Archive for the ‘Education’ category

Celebrate the teachers in your life

May 9, 2017

Did you know that in Hawaii public schools, there are over 10,941 teachers, 170 librarians, and 602 counselors? (Hawaii 2015 Superintendent’s Annual Report, 2014-2015 School Year)

Did you know that on average, teachers work more than 52 hours a week, including 30 hours of instruction and 22 hours on tasks like preparing lessons and grading papers? (National Center for Education Statistics 2011-12 School and Staffing Survey)

Teachers give us so much, and their job is much harder than we realize. They prepare lesson plans that engage and inspire students. They find a balance between correcting mistakes and encouraging excellence. They stay after school for homework clubs and mentoring. They show up at school events in the evenings and on weekends. They make the classroom a safe place to learn, challenge assumptions, and build character.

Today is National Teacher Day, part of a week-long event celebrating the teachers in our lives. You can say “Thank You” by joining the 2017 #ThankATeacher campaign and sharing stories and photos of special teachers.

My son is completing the fifth grade this year, and I want to take a moment to thank my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Foster. She was energetic and fun and it was the year I started to see teachers as real people, outside of school. She set up a classroom economy with jobs, a bank, and even checkbooks. She gave us daily writing assignments to practice our writing skills and encourage creative writing. To this day, I remember the first verses of “Do your ears hang low?” and “I Can’t Do That Sum” that we had to recite.

If you need some inspiration, the National PTA offers a free Teacher Toolkit to personally thank teachers for making a positive impact on your life and children’s lives.

If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, or nephews in school, here are 7 ways that How Can Families Effectively Partner With and Support Teachers, courtesy of the National Education Association:

  • Develop a relationship with your child’s teacher and keep in touch with him/her often
  • Ask the right questions
  • Set goals with your child and his/her teacher and foster the achievement of those goals
  • Review your child’s data to ensure he/she is on track
  • Look in your child’s backpack every day
  • Frequently view the parent portal (or whichever tool your child’s school uses)
  • Actively participate at school when possible

Which teachers had the biggest impact on your life? How will you thank a teacher today?

2017 Hawaii Legislative Watch: Education

March 7, 2017

Hawaii Legislature 2017

The 2017 Hawaii Legislative Session started on January 18 with prayers, speeches, and music. Hawaii residents definitely need the prayers – our lawmakers have been busy, introducing 1,601 bills in the House of Representatives and 1,317 bills in the Senate. It’s a mountain of paperwork, negotiation, tax dollars, and details.

Every year, I do a legislative round-up that spotlights bills that could have a big impact on Hawaii. I will focus on taxes, education, individual rights vs. government powers, controversial issues, and (in my opinion) unnecessary and wasteful spending. With over 2,900 bills being proposed in 2017 and less time than ever to read through them, I rely as always on bill summaries to accurately reflect the bills’ intentions.

Here is an overview of the significant education bills being proposed in the 2017 Legislative Session. I’ve organized the bills into three sections: 6 bills that could be positive steps in education, 5 bills that micromanage schools, and 3 bills that need more discussion. If I’ve missed any important bills, please let me know!

6 bills that could be positive steps in education:

  1. Promoting careers in teaching. HB1169 would require the University of Hawaii to promote careers in teaching to high school students. Instead of complaining about the lack of teachers, we can do something about it.
  2. Promoting college savings. HB1074 and SB940 would allow State income tax deductions for college savings. Instead of worrying about student debt, we can encourage families to save more for college.
  3. Making college more accessible and affordable. HB1154 and 1020 would offer scholarships at UH community colleges. HB1591, HB1594, SB135 and SB1162 would create a scholarship program called the University of Hawaii Promise Program. SB15 would make community college tuition free for residents. I tentatively support this program, but I want to know more about how much it would cost and how students would qualify.
  4. Reducing the burden of student loans. HB958 would allow individuals to pay student loan debt with pre-tax income. HB1276 and SB1081 would offer a State income tax deduction of up to $5,000 per year for student loan interest paid on qualified education loans. This could help reduce anxiety and student loan defaults.
  5. Promoting computer science classes. HB1166 and SB299 would encourage computer science classes in high school and college. Technology jobs can help keep Hawaii’s graduates in Hawaii.
  6. Getting ready to work. SB298 would create a Workforce Readiness program that would allow students to graduate from an extended high school enrollment with a high school diploma and an industry-recognized associate’s degree. SB619 would create a K-12 Curriculum to Career Pipeline initiative. We need to prepare students for getting jobs – and promotions.

5 bills that micromanage schools:

  1. Legislating class size and minimum teacher salary. SB176 would limit the class size in public schools to 18 students and establish a minimum salary for new teachers of $55,000 per year. I think schools should have the flexibility to decide class size.
  2. 100 years of student records. HB1232 and SB1100 would require schools to keep student records for at least 100 years. Why 100 years? Why would someone need their school records from over 50 years ago?
  3. Jumping through hoops for innovation grants. HB1092 and SB958 would make teachers and schools write grants for “innovative” programs. I think schools should be the gate-keepers of innovation, and teachers should not have to spend extra time writing grant proposals.
  4. School libraries required. SB616 would require all public schools to have a library. I think that schools should make this decision.
  5. Legislator approval for university tuition fees. HB23 would require University of Hawaii tuition increases to be approved by the Hawaii State legislature. I think that UH should retain the authority to set tuition, without getting politicians involved.

3 bills that need more discussion:

  1. Local school boards. HB1201 would create at least 7 local school boards. One school district may offer cost savings (economies of scale); local school districts may offer more flexible and innovative solutions. Before creating a flatter bureaucracy with more bureaucrats, can we fix the system we have?
  2. Anti-bullying classes for students and parents. HB890 and SB561 would require anti-bullying policies that include anti-bullying classes for students who have engaged in bullying as well as their parents/guardians. I think that the parents who would attend an anti-bullying class are the parents who already support their children. Are there other, less formal ways to reach students and parents?
  3. Student loan forgiveness for State employees. SB348 would offer a loan forgiveness program for University of Hawaii graduates who work for the State or county. While I admire innovative solutions to student loan debt, I think this would be an expensive program and could result in government expansion as more people work for the government.

The 2017 Hawaii Legislature adjourns on May 4. Please think about these issues and how they may affect you, everyone around you, our children, and our grandchildren. Whether you have concerns or feel strongly about an issue, speak up, talk about it, and be part of the discussion!

Questions are building blocks of communication

November 1, 2016


One Saturday morning, my 10-year old son and I went to a science fair workshop. A handful of dedicated elementary students showed up for this optional workshop, a warm-up event to help students think like scientists and engineers. It was a fun and eye-opening experience.

The very first activity was about communicating clearly and effectively. Each student had a partner. They sat across from each other, with two manila folder blockers between them. One student was the “engineer” who created something from blocks of different sizes and colors. It didn’t have to be something real or functional. The engineer’s job was to give directions to the “builder”, who had a set of identical blocks.

The challenge: the builder couldn’t ask any questions at all and couldn’t see what the engineer had designed.

The engineers struggled to explain which blocks to use and where to put them. Starting with the block color and number of “bumps” (studs) was relatively easy, but engineers looked frustrated as they tried to explain where to put the blocks, giving directions like “on top” or “at the back” or “in the middle.” They wondered whether the builders were following their directions.

After picking up the needed block, the builders looked confused because they couldn’t confirm the directions, or even make hand-motions. There was no model or blueprint; they had to rely solely on verbal communication. They wondered whether they were building the correct structure.

It really emphasized how important communication is to learning. We need to confirm what we learn and clarify what we don’t know. We need to ask questions without worrying about what other people might think about us. And we need to encourage others to ask questions of us, to make sure that we understand each other.

Communication is important in everyday life too. We need to communicate clearly, to share our ideas and opinions, and lessen the chances of being misunderstood. We need to listen carefully to what people are saying – and not saying.

What were the results of the building activity? None of the builders could duplicate what their partner engineer created.

At school, at work, and at home, do you feel comfortable asking questions? If you have tried this activity before, were you able to give and receive clear directions?

Back to fifth grade

August 23, 2016

Back to School

For parents and students, it’s a few weeks into the new school year. My son started fifth grade at a public elementary school in Honolulu, and the start of this year has been harder than in previous years.

The start of fifth grade was harder for me too. My school had combined fifth and sixth grade classes, so we had the same teacher, Ms. Foster, for two years. We had the chance to have a mentor in fifth grade and be a mentor in sixth grade. Here’s what I remember most: we still had snack time (milk and cookies or brownies). We had a classroom economy, with a banker and checking accounts. We had daily one-page writing assignments (I even wrote a few stories with cliffhanger endings that were resolved on Fridays).

Today, I think we expect so much more from students (and we took away snack time). The back-to-school experience is all about more.

More school supplies. Shopping for school supplies is like a treasure hunt. This year, the list was 33 items long – among them, 24 sharpened #2 pencils, hand soap, tissues, wet wipes, various markers, and a white board. I don’t mind paying for school supplies (after all, everyone in Hawaii helps to pay for public education), but I wish there was an easier way to do it.

One solution is to bundle all the school supplies and charge a flat fee. Buying in bulk could save parents time and money. It could be convenient for donors, who could contribute a backpack or buy a school supply kit. It could also be easier for donor organizations, which would not have to store and distribute an assortment of school supplies.

More school forms. School paperwork has multiplied over the years. We fill out emergency cards, MealTracker (school lunch) deposits, a responsible technology agreement, a media release, a free/reduced lunch form, a PG movie viewing release form, a volunteer form, and field trip consent forms – not to mention the forms to sign students up for optional extracurricular activities.

I understand why the Department of Education (DOE) needs all of these forms, permissions, and disclosures. Really. But it’s overwhelming for parents to fill out these forms; and it’s time-consuming for administrators to create, copy, distribute, collect, and file these forms. Every year.

One solution is to create online student accounts, so that parents can fill out forms online. Parents could input their information once, and then update them every year. Data could be transferred to the school database, with fewer data entry errors. At the beginning of the school year, schools could even open up their computer rooms in the evening or on a weekend, so that parents without computers could fill out the forms, assisted by administrators.

More homework. I know that teachers give different amounts of homework, but my son’s workload has increased this year. His daily homework consists of reading for at least 30 minutes, two pages of math, and a page in the “Reading Wonders” book. Side note: when I was in school, I called reading and writing simply “English”; today, my son calls it “L.A.” (language arts). Every week, he has a vocabulary packet, writes a reading log, and must complete two iXL online math practice tests.

I believe in homework. I believe that repeated practice helps students learn. It also shows parents what children are learning in school. My son is not as happy – the amount of homework sometimes makes him feel stressed and anxious. At least I can help him learn to cope with stress and anxiety.

What do you remember most from fifth grade? If you have school-age children, how would you describe your back-to-school experience?

Looking back at fourth grade

June 7, 2016

Looking back at 4th grade

My son just finished fourth grade at a Honolulu public school. He loved his enthusiastic, creative first-year teacher and opportunities to do more project-based work. That said, he still brought home a big stack of workbooks, worksheets, and loose papers. Over the year, he showed definite opinions about the projects and activities he wanted to do.

I’d like to share our fourth grade school year experience. How does it compare with your fourth grade memories?

One day of articulation classes. Starting this year, all of the articulation classes (Art, Computer, Hawaiian, Library, Mandarin, Music, and PE) were scheduled on the same day. It was a good change. Students focused on classwork, without having to interrupt their studies to get ready for an enrichment class. Teachers had more time to plan lessons and collaborate with other teachers.

Classroom economy. Students designed and voted on classroom money. They wrote job applications for classroom jobs (one month, my son was “hired” as a wiper). They earned money for doing their jobs and earning ClassDojo points. They paid “rent” for their desks or had the option to “buy” their desks for $300. At the end of the month, they could use extra money to buy an extra recess, homework pass, or other trinket. My son bought his desk early in the year and had a small wad of “cash” at the end of the year.

Edmodo. My son’s class signed up for this kid-friendly, teacher-moderated online social network (Facebook lite). Parents could view their child’s student activity, classroom announcements, and discussions. The first question posed by the teacher: “If your first week of school was a story, what would be the main idea? Be creative!” My son’s response: “My first week of school was a ‘mystery’ and ‘adventure’ story. The main idea was that we met our new classmates and teacher.” Unfortunately, after the second quarter, the class stopped using Edmodo – but it was interesting while it lasted.

ClassDojo. My son’s class also signed up for this real-time online point system that tracks student behavior – and it lasted intermittently throughout the school year. Teachers gave points to students for being on task, thinkers, knowledgeable, open-minded, helping others, and more. Each week, parents could see a summary of their child’s performance and even communicate with the teacher about their child’s progress. “I think [my teacher] gives out less points if you already bought your desk and have a lot of money,” my son confided.

International Baccalaureate (IB) units. The six transdisciplinary IB units were thoughtful, well-designed, and challenging. The units are more project-based than textbook-based. For example, in the “Where We are in Place and Time” unit, students learned about Native Hawaiian navigation, met with Austin Kino from the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and had a video-conference with crew members aboard the Hokulea. In the “Sharing the Planet” unit, students researched how we can save Hawaii’s marine ecosystems and completed a final project.

No Big Island trip. Grade 4 is the exciting Big Island trip. But with my son’s agreement, we decided to cancel the trip. At the time, Dengue Fever cases were still being reported, and our son is susceptible to mosquito bites (if there’s a mosquito around, it will find him). Though Dengue Fever cases did drop dramatically by the date of the trip, we decided not to second-guess ourselves – we made the best decision we could at the time.

Unit tests, standardized tests, and more tests. In addition to “regular” unit tests (reading comprehension, spelling, science, math) STAR Reading tests, STAR Math tests, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests in Language Arts and Math, grade 4 offered an additional test: three rounds of the Hawaii State Assessment (HSA) in Science. My son complained that they had to spend two hours learning to use the online tools for the SBAC test. He thought it was a waste of time, and was glad that he missed one of 40-minute classes to go to an interview about his science fair project.

Science fair. At my son’s school, the science fair was open to fourth and fifth graders. The school organized two planning workshops, regular check-ins with the science fair advisor, a field trip to see the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair, and a fun rocket-building wrap-up workshop. My son chose a project about mobile device batteries, and learned to manage his time, perform Internet research, use presentation software, and design a poster board.

“I am definitely confident that I am ready for 5th grade. I learned a lot this year,” my son wrote in his writing journal at the end of the year.

Do you have school-age children? How are expectations about student learning different from when you were in elementary school? What has been your experience with common core and standardized tests?

Teachers are real-life heroes

May 3, 2016

Teacher Appreciation Week

I recently asked my 9-year old son about his favorite teacher. I wasn’t surprised when he answered that his current teacher is his favorite (he probably has only vague memories of his earliest teachers). I was curious about what makes his fourth grade teacher the best. “She’s nice and kind,” he answered. “She has good activities. It’s her first year of teaching, and she has a lot of energy.”

For National Teacher Day on May 3, he wrote an acrostic poem for his teacher using the letters of her name. Usually I would encourage him to use adjectives, but for this poem I asked him to write about school activities that he enjoyed or specific examples of ways in his teacher was “awesome.” It was a nice way to work a little poetry into his everyday life.

Today and all week long, celebrate the inspirational teachers in your life during Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2-6, 2016. Celebrate teachers outside the classroom too – coaches, mentors, tutors, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, babysitters. Share a memory, a story, or a photo on social media with the hashtag #ThankATeacher.

Remember to thank and support teachers year-round too. The National Education Association (NEA) offers 7 tips for families to effectively partner with and support teachers:
* Develop a relationship with your child’s teacher and keep in touch with him/her often
* Ask the right questions
* Set goals with your child and his/her teacher and foster the achievement of those goals
* Review your child’s data to ensure he/she is on track
* Look in your child’s backpack every day
* Frequently view the parent portal (or whichever tool your child’s school uses)
* Actively participate at school when possible

How will you honor the teachers in your life? If you are a teacher or coach, what is the most memorable appreciation that you received?

Field notes from the Science Fair

April 5, 2016

Science is Awesome

In Hawaii public elementary schools, science is a big deal in the fourth grade. It’s the only grade that takes the Hawaii State Science Assessment. So I was encouraged when my fourth grader decided to enter the Honolulu District Science and Engineering Fair this year.

He chose to give up some of his recess time. He chose to stay after school, meeting with other science fair scientists. He chose to spend much of his winter break running trails and working on his display board.

At his school, 9 students started out and 7 students completed a science fair project. At other schools, the projects were conducted by individuals, teams, a class, or entire grade levels. I like the individual projects, because they let students take responsibility for the whole project.

We didn’t push him to participate, but we encouraged him whole-heartedly once he was committed. The science fair was an opportunity to learn more about something that he is interested in. It gave him a timeline and a deadline to meet, so that he could work on his time management skills. It helped him work on his presentation skills, both in terms of graphics and personal interviews. It also let him spend time with other students who were just as dedicated as he was.

At the elementary school level, the Honolulu District Science and Engineering Fair was exciting but a little disorganized. Every student received a “Budding Scientist” button to wear and gathered for a welcome assembly. Schools were assigned to different break-out sessions, with a third session for project evaluations. We walked among the science fair displays, which were grouped by school (not subject).

After months of investigation and trials, here are five notes for parents about science fairs:

Note #1: Ask three questions. What are you curious about? Can you finish within the time-frame? Can you afford to do it?

Note #2: No pressure. Remember that this is an optional project, using their “free time.” When our son was frustrated, we actually gave him the option of not finishing the project. Though we want him to finish what he starts, it’s okay to admit that something isn’t as interesting as you thought. And it’s okay to fail, because you learn something from failure too. His frustration was just temporary, and he resumed with renewed enthusiasm.

Note #3: Show them how to do it, and then step aside. Advise them on the experiment or design project, and then let them do it. Remind them about milestones, and then trust them to follow through. Teach them to use presentation software, and then let them do the writing.

Note #4: Do a mock interview. Before the judges come to the school, ask students a few practice questions. This will make them more comfortable being interviewed and give them time to think about their answers.

Note #5: What’s next? During and after the science fair, ask them how they could extend their project further – and which projects inspired them.

Have you ever participated in a science fair? Do you know and encourage a “budding scientist”?