readers.

I bet right now you are pretty on board with me, right?  But you’re also thinking, “Scott, buddy, I’m not much of a reader myself.  How in the world am I supposed to know what to give my kid to read?  I’m not a teacher!”  Luckily, the answer is pretty simple.  Let them read whatever it is that they want to read.  Easy, right?

Of course, use common sense.  I don’t know that I would allow a ten year old to read Fifty Shades of Grey.  The truth is, in my opinion, that it’s going to be hard enough to get most students to read in the summer.  If you try to dictate the material, well, you may be destined for disappointment.

For example, my oldest daughter loves graphic novels.  I pretty much let her grab whatever she wants from the children’s section of our local library.  I quickly flip through them, just to see if anything catches my eye.  However, I also get her a stack of chapter books that I think will interest her.  I don’t force those chapter books on her, but I do every once in a while suggest that she gives one a try.  More often than not, she’ll have a chapter book she’s working on while she tears through several graphic novels.

If your student loves sports, get books about those favorite teams or athletes.  If they love video games, get them books about the history of the industry, or how to enter the field as an adult.  If they love fashion, get them books about famous designers or books about how to break into that world.  I believe with all my heart that a student will read if you put a book in front of them that deals with their interests.  In the teaching biz, we call that “high interest reading material.”

Finally, you’re surely concerned about how to check to see if your student is actually reading.  (Some of us have mastered the fine art of sleeping with our eyes open, after all.)  Again, you don’t have to be a teacher to pull out some basic comprehension questions.  Here are five simple ones to get the ball rolling …

  1.  So, tell me, what was your book about?
  2. What did you like about the main character?
  3. Describe the most interesting part of the book for me, please.
  4. Why do you think I would enjoy this book?
  5. Talk to me about how this book reminded you of other books or movies.

Of course, you may need to press a bit.  If they didn’t like the book, ask them why.  In other words, try to avoid “yes” or “no” questions, because those don’t really facilitate any sort of analytical response.  You can’t gauge comprehension with a “yes” or a “no.”

Oops, one more thing: practice what you preach.  Read a book along their side.  You know this.  Kids can sniff out a rat faster than anyone.  If you tell them reading is important, but you’re not willing to do it yourself, they are going to think you’re full of hufflepuff.  What’s that?  You’re saying, “But, Scott, I don’t like to read!”  Remember all that stuff I said about high interest reading material?  Suck it up and apply it to yourself.  Heck, you might even enjoy it!

Okay, for real this time, I’m almost done.  If your child starts reading a book, and they don’t like it, let them put it down.  That book is not attached to a detonator that will blow up the house if left unfinished.  In the real world, people don’t finish books that they don’t like.  Most of us don’t expect to take a test or write a paper over our bedtime reading material.  Don’t freak the kid out about finishing every book they pick up–that’s the teacher’s job.  (I’m joking … mostly.)  Give them the freedom to pick up books and put them down as they please.  Let them choose their own material (within reason).  Let this experience be … <gasp!> … FUN!

Thanks for reading.  (Man, that pun was totally unintended, but I love it.  I’m keeping it in there.  That’s the benefit of not having an editor.)

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(Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

Last Chance To Thank Your Child’s Teacher

If you’ll indulge me …

My wife is the absolute best.  She goes so far above and beyond in thanking our children’s teachers during “Teacher Appreciation Week” — it’s amazing.  Classroom teachers, librarians, administrators, office support staff, coaches, Girl Scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers — everyone gets a little token of appreciation.  Furthermore, she develops a cute theme to go along with the gift.  This year everyone got an Amazon gift card decorated as though it was a special delivery by our girls.  I asked her to count up how many gift cards she doled out.  I wasn’t upset, just curious.  The number?  About twenty-two (at last count).

By the way … my wife is a teacher.

She gets it.

She understands the emotional stamina, the intrinsic motivation, and the sheer patience necessary to be a teacher.  She knows that by the end of the year, every teacher needs a little show of appreciation.

By the way, I’m a teacher, too.

I teach about 130 students a day.  I received not one “thank-you” from a student’s family during “Teacher Appreciation Week.”

I get it.

Hey, I’m busy, too.  I won’t pretend that I’d have taken over thanking my daughters’ teachers if my wife decided to take the year off.  I forgot it was “Teacher Appreciation Week” during the actual week — and I am a teacher!  Trust me, if you haven’t thanked your child’s teacher, you’re not alone.  I’m personally just as guilty.

The point of this is to tell you that it’s not too late.

Yesterday, several of my creative writing students went out of their way to tell me how much the class meant to them.  Today, two students came up to shake my hand and tell me “thanks.”  It meant the world to me.

Listen, I don’t entirely fall into the “I’d teach for free I love it so much!” category, but I also recognize that teachers make more money than a lot of people, have more vacation time than a lot of people, and enjoy more benefits than a lot of people.  But I’m here to tell you, folks — it’s a demanding job.  Not physically, but emotionally?  You bet.  Mentally?  Absolutely.  There’s no down time when you have a room full of children or teenagers.  There’s no mentally checking out.  Teachers are constantly monitoring and assessing.

You know how “busy” it can get when your child has friends over?  Imagine a room full of that.  Imagine coaxing them along through the power of personality.  Imagine talking, thinking, managing, and assessing all at the same time while also trying to be interesting enough to capture thirty children’s interest.  Let me tell you — it’s tough.  I’m sure you can imagine.

So, here’s what I propose — thank your child’s teachers.  Right now.  Send a little email.  Even if you you weren’t all that impressed with them, drop them a little note at least letting them know you appreciate their efforts.  If you thought your child had a great year, by all means, tell them as much!  It doesn’t have to be in-depth.  Just a note.

Trust me, it will make a huge difference to the teacher.  What a wonderful way to say goodbye, right?

Thanks for indulging me.

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The College Tuition Bubble Burst?

Perhaps you read the article over at CNBC entitled “The Scary Amount That College Will Cost In the Future.”  It addresses the rising cost of college and the projected cost eighteen years down the line.  According to Wealthfront, the article says that the average cost of most public universities is currently $101,000.  This is consistent with the price of my community’s local college, Illinois State University.  Obviously, that’s a very large amount of money.  However, Wealthfront projects that by the year 2036, public universities will cost an average of $184,000.  As a parent of two children under ten years of age, that number induces paralysis.

Because I teach seniors in high school, we always take a few days and explore the options available upon graduating.  I ask them to review their financial situation and then to investigate the cost of the junior college and the university.  I next ask them to research the projected earnings associated with the kind of career their degree will procure.  We also discuss the pros and cons of entering the work force directly upon graduation.  I’ve done this twice a year every year since 2010.

The cost of a four-year university astounds them … every time.  For some, they immediately give upon on the idea.  They don’t want to take on the debt.  Honestly, I can’t say I blame them.

I believe we have both an ideological problem as well as a practical one.  A typical public university should not cost two or three times as much as a staring salary of its graduates.  It simply shouldn’t.

Once upon a time, a college degree guaranteed employment.  It proved a valid investment that would assuredly pay you back a hundred times over throughout the course of a career.  Undergraduate degrees are now the norm, however.  Most careers require an undergraduate degree for even an entry-level position.  Unfortunately, salaries do not seem to be keeping pace with the rising cost of tuition.  As a result, we have college degrees that are not only taking far too long to pay the graduate back, but also, in many cases, failing to do so at all.

Frankly, I’ve felt confident that the tuition bubble would burst.  I believed, as I’ve witnessed with my students, that the cost would prohibit the demand.  People would simply stop going to college.  My logic dictated that tuition would consequently decrease.

According to these projections, though, my thinking is not only flawed, but flat-out wrong.

Practically speaking, this can’t be good for our nation.  I’m not an economics expert, but it seems clear to me that a country full of people in debt due to tuition costs that outpace most average salary schedules puts an undue burden on the populace.  People in debt can’t spend money.  An economy has a hard time functioning well without money flowing.  The college degree is meant to empower the individual and actually afford them the ability to make more money and thus spend more money.  The inverse seems to be occurring.

Ideologically speaking, I take tremendous issue with the trend.  I believe in education.  I wholeheartedly believe in the power of learning and bettering oneself.  I also believe everyone has the right to an affordable education.  What happens to our nation when the average person can’t afford college anymore?  How many doctors, teachers, and other vital roles are we going to lose due to college costing more than most people can pay?  Are even public universities only going to be possible for the affluent?

I’m not saying college should be free.  I don’t mind paying for my daughters’ higher education.  However, I also don’t think it’s right that families have to pinch every penny for over a decade if they hope to send their child to college for a degree that likely will not pay them back anytime soon.  It seems as though Americans are being taken advantage of by the tuition system.  We tell children they need to go to college if they want a good job, if they want to make their families proud, and so young adults do whatever it takes to go to college — even if it means taking on decades of debt.  We are made to fear the idea of not going to college, and so, as a result, tuition keeps going up and up even as salary increases stagnate.  It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Though it doesn’t appear that the tuition bubble is going to burst anytime soon, believe me when I say that  I’ve seen the hopes and dreams of many students burst these last several years.

It is my sincere hope that we can find a balance between the undeniable value of education and the appropriate amount of tuition fees.

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